Having a Disability in a Technological Age

Having a Disability in a Technological Age
Written by By Jason and Edited by Timothy A Carey


            Living with a disability is difficult and it can be frustrating not being able to do some things on your own. Having difficulty doing everyday tasks the average person takes for granted makes for even more frustration. It doesn’t matter if you have to use a wheelchair or you require a ventilator for breathing, always relying on caregivers and medical equipment to survive is difficult. However, in the past 15 years there have been soaring technological advancements in electronics, health-care, medical equipment, and entertainment products that make living with a disability more bearable.  My name is Jason. When I was 4 years old I was diagnosed with the genetic disorder Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. This causes all voluntary muscles and the muscles of the heart and lungs to slowly deteriorate. I was using a wheelchair full-time by the time I was 8 years old. When I was growing up in the ’80s they just started to figure out what causes this disease. Power wheelchairs were just starting to become more widely used. Schools were starting to become more accommodating for students with disabilities, but they still had a long way to go. New buildings were starting to be made accessible, but many public places were still not. And back then many places didn’t have curb cut outs. During my life, and especially now, I have seen changes in technology improve the health and quality of life for many people with disabilities, including myself.
            Wheelchairs have improved tremendously throughout the years. Wheelchairs went from manual to scooters, and then to power wheelchairs. I remember when I received my first power wheelchair around 1990.  Being able to move around independently greatly improved my quality of life. Technological advancements have made possible for computers to be installed in power wheelchairs allowing amazing possibilities. This has allowed patients with little or no mobility in their hands to operate a wheelchair by blowing into a straw.  Yet others can push a mini joystick with their lips or chins to drive, recline, elevate their feet, and even program the performance of their wheelchair. Being able to somewhat move positions along with air or gel cushions helps to drastically increase comfort and support, which is very important when sitting all day. This helps prevent open sores that can actually become fatal. The movie star paralyzed in a horseback riding accident, Christopher Reeve, actually died from complications from pressure sores. Wheelchairs can be customized to hold ventilators for patients who are vent dependent like me, which allows for excursions away from home. There are wheelchairs capable of; going off road (kind of), climbing a flight of stairs, rolling on sand, and floating on water.

            Another technological breakthrough important for people with disabilities is the invention of the ventilator, Cpap, and Bipap machines. Machines helping people breathe better started with the creation of the iron lung in 1972 by Philip Drinker and Louis Agassiz Shaw at Harvard University.  The iron lung is a metal cylinder completely housing the patient except for their head and neck. This first iron lung used two vacuum cleaners

            Ventilators and Bipap machine have become amazingly small and portable! When somebody was on a ventilator years ago they were not allowed or able to leave the hospital. The innovation of portable ventilators has allowed patients who Need 24/7 breathing assistance to go wherever their lives take them. Advancements in microchip technology and better batteries have made portability possible. Some are actually the size of a large briefcase and it uses a turbine to reduce the number of mechanical components.
            Incredible technological advancements in the entertainment and the computer industry have dramatically increased the quality of life for people with disabilities.  The Internet has allowed people with disabilities to communicate and make friends through chat rooms, websites, and community forums. Don’t forget; sending e-mail to family members across the country or halfway around the world, writing blogs, and playing games online. People with disabilities can communicate and share experiences with other people having the same or similar disabilities. This can be very therapeutic and informative.  They can also look up information and shop online. If you are out on the town, you don’t have to hurry home for your favorite TV show because it is available online. There are online college courses and online employment for people with disabilities unable to get out very easily. Check out SecondLife.com where you can download a program to access a virtual world of possibilities online. The Internet has opened up many doors and allowed people with disabilities to do things that would otherwise be impossible. Entertainment is important to everyone, but even more so for people with disabilities. People with disabilities can rent movies delivered through the mail.  Audio books and TV video games are also great. These entertainment products and the Internet help give people with disabilities ways to enjoy life and forget about their disabilities for awhile. It has been proven that virtual reality and other forms of distraction can help relieve pain.
            The technology in this article only hints at the technology helping people with disabilities today and at what the future holds. These technologies cannot heal disabilities, but they can help people deal better with their disabilities. Having a disability isn’t easy, but I am sure thankful I am living in the technological age, because it could be much more difficult. I probably wouldn’t be alive today without some of these technologies and I know some of my friends wouldn’t be.


Iron Lung Photo to decrease and increase pressure in the cylinder, which caused the person to breathe in and out respectively. One use of this device was helping the polio victims of the 1950s. Some people have been required to live in an iron lung for over 40 years. The large size of these machines didn’t allow users any independence.   During this time there was a rocking bed that moved air in and out of the lungs using the force of gravity on the patient’s diaphragm. In the late 1950s the medical community started moving to the positive pressure ventilator. This machine pushes a certain volume of air into the lungs and then lets the patient exhale naturally. The patient is connected to this machine by either a tube down the throat or a tracheotomy tube cut into the trachea. The Cpap machine was invented in 1981 by Dr. Sullivan.  This machine expands the lungs with continuous air pressure. It is typically used by patients with sleep apnea who are strong enough to exhale against the pressure. As a spinoff of the Cpap machine, the Bipap machine started being used in the early 80s and it started wider use in the early 90s. With the Bipap machine on every breath the patient gets assistance with a certain amount of positive air pressure. It increases and decreases air pressure according to the breathing patterns.

 Anonymous Bipap Patient
  Anonymous Bipap Patient

 The Bipap has a hose leading to a mask with a soft nose piece for inside the nose or a mask for over the nose. The Bipap is typically used by patients with weak chest and diaphragm muscles commonly found in muscular dystrophy patients, such as myself. In 1993 I was hospitalized for 30 days after back surgery.  The Bipap helped me get used to breathing on my own when the ventilator tube was removed from my throat.  After a week or more I was able to go home because I only had to use the Bipap at night. Currently people with various breathing problems can choose between a Bipap machine and a positive pressure ventilator with trach. The Bipap machine is less efficient, but the ventilator with trach requires a surgical procedure.