Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Recently one afternoon, Scott (a friend from college) called and invited me to attend a seminar for his course on "Comfort" that he was teaching at CCAC. I agreed to go. The topic was going to be appropriate technology and wheelchair design the speaker: Ralf Hotchkiss at his lab on the SF State campus. I agreed to go. I wasn't prepared for what I encountered there. I guess I expected to find a university industrial designer who imagined and drew ergonomically advanced titanium and carbon fiber motorized craft for the handicapped.

Boy was I wrong. We arrived at the lab -- on an upper floor of a science building. This lab was more like a welding shop than a high-tech design studio. Things were actually being built. One of the lab assistants was working on a motorized scooter, trying to modify it to add a seat. The class arrived, and we milled around waiting for Ralf. Just before the hour, Ralf arrived -- using a wheelchair. He began his talk with us rather informally, zooming around the lab; pulling many different kinds of wheelchairs off racks, and having us all sit in them.

My preconceptions were in sore need of adjustment. I've never used -- or even sat for an hour -- in a wheelchair. I've never experienced how hard it is to simply roll one down a hall and into a classroom. Variations in the floor that I take for granted walking presented significant obstacles in the wheelchair. Desk heights, door widths, sharp corners, and thresholds...I did not think of designers solving problems from wheelchairs themselves. Nor had I thought much about appropriate technology.

Ralf has.

For a couple of hours we sat in the various Whirlwind chairs. For a few moments we experienced the innovations he’s made to enable well-designed wheelchairs to be created and maintained using materials and techniques found in the poorest parts of the developing world. Built and maintained by the people who need them in those places.

This set me thinking about my experience with the high-tech world. In the developing world, it’s common to find clones copied design from the US with pirated software. These are alien products. Swallowed whole, without local modification.

What is the equivalent of appropriate computer technology? How dramatically things will change when we begin educating the disenfranchized and the marginalized about technology that can be created using the resources available locally; addressing the needs they (not we) find there; in the context of their culture, with a deep understanding of the impact of its use.

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