Saturday, 8 September 2012

2012 Paralympics – “Inspire a Generation” by Engineering “Enlightenment for All”

It could be argued that the 2012 Paralympics has gripped the British - perhaps even global - public imagination in a way that 'the alternative games' never has before. The games has most definitely come from the shadows to present itself as more than equal to the traditional Games, primarily because its participants not only embody the Olympic ideals, but those men and women philosophically stretch those ideals to acquire powerful renewed definitions.

Though the ongoing battle is to close forever the social gap that has unfortunately existed between notionally 'normal' and 'different' people; ironically that gap has been much narrowed by demonstrations of super-human spirit, dedication and application. Whilst these are stories of individuals and teams wearing national colours, they reverberate with the a generally silent but increasingly powerful minority of society with similar physical traits, causing a ripple effect of understanding throughout the nation and the hopefully the world.

The impact of the Paralympics, that of “the 3rd Games”: the Special Olympics, and critically the demands of physically and mentally impaired people to live full, self determined, lives demonstrates that the very definition of 'abnormality' is being re-written, to demonstrate that if any true social gap exists, it is because many such impaired people should be viewed as better than the average person since they have had to overcome greater adversity.

Here in Britain the motto “Sport for All” seeped into the public consciousness during the late 1970s as a raft of new inner-city sports-centres were created. Beyond providing a weekend destination for young families, seeking to maintain the physical fitness of the post-WW2 baby-boomer generation (then the core of the workforce), the prime political agenda was to channel the energies of the mostly poor local area young away from dubious activities.

Such centres were at the vanguard of disability access, with ramps and specialist facilities, yet all too often these sporting hubs also conveyed a foreboding atmosphere which discouraged participation. Constructed in the archetypal modernist brutalist style of grey concrete, they often appeared more forboding than the institution in which a person may be resident. And moreover, people with disabilities tended to go, or were taken, mid-week when relatively deserted, yet that visiting time also brought with it a likelihood of far greater personal aggrevation. Periodocally having to withstand jeers and name-calling from groups of local 'latch-key kids' The very well know specific insults are better left in the past and do not require re-iteration. Yet also there was often little empathy either from the supposedly better brought-up 'nicer' middle-class kids who muttered those names between themselves. Unfortunately, many adults barely matured themselves, veering themselves and their children away from “those people” in public spaces - a donation to the annual Variety-Club Sunshine Minibus collection assuaged any lingering guilt, easily done from a safe-distance.

[It is suspected that the reported rise in disability hate crime is derives from the rise in numbers of people recognised disabled, given better general professional understanding in recent decades].

If you happened to be an impaired person in the 1970s and 1980s, no matter what the good municipal intent, the “Sport for All” motto was a hollow one.

[NB Physically and/or mental difference often brings with it far greater perceptional sensitivity of surroundings and personal inter-activity, from birth or post-trauma effects. This often fundamentally re-shapes the mental make-up of someone focused upon simple constructs of right and wrong, but thereafter required to live in a supposedly normal world which is anything but when objectively viewing the subtle but engrained norms of social behaviour. (Ranging from the disingenuous social interests of small-talk through to far more inciduous and so repellent group/gang behaviour intended to subtly target a non-conformist victim through subtle mental taunting. Often the far more acutely intelligent 'disabled' person (esp so 'learning difficulty' people) knowingly or unconsciously view such scenarios as 'untrue', so repels and may react angrily, at the negative social construct; which itself has been devised around power-constructs. Thereby causing an external viewer's re-affirmation of their problem (parent, assistant, doctor etc), when the supposedly different individual see it as society's problem, not his / her's].[And remember, basic group-think, whether from bullies or healthcare workers, comes from making the 'different' person their raison d'etre, so continuing the intended or unintended alienation of that 'different' person].

Hence during the 1970s/80s, attending such brutalist and brutalising sporting and recreation centres was for many anything but relaxing and life-affirming.

Today, decades later, those type of experiences seem far fewer, though no doubt still occur. Societal relations have been, and continue to be, improved. European, British and increasingly International Law, whilst periodically unjust in application and outcomes of individual cases, have been more successful in laying-down general templates for the behavioural expectation pertaining to the everyday human rights of those with reduced abilities. Social guidance which itself filters down into popular consciousness has been successful in raising broader understanding.

Much of this the result of campaign efforts by a host of representative and lobbying groups. Organisations with charitable status such as the RNIB, Mind and Scope have been the vanguard for, with latterly a massive growth of individual issue-specific groups, under broader umbrella contact points such as Disability Rights UK and UK Disabled People's Council

Relative to sporting interests, bodies include BBS (British Blind Sport), WheelPower, British Wheelchair Athletics Association, British Wheelchair Racing Association, CP Sport (Cerebral Palsy), DSA (limited growth persons), Mencap Sport & UKSA (learning difficulties), UK Deaf Sport & Deaf Athletics, all assisted by the English Federation of Disability Sports and other similar.

