Monthly Archives: August 2013

The Big Red Button

The last ten to twenty years have seen an increasing reliance on technology within daily life; today most people will have a mobile phone, personal computer or digital music player. Trips to the library and the supermarket are now increasingly dominated by technological encounters, self-checkouts seem to be conspicuously replacing human contact and last year I even came across an article about the idea of a machine that replaced the family doctor, a step too far in my opinion. I only have to look at some of the errors made by my voice recognition software to see the possible pitfalls of this idea, it frequently offers up bizarre approximations of what it thinks I have said leaving me to wonder about booking it a session with a psychoanalyst.

Disabled people are often the guinea pigs for, and recipients of, technological innovation such as alarms to summon help or remote communication devices to keep us safe. These are intended to be cost effective to allow for an increasingly strapped public purse and many are now an established part of the social landscape. In reality I have found that technological reliance produces some interesting and sometimes funny results.

Many people unfamiliar with disability assume that we disabled people live in specially adapted environments away from the problems and stresses of general life, that we are monitored and kept safe from harm. I started my adult life in one such sheltered environment, a block of flats purpose built for us wheelies. The place had an alarm system, in the form of a red button on a string around my neck that I could press for summoning help should I fall or become unwell. An alarm would sound after pressing the button and a microphone in a box next to my bed would allow me to talk to someone to arrange assistance.

I had lived in the flat for some years and never had to use the alarm for anything. To be honest, I always found that keeping a mobile phone with me worked just as well. However, early one Wednesday morning I was catapulted from sleep by a very loud noise. In my drowsy state I pressed the button on my alarm clock, but the noise was still there! I opened my eyes, squinted at the clock and realised it was only 5am. As my mental capacity, was somewhat fogged by interrupted sleep, it was a few minutes before it dawned on me that I had no mains power at all, and that the noise was the back-up panic-alarm battery kicking in. Did we have a power cut on the complex? I took stock of the situation. I was in the pitch black, lying in a bed that required electricity to raise me up and allow me to get out of it. Was this one of those emergency situations the button round my neck was meant for? I decided it probably was.

“Hello Miss Baddeley. Can we help you?”

I explained the situation to the disembodied voice on the other end of the intercom system. The response came, ” Have you paid your bill, or put enough money in the meter?” I explained that I have a quarterly bill, no meter and that I thought it was only a trip switch that had been activated, not a complete loss of supply.

The operator seemed not to grasp my situation, so I changed tactics and asked if someone would be able to come out to me? They said they were only able to give me a phone number, that I would have to reset the power myself and work out which of my appliances was causing the problem. At this point I was losing the will to live. I, like a lot of people, had assumed that the operators at the call centre would have been aware of my disability and situation, as every six months or so I had filled in their form, but it seemed that this not the case. I told the operator it was sorted, gave up and phoned the fourth emergency service, otherwise known as “Dad”.

I was left wondering what the point of the alert system actually was? If the idea is to safeguard people, don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect anything resembling the Milk Tray advert, with a bloke parachuting out of the sky, or another similarly exotic entrance, but I was expecting some useful suggestions for the situation I was in. This was a service I was paying to have access to. As it was I was left literally blundering about in the dark.




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Proof that Disability Awareness is on the Rise

I never stop being surprised by the odd and often intrusive questions I am asked in relation to my disability. I can get into a taxi for example, and before I have finished fastening the seatbelt the questions begin, “What have you done to your legs then?” In response I find myself doing complex mental calculations that take into account length of the coming journey, my mood, level of patience and the need to explain a neurological diagnosis to someone who may well have never heared of the condition I have.

On a bad day, early in the morning my response would be, “It’s just something I was born with.” in the hope that I can shut the conversation down and get on with my day unencumbered. If I have time on my hands or am feeling motivated to spread the word, make a difference and in some small way put a dent in expectations that ultimately bring about social change, you will get an answer that begins, “Well it’s not so much legs as brain.” then going on to explain the risk factors of being born prematurely and the effects of multiple respiratory arrests on the infant brain.

Many people think the past 20 years has been a watershed in terms of social attitudes and this is true in many ways. However, I am still surprised how people constantly assume that you want to discuss every aspect of your life in mind numbing and yes startlingly intimate detail. On the positive side this does mean that at least people think there is a possibility of my having a significant other, and this is progress in itself.

The sociocultural distance travelled was pointed out to me a few years ago in a rather unexpected and amusing incident. There is a small corner shop on the high street, near the flats where I used to live, the sort of place you could pop to when you were running short on milk. Most of the buildings locally were erected well over a century ago and as a result they were not especially wheelchair friendly. The shop in question had three steps up to the front door which made for an interesting retail experience. When shopping here I would have to stop my chair, bang on the window, or grab a fellow shopper on their way inside to get the assistant’s attention. The shop assistant would then come to the door, I would shout up my order, they would fetch the items and bring them down to me, I would pay, they would go back in then return with my change and a receipt.

One hot Sunday in July I was sitting in my flat’s communal garden with a friend, we both wanted an ice-cream and I decided to throw caution to the wind and go and get them along with a packet of Hobnobs as my parents were visiting later in the afternoon. I set off to the local shop to get them. I got to the shop and went through the usual routine of banging on the window, the elderly male assistant stood at the top of the steps and I called up the order. All was going as usual as I sat texting friends whilst waiting for the old man’s return. He came back after a few minutes with two Magnums wrapped in newspaper to slow their melting, he placed them silently in my lap along with a packet of ……… condoms!I sat staring at them, featherlite and ribbed for her extra pleasure, then looked up at him; he stood quietly unable to meet my eyes. I handed a £10 note over, he dashed up the steps and came out in a flash with change and a receipt and I wheeled myself hurriedly away. I imagine he thought I was in for a very interesting afternoon, that didn’t involve dunking things in tea!