Solving the Wrong Problem.

A row of blue manual wheelchairs.


Recently this video did the rounds.

On the surface it looks incredible; someone went to the trouble of developing a wheelchair that could climb stairs, thus solving all problems around inaccessibility & eradicating ableism. But then you start to think about it.

The wheelchair is shown going backwards up some steps at a snail’s pace. The stairs are not rain-soaked & are in perfect condition, & miraculously there isn’t another pedestrian barging past at an inopportune moment. As for bad weather the advert claims the wheelchair can handle it, but doesn’t really show it. In fact, it doesn’t show the wheelchair going back down the flight of steps at all. There is also no clear mention of how much power climbing the stairs drains from your battery.

So, the technology is flawed, but with time that could be corrected. At that point we could eradicate all ramps & lifts, & historians could keep their piles of mortar & stone just as they want them without having to deal with something so petty as equality. But wait…

Sometimes disabled people don’t use wheelchairs. Climbing stairs with a severe visual impairment is, by all accounts, bloody terrifying. Similarly, people who have mobility issues or chronic illnesses but can walk may still find stairs problematic. There’s no way I could carry my rollator up a flight of steps; I would still need level access. A stair-climbing wheelchair gives businesses an excuse to maintain their inaccessibility because you should just get a stair-climber. Of course, getting one of these presents problems of its own.

It’s virtually impossible to find out how much one of these wheelchairs costs, but it will not come cheap. With standard powered wheelchairs often reaching several thousand pounds for the basic model, even second-hand, it’s almost certain that the price will be beyond the means of most disabled people. For everyone who couldn’t afford the technology, ramps & lifts would still be required.

So, the stair-climbing wheelchair would only benefit a fraction of the disabled community & access requirements would still exist. It’s an brilliant idea, surely, until you start contemplating the ethical issues that surround this wheelchair.

For starters, when designing things with disabled people in mind, it might be useful to actually speak to us. Even an introductory discussion with a handful of disabled people would have raised basic concerns around the cost & the limitations of the design before so much money was sunk into the project. It would also have quickly brought to light that the wrong problem was being addressed.

Instead of designing expensive, flawed products to get some disabled people into a building, placing the effort & financial onus on the individual, it would make far more sense to make the building accommodating of all disabilities. While this initially costs more than 1 wheelchair, more than 1 customer would be gained. The responsibility of businesses is to serve their customers, and being accessible is a part of that responsibility. Putting the onus on the people who already suffer at the hands of discrimination is just morally wrong.

Quite frankly, this entire project & every other like it, that refuses to work with actual disabled people or to listen to us, is as ableist as businesses being inaccessible in the first place.

One thought on “Solving the Wrong Problem.

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