Whilst the start and end ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics centred upon the required nationalistic agenda to highlight Britain & London as leading commercial 'psycho-geographies' on the world stage, by retelling their historic and contemporary stories, the agenda for the 2012 Paralympics was a brilliantly humanitarian, global, and embracing one. It over-arching theme to reflect the drive of the human spirit to overcome adversity. This depicted by the 'flying' actions of chair-bound people across the arena. And with the shining example of Prof Stephen Hawking, more than ably demonstrated that the true depth of a disabled person has little to do with their physical or mental 'label'.

The achievements of the athletes is plain to see. And obviously it has been the evolution of various mobility aids - predominantly wheelchairs, hand-cycles, running blades, prosthetic limbs – that have enabled improved participation.

Each of these assistive instruments is hardly a generic item, each represents specialist and tailor-made articles that must both functionally perform to extremes and still fit like the proverbial glove. They represent the latest developments in bio-mechanical evolution, a long long way from the generic old wheelchair, Douglas Barder's 'tin legs' and the cosmetic prosthetics seen in generations past (which themselves were major advances). These aids have been designed as pure pieces of functional equipment, a truly positive modernist echo of form following function. The sociological impact of this 'substitutional mechanisation' of the human body has been played-down by disability groups, intending that the appearance of the athletes do not lead to a stereo-typing as feature enhanced comic book super-heroes.

[NB Though obviously any tendency to fetishise must be negated, the theme of David Kronenberg's film 'Crash' all too disturbing. The greater concern aired is that the depiction of such 'super-human' athletes creates a damaging fractures within the mass of disabled people, especially at such a critical time given the threat of government budget cuts].

To date disabled people have unfortunately been regarded by certain quarters as an unhelpful drain on the economic resources of the nation; offering little productivity in return for being “looked after”. This of course is a ridiculous, very malicious, mass generalisation. Only when completely 'locked-in' with severe disabilities are people unable to offer useful activity to their community or and industry, and even then their unfortunate circumstances demonstrates a socio-economic need for professional support services.

The fact is that the thousands of physically and mentally impaired people across the UK (spanning millions when seen in truest sense) and the multi-millions across the world are able to offer something of themselves and the economic vitality of nationhood. And the very fact that the internet and IT has 'freed' both body and mind of traditional travel and information access limitations indicates that this should be a golden age for the inclusion of impaired people, in whatever sense.

At a time when Britain seeks to re-energise its economy with the growth of new generation physical industries and services, centred around disciplines such as eco-tech and healthcare (ie “NHS International”), the unrecognised or untapped capabilities of people close to these subjects should be released, nurtured and directed.

Douglas Barder's progressive and perfectionist instinct to fettle his own 'tin legs' should serve as the encouraging example. No doubt there are many less well known others. The point being that those who have a specific impairment are often the best position to best understand the subject, and when given the 'tools' (spanning physiology to hi-tech engineering, or indeed perhaps even nuero-science to sociology) can create great leaps forward.

The specific arena investment-auto-motives wishes to spotlight is the potential opportunity to fast-forward the creation and commercialisation of bio-mechanical physical instruments and possibly bio-electro-mechanical devices.

This is a wholly unfamiliar topic to investment-auto-motives, but there exists examples of interest and influence from many disciplinary corners; from the 'imagineering' R&D activities of 'wide remit' automotive companies, to the visionary ideas of past and present science-fiction writers television and film productions.

As the UK government seeks to create a meaningful Olympics and Paralympics legacy, today is the right time to engineer such a future by interweaving such progress with general public consciousness..

Initially done so by surveying the rich cultural and industrial tapestry that exists across the imagined and existent worlds of “robotics”, “androidism”, “bio-morphism” and “cyborganism”. A few obvious examples are the two entertainment instances of the Bionic Man / Bionic Woman and Wallace & Grommitt, whilst from industry the amazing technical advances of Honda's 'Asimo'

The original 'Six Million Dollar Man' (a 'bionic' man, and later Bionic Woman) American TV series of the 1970s was inspired by a mixture of the NASA space programme as the story-line backdrop and the supposed highly secret research-work undertaken by the US government since the 1950s on 'mechanised soldiers' (with 'secret' projects which deployed various drugs to create uninhibited super-soldiers). The Steve Austin character is given 'bionically' improved body parts: eye, right arm and legs. Though such cyborg beings had existed before in comic books and films, the programme gained mass popularity, and offered a far more comfortable and humanised view of the mechanical-man idea, given his super-human attributes. .

