FOUR FINGERS AND THIRTEEN TOES – The Computer says No!
A number of months ago, Stephen and I ventured north to the ubiquitous surroundings of the NEC in Birmingham. For the uninitiated, the NEC is short for the National Exhibition Centre, which stages all manner of exhibitions and concerts. Attracting visitors from all over the UK, this rather nondescript collection of buildings is big … and I mean big. Car parks for miles, Shuttle buses by the bucketload, and each visitor full of anticipation for the pending show or exhibition to which they are visiting.
Our visit back in March was to attend the NAIDEX exhibition. Billed as the premier exhibition for health care professionals, it is (or can be) a treasure trove of gadgets and gizmos to cater for all sorts of varying impairments. We were visiting for a stroll around and, in particular, to see what was available in terms of new wheelchairs – and believe it or not, electronic blinds. I’ve had my current electric-powered chair for just over six years, and whilst still going strong, it never harms to see what super-duper alternatives are available, “just in case”. In terms of blinds, our Roman blinds (so-called Caesar) had gone past the days when it was trendy to spend hours at bedtime unravelling lengths of pulley strings, that, in some inexplicable way, would always decide to play up and get tangled when all you really want to do was go to bed!
So back to NAIDEX. On arrival, you get zapped, given a lanyard and a corporately branded plastic bag … whatever happened to save the universe, with the limited use of plastic bags. Once zapped and branded, you are let loose in this myriad of fluorescent lights and smiling sales reps, eager to weigh you down with their corporate freebies and pamphlets.
Pamphlets. Loads of them. You lug them round; get them stuffed in even more plastic carriers. If you are really lucky you might get a bag for life, into which to stuff even more pamphlets that you dutifully carry home.
Assuming you manage to find your way out of the NEC car park and eventually get home, you decant all those carefully nurtured pamphlets straight into the recycling, when you realise that the gleaming, and rather attractive accessible caravan or motor home won’t fit on the drive, would be too big to take round to show your family and friends, and certainly wouldn’t be ordered unless you happened to be lucky enough to have your lotto numbers come up on a triple-triple rollover.
This time, however, I decided to do something useful with all the pamphlets that came home with us, and that was to actually read them … well some of them.
What once again, amazed and saddened me in equal measure, was the realisation that disability is a multi-million-pound business. Whilst you can’t put a price on independence, I was shocked at just how much could be spent on making an independent life, but one which (in all reality) is beyond the average disabled person.
It crossed my mind that this show, in particular, could be broken down into three main parts, technology, mobility, and leisure. Ultimately, whilst each and every disabled person is an individual with unique and particular needs, the disability industry is (sadly) geared toward disabled people being a homogenous group and, in terms of the products and services on offer, one size must fit all.
Thinking back, I reflected on how things have changed since I took tentative steps to independent living over thirty years ago. Way back then, our front door had to be opened manually; I pushed the TV power button with a piece of doweling rod and the ultimate in portable music … my precursor to the iPod … was a transistor radio which was cello-taped to the side of my wheelchair. Our family dog didn’t have to unload the washing machine or boil my kettle, and my first accessible car was held together with more gaffer tape and wire ties than an electrician could use in his entire working life. Holidays were spent in caravans or small hotels that were totally inaccessible, but we managed, and had fun “just about managing”.
These days, however, there seems to be a solution to almost every access issue, but whether the solution is any good does, in my opinion, leave a lot to be desired.
And this brings me back to the sojourn through the NAIDEX exhibition.
I find smart technology sections fascinating. Robots for this, sensors for that, and flashing lights for the other things. There was certainly no shortage of technological wonders to open doors, close curtains, or to boil kettles. But it saddened me that there was a strong push toward encouraging social interaction with a robot. Now, don’t get me wrong, we have two little boxes in our house who answer to the name of Alexa. It hasn’t been unheard of, to find Stephen asking this “robotic siren” to tell him a joke, sing him a song or even tell him a story. However, I’m not really sure if we should be encouraging a society where, people who may already have limited social contact, could find solace in a computerised voice, who reacts to stock commands. However, that I think, is another issue for another day.
