CRPL Logo on a navy background. Logo is gold rings intertwining, reminiscent of a wheel. Next to it are the letters CRPL in white

Issue #45

Is Mark Rober an Ableist?

John Loeppky

March 27, 2024

An illustration of a hospital-style wheelchair with a grey frame and wheels with handles and arm rests.
The direct opposite of the type of chair Rober and Co. are working towards/OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Past Me Might Have Thought So

On Saturday Mark Rober, a science YouTuber with over 45 million subscribers posted a video called “You’ve Never Seen A Wheelchair Like This”. In it, Rober and his team create a wheelchair for a young disabled kid. It has all of the inspo tropes we’ve seen before: we have the parents talking about resistance, we have a section dedicated to his diagnosis, we have an entire throughline about inspiration. All the annoying hallmarks are there and, I’ll admit it, I started watching at double speed in anticipation of the cringe.

But, on second viewing, this video has some redeeming qualities. For one, there’s a lot of joy shown in the video, there’s a scene where the child’s dad is helping him, step by step, figure out how to transfer, we get to see the pure excitement of the chair unveiling. It has nerf guns, who wouldn’t want a chair with nerf guns?

And yes, the chair does climb stairs—activist and disabled designer Liz Jackson calls the advent of these sorts of pieces of technology disability dongles, inventions that can feel like they’re distracting from the societal barriers that stairs actually present for a lot of people. And yet, it’s hard to argue that this video will provide value for this family, or at least that it’s more likely than not to turn out well for them.

Rober isn’t the first to do this and, though his comment section isn’t filled with naysayers, there are times when this has been handled poorly. For every JerryRigEverything video about designing a new type of wheelchair—led by his wife, who is a wheelchair user—you have an ill advised video from Mister Beast talking about curing a whole group of people of their deafness. Steven Aquino’s Tech Crunch piece on that phenomenon is a must read. 

And there is a large swathe of the disability community that hates the style of video Rober has produced here because it paints disabled people in a very specific light. The comments are all about how wonderful the dad is for, ostensibly, figuring out how to be a good parent. That’s not the takeaway I’d like viewers to have. And, to pull us back to cripping productivity, I think the reason a lot of people will be made uncomfortable by Rober’s video is the same as why productivity is rarely discussed in much of the disability community: it’s uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe, to equate having a better life with one singular tool.

Like I said, this chair will probably be great for this kid, but it probably won’t fit under any desks. There’s footage of him playing wheelchair basketball and there’s a decades long history of medical systems preferring power chairs over everyday chairs because then they will provide less physiotherapy funding. As a disabled person who regularly breaks his chair, and broke seven or so during my elementary school years, I have to wonder what maintenance of that chair is going to look like. I am uncomfortable with the endgame of all of these scenarios. It’s very easy to see how this could all go wrong. 

But that’s the same as my productivity system. The medical appointment I mentioned yesterday was after two days of doing almost nothing. I was at my desk early enough to respond to someone asking me to fill in on TV because the pain meant I couldn’t sleep. I don’t chalk that up to being a “great productivity win” I chalk that up to pretty poor coping mechanisms. Yet, I am allowed to enjoy the fruits of that labour while still acknowledging its absurdity.

Years ago, I would have chucked away this Rober video without a second thought. Now? I’m just as cynical with a dash more hope.

Until tomorrow! 


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