Trigger Warning

When thinking about how to accomplish a task independently of able-bodied people, I find it helpful to go about it in a physics-based first principles sort of way. That is, go right back to first principles and think what is the ultimate aim of what I’m trying to achieve, what is it that I want to actually happen. This is very different from how you go about accomplishing the action and it’s very important to separate the two.

Here’s an example:

Stuart doesn’t like sitting in the dark. Stuart is quadriplegic. Stuart would like to have the light on at night.

Now, a traditional accessibility approach would be to give you a pokey stick and maybe some kind of harness so you could grasp the stick in your mouth, reach over and poke the light switch with your stick. It’s replacing the hand with a stick. This is clearly rubbish and a solution born out of viewing the world through an able-bodied paradigm: because able-bodied people use light switches, then the accessible thing to do is to make it so I can use a light switch… right?

Nope, the goal here is to turn the light on.

The light switch is the method. It is not the goal. Pressing the button, pulling the handle, turning the switch… it’s all just sending a message; it’s information communicated by a hand. But you don’t need hands. You can send that message in lots of ways. When I want to turn off my office light I say the words “Alexa, turn the office light off” and if I want the office lights to come on I say “Alexa, turn the office light on”. Simple.

To speak to the lights involves an Internet connected light bulb, a website that connects up devices and services, and a smart little microphone which recognises what I say and acts upon it.

This is just one way of solving this problem. Actually mostly my lights sort themselves out. (They are scheduled to come on in the evening and they turn themselves off when it’s bright outside and so on.) There are plenty of ways of solving it for plenty of different levels of disability and you know what, you don’t even have to be disabled to do this sort of stuff. We need to stop dividing up approaches between “disabled” and “able”. It doesn’t help disabled people. We are left with the same old poky stick while people with perfectly functioning arms and legs are merrily voice-texting with Siri and turning their lights on with Amazon Alexa.

So there it is, don’t get the goal and the process confused; think about what it is you want to achieve first rather than how you’re going to achieve it. We don’t need no stinking light switches!