Elle* is a wheelchair user and technology lover who has agreed to be a pioneer for CHIRON. She speaks to Sinéad Nolan about the future of assistive technology…
A 75-year-old grandmother with two sons and four grandchildren, Elle is an unlikely candidate for a robotics enthusiast. Yet as a user of an electric wheelchair, and a lover of sci-fi, Elle has plenty of experience of how assistive technology can help a person, as well as a keen interest in its place in society.
We had arranged to meet last week in a spacious, kitsch café in London with quirky décor – a decision which I later realise fully reflected Elle’s personality.
Once we were both at the table, falafel in hand, she opened up candidly about what brought her to the situation of being in a wheelchair, and her feelings on technology and society as a whole.
‘I had a bad traffic accident on a bus and unfortunately I had radiotherapy for cancer which didn’t help. The muscles in my leg don’t work,’ she explained. ‘I also lost feeling in both my hands. I didn’t realise how bad it was until one day I picked up a hot saucepan and I couldn’t feel it – I burned my hand. After having an accident and becoming disabled, the things you used to take for granted change.’
Elle’s story is not entirely uncommon. According to the Disabled Living Foundation, there are over 10 million disabled people in Britain, part of which makes up 19% of the working population. Many of these people will not have always had problems but things can change dramatically overnight. The reality is that many of us may need assistive technology at some point in our lives either as we age, or because of accidents or illness. However, as Elle noted, even with assistive technology getting around without full mobility can be a little more difficult.
‘If I want to go and stay in a hotel I have to ring ahead and check that its possible for me to get to the room. I need to think about things like what side of the bed I get in. You have to belt and braces all the time. For everything. Even to come here today – everything.’
Elle mentioned that she owned an I, Robot head from the 2004 movie starring Will Smith, as well as a virtual reality headset, so I was interested to know more about her relationship with technology.
‘It must be part of your life,’ she replied. ‘My relationship with technology is that it’s like a friend. I don’t abuse it. A lot of people may say: “I couldn’t do it” about technology but if you buy a washing machine, that’s a computer. Or a microwave, they are all chips.’
Assistive technology can be defined as “any device or system that allows an individual to perform a task that they would otherwise be unable to do, or increases the ease and safety with which the task can be performed.” However, occasionally this technology can be perceived with suspicion by many who fear a dystopian world with robots replacing human carers.
‘People say with technology it means you won’t go anywhere or do anything but I believe you can do both. I collect books, I have a kindle. My friend has a false eye with a video recorder in it! He’s got a camera in his eye, he can switch it on and see the recording of where he is. I think if you’ve got a space, fill it. What would you do with a glass eye anyway – impress your friends? Who are we going to fit in with – that old black woman, that young white man?’
‘When you come down to it everything is a robot it’s just a different shape,’ she continued.
‘For example, the new washing machine, the Samsung, is a real working, square, white robot. It actually can work out how much powder you need. It will tell you what temperature to use and if you’ve forgot something there is a door you can open. That is technology and to me, that is a robot. It helps you with everyday tasks.’
As a user of an electric wheelchair, Elle has plenty of experience of how assistive technology can help a person. I ask what specifically the best things might be to help a user.
‘I think you don’t necessarily need a computer to be a friend, to say “Hello how are you?” Instead it can be very useful for making beds, pulling duvets over, checking doors, checking lights, to circumvent dangerous things, doing up buttons and zips, just little things that if you weren’t disabled you wouldn’t realise were difficult.’
Overall, Elle is philosophical about society and her place in it as an assistive technology user. What I see over our lunch is that she remained open-minded and strong in the midst of what some people can find a mire of cultural stereotypes.
‘As I have gotten older, and now I am disabled as it were, you do sometimes get treated as a toddler – it’s almost a pat on the head. It’s annoying. Because all you are is older. We live in a culture of division as well. I have a friend and he says (about transport and getting around), “Oh it must be terrible, I don’t know how you do it.”
‘I say, no it’s not, I love it! It’s part of your life – that’s it or you would just stay indoors all day.’
‘Am I supposed to apologise for being alive?’ she adds with a laugh. ‘I’m damned if I’m going to do that!’