Far more intentionally amateurish, in the psuedo-plasticine animation style allied with comic content, was Britain's 'Wallace & Gromit'. Wallace a well meaning Heath Robinson type inventor and Gromit his humanly-intelligent canine pet / friend. In 1993's “The Wrong Trousers” Wallace obtains a pair of ex-NASA autonomous robotic “Techno Trousers” intended as his personal substitute to undertake Gromit's dog-walking. The usual chaotic adventure ensues in which good overcomes evil, and the robotic trousers autonomously walk-off into the sunset.

These then just two of a myriad of film and TV productions which subtly acclimatise the masses to the idea of moving beyond simply mechanically assisted toward mechanically integrated human beings.

But it is in the laboratories of MIT, Cambridge and many other research institutes and the R&D of advanced technology companies that the truly transformative work is taking place; none more so than at Honda Motor Corporation in Japan.

Honda has for many years been developing robotics, furthering its original efforts in car plant robots. Since 2000 its ASIMO programme has been underway, the creation of a series of child-sized robots which have become increasingly sophisticated and capable, Designed as a personal helper, originally as a 'butler' to those people with mobility issues themselves, the robot is now able to recognise different people, pour drinks and other household tasks, is increasingly stable in its walking gait, can climb and descend stairs and even run up to 6km/h. Honda and its network suppliers then appears far ahead of other similar robotic efforts, and so sets Japan's in the forefront of physical impairment healthcare across the age-range, but perhaps initially tending to Japan's and the West's increasingly aged populations.

However, of critical importance, investment-auto-motives conjects that the fundamental robotic technology could be deployed in part-form, so attached as required to those with partial or full limb loss, and this may be the far-horizon vision for the ASIMO project. If successfully developed and trialled why shouldn't ASIMO's future successors offer 'The Right Trousers' and a full range of fully functioning prosthetics, for those who require them? Such a feat would be a prolific step in mankind's philosophical evolution.

[NB as an aside, it is interesting to recognise the visual similarity and 'machine' like characteristic of Top Gear's 'Stig'].

In the meantime there are other near-horizon advances that have and will continue to be utilised.

An obvious mobility platform is the gyroscopically balanced Segway. (which prompted Honda to create its gyroscopic unicycle) and its close cousin the iBOT powered wheelchair; which itself can lift the occupant to a near standing position.. Conceived by Dean Kaman, and the DEKA Corp, the Segway has enjoyed short-run novelty success, whilst the iBOT failed to reach breakeven in its business plan and was shelved by DEKA and business partner Johnson & Johnson in 2008. However the technology will no doubt be mothballed for a period until a new business plan with reduced cost parts and production can be achieved.

Beyond the single personal mobility pods seen at the Tokyo Motor show in recent years, GM has sought to duplicate such visionary efforts as part of its 'global catch-up' strategy. GM showcased the vehicle named PUMA in 2009, its main difference being that it seated 2 people, but still used Segway-like 'stabaliser' wheels with gyrosopic feed. The concept was developed further with China targeted and the creation of 3 themed visually different concepts.

These micro-vehicles then create a new dimension in single and dual person travel in urban areas, the single capacity models viewed as a more comfortable (wholly enclosed) interpretation of the now eponymous electric disability buggy.

These creations light the way for closer collaboration between what have been arguably underfunded specialists within the far reached of healthcare R&D and large corporations keen to serve and profit from an ageing and physically diverse Triad population.

However, investment-auto-motive's very basic view of the physical-needs sector indicates that much more needs to be done so as to make life more satisfying and 'fuller' for millions of people around the globe here and now, and well into the future.

The wheelchair, whilst evolved remains much as it has been since the beginning of the 20th century, its commodity status no doubt negating ergonomic and materials advancement. Whilst the modern pavement buggy, though visually different, is not too far removed from the electric and petrol 3 and 4-wheeler Bath-Chairs of Edwardian times that so frustrated the husband of Lady Chatterly.

Those Paralympians who inadvertently damaged their modern equipment sought to rely upon the creative 'metal-bashing' ways of a workshop titled 'The Pit Stop', run by the revered German mobility-aids supplier Ottobock; tools with which Douglas Barder would be well acquainted.

With the ideal of the NHS serving as a global consultant on healthcare issues, time perhaps that a collaboration between the UK government, UK-European private industry, a figurehead such as Frank Williams (of F1 fame), and the accrued intelligence of many others of those who 'living their lives' know best. A new channel by which to drive such creative and business energies.

Time for the UK to “inspire a generation” and engineer a new era towards “enlightenment for all”.

Post Script -

It must be said that the Paralympians and most of the physically and mentally impaired population put much of the able bodied, but petty minded, population to utter shame. Especially so those who knowingly falsely portray themselves as victims of prejudice, yet enjoy comfortable lives, and are clearly not down-trodden or marginalised, just complicit.