I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to be more physically active. I spend time on top of that trying to convince people that we should change the built environment, parking policies, and traffic laws to allow people to be more physically active.
One of my old standby stories is of a person who's spent most of his life sitting on the couch watching TV. He goes in for a routine operation, has a catastrophic adverse event, and ends up paralyzed as a result. When he wakes up the surgeon and the anesthesiologist gather to tell him the bad news. The first question out of this man's mouth, a man who has not walked further than from the bed to the bathroom, the bathroom to the kitchen, the kitchen to the sofa, or the car to his office cubicle in years, is this: "When will I walk again?"
I've even posted the story here from time to time.
My point with the story has always been to get people to approach the world from a perspective of abundance. Don't take for granted the gifts you have today. Our bodies were designed by millions of years of evolution to move bipedally. If we forsake that, we end up less healthy and less happy.
But yesterday I listened to Enter the Exos, a new-ish episode in Rose Eveleth's always thoughtful series Flash Forward.
In the episode, Rose spends a predictable amount of time talking about the possibility that robotic exoskeletons, or even powered clothing, will make us faster, stronger, and less prone to injury:
But she spends an even greater amount of time talking with people with various disabilities about their perception of exoskeletons. This is the part that got me. William Peace, blogger of Bad Cripple, has this to say:
Your typical bipedal person exposed to a barrage of misleading news stories is led to believe all paralyzed people share one goal in life--walking. Please cue the soaring inspirational music accompanied by the brave and noble young man or woman struggling to walk surrounded by health care professionals, computer scientists, and engineers who share the same ritualized ideal.
There is so much to unpack there. I walk, and I like doing it, so I've always thought that other people without the ability would want it. And maybe they would, if the technology were developed that could be applied to people with all kinds of disabilities (cerebral palsy is a lot different than spinal cord injury is a lot different than post-polio, etc). But bipeds like me have a hard time imagining that someone wouldn't want to get closer to the way I move, just like people with normal hearing are mystified by deaf culture. When I put myself in the position of someone who is in a wheelchair or needs another assistive device, I can see and hear the condescension in my words.
So I'm changing my pitch. I'm going to lean more on the "move through space" message and delete the "walking" part. I plan to work harder on the infrastructure message, with curb cuts and tactile crosswalks and protected walking lanes and a hundred other easy fixes that make life better not only for differently abled people, but for people who can walk and bike without difficulty like me.
And I'm going back to my perspective of abundance: we don't have functioning exoskeletons or other sexy fixes for paralysis or weakness yet, but we're all cyborgs already. Most of us carry a device in our pocket that literally has the world's knowledge at our fingertips. We should harness that technology to find safer routes for human-powered transportation of all kinds. And people who can't walk have a 235 year history of constantly improving wheelchair technology whose potential could be unleashed with a little more attention paid to the way we design our environment and laws.