First, I would like to thank Mr. Merlet for this opportunity to speak to a world panel of researchers and engineers on robotics and technical aids at the occasion of the IROS 2008 Conference. I was invited here as Chairperson of the European Region of Disabled Peoples’ International - the international cross-disability human rights organization of persons with disabilities - to express the point of view of persons with disabilities on this topic.
The main goal of DPI is to ensure that all persons with disabilities have access to their human rights. Our main political goal objective was achieved in December 2006 when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. With this historic treaty coming into force on May 3, 2008, the time has arrived to work towards its appropriate implementation. We can help each other to achieve this new goal. You can include us in your work and building on our expertise in making the impossible possible, we can help you to identify alternate solutions to problems you face in your work.
We, people with a disability, and you, researchers and engineers, must collaborate and share our knowledge if we want to create “accessible, user-friendly” technologies that live up to the spirit of the new Convention.
I would like to share with you my own experience. Before I acquired my disability, I was a social worker, an educator and psychiatric nurse for persons with disabilities. After the car accident that resulted in my impairment, the first thing I understood is that we, as professionals working with persons with disabilities, do not know the reality that I discovered as a person who has a disability. It was the first thing I thought when I woke up from the coma: “We, as medical professionals, are wrong because what I feel now as a person with a disability is not what they believe.” I realized at this moment how wrong my professional knowledge was and how the reality I discovered was different from what I had thought before. If I was wrong, it is easy to imagine how wrong people with less medical knowledge than I have can be!
The technical development of the Internet and environmental control solutions was a big breath of fresh air for many of us with disabilities as we could now learn and share information more easily. And, now the development of Robotics Sciences seems very promising for our future. We do not, however, want our situations and our needs to be used only to justify research and expenses on the basis of priorities that are not ours. It is critical that our priorities be seriously considered as this Science moves forward.
How can you as researchers and engineers learn more about what will best meet our needs? You can invite our participation and cooperation on an equal basis. You can employ and support the work of researchers with a disability in the relevant sectors. We know a number of them who could enrich the scientific community if engaged to work with you.
All of us, users and researchers, have to make a new deal to meet the needs of all of us. We have to create new alliances and partnerships that encourage and welcome the participation of persons with disabilities in research. When this collaboration is realized, you will be able to more easily identify the needs of your partners with disabilities because by working together, you will share a part of his or her difficulties. Your perceptions of persons with disabilities and their needs will be impacted. You will better understand our need to identify and experiment with robotics that will meet our priorities. For example, while walking again is often a priority for a person who is newly paraplegic, it is not a priority for a person who has spent a long time using a wheelchair. Their priorities are different, yet robotics can help both of them perhaps with a lighter and cheaper wheelchair or a more socially acceptable and integrated one.
One of the key issues for persons with disabilities is that technical aids are good when they allow the person more independence, but they are not satisfactory when this independence is possible only in a “special” or “separate” way. Those aids that are satisfactory are those that are socially included and accepted. Let us take wheelchairs for example. Many countries today have aging populations, and as people age more and more will be using wheelchairs. There will be a greater demand for wheelchairs that are more socially accepted. So, finding the right answers to our needs also means preparing for your own futures.
To conclude on a perspective for this relationship we hope to have together, I encourage all of you to look at alternative solutions that people with disabilities can, and have developed. If you conduct a study on sounds and smells for example, the abilities and experiences of people who are blind would be very useful. Too, the body capabilities that some paraplegics and amputees have developed can be a source of inspiration for many technical aids even for persons who do not have disabilities. There are many examples of what you can learn from colleagues with disabilities.