Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Social Psychology Implications of iBot Stair Climbing

Yeah, you read that right. This subject is better suited for a PhD dissertation, but instead I’ll tackle it in a single blog post.

On Saturday night Kim and I went out to dinner with our friends Deb and Steve at the Snow Squall, a local bar and restaurant that we absolutely love. I made reservations for their dining room, as opposed to the pub section where I usually sit. This would require me to descend about four steps in my iBot wheelchair.

In years past I was able to climb stairs myself in the iBot, but I no longer have enough strength and dexterity in my arms. I require Kim’s assistance. We arrived at the Snow squall at six o’clock, and the crowd was thin. Kim guided me down the stairs without incident, and we settled in for a leisurely meal.

Throughout the dinner, more patrons arrived, and soon it was a full house. We finished an outstanding meal (Chef Heather cooks no other type), settled the checks, and prepared to ascend the stairs. Allow me to describe the scene, as I imagine it from the perspective of a random patron who dared to watch:
A dashing gentleman in a power wheelchair backs up against the bottom step. A woman, presumably his much younger wife (is he rich?), strikes an athletic pose behind him, one foot on the first step and the other foot on the second. The gentleman manipulates buttons and knobs on his wheelchair controller such that the seat rises a bit and then tilts to the rear. His wife grabs onto the top of his backrest and pulls. Some motor within the wheelchair engages and boosts the front wheels up and over the rear wheels, and the chair is one step higher. This process continues until the chair, its occupant, and its navigator are at the top of the steps, at which time the gentleman pushes more buttons and knobs, and the chair transforms back to normal. Their demeanor throughout the operation is nonchalant. Apparently, this is part of their routine – how they navigate through a disabled-unfriendly world.

Here’s the social psychology implication. There were perhaps forty people in the lower dining room and another forty in the upper pub area. At least half those people had a clear line of sight to me. Yet, as I scanned the crowd, only a couple of them observed me climb the stairs in my wheelchair. Nearly every one of those people must have been fascinated by my chair’s capabilities. Why didn’t more of them watch? I would have watched.

In our society, it is paramount that we not offend others, especially people who are disadvantaged. And we are on our best manners when we dine at an establishment where the meals cost more than $15. Most of the patrons were probably concerned that watching me climb the stairs would be offensive to me or would constitute an invasion of my privacy. Maybe they thought I hated being seen this way – that I already felt conspicuous enough, and their staring would only make me feel worse. Maybe they didn’t know what they thought, but it just felt wrong to look. Whatever the reason, most of these people either completely ignored me, or they only snuck a peek here and there. What a shame. What a missed opportunity! What a gross over-application of the duty to not offend.

The fact is that I absolutely love to have people watch me climb stairs. I’m an iBot exhibitionist. I get off by demonstrating how technologically advanced my iBot is, how talented my wife is, and how cool I am about the entire process. But these people had no way of knowing this. How could they?

Maybe the responsibility falls squarely on me to let the potential audience know that they are more than welcome to gawk at us, engage us in conversation about it, and applaud enthusiastically at the conclusion of the show. The question becomes, then, how do I convey this message.

One option is for me to clear my throat and in a very loud voice announce, “May I have your attention please? May I have your attention please? I am about to climb these stairs in a wheelchair. This is something you have probably never seen before, and may never see again. I invite you to put down your utensils, grab your drink, and adjust your seats so you have a comfortable view. In no way will I consider your watching to be inappropriate. Frankly, I would be slightly offended if you didn’t watch. This is very cool stuff. There will be a brief question-and-answer period after I get to the top of the stairs.”

In a perfect world, devoid of unnecessary human insecurities and burdensome social constructs, this would be appropriate behavior. But, frankly, I don’t know if I have the cahones. What if everyone ignored me and just continued dining? What if I came off as needy and insecure? What if, what if, what if? No, I think I’ll forgo the opportunity to be an agent for social change, and just keep doing my thing without drawing attention to myself. It’s just too risky.

Note: For those of you who have not seen the iBot in action, click here for a video of us in Jamaica last year, or watch below.


  1. Oh my gosh, you shy thing you! I suggest that you hang a sign off the back of it: "ask me about the ibot"

    Isn't it wonderful that you have such a voice on the internet that so many of us feel we know you so well. It's a big family, and even people who are usually reserved can be cutups in their own families. Which is how I always think of you!

  2. I suggest a bell to ring to get everyone's attention. Then demonstrate. Those that do not feel they can watch, would not be offended, but could resume their meal. Most would of loved a opening line from you, to of overcome any fear of sneaking a peak, or turmoil they don't own up to, and enjoyed the opportunity

  3. Yes Mitch, it is a fine line. Some of us ARE offended if we attract attention to ourselves and others aren't. I agree that you likely need to announce in some unobtrusive way, that you are not one of those who are offended. That you are demonstrating a unique ability, not a disability. And I believe if more people knew of and saw the Ibot in action, it could only promote the apparatus to make this technology available to all of us.

  4. My guess is that they were overwhelmed by Kim's beauty and elegance. Everyone knows it's not polite to stare at a beautiful woman.

    It's not always about you Mitch.


    P S - I sent you an email.

  5. Daphne, you have me pegged. I am reserved around strangers but comfortable with my own crown. And now you people are my own crowd.

    Joey, good idea. I still don't think I have the nerve to pull it off though.

    Tami, you are so right. If nothing else, I owe it to the "save the iBOT" effort.

    Charlie, thanks for setting me straight :-). By the way, I didn't see the email. Did you send it to email@EnjoyingTheRide.com ?

  6. I'm a wheelchair junkie. I would have watched, too. Watched & watched and & then asked. An iBot, are you KIDDING me?! It's criminal a piece of far-thinking and revolutionary technology such as the iBot was withdrawn from the market.

    But since I don't use a chair myself, I get some very strange, very angry looks when I ~do~ watch. Some folks assume that watching's gawking.

    And there are even stranger looks when I ask stuff like, "I just wanted to know if those were power-assist wheels" or "Oh my gosh, is that a TiLite?!"

    So maybe, even the diners who ~did~ notice felt uncomfortable to approach and maybe get yelled at. Which is dumb.

  7. anonymous, thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. yes, it is so unfortunate that the iBOT is no longer being manufactured or sold. it's just crazy!