Who’s the disabled one?

I’m wheeling my way along the corridor against a crowd of conference attendees keen to get to the coffee. Many are impatient to check their emails and are already immersing themselves in a phone or tablet. There’s one coming my way and he’s not looking where he’s going. Surely he’s going to see my wheelchair? But I’ve witnessed this many times before. Invariably they cause me to do an emergency stop. They then stand over me looking confused and embarrassed before careening around me.

I thought it was me that was disabled? Not only am I immobile, I have optic neuritis which can make it hard to make visual sense of my surroundings during times of stress. This is true of many disabled people: disabilities come in twos and threes and are often invisible. So what’s this guy’s disability? Well, for sure, he’s only able to use some of his senses. The headphones make him insensible to my calls of alarm and his smart phone consumes any remaining sensory awareness. So it’s me that’s left feeling like the clunk in this encounter?


Of course, on this occasion no one was going to get hurt (apart from hurt pride). No doubt other mishaps involving building occupiers can have greater consequences. That’s why we look to the facilities manager to provide a safe environment. They adopt health and safety standards that minimise such hazards, being mindful of the diversity of building users.

But there are two things that don’t appear in the rulebook. The first of these is the growth of what I call ‘technologically disabled’. These are building users that choose to make the real world subservient to a virtual world when walking about. Yes, we may well have done it ourselves. Checking our text messages as we descend the stairs; talking on the smart phone as we carry hot drinks in the cafeteria. Yes, perhaps I’m a hypocrite. Maybe I would be doing the same if this pesky predicament had not overtaken me. As it is, I’ve discovered that disabled people spend much of their time carrying out their own informal risk appraisals. They are risk averse – and have to be in order to avoid the calamitous fall in the washroom or the uncontrolled descent down the stairs. So here we have an apparent paradox. Some of us building occupants are using every precaution to avoid injury in the workplace. At the same time, many healthy workers are choosing to take risks in the hope of saving time.

This brings me to the second matter that doesn’t appear in the rulebook: the concept of ‘risk compensation. ‘ Essentially this theory states that ‘people typically adjust their behavior in response to the perceived level of risk, becoming more careful where they sense greater risk and less careful if they feel more protected’. This explains our situation in a nutshell. Some of us necessarily have a heightened perception of risk (the ageing and disabled workforce); others have a reduced perception of risk (protected by their youthful exhuberance). For the facilities manager this phenomena presents a problem: the safer their constructed environment, the more inclined people are to take risks.

So, I’m not presenting an answer. Simply highlighting a question. Can we adopt a health and safety culture that addresses the distracted workforce? We may be surprised to find that increased risks are not solely attributable to disabled and ageing employees. The phenomenon of walking without using our senses (distracted walking) has created a new type of disabled user.

Further reflections

Since I wrote this blog I’ve tried to understand what has rattled my cage? For sure, distracted walking is going to become a major issue for facilities managers. It’s going to force them to reconsider signage, wayfinding, circulation and stair design among other things. But I guess for a disabled person, distracted walking is anathema. After all, isn’t the experience of walking a rare opportunity to live in the present and experience what surrounds you.

When you can no longer walk, it feels so difficult to accept. You want to shout out “wake up and enjoy walking, taking in the surroundings and meeting people at eye level.” Perhaps people feel that ‘undistracted walking'(or just walking) is an indulgence that cannot be undertaken in company time?

As for me, I’ll keep on rolling along. I won’t join the ranks of distracted walkers. My hands are occupied with steering and my eyes with avoiding the less engaged.

I can’t help asking ‘who’s the disabled one here?’ Sometimes I feel as if I’m the only one that’s looking out! Or perhaps I’m just jealous that I’m not part of the modern world. Perhaps, like other disabled people, it’s left me feeling rather alone in the physical world.


5 thoughts on “Who’s the disabled one?

  1. I saw a woman using her phone, drive into the market parking lot. She parked diagonally across to spots, and walked into the market while she screamed into the phone. She left her car running and the door wide open. She was no longer in the physical world !
    Michael Kaminski


    1. Dear Michael. It’s good to hear that these problems are not confined to the UK. You even have these problems in Hollywood. I guess for people like Marian and myself, this disengagement is particularly upsetting. After all, if you are lucky enough to be able-bodied, why shackle yourself with technologies in public spaces? Many thanks for your comment Michael and I really hope I have the chance to meet you in the future. Eddy.


  2. You don’t have to be disabled to be totally thrown by ‘distracted walkers’. It happens to non-headphone wearing or phone-fixated people like me all the time. I’ve seen two ‘distracted walkers’ knocked down while crossing the road – neither of them noticed me screaming at them to stop.
    Deborah Shrewsbury


    1. Yes Deborah, you’re entirely right. You don’t have to be disabled to be troubled by this phenomenon. I suppose it particularly irks disabled people who are envious of those that can negotiate the world using fully functional senses and limbs. I honestly think this will become an emerging issue for the FM industry. People it seems are increasingly inhabiting an augmented reality – perhaps that is the wrong word – a disconnected reality. This will bring with it major issues related to safety in the workplace.


  3. Hello dear Friend! (no, this is not another email asking for your account to deposit £500k bound from a sub-saharan African country),
    This aspect of distraction, or as you much better put it, awareness disability, has been a focus for some research I am carrying out with colleagues at ‘your’ University of Salford. We are interested in the drop in awareness that a smartphone user sustains when in an urban environment with cars passing by and people (or in our case, cute little kitten) try to cross a road. This has been sparked by an interest in finding out and measuring how much we exclude ourselves from our surroundings when we look down to the screens of our phones, walk around with headphones on, or both.
    In a way, I am an hypocrite as I ride my bike with my headphones on! In my defence, I have found some evidence to suggest that this is actually helpful for cyclists – https://www.google.co.uk/amp/amp.timeinc.net/cyclingweekly/news/latest-news/should-you-cycle-with-earphones-in-297887%3fsource=dam – confirming my very personal, very empirical evidence that, when cycling in an cacophonous urban environment, your auditory system is not very helpful in avoiding dangers such as a car careening towards you from behind. It is perhaps better to take a very defensive attitude, trying to stay (visually) aware of everything around you and expect every single driver to try to knock you off at every opportunity (perhaps a subject for a different blog). However, I have tried walking around whilst looking down engaged on something on my smartphone and the drop in visual awareness clearly disables my situational awareness even to the point where walking becomes weird. Not surprisingly, this has been the focus of some recent research as well – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3931858/Why-using-mobile-phone-walk-changing-one-s-gait-Scientists-texting-gives-silly-exaggerated-stride.html.
    In our research, we are interested in developing systems that can predict awareness drops, based on cues acquired from the environment (acoustic and visual), and behaviour of users on their smartphone (texting, facebook, etc). If such systems can be developed, we can warn users of impending dangers before they become critical. A tall order and a worthwhile research challenge which might be applicable in other areas as we move towards this ‘more connected’ future.
    Unfortunately, no technological advances can replace the good manners and respect we should be showing to fellow citizens, so this also becomes a social problem. That’s why we are also looking to using our research findings to sensitise people, particularly the younger generations, that it is not acceptable to bury your head in your smartphone screen and expect others to walk around you, especially if everyone is also doing it!


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