Like a lot of people whose disabilities are invisible, casual ableism is not something that sits permanently on my radar: I generally don’t have to think about wheelchair ramps or the absence of verbal prompts on a city bus. What I do have to concerns myself with is someone shaving parmesan onto my gluten free penne at a restaurant (this actually happened) because they don’t realise that what they may see as a dietary choice is really something that is keeping me out of the hospital. So when I first read a rather odd hit piece in a national newspaper last year, rubbishing a device that has huge potential for personalised health care, I didn’t understand at the time that the anger I was feeling towards the author was because she was clearly dismissing the experiences of so many of us whose bodies don’t run ‘like clockwork’.
The device in question was the Scio hand-held spectrometer; which in essence is a tool that brings us closer to using a smartphone like a Star Trek Tricorder. At its most basic level, it scans the composition of a physical object, sends that information to the Scio cloud for analysis, then relays that information to the seat phone’s owner. The implications for food alone are immense (for example, perishables like fruit and vegetables can be checked for their viability after the sell-by date has passed), but the significance for use in health-care is monumental: from checking for trigger ingredients hidden in food not prepared by yourself, to scanning a part of your body to discover if the pain you’re feeling is caused by a misfiring nervous system or an actual injury. So why was it that so many journalists (because the Guardian writer wasn’t the only one) reduced this piece of technology to little more than a handbag sized calorie counter?
…the technology goes far beyond what’s sitting on your plate.
The explanation of the Scio’s properties in the article that got me so riled, seemed almost Luddite in attitude, with the focus based entirely on the idea that calorie counting has been debunked in terms of nutritional science. The further implications were not even considered, in effect making the author sound as though they believed every spectrometer that had ever existed was only used for calculating the nutritional values of a Big Mac and fries. This bizarre emphasis on how little use the appliance would be to dieters led the comments below the line becoming a tired argument about weight as a political issue. From BMI to women’s magazines and back again, people argued about will-power, genetics and fuel, with one lone voice (not mine, I’m ashamed to say) trying to cut through all the noise and alert them to the gargantuan point that they were missing: food is made of more than just calories, and the technology goes far beyond what’s sitting on your plate.
But what if that world is even slightly limited?
I was struggling to understand how something that was clearly a scientific leap was being so readily trashed. It’s true that in the promotional video the creators do mention calorific values, but if the journalist had bothered to watch until the end (a whole 2.02 minutes of their time) the expansive nature of what the scientists are actually doing would have become overtly obvious. And then it struck me. Could this be what casual ableism looks like to the invisibly ill?
It’s very easy to dismiss something as pointless or excessive if you exist in a world where most options and choices are still open to you – a world where eating the gluten free option just leaves you feeling a bit bloated, or an ache is simply an ache, not a sign of further joint degeneration. But what if that world is even slightly limited? What if the author, like so many of us, has to consider the absentmindedness (or vindictiveness) of restaurant staff when faced with a tricky menu: or wants to prove that there is an undisclosed injury to a joint or tendon when their blood shows none of the markers for Rheumatoid Arthritis?
Tools like the Scio open up a world of possibilities for those of us suffering from hidden disabilities, but they will also serve a huge purpose for those lucky enough to have their health relatively intact: verifying that there are no unexpected substances in an alcoholic drink bought at a bar, and checking for broken bones after a typical childhood accident are two that immediately spring to mind.
Perhaps those of us who have to think further ahead and further afield in order to live our everyday lives are just better attuned to the benefits of certain technological advances. But even if that is so, it is beyond short sighted and simply poor reporting to claim that a device is worthless simply because the journalist’s world is big enough for them not to need it.