Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Resistance is futile…

Over and over, studies have shown that access to the outdoors improves quality of life. Numerous epidemiology studies demonstrate that spending time in nature strengthens immune systems, decreases stress, increases the number of positive emotions experienced while decreasing negative emotions, and more.
     Of course, most studies on the physical benefits of nature are mainly focused on the physical benefits of exercising in nature – something that, depending on the nature of your disability, might be limited or restricted. Still, the studies… prove that even being in nature brings significant improvements in physical, mental, and social wellbeing.
     Even better? Studies that do take disability into account show that those of us with disabilities experience not only the same kinds of benefits as non-disabled participants, but also more significant benefits!

Ambling along the banks of the Avon, a few days ago – whilst wondering if my well-trodden pathways would still be there on Saturday morning (they were…) – it dawned on me that, because of my various disabilities, I have unwittingly begun to morph into some subsidiary sort of cyber‑organism. It would seem that I am – or at least becoming – Locutus of Borg. (Locutus of Bard…?)

At the heart, the hub, of my growing artificial neural network – I’m not advanced enough, yet, to feature a positronic matrix – is a “blazing fast A6 chip”, ensconced inside an iPhone 5. Using Bluetooth – mostly in its ‘Smart’ low energy (LE) mode – I have inadvertently surrounded and immersed myself in “a wireless personal area network” that both aids and monitors my passage through (as well as connecting me to) what, for me, can be a quite hostile world.

For instance, my hearing aids connect to my iPhone via a device that dingle-dangles around my neck – my Streamer Pro – turning them “into a small wireless headset”. The Streamer is not some passive contraption, though. With an app on my iPhone, I can use it to control my ‘hearing instruments’, as well – altering their dynamics, and the sound source (they connect effortlessly to our television, landline, hi‑fi, and a personal microphone); as well as initiating (and, of course, receiving) mobile telephone calls; and linking with induction loop systems (such as the wonderful ones at the RSC). I may therefore not just be talking to myself (or the local fauna) – as is my wont – when you espy me walking along, lips moving. I may actually be on a call of strategic national importance (unlikely, though, sadly: as this individual cyborg really struggles with unfamiliar voices on the ’phone); or, more likely, singing along to Bohemian Rhapsody (although I actually prefer the serendipitous, unfiltered sounds of nature, when out and about – so it probably is the sheep who are on the receiving end of my bafflegab…).

Additionally, a Fitbit One – again connected to my iPhone – now counts my stumbling steps; measures my leisurely ambles (in length, altitude, and calorific exhaustion); provides me with slightly-stretching targets, hurdles, to reach, to overcome; and records the familiar routes I take. Eventually, it will monitor my shattered sleep patterns (however random) – but that is for another day… or night. (It is unlikely that I will use it to track my food and drink intake – or weight – I do not have enough health to become that freakish about it….)

And then there’s my Pebble Time, strapped to my mostly-immobile left wrist. (As I walk, my left arm no longer swings – and I have not been able to teach it to, as I have with my left leg… – so previous attempts at tallying treads using watch-like devices have always failed.) This ‘smartwatch’ – which, to me, is a lot more purposeful and cost‑effective than an Apple Watch (despite my thirty‑year ‘love affair’ with the Cupertino, California-based company’s products…) – has too many functions to list here: but, as well as (d’oh) detailing the time and the weather; identifying the constellations; notifying me of inward-bound emails and texts; letting me know when the next bus is due from outside the Peacock; it will control my iPhone’s music (and camera); read my Fitbit One’s step count; oversee my forty winks (until I move to doing so with the One); and – should I suffer from some sudden scrape – send a message, with my location, to the Lady Bard; and, if needs be, call the emergency services. Furthermore, I could – were my vision much better (I have always been very long-sighted) – use it to navigate my way through that “quite hostile world”. (Sadly, the Pebble does not yet interface with my brand of hearing aids – but I hope like heck that this is on the horizon.)

“Wearables have the potential to bring a change in the way disabled people interact with their environment,” says Venkat Rao, creator of the Assistive Technology blog. Dana Marlowe, principal partner of the accessibility consulting firm Accessibility Partners, also thinks wearable technology will benefit people with disabilities, especially those who are “on the go, travel and want instant data.”

Counting my aids (but not my walking stick: as the only ‘disabled’ science it really features is shock-absorption), I therefore, currently, have six (active) interlinked devices on my body – “wearables” – keeping an eye on various inputs and outputs, when out and about. But there is another essential accoutrement that is at the heart of ensuring my innate soundness – the custom‑built, inert, titanium implant, which, effectively, ensures my head remains secured to my body: connecting, and reinforcing, the three damaged cervical vertebrae (no longer separated by the requisite intervertebral discs) that are at the core of my disability. Sadly, although the hardware of my backbone can be repaired (or, at least, conserved) in such a way; no-one has yet invented a foolproof way of restoring the firmware that my mature nervous system represents; nor the software that should flow around and along it. (This is one situation where I think deficit reduction – albeit of the neurological variety – would actually be worthwhile.)

