Like many young people growing up in the ‘Digital Age,’ I rarely rise from my bed in the morning without a quick scroll through my social media feeds and struggle to stray too far from my mobile phone without feeling as though I’ve descended into a dark and lonely black hole. However, when it comes to my physical disability, technology means so much more than counting “likes” and accumulating “followers” – it has quite literally transformed my life.
Born just at the turn of the millennium, I am a firm believer that I arrived on this planet at precisely the right time. Upon my diagnosis of spinal muscular atrophy, a condition that leaves me with roughly the strength of a newborn baby, my parents were told that I would be lucky if I lived to see my sixth birthday and that, in the unlikely event that I did survive, I would never be able to walk, stand or crawl and would require physical support with every single aspect of my daily life. Naturally, this was devastating news for my parents and painted a very bleak picture for my future, but little did they know that, thanks to technology, my journey was going to take a very different path.
My first and most profound encounter with technology came at the age of just two when, after a thorough and oh-so-serious driving test around the streets of my hometown, I was given my very first powered wheelchair. This adult-sized piece of equipment was modified to fit my toddler-sized body and, for the first time in my life, I experienced true independence, freedom and joy. Had I been born even a matter of months earlier, this specialist technology quite simply would not have existed and the growth and development I experienced during those early years would have been lost forever. This equipment has adapted and evolved over the years, growing with me into what can now only be described as a high-tech, zebra-striped dream machine, and I will forever be grateful for how this technological innovation has empowered me to become the person I am today.
Having said this, my appreciation of technology is in no way limited to specialist ‘disability equipment’ such as the above. Items such as the smartphone have enabled many living with disabilities to broaden their horizons as a result of its capacity to promote independence through accessibility features and advanced, easy-to-use technology. Without the strength to push down on standard buttons, touch-screen technology opens up a whole new world in terms of engaging in communication and accessing information. Through advances in voice recognition software, virtual assistants such as Siri and Alexa enable my world to keep turning even when my phone is physically out of reach. They grant me independence from my real personal care assistants due to how a simple “Hey Siri” means that help can always be reached when I’m out and about alone, all without me having to lift a finger.
I am, of course, aware of the more sinister aspects of technology that are coming to the fore as we as a population become ever more reliant on the machines that dictate our lives. I am a firm believer that the use of technology should be carefully managed in an attempt to limit its adverse effects, but at the same time, I am eternally thankful for the technology that supports me each day and I am forever excited to see what’s around the corner. Even the more recent arrival of bluetooth earphones and wireless chargers into the mainstream market eliminates the need to navigate difficult plugs and, on the whole, technology seems to be heading towards a more lightweight, streamlined design that will better serve those with physical disabilities.
Coming to Stanford, I have become all the more aware of just how advanced the technology currently on the market is, and I am continually inspired by the forward-thinking attitudes of my fellow students who are already looking to the future. In my early years, my life was saved on countless occasions by cutting-edge advances in medical technology and, as time goes on, my physical abilities are soaring thanks to the technology that surrounds me. There is no doubt that, for many, technology is limiting the human ability to be truly present in the moment and yet, for me, it is because of this technology alone that I am able to be present in the moment at all.
Contact Tilly Griffiths at tillykg ‘at’ stanford.edu.