Reasons & Remarks – Accessible Discoveries

It’s with profound sadness that we announce the passing of Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) member and PVA Publications Editor-In-Chief Tom Fjerstad. Tom lost his more than yearlong battle with leukemia and passed away surrounded by his family at home in Phoenix on Dec. 9, 2022. A Navy veteran, he was 63. This is his final column. His friendship and leadership will be greatly missed.

Hidden potential in adaptive technology can be discovered in the halls of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas

When Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) was founded in 1946, advancements in technology for those with disabilities, specifically PVA’s membership, were few and far between.

I’m not saying the folding wheelchair created in a garage by Everest & Jennings wasn’t a big deal in its day — quite the contrary! What I’m saying is there are still innovations coming from people who are working in their garages, as well as from multibillion-dollar corporations.

Many of the new ideas from both these arenas make their debut in Las Vegas each January at the gigantic electronics trade show called CES. PVA Publications has attended the event for
a number of years and is there again this month. We find value in attending the event for several reasons. First and foremost is the opportunity to discover advancements in technology that may
enhance our readers’ lives.

We have a great article in this month’s issue, Growing Accessibility on page 24, that details how assistive and adaptive technologies are becoming a bigger part of CES each year and the serious effort the show’s sponsors put into making that happen.

However, many of the discoveries we make at the show are products not specifically created for the disability market. Often, unbeknownst to their creators, some of these products have the potential to have life-changing effects for those with disabilities.

One product that long predates CES is the power garage door. It wasn’t designed for people with disabilities, but no one can deny the impact it had on that population. Another good example and a story I love to tell is about a coffee maker.

I was at a meeting at the PVA national office in Washington, D.C., in the late 1990s, and these great new coffee machines had just been installed in the break rooms. So what could possibly be an unintended benefit of a coffee maker for someone with a disability?

Well, previously, a friend with quadriplegia was injured while pouring himself a cup of coffee, a task he had no doubt done successfully hundreds of times in the past. However, this time, the
carafe from a 12-cup coffee maker got caught, and the scalding hot coffee spilled all over his lap.

Along came Keurig with a machine that lets you insert a pod and hit a button to immediately generate steaming hot coffee directly into a cup that allowed for safe handling. Did Keurig create its product specifically for people with disabilities? Absolutely not. Did it have an immediate impact on the qualityof life for that population? Without a doubt.

This is exactly why we go to CES every year. A couple of years ago, I was going through an old PN magazine and came across a cover from the December 1965 issue that pictured then-PVA Executive Director Harry Schweikert Jr., sitting next to a new drive-up telephone. No longer did the able-bodied have to get out of their cars to make a call from a phone booth, which were never wheelchair-accessible.

This is yet another example of how a simple innovation had a big impact for people who used wheelchairs. I’m not exactly sure how many times I’ve been to CES, but it’s one of my annual travel
highlights. CES is really tuned in to the needs of people with disabilities who attend. Their overall logistics are amazing. One that impresses me every year is the transportation provided for
attendees between 29 hotels and the multiple event spaces throughout Las Vegas.

The transportation for the able-bodied has its own “wow factor,” with fleets of spaceage-looking buses running on schedules that require no long wait times. Then, there’s the accessible transportation. I’ve been to more events around the country than I can count.

And usually, the larger the event, the more problem-laden the transportation becomes. CES is the largest trade show in the world, with more than 150,000 attendees from every corner of the globe, so my initial expectations during my first trip were set pretty low. The first time I attended CES, I actually measured the distance from the Luxor Hotel & Casino where I was staying to the Las Vegas Convention Center to see how long of a push I’d have in a worst-case scenario.

However, the accessible transportation was downright comical in a good way. When I checked in for the event, I was given a phone number to call when I was ready to leave my hotel. Thef irst
morning of the show, I was having breakfast, called the number and a real, live, pleasant lady answered, asked my name and at which hotel I was staying. She then said someone would call me within five minutes.

A van driver called me about three minutes later and asked me to be outside in 10 minutes. I proceeded outside, and he was waiting with an accessible bus. I loaded up and was off to the convention center. The transportation has run this smoothly every time since.

Now, let’s talk about the show floors themselves. The Las Vegas Convention Center is the main venue and one of the largest convention centers in the world with over 2.5 million square feet of exhibit space. CES utilizes every inch of it and doesn’t stop there. It also uses several other locations along the Las Vegas Strip to bring total exhibit space for the 2023 show to 3.9 million square feet (that’s almost 90 acres).

If the thought of pushing around that much space in a manual wheelchair doesn’t make your shoulders hurt, let’s add something else to the mix — carpet and ramps. The carpet at trade show booths is usually put over the top of plush foam. This may enhance the experience for able-bodied people, but it’s like pushing through sand at the beach for wheelers.

The areas between the exhibits and the long ramps have normal carpet. I think you can imagine what my shoulders felt like when I tried to get out of bed the next morning. After that first year, I honestly started doing some distance training about a month in advance of the event to prepare.

Had I been able to attend this year’s CES, I had a different plan — a
power assist device for my chair. No, I won’t admit that I’m getting old.


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