Part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s research programme on Innovations in Health Technologies, in cooperation and collaboration with the Medical Research Council
- Further details at the Innovations in Health Technologies website
For millions of disabled people the most important technological innovation of the 20th century was the modern wheelchair. The bath chair, or “invalid chair” that dominated the late 19th century was a heavy, cumbersome machine designed to be pushed by an attendant rather than controlled by the occupant. The idea that a wheelchair user could be active was never considered.
Since then, the wheelchair has developed into a powerful tool and those that dominated at the end of the 20th century were built with the occupant in mind. Indeed, the design emphasis and marketing strategies of the modern wheelchair were centred on the machine’s capacity to deliver greater independence for the user. This is a significant change. In parallel, the move towards the greater social inclusion of disabled people, an outcome of their struggles for independence, changed both the meaning of disability and the personal consequences on individual lives of being a disabled person. Yet, there is little social or historical analysis that details the relations between these currents of social and technological change. Our research will fill this gap.
Our history will be built upon a combination of in-depth interviews and archival research conducted in both the UK and the US. Interviews will be conducted with around 100 key participants who have played an important role in the development of the wheelchair, or who are particularly well-placed observers of that development. Archival sources will come from rehabilitation units, disability organisations, medical and governmental libraries and Patent Offices. Technical-scientific publications, such as journals, conference proceedings and company reports, along with disability groups’ publications, will also provide a rich source of data that will allow us to map the generation, growth and changing nature of knowledge, practices and chart the changing relations between wheelchair users and other actors.