How Do You Think Advancements in Robotics Will Improve Wheelchairs?

Jul 06, 2018

Anonymous asks, quote:

So I recently watched the Boston dynamics video “introducing handle.” Aside from being a terrifying reminder of the inevitable robot takeover, I thought a lot of the tech they used to make it move could be used in wheelchairs—what do you think specifically from it would be really helpful in motorized wheelchairs? The one that caught my attention was being able to handle stairs.

end quote.

For people wondering, I think this is the video in question:

This shit’s super cool and I look forward to seeing where we go with it.

Here’s the thing I think some people (especially non‐wheelchair users) don’t realize about advances in robotics and automation and how they might be applied to wheelchairs:

The mechanization and automation of wheelchairs is not the solution to making the world more accessible.

I’ve talked a bit about how incredibly intimate wheelchairs are compared to other mobility aids and the problem with the “automation” approach to accessibility completely ignores the day‐to‐day complexity of wheelchair use.

Imagine if someone said “This building is inaccessible to me because I can’t climb all of these stairs” and the response of the building owner was to offer to have the person’s legs removed and replaced with heavier, stronger, mechanical ones that could climb stairs.

Now, there would be a few downsides, of course. They couldn’t go swimming anymore or be out in the rain too long. Oh, and they’d have to constantly monitor the battery level of their new legs or they’ll end up stranded. And you can forget flying! No airport in their right mind would allow that combination of metals, lithium, and compressed gasses onto a plane.

Does this seem like a fair trade? Granted, this scenario is a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not terribly far off from some of the issues power‐chair users face today.

Power chairs are a specific medical device designed for people who cannot safely or easily operate a manual wheelchair. They’re not an upgrade to existing wheelchair technology.

Most power chairs on the market today weigh hundreds of pounds. The batteries alone can weight close to eighty pounds or more. I don’t even want to imagine the weight of a wheelchair capable of safely climbing stairs.

If they were truly better than an ultra‐light manual wheelchair, I would dare to say that there would be very few if any manual wheelchair users out there.

So with all that said, adding more features to what can often be a cumbersome, difficult, and fragile mechanical device is not the answer here.

I don’t want a wheelchair that can climb stairs. I want a world where having a wheelchair that can climb stairs is not the only way people with disabilities can move about the world.