Make Them Go Away



From Chapter 15: Creating the accessible society.

No large grocery or hotel chain, no home-and-garden discount supply center would consider designing an entrance that did not include automatic doors. They are standard in hotels and discount warehouses. Not, of course, for the people who literally can not open doors by themselves -- for such people are "the disabled": them, not us.

Firms that operate hotels, groceries and building supply stores fight regulations that require they accommodate "the disabled." Automatic doors that go in uncomplainingly are meant for us, the fit, the nondisabled, to ensure that we will continue to shop at the grocery or building supply center; to make it easy for us to get our grocery carts out, our lumber dollies to our truck loaded with Sheetrock for the weekend project. So the bellhops can get the luggage in and out of the hotel easily. When it is for "them," it is resisted; when it is for "us," however, it is seen as a design improvement.

Same item; different purpose.

This all has to do with the "medicalization" of disability.

Medicalizing a product stigmatizes it, signals it as being for "sick" people, "failed normals." People resist things they perceive as looking as though they are for "the disabled."

At the end of 2001, designers unveiled what Time magazine called "the most eagerly awaited and wildly, if inadvertently, hyped high-tech product since the Apple Macintosh" -- "the tech world's most-speculated-about secret." The product, called a Segway, had been developed by Dean Kamen, who had also developed the iBot wheelchair. It was a wheelchair itself, of sorts -- for nondisabled people. Kamen called it a "human transporter." USA Today called it "a gyroscope-stabilized, battery-powered scooter that Šwill revolutionize short-distance travel."

Developed at a cost of more than $100 million, Kamen's vehicle is a complex bundle of hardware and software that mimics the human body's ability to maintain its balance. Not only does it have no brakes, it also has no engine, no throttle, no gearshift and no steering wheel. And it can carry the average rider for a full day, nonstop, on only five cents' worth of electricity. "Cars are great for going long distances. But it makes no sense at all for people in cities to use a 4,000-pound piece of metal," Kamen told reporters.

Kamen did not like the Segway being compared to a wheelchair, even though it served exactly the same purpose as a personal mobility device. He had designed the iBot wheelchair, and he bristled when people called it a wheelchair, too -- insisting it be called a "robot."

The association of a product with "the disabled," marketers insist, puts people off. A whole line of personal mobility devices developed in the last 30 years were called "scooters," not wheelchairs, although they are purchased exclusively by people who "have something wrong with them." Older people who find it difficult to walk avoid the traditional "wheelchair" in favor of these newer vehicles, because they seem less "medical." | BOOK ORDERING INFO |

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