of robot arms and human hands

I’m sure you may have seen the overheated news reports of a quadraplegic controlling a robotic arm to give herself a drink of coffee in recent weeks. As someone who may one day find myself in her position through my disability I was not impressed. Millions of pounds spent and to be spent on a robot arm that would be just as lost as she would when she’s forgotten where she put the coffee or the only cup that the billion dollar arm won’t fumble. Disabled people rarely forget about dropping things including (parts of) themselves. Give me a million to spend and I’ll employ some flexible, happy and incredibly well remunerated human helpers.

‘Ah ‘some people might cry ‘but in the long term it will make disabled people more independent’. Independence is of course important, and I do not for a second forget the enormous efforts of disabled people in the past to assert their right to independance especially when threatened with institutional care, but like competition which is also a good thing, its value is vastly overstated in late capitalist countries like ours. Nancy Eiesland in her book ‘The Disabled God’ begins with the dangers of failing to see how the pressure to achieve independence and to hide our dependence can have profoundly damaging psychological effects and pretty dodgy physical ones for disabled people. More than once I’ve ended up in casualty  after drinking one too many beers, falling and concussing myself because I knew that I could have a night out just like everybody else. For many years I would proudly tell concerned friends ‘I’m fine, there’s no problem. I just carry on and systemtically mistake myself for a normal person.’  I’d fairly systematically fall over too.

The regret at not being independent, not being ‘normal,’ still haunts my fantasies. I always dreamed of being an investigative journalist bravely exploring the dark underbelly of Thatcher’s and now Cameron’s Britain. Being far too timid by nature it was never going to happen, but there’s still a sadness that the disease has made the impossibility definitive. You can’t be undercover in crack dens, sex rings and secret plutocrats’ cabals, if you’ve got to ring in advance to check there are accessible Gents on the same level.

Not that I’m against technology or aids. In fact, as Eiesland also argues, when an aid, a wheelchair being the most obvious example works for us, it becomes part of our character. I have ‘legs’, dazzlingly light yet robust carbon fibre splints, that are part of who I am in the world, more akin to my (greying) hair colour or putty nose than, say, a pair of shoes. You could argue that they make our, disabled people’s, uniqueness more apparent. So in this sense we could be said to be exemplary ‘normal’ people.

The persistence of the default to an assumption of independence might help to explain some of the strange things that go on with trains and tubes in London. Imagine getting around for disabled people as a game of snakes and ladders in which there are a lot of snakes. At one of the several South London train stations that boast it is wheelchair accessible and has step free access to the platform the well intentioned (and almost certainly able bodied) train people have got  the disabled person to the platform fine but as they default to the independence model a disabled person might ask them if there isn’t a bloody big snake lurking somewhere on this square as another train pulls away without them. There is a big step onto the train so they are not going to get on without help. The problem is relatively easily solved by raising a section of the platform to the height of the train floor. And this they can and have done, for example on the northern line platform at London Bridge station. However, following the signs there the other day to the lift ( a Ladder! Hurray!)  to London Bridge train station we found ourselves rising smugly to the surface, old people, disabled and family with buggy,  only to find ourselves coming out onto Borough High Steet! We were left to snake our way, wet and cold and slowly uphill for ten minutes back to the train station. As I began this journey back at Euston station taking my life into my hands by getting on the escalator down to the tube that goes far too fast, the disabled runner Oscar Pistorius was pictured again and again crouched into his starting position about to explode into action. Will the Paralympics help able bodied people to escape the independence default or reinforce it? I suspect the latter.

Imagining for a moment that rather than taking our benefits away…(check out incidentally Michael Meacher’s recent Guardian newspaper piece on the extraordinary post 2008 increases in the wealth of British plutocrats http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/may/31/how-to-kickstart-uk-economy…astonishing!…)……I was given the money used to develop the ‘bionic’ arm, I would spend it on accessible loos, ramps, and thousands and thousands of handrails in pubs, bars and restaurants all over London to the eternal gratitude I’m sure of the elderly, the disabled and the worse for wear. Yes it might make the whole place feel a lot like Eastbourne but would that be so bad? There would probably be a lot less people in casualty on a Friday night and with the hand rails I suspect would come, as it does in Eastbourne, early warnings of approaching traffic, encouragement and empathy to climb any unavoidable steps and human hands always ready to help.

Which brings me back to independence and its close cousin individualism. Human beings are by definition dependent on each other. We need each other. Though the time has now passed for a while if I walked or swam, in step or in stroke, with friends or even strangers, my body would ‘borrow’ from them their fluidity. It would recover some of its own former grace in mimicking the unthinking grace of their movements. A feeling as amazing, I suspect, as any bionic gizmo could give. No robot will ever substitute for the grace we find in each other.


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