Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Sappy media stories about "walking again"

I am going to get a lot of heat for saying this, but I really hate sappy news stories about paraplegics being able to "walk again" due to some miracle machinery.

It is in response to this story that came out a few months ago. A student, who acquired a spinal cord injury in 2007, is set to walk across the stage at his graduation at Berkeley, with the help of a robotic exoskeleton and forearm crutches.

While I am not against a cure for spinal cord injury (quite the opposite, actually), I really don't like the emphasis that some, such as the media, puts on the ability to walk.

This may sound bad, but hear me out. Read the news story. It puts so much emphasis on walking and portrays people who are able to walk as somewhat "better" than those who cannot. It is totally ableist -- its basic message is, "You're more worthy as a person if you can walk."

That kind of thinking is what propels millions of dollars into developing these exoskeletons, which are cumbersome and not useful for regular use anyhow. As it is right now, nobody is going to a) be able to afford them, b) use these regularly, and c) use exoskeletons as the "band-aid solution" to paralysis. With these issues, all those millions can be better spent trying to find a cure for spinal cord injury, don't you think?

I find that stories like these serve a "feel-good" purpose for able-bodied people more than anything. Not being able to stand and walk is the most visible complication of spinal cord injury, and this story makes people think, "Hey, we're making progress!"

That is not progress. Progress is not only finding a cure for paralysis, but also finding improved ways of managing the complications of spinal cord injury. Many (but not all) people with spinal cord injury say that the ability to walk is a secondary concern to other complications such as skin breakdown, pressure sores, bladder and bowel control, body temperature regulation, muscle atrophy, autonomic dysreflexia, and so on. I'd rather see improvements in handling those problems first, because some of these problems can be fatal if not treated properly! Meanwhile, nobody dies from not walking.

I'm sure this blog entry is going to create a lot of controversy for whoever comes across it. And to be honest, I don't know how many people would agree with me. But those are my thoughts and I'm sticking with them.

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