CDL member Cassandra Hartblay reflects on the values and priorities assigned to assistive technologies, coining the term "criptic innovation," to describe "design innovations that a crip user immediately sees as privileging ableist values over others."
Not long ago my friend and colleague Louise Hickman tweeted about a wheelchair design that was advertised as able to go up stairs. Louise is a power chair user herself, and often complains about inaccessibility that she encounters in her daily life. So, it was a surprise that rather than laud the innovative design, apparently already in production in the UK, her tweet posed a critique.
“It’s frustrating to see another stairclimbing wheelchair designed and brought to the market when simple improvements to batter longevity (among others) would benefit so many people,” Louise wrote, linking to a BBC story about the “revolutionary” new wheelchair.
Battery life for power wheelchair users is a significant limiting factor to mobility. If you want to be out and about all day, you have to factor in how many hills you’ll encounter (going uphill takes more battery power) and how far you’re likely to travel. And, like your laptop or cellphone battery, a wheelchair battery loses its capacity to hold its charge overtime, so a battery that can go for six hours or so when new, may only be able to last for half that time as it ages - and replacing one is expensive.
Designing a better battery, however, is an expensive prospect, requiring better-resourced labs and high investor input. So, it’s no surprise that designers innovate for what they perceive to be a problem.
Louise’s tweet highlights what is for those in the loop (disability advocates on Twitter) already a familiar problem: a profound mismatch between what people with disabilities perceive to be a problem, and what designers working on prototypes intended for disability markets think are problems.
I’ve taken to calling this kind of mismatch criptic innovation, that is, design innovations that a crip user immediately sees as privileging ableist values over others, and, in a play on words referencing cryptic, as in, difficult to discern. In one widely-reported example of this mismatch, a design team developed a pair of gloves intending to translate ASL (American Sign Language) into spoken words. This is a great design innovation for the hearing person who doesn’t understand ASL. However, it offers less functionality for the ASL user, for whom wearing the gloves would not offer any new way to understand the spoken English of the hearing interlocutor. The gloves privilege the hearing person's point of view over the experience of the Deaf user, suggesting an underlying ableism. Of course, as a design innovation, it’s a fascinating technological question – how would you design a glove capable of tracking the subtle motions of a signed language and translating it into words? The design-thinking challenge was exciting in terms of the technical problem, but, designed for the wrong problem.
The Scewo wheelchair, according to the BBC story, was designed by a group of university students, who came up with the idea as part of a competition, and then funded the prototype through crowdsourcing. Now that the design has won a British design award, they hope to bring the chair to market.
Lauding the innovation, the BCC asserts that, “the chair allows disabled people to easily reaching a location that previously would have been inaccessible: a game-changing, retractable set of rubber tracks allows the chair to manoeuvre [sic] up and down stairs.”
But this thinking leaves another aspect of critical disability thinking – or crip theory – out. Disabled people have long argued for the application of universal design principles that facilitate wheelchair access to be built into the physical infrastructure of public space. In many countries, new constructions must by law meet accessibility guidelines, such as providing accessible bathrooms, ramps, elevators, and doorways wide enough for wheelchair passage. Yet, disability access is unevenly implemented – even if new constructions are accessible, many older buildings or public spaces have to be retrofitted, and institutions and business owners are often adept at putting of access renovations (in the US a recent bill even seeks to reduce penalties and make it easier for business owners to avoid such renovations).
The Scewo wheelchair attempts to bypass the problem of inaccessible infrastructure by using a new technology – a device that can climb stairs – to endow each wheelchair user with a way to literally “overcome” obstacles in the built environment. From a crip perspective, this presents several problems.
The chair doesn’t actually make the built environment more accessible, but instead, focuses on an individual solution to a social problem.
Once the chair is produced, it is likely to be expensive and available to a limited number of people – this means that those inaccessible spaces that Scewo chair users can now access will continue to be inaccessible to others who do not have the new wheelchair.
One important idea to emerge from the Disability Rights movement and crip knowledge production is that changing attitudes about disability is as important for access as changing the built environment. And, attitudes and accessibility are co-emergent. Disability stigma dissuades people from thinking or caring about access. By addressing stigma and attitudes, advocates can lead people to think about access more. And, better access means that people with mobility impairments are out and about more often, and that visibility can help to shift attitudes and chip away at stigma.
This chair would be great for a place like Russia, where I do research, and where there are many many unrenovated public spaces. But, the proliferation of a chair like this would also abet those who say that public funds should not be spent to make the built environment more accessible – and instead wheelchair users should raise their own funds to get a super-wheelchair that can climb over barriers.
A hero-chair like Scewo is an example of a mismatch between what designers think a problem is and what actually disabled people think is a problem. No doubt, some people who do use the Scewo chair will find it to be a great experience.
But, from a critical crip perspective the chair is just another example of a neoliberal solution that ultimate contributes to social stratification in which some people have it all, and others have very little at all (for more on neoliberalism and crip theory, see Robert McRuer’s recent book, Crip Times). In contrast, an accessible design solution that focuses on public infrastructure, while more difficult to achieve bureaucratically (often relying on the state to enforce laws and regulations), can have a greater effect for more people, regardless of their individual impairment and personal financial resources.
Thinking about this problem has led me to imagine an alternative future for innovative design that starts from an ethos of crip consciousness (what Sara Hendren has called vernacular "virtuosity").