Over the last few years, Stephen and I have been looking at ways of making life easier, and one of the biggest problems with exhibitions of this nature is that in trying to find things which make life easier, there is just so much to see. It is easy to understand why many people take a few days to see everything, but that luxury was not ours this year.
We firstly made a beeline for the technology section. Granted some of the products on display were incredible, but such status came at a price, and it was a very hefty one. The main products being touted were the “smart” apps that did all manner of things around your home. However, with a little ingenuity, I would venture to say that some of the items you buy on Amazon and other online sales sites, can do the job just as well. Products linked to electrical appliances to make turning on and off easier have been around for many years. I tested a piece of equipment called an environmental control not long after I moved from my parents home. It had a bulky remote, that would have been about the size of a large slab of cheese. It had to be linked to the power supply most of the time, to make sure the (somewhat unreliable) battery didn’t fail. At the other end, large and cumbersome plugs had to be added to the wall socket, and then your appliance was added afterwards. It was good for its time, but one of the main drawbacks was the size of the cumbersome plug, which prevented anything else going into a double wall socket. When the system came to the end of its natural life, we spent a bit of time looking around to see if there was an alternative. Needless to say, we found one costing less than £20.00. This allowed five electrical appliances to be connected, in a most discreet way, and operated with a remote control, about the size of two packets of tic-tacs. We now have three of these little systems dotted around the house, one in my office, working lamps, fans and radio. One in the living room, operating primarily lamps, throughout the house, and one in the hallway, which is linked up to the garage, that allows me or anyone else to switch on the Christmas lights (did I just mention the “Xmas” word and we aren’t even through November!), without the need for any trailing wires. All this accessibility came in at less than £100.00. I couldn’t even imagine how much a similar system would have sold for in the market of disability equipment at NAIDEX – but it is my guess it would far more than a hundred pounds.
Before we left the technology section, we amassed a few brochures on automatic blinds systems, to which I will return later.
We had a wander around the leisure section, which was teeming with companies offering to sell accessible holiday accommodation. It was refreshing to see that there was a disability AirBNB, which I know will be welcomed by many of my disabled friends who do a lot of travelling, and who like to find quirky places to stay on their holidays. There were exotic motorhomes, and vacations designed for the more adventurous disabled person. Again, if I am being totally honest, these offerings were geared towards a market where disability might have come about as a result of a major accident trauma, and high levels of compensation damage would cover the huge expense involved.
Wheelchairs are another bugbear. Wheelchair manufacture has developed into utilising a generic base, which can be twisted and turned, twiddled and fiddled with until the whole thing is topped off with a number of seating options. The only problem is that if you happen to be anywhere out of the ordinary, add-ons come at an inordinate price, and the end product doesn’t necessarily do what the customer might want. As an example, my wheelchair controller has to be set very high, and if you ask a wheelchair manufacturing representative if they could accommodate that, you will more than likely find them scratching their heads, when they discover that the drop-downs on their computerised systems explode – with those immortal words … “the computer says NO”.
So, in these days of reuse, recycle etc., I am pleased to say that many of my longstanding custom adaptations, were made so robustly by independent geniuses (ie nothing to do with wheelchair companies), that they will outlive any piece of kit that was displayed under those bright, purchase-inducing fluorescent lights.
Once back home, having decided that we could forget about the robots, the motorhomes and the wheelchairs (at least for the time being), we were left with nothing other than getting round to organising some new blinds.
Over the years, we have been lucky enough to work with some very reliable local companies, and so without hesitation, we made contact with our trusted blind supplier – who is a man for … All Seasons Blinds.
Steve from All Seasons Blinds came along, did the measuring and with quiet assurance told us that sourcing automatic blinds shouldn’t cause too much of a problem. This was especially given the information which we had gathered from NAIDEX, which seemed to suggest that you have them any colour size or configuration you wanted.
With the promise that he would have a price for us within a fortnight, we mused over how nice the front of the house would look with a uniform set of blinds on each window, which – a bit like the BBC’s Apprentice VW Caravelle sliding doors, would close in perfect unison!
