A world without barriers: Inclusion as a matter of course

14th June 2021

I am gently roused from sleep by the whirring of the shutters opening automatically. It's seven o'clock, the sun is climbing over the Uetliberg. I'm getting ready for a workday at Cybathlon of ETH Zurich. I’m slightly nervous as I have an important presentation today to give to the Federal Bureau for the Equality of People with Disabilities. Presentations have never been one of my strong points, but my colleague is by my side and presenting with me.

The presentation shows how technical assistance systems such as mind-controlled prostheses, wheelchairs or exoskeletons can help people with disabilities in everyday life, where the infrastructure and the environment are still not barrier-free. We are predestined for this presentation, as the Cybathlon team still works in a building that is anything but barrier-free. Zurich's preservation order does not allow the building to be renovated in such a way that it would be fully accessible for people with physical disabilities.

When I arrive at my office, my colleague is already there and smiles. She knows exactly how nervous I am and encourages me. I am glad to have her by my side. She has enriched our team greatly and has been with us for ten years now. Only a few years earlier, health insurance companies began to provide more support for people with disabilities, enabling them to purchase robotic assistance systems, recognizing the social and economic benefits. Since then, it has been possible for the approximately 1.7 million people with disabilities in Switzerland to purchase assistance systems that can support them in their daily lives and thus contribute to their inclusion in society. Thanks to this, my colleague, who is dependent on a wheelchair or an exoskeleton due to paraplegia, can also work for Cybathlon – and calm my nerves at this very moment.

However, she is more than just encouraging. Her expertise and competence in the areas of accessible communication, assistance systems and inclusion are extremely valuable to our team. The diversity in our team and throughout ETH Zurich is an enrichment of society, the university and me personally. Different perspectives broaden my horizon and inspire me to new ways of thinking.

Today, my colleague moves with an exoskeleton. She likes to alternate between the wheelchair and the exoskeleton, not only to prevent injuries from overuse, but also to have more mobility, freedom and independence. By removing barriers in recent years, it has become possible for people with disabilities to participate and represent themselves more and more in social and political life, which has led to the further removal of mental and physical barriers. Inclusion is finally a matter of course.

My colleague walks in natural movements to the small kitchen in the office, the compact exoskeleton is silent, she has not needed crutches for stability for a long time. We drink a cup of coffee and go through the key messages of our presentation one last time: Humans control technology - and not the other way around. Humans will never be replaced by technology. But technology can support people to live autonomous lives.

 


 

This text was originally submitted as an essay on the "2040 Essay Contest: A day in [y]our life" to the Strategic Foresight Hub (SFH). From the essays submitted, the SFH team selected four texts, which have been published on this page. You can vote for your favorite text until 21 June.

The Strategic Foresight Hub at ETH Zurich's President's Staff was created to delve into the fascinating field of long-term trends and plausible future scenarios. The core mission of the Hub is to develop a deeper understanding of how the university, our society, and the world at large might evolve in the future.

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