The random seaside holidays of Hackaday staffers rarely sow the seeds of our articles, but my most recent trip had something slightly unusual about it. I was spending a couple of days in a resort town on the Isle of Wight, just off the coast of Southern England, and my hotel was the local outpost of a huge chain that provides anonymous rooms for travelling salesmen and the like. I could probably find an identical place to lay my head anywhere in the world from Anchorage to Hobart and everywhere in between.

My room though was slightly different to the norm. By chance rather than necessity I’d been assigned one of the hotel’s accessible rooms, designed with people with disabilities in mind. And once I’d reached the limit of the free amusement that the digital TV channels of Southern England could provide, my attention turned to the room itself, eyeing up its slightly unfamiliar design features as an engineer.

Walking Into The Trap…

My room had a little less sunshine than this one. A Chilling Soul (CC BY-NC 2.0).

The most obvious difference was the distance of many of the fittings from the floor. Most features of the room were placed at a height suitable for a wheelchair user, but there were some baffling omissions such as the light switch on entering the room which was at the normal height you’d expect in other rooms.

The TV remote meanwhile seemed to have been designed for someone with the eyesight of an eagle and the dexterity of a concert pianist rather than someone partially sighted or with restricted hand movement, and operating the window required even an able-bodied person to be both weight-lifter and contortionist.

The bathroom was the wet floor type, with a walk in shower, no tray to confound users with limited mobility. Its floor though seemed to have been laid by someone with very little concept of levels, for taking a shower sent water flowing all over it and mostly away from the plughole down which it was meant to drain. Most baffling of all, the room was devoid of any form of bedside unit, ledge, or table. Did its designers think people with disabilities were not worthy of somewhere to put their book, their phone, or their cup of tea? And saving the best for last, I was on the 2nd floor, which I believe in American parlance is the 3rd floor. Isn’t it unreasonable to expect a person with restricted mobility to use superfluous corridors and lifts when the building has a much more accessible ground floor?

It was evident that the designers had put a lot of thought into the features of the room, and though for obvious reasons without the experience of a person with a disability I am unable to comment on its effectiveness from a position of knowledge I’m sure that its target audience will find it more acceptable to them than a conventional one. But I couldn’t help lying there thinking about the shortcomings I could see, and how I as an engineer might fix them.

And in that moment, I almost fell into a trap. I was setting myself up to be the Engineer-Saviour, riding in on my white charger to deliver the users of the room from the ceaseless hell into which its designers had put them. The overwhelming smugness of Helping Someone Less Fortunate Than Myself was reaching out to envelop me, and it was time to put the thought down and back away real slow.

What Did I Nearly Do There?

The Africar, a British designed amd made car for Africa that became more famous for the questionable way its company was run than for providing transport for Africans. Thomas's Pics (CC BY 2.0).
The Africar, a British designed and made car for Africa that became more famous for the questionable way its company was run than for providing transport for Africans. Thomas’s Pics (CC BY 2.0).

You see, the world is littered with examples of well-meaning people swooping in with miracle solutions to other people’s problems that come from their own perceptions rather than those of the people they are trying to help. The African villagers drinking polluted water while a borehole provided by a saviour-NGO sits idle for want of a part only available on another continent, for example. The developing country motor vehicles conceived as publicity objects for huge corporations and as objects to attract investment to questionable companies. Or the people with Big Ideas for Solutions To World Problems that you will encounter from time to time if you are involved in the running of a hackspace.

It’s all extremely laudable and it gives those who do it ample excuse to pat each other on the back, but if its chief benefit is to the would-be saviour rather than to those who it would claim to help, then it cannot be considered appropriate. It is easy to believe that you are doing good works when your only feedback comes from your peers, but the only judges that matter in these cases are the people you would seek to help, and an important pre-requisite should be that they do in fact need the help in the first place.

This is not to say that there is no place for engineering solutions, of course there is. But the impetus for any such work should come from within the group for which it is intended rather than outsiders, and its execution should be appropriate for the environment in which it is to be placed. An accessibility solution should come as a result of a real need expressed by those facing the problem it is trying to solve. The solution should be refined only by their feedback for example, or an aid solution in a developing country should work with local suppliers, craftsmen, and engineers to ensure that it can continue to serve in the conditions on the ground rather than those thousands of miles away. If it doesn’t meet these criteria then it’s worth asking: is it a solution to the problem at hand or a solution to the need for the person behind it to feel a warm feeling about their Good Works?

This has been something of a personal rant using my seaside hotel room as a handle, but from the number of times I have encountered projects or would-be projects that stray into this territory I’d say it’s one that has a pertinence for our community. If you’re up for helping others with your work then please do so, but ask yourself the question before you commence: who are you really helping? Them, or yourself?

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