Access: How far have we come and how far have we to go?

Disability History Month is celebrated between the 22nd November to the 22nd December, but it should not end there. 

The theme of Disability History Month this year is access, which is a major factor in allowing a disabled person to live their life as independently as possible by reducing barriers which exclude them. This ranges from treatment, education, transportation, workplace and representation in the media, the list goes on. It is imperative to recognise every type of disability, from invisible disabilities to mental disabilities, that affect the young and the old. 

By having a parent who is blind, I witness the daily struggle of navigating a world made for able-bodied people. Not only in movement but also in treatment, with strangers assuming it is okay to physically touch blind people to help them when no help was requested, as well as assuming that blind people have a lower mental capacity just because of their disability. These are just a few of the many misconceptions that plague daily life for those who are blind.

It is so easy to take your body and mind for granted. Until you see someone else’s struggle or experience it yourself, it is unsurprising that access is an issue that may not cross your mind. Accessibility has come a long way in the UK, with many unaware of how the most popular inventions which assist those with disabilities came around and the exciting advancements that are to come. Here is a short history and progression of three commonly used aids. 

The White Cane

There are many different claims of who first invented the white cane – which blind or partially sighted people use to get around. The most popular believed creator of the white cane is Artist James Biggs of Bristol, who in order to draw attention for both people and cars around him of his visual impairment, painted his stick white. The use of the white cane then spread across the USA and Europe from the 1930s onwards. The future of white canes is electric, with a new electric handle which notifies the user of any obstacles around them through a vibration in the handle and echo detection. This allows the user to create a stronger mental map of the world around them

Speech Therapy

Although the need for speech and language therapy has presumably been around since time began, it first appeared in the UK in the 19th Century with the publication of John Wyllie’s book ‘The Disorders of Speech’. The actual practice of speech therapy occurred in the 20th century and was mainly done by self-taught elocutionists, or those in the medical profession with official training. Throughout the 20th century, those practicing speech therapy began to be employed by health establishments like the NHS. Technology has allowed speech therapy to progress in the 21st century, tools such as the iPad have introduced speech therapy into the home. Innovative computer software like ‘Sword’ developed by Sheffield University targets those with brain damage with high intensity images to target the nervous system. 

The Wheelchair

The first independent wheelchair was created in 1665 by Stephen Farfler from Germany, who built his own wheelchair at only age 22 after having broken his back as a child. The three wheeled wheelchairs were invented well before the bike, with many saying that this wheelchair was well ahead of its time. Throughout the nineteenth century, many adjustments were made to allow the wheelchair to be more comfortable, and an independent experience for the user – including the invention of push rims. The most revolutionary advancements in wheelchair design is the stair climbing ‘Scewo’. It’s retractable set of rubber tracks allows the user to easily navigate staircases. By completely scrapping the traditional design of the wheelchair, which has been around for centuries, allows wheelchair users a level of freedom that has never been seen before.