Happy International Wheelchair Day. This day came into being in 2008 to celebrate the positive impact a wheelchair has on the lives of people with disabilities. Like the evolution of wheelchair from the drawing of Chinese Philosopher Confucius in 1680 to today, perceptions on wheelchairs have evolved over the years from an object of sickness and helplessness to a whole field of medical technology and assistive devices with commercial viability to it. A life without a wheelchair is literally hell on earth for paraplegics. You have to crawl to get somewhere or drag yourself on dirty surfaces to move including toilets. Its a very tiresome life. Imagine crawling on a hot surface during a sunny day or swimming in mud just to get across. Of course this only becomes an option if your upper body is strong enough. If not, human dignity becomes a foreign term since you have to forego privacy to perform natural bodily functions. Over time such environments erode self esteem which is very hard to regain later in life.
But have wheelchairs only brought freedom to the wheelchair users? I tend to think wheelchairs have brought a new world to everyone of us including those who do not use them. Most times as with any disability, independence for us is convenience to those without disabilities. Because of a wheelchair, Franklin Roosevelt was able to continue with his political career after a polio attack at the age of 39. He is the only American President to be elected four times and saw his country through the Great Depression of 1932 and the Second World War. With him at the helm, America witnessed a huge level of infrastructure development to the envy of other countries and later became a benchmark of development to new countries mostly in Africa.
Closer home, an aspirant in the Nairobi Gubernatorial race is a candidate on a wheelchair, who has been named one of the best members of parliament in the city and in the country generally. Elected in 2013, Timothy Wanyonyi has transformed his constituency so much so that global corporations pitch tent in Kenya in his constituency. This has brought in job opportunities for people living in the area, infrastructure improvement and technological transfer to say the least since companies such as Microsoft, Oracle and Safaricom, a subsidiary of Vodafone are headquartered in the area. He has been vocal on disability matters in Parliament which has increased political visibility of persons with disabilities in general not just those with physical disabilities.
Economically, companies are becoming more and more empathetic and disability focused as they seek to create an environment where people with disabilities will be appreciated and valued because of their input and not because of their disabilities. Satya Nadella, CEO Microsoft, has transformed the trillion dollar company to be more of listening to the customer rather than beating down the competition. He attributed his empathetic nature to his first born son who is wheelchair user by virtue of his cerebral palsy condition. The result is that employees in the company are more open to sharing ideas with the various levels of management, a method that has endeared him to his colleagues in the software company, going by the 97% approval rating in the company. Standard Chartered, through its FutureMakers and InBusiness intiatives, created the EmployAble Programme, which was a programme to inculcate work readiness skills to students with and without disabilities leaving universities to work harmoniously. The initiative indirectly addressed attitudinal barriers to persons with disabilities thus planting the habit of seeing the person before you see their inability.
Hospitality industry have had a paradigm shift by way of training and change of mannerisms for people with disabilities to feel comfortable in their establishments. At one point in time, during an anniversary celebration of a disability organization focused on assistive devices, the dinner was set at the rooftop which was inaccessible. Noticing their mistake, the establishment shifted the setting to the basement which was more disability/wheelchair friendly. It must have been a good thing since we would have had a hard time climbing the stairs on our way out given the way we had our stomachs full after the event.
Disability being a medical issue is also a social issue since it affects all the facets of an individuals life. Provision of avenues of addressing health and social issues such as depression has led to society becoming more receptive to some mindsets such as sexual health services to PWDs that are sexually active. This environment has provided ground to talk about sexual education which is important to preventing and addressing teenage pregnancies which is rampant in the society. Moreover, in professions such as fashion, bodily requirements are becoming more accommodative such that there are categories for plus size women which paved way for various disabilities to come in. Wearable accessories such as a talking watch that were once used for people with vision impairment, are now becoming the in thing in social circles.
Its worth noting that the wheelchair has been an usher of so many great technologies we use today. The auto correct software that is functional in todays smartphones was first used on the wheelchair of the famous astrophysicist, Prof Stephen Hawking. The autocorrect technology was first used as a software collection of 3000 words commonly used by the scientist back in 1986. He selected the words using a click to make sentences. This only meant that he could use a desktop which was not possible to carry around since it was heavy. The software was modified to fit in the small computer fitted in his wheelchair. In 1997, Intel Corporation famous for making computer microprocessors fitted a speech synthesizer in the computer attached to his his wheelchair meaning there was text to speech conversion for him to speak through the voice of somebody else. The text to speech technology has gained prominence with smartphones as well as the word prediction technique that happens when typing something on a smartphone. Text to speech is of key importance to self driving cars that tech companies are developing today. Before there was Neuralink by Elon Musk there was a wheelchair which could be controlled by the mind in 2016. If you want it to stop your raise your head. Neuralink seeks to integrate the internet with the brain.
The next time you see a wheelchair, thin of its convenience and the comfort you enjoy and think of disability as an innovation enabler rather than a weakness in humanity. Its the only club we join unwillingly.