Being close to a person with physical impairments is both a challenge and an inspiration. From them we learn humility, how to appreciate what we have, the significance of our relationships, and the importance of reaching out to those in need. Reflecting on the challenges and issues of physical impairment and the role of both human relationships and technology in our lives can provide some insights of how the effects of impairment play out according to the individual and the contingencies of the situation.
“I’m old,” Alicia told herself. “But not THAT old.” Plenty of other women in their 60s are still driving, still working. But not Alicia. She had to give up her work as a chef because her joints were killing her. Ok, they had kept on telling her to lose weight, but how was she supposed to exercise when she had to work long hours and it was too painful to move afterwards? First, they replaced one knee, then the other. Then one shoulder, followed by the other. Then, the doctors said her kidneys were not working well. For a while, difficulty breathing robbed her of sleep, but thankfully the CPAP* machine fixed that problem.
These days, it takes Alicia a while to get up in the morning and get dressed, after which she goes downstairs to sit in a comfortable chair in the study where she has everything that she needs around her, which is good because that is where she will stay for most of the day, usually alone during weekdays, as everyone else is out at work. Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, until Sunday when her husband will be free to take her to the supermarket. She can still manage to get round holding on to the shopping cart.
Life could be very dull, but Alicia has positivity. Despite being restricted, she stays active. She is motivated to keep in touch with her grandchildren and family. She writes letters with her box of colourful stationery. Plus, there are the emails to write for those friends and relations who cannot wait for the post. She schedules virtual meetings. The Apple Mac is by her side and the iPhone is in her bag. Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter accounts all need to be attended to. She has homework that needs to be done for her Korean class which meets on Zoom twice a week, thanks to the community college.
And entertainment! She has a subscription for the latest Korean dramas and keeps up with her cookery on YouTube. She has her box of sewing and her bag of knitting and crochet. She enjoys watching the latest fashion shows online. Alicia’s deafness used to make it hard for her to enjoy hearing the voices of her friends and family on the other end of the phone line, but not anymore. Now her hearing aids are programmed with her iPhone, so she can call her friends and hear their voices pretty well and share news.
Technology can make an enormous difference to the lives of those with physical impairments; the contact, even remote, of supportive people who provide companionship for short periods of time during a long day, makes a huge difference. In a limited way, during the Covid-19 pandemic, we all had experience of what it feels like to have our mobility and human contact restricted. Most of us have missed the freedom to go wherever we want and to experience the face-to-face meetings with friends and the chances to socialise on an impromptu basis.
Without Microsoft Teams and Zoom, our human contact and communication would have been even more severely limited during lockdown periods. Our pandemic experience should increase our understanding of those for whom the virtual world is the prime reality. At a time when large numbers of aging people are facing the prospect of the physical limitations that go along with getting old, a positive take away from the pandemic may be how rapidly we have adapted to virtual communication.
Limited access and support
However, many people with physical impairment have only limited support and limited funds to access hardware, the internet, mobile accounts, programme subscriptions, and even simple materials for craft activities. Funds, equipment, and services are available through charities and government channels, but they are not all-inclusive, and often involve navigating through the application processes of various agencies (NHS, 2021). It is important to consider ways of helping people in similar situations to Alicia’s who may not have the human or financial support needed to profit from the benefits available through technology and positive human contact.
A lot of effort is being made to design and invent technologies to help the physically impaired. Medical engineers have invented and designed wireless integrated systems of home electronic devices that they believe can promote independence as well as increase individual self-efficacy and wellbeing (Frontoni et al., 2017). However, these solutions are expensive and some fear that they may lead to a decrease in human contact (Hersh, 2014). The psychological wellbeing of the physically impaired adult has been linked to relationships and the ability to find meaning in life as well as to the importance of education and lifelong learning (Briegas et al., 2020). What emerges is that every physically impaired person has different needs. There are many levels of impairment, and inclusive personalised support which embrace both technology and for which positive human interaction is required.
Alicia is one of the lucky ones. Her relatively satisfactory circumstance did not just happen overnight or on its own. After her mobility severely declined, she went through a long period of intense pain and sadness, regretting how her life had changed, but her family were there for her, observing her needs and moods and providing encouragement that supported the gradual growth of positivity. Without technical devices and the continued intervention of more able people, this positivity would be difficult to maintain.
*Continuous positive airway pressure
Briegas, J. J. M., Iglesias, A. I. S., Ballester, S. G. and Castro, F. V. (2020) The Well-being of the Elderly: Memory and Aging. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, pp. 1-26.
Frontoni, E., Pollini, R., Russo, P., Zingaretti, P. and Cerri, G. (2017) HDOMO: Smart Sensor Integration for an Active and Independent Longevity of the Elderly. MDPI [Accessed 15 March 2021].
Hersh, M. (2014) Overcoming Barriers and Increasing Independence - Service Robots for Elderly and Disabled People. International Journal of Advanced Robotic Systems, 12.
NHS (2021) Social Care and Support Guide. online: National Health Service Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/social-care-and-support-guide/ [Accessed 10 March 2021].