Our blinds man for All Seasons duly turned up within his timeframe, but with news that the companies we had suggested he contact, would have required us to remortgage the house just to pay the deposit on the blinds we liked. Undaunted Steve said if we gave him another couple of weeks, he would work his magic and find a company that didn’t want to take the remaining arms (sorry … no legs available) we had, to pay the bill!
It took far longer than a couple of weeks to source the blinds we wanted at a price that didn’t break the bank, but when they arrived stage two had to be mastered.
We watch admiringly the slick TV commercials that make everything open and close smoothly, it is only when you try to achieve this utopia at home, that the reality is just that … utopia. The blinds were great, the right size, right colour, remotes for every room, but …
We were left with instructions on how to open and close them, how to get them to move left and right, how to position them at a jaunty angle, and with guidance on how to get all the blinds to close at the same time. It was then the fun started.
It was probably a good thing that the blinds were fitted during the summer months, as on the strength of Stephen’s attempt at closing them for the first time, it was not an overwhelming success. With a fair bit of damning and blasting, and a few other expletives thrown in, he whizzed from one room to another to find all the blinds opening and closing on a whim.
They say it takes an intelligent woman to sort out a so-called intelligent man, and so it proved to be with our blinds. I think it was prompted by the need to have tea before midnight, but I decided that enough was enough, and a logical mind was needed to resolve the problem.
With all the calm I could muster, I gently suggested that reading the instructions would be a good starting point. Yes, like most men on this planet, Stephen doesn’t like reading instructions either. Having steered him towards the kitchen, with a suggestion that he make a cup of tea, the vexed question of how to make the blinds behave themselves became quite apparent. Firstly, locate the “master” remote. Secondly, make sure the master remote is programmed to operate all the blinds. Thirdly, go round all windows, and close the blinds on the individual remotes, so that they (the blinds) were all in the same position before using the master remote. Fourthly, find a home for the master remote, and mark it appropriately to avoid an increase in blood pressure whenever the blinds needed opening or closing. Fifthly, decide where the blinds were to come to a stop on opening, and lastly, do a test run.
Now, in all fairness to Stephen, the remotes were rather sensitive, after I witnessed first-hand how the blinds went berserk when left to their own devices on the test run. We were nearly there, but a little bit of tweaking was needed. The instructions didn’t really help, and lateral thinking came into play again. The need was, to catch the remote at a point when you wanted the blinds to stop. So Stephen decided to employ the age-old method of counting. Up to five – No good, blinds went bananas! Up to three, not far enough, and so four it was. One, two, three, four and STOP!
Every morning and evening, my lovely hubby can be heard counting to four, like a demented maths teacher and, only occasionally, is this accompanied by a choice word from the English language, when he forgets to hit the stop button in time.
So, where does this story take us? In a way, our experience of blind buying was rather like an episode of Shop Well for Less. We are all tempted by bright lights and fancy labels that came with whistles and bells – which we probably don’t need.
There is no doubt that exhibitions are a good way of sourcing products and services that may be desirable or necessary, but sometimes taking a step back can be the best and most cost-effective way of getting what is wanted without having to break the bank.
As I finish this blog, I hear rumblings from the room next door, about a garden room with a remote-controlled louvre roof. Not wishing to doubt Stephen’s abilities, I have a real concern if he can’t manage remote-controlled vertical blinds; there is a strong possibility that, if I let him loose on a remote-controlled louvre roof, he may end up sending coded messages to the International Space Station!
With all the shenanigans going on in the world at the moment, the last thing we need is for an international crisis to be sparked by a man who sometimes can’t tell his Romans or his Roller-shutters from his Louvres.
So, before we need to find a home for another remote control around the house, I think I’d better go and turn on the lamps with (you guessed it) a remote control, and put the rest of those glossy brochures in the green recycling before the man of the house gets any more bright ideas.
And a final thought … it’s probably as well that self-drive cars are still a long way off, as I’m not sure if Stephen would have the time or the patience to read the instructions properly. On his current performance, we could end up in Ripon rather than Ruislip, or even Downing Street instead of Downton.
Now, there’s a thought, I believe they are looking for a new tenant in the former. Drive on Mr Simmonds!