Still, as disability advocates point out, creating technology simply isn’t enough. First of all, existing wearable tech is extremely expensive – prohibitively so for many people with disabilities. According to the Americans with Disabilities 2010 Report, only 41% of Americans with disabilities are employed – compared with 79% of Americans who reported no disability. And for those Americans with disabilities who are employed, reported earnings are significantly lower. For adults age 21‑64 with disabilities, median monthly earnings were just $1,961; for adults in the same age bracket without disabilities, that number is $2,724.

I am not alone… – the ‘Collective’ is always growing. And that’s because disabled people have always been – when available; and when within economic reach – intensive users of wearable technology – principally because of its ability to transform their lives – the most common of which probably is the hearing aid (although, increasingly, the electric wheelchair or mobility scooter – which you could describe as a form of prototype exoskeleton). And you only have to witness Stephen Hawking’s miniscule-motion-controlled communication interface with the world (his ‘voice’) to marvel at how such gizmos can improve people’s lives. And new, dedicated solutions are being developed all the time.

For instance, “The University of Florida is seeking companies interested in commercializing a breakthrough force-sensing device that will allow individuals with severe motor impairment of the upper body to use everyday electronic devices”:

This invention enables electronic devices such as wheelchairs, telephones, and computers to be operated by individuals that may not have fully functioning arms or hands. Force sensors can be placed on certain joints and limbs, which allow the user to control speed and direction. For example, when sensors are placed on the feet, the individual can easily operate electronic devices by pressing down or lifting up his or her toes. Using flexion and extension as a control method is an undemanding task, unlike the conventional joystick. This device is meant to be worn and concealed so that it is easily integrated into normal, everyday clothing. This aspect is especially attractive to children that can “magically” operate their wheelchair or computer without seeming to move.
– University of Florida Office of Technology Licensing: Wearable Force-Sensing Orthotic Device Enabling Disabled Persons to Control Electronics

But similar miracles – including my precious Pebble – are already in daily use; and such things as Google Glass may well also prove beneficial – should development be continued.

Sophie Woolley is a very funny actor-writer, on a pilgrimage. In her 20s, hereditary deafness ruined her ability to enjoy the [Edinburgh] festival that inspired her to get on stage. She performed her own show, When to Run, here in 2006, but “didn’t watch anything else, because I couldn’t hear. I wasn’t able to be spontaneous, which is what festivals are for.” Then two years ago, almost totally deaf, she had an operation fitting her with a cochlear implant; it restored her hearing on one side. Twenty years since she first came, she has returned to recapture the thrill of being a punter…. (I feel safe with her. Her implant is by a company called Advanced Bionics and she is staying in a Japanese-style capsule hotel, so as far as I’m concerned, she is from the future.)
– Rhik Samadder: Lord of the fringe

As more disabled individuals start depending on these technologies, there will be new demands and expectations. Companies will need to develop assistive applications to continue improving these individuals’ quality of life…

One difference in the disabled’s use of “these technologies” is surely that gaping one between fashion and insufficiency. Able-bodied users of wearables may be more conscious of how their devices appear (‘designer’ glasses are already a good example of this, I feel); but, for those who require such technology, it will be functionality that rules – not that we are less discerning (and there will be overlaps): just that faddishness and form are a little less important. For instance, I have never understood why we are happy to demonstrate that our eyes are imperfect – and pay out for expensive frames to perch on our noses – but are ashamed that our ears are similarly failing. My first hearing aids – albeit miniaturized beyond belief (but not invisible – except, seemingly, to those who I need to talk with…) – were therefore a fetching blue colour (to match my eyes, rather than my varicose veins…) – although I was tempted to go with bright red, perhaps with flashing lights on top: so that people can see immediately that they need to speak a little more clearly if I am to comprehend them.

Why should I be embarrassed that I have such a disability? All I require is a little bit of social adaptation (driven by understanding and sympathy) – on a personal, as well as an accessibility level – and I can communicate with you as well as anyone. (Fortunately, I am not the only one that thinks this way: and you can now – thanks to the likes of Kate Cross – if you so wish, express your individuality with your hearing aids “in the same way that people wear fashionable spectacles”.)

Just as “Easy access to information and the accelerating pace of communication have revolutionised most knowledge-based industries,” and created jobs, so the use of such wearable technology can improve the employment prospects of some disabled people. However, one of my major worries with such technology – as with all such modern developments in this sphere – is privacy. How soon before such devices are used to monitor us – not only to our own advantage – but in the interest of those who employ us, insure us, or pay our benefits? And if they have been implanted in our bodies, will we be able to turn them off? Will we want to turn them off?

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better… stronger… faster.

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