Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Disability and Independent Living Aids Stoke

Disability and Independent Living Aids – a history
Physical disability and the ensuing problems with mobility and the need for help when striving to achieve something approaching a normal way of life is nothing new. Cures for many conditions have been associated with the healing powers of water, but getting to the water is not always easy.

‘Near the Sheep Gate in Jerusalem there is a pool with five porches. A large crowd of sick people were lying in the porches – the blind, the lame and the paralysed. A man there had been ill for thirty eight years. Jesus asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

The sick man answered, “Sir, I have no one to put me in the pool when the water is stirred up; while I am trying to get in, somebody else gets there first.”

Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your mat and walk.” Immediately the man was well, picked up his mat and walked.’
(St John’s Gospel - 5 v 1-9)
Whilst life expectancy in the developed world increases so do the problems of mobility. However, partial loss of mobility is not the prerogative of the elderly. Victims of accidents and combat troops in the armed forces also have needs to be addressed. Also many children are in need of help.
We have had at Christmas, showing at the famous Vic Theatre in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the traditional dramatisation of Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’. Dickens and Christmas are almost inseparable and I, being a person not over fond of the ‘festive season’, often can be heard quoting the miserly Scrooge –“Bah, Humbug.”It has been claimed that Dickens was the first English novelist to write with a social conscience. Certainly much of his writing highlights the inequalities and suffering of much of the less fortunate of his fellow beings. In ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843) he chooses the image of a disabled child to convince Scrooge to change his miserable non-philanthropic ways.

Timothy Cratchit or ‘Tiny Tim’ is the child of Scrooge’s nephew Bob. Tiny Tim is disabled and has to use a crutch or be carried about by his father. Tiny Tim may well have been suffering from rickets and tuberculosis as a result of poor diet and lack of vitamin B. The solution in the 1840’s would have been leg braces, similar to those used by victims of polio.

Bob cannot afford to pay for medical treatment but of course his uncle could well afford to help. Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his late business partner, Jacob Marley. Marley, weighed down by chains, padlocks and cash boxes warns Scrooge to change his ways if he is not to share the same eternal torture. Scrooge was to be visited by three other ghosts; Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come, who whisk him off into those ghostly dimensions in an attempt to bring Scrooge to a clear vision of himself.

The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge a glimpse of Tiny Tim. He is told that Tim is ill and will die if the family cannot raise the money to save him. When the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come allows Scrooge one last vision, only a crutch is seen; Tiny Tim had died as a result of poverty depriving him of treatment. Albeit that Tiny Tim is a minor character, it is his fate that transforms Scrooge into an unrecognisable, smiling and laughing philanthropist, thus avoiding the fate of Jacob Marley.

It is interesting to trace the historical development of mobility products. We just take it for granted that stair lifts, walking aids, bathing aids and so on are common place, but is there any surprising history behind them? My research resulted in some unexpected answers.

Perhaps the oldest image is that found on an ancient Chinese stone slate. It appears to show a person seated in a wheeled chair. A 16th century Greek frieze shows an image of what looks like a wheeled bed, perhaps for a child. Did you know that the humble wheel barrow was invented by the Chinese? It was a dual purpose tool, not only for transporting material but also people.

 From our history lessons, we are well aware of King Henry VIII and his string of doomed wives. We may even associate him with the reformation, schism with the Pope and the beginnings of the Church of England. Few would know (and neither did the writer) that he actually possessed and used a stair lift!

As a young man, Henry was slim, tall, athletic and very handsome.  In his later years, he was obese. His armour dimensions record a height of 6’1” with a 53” chest and a waist of a massive 52”. Henry jousted. Our Royals play polo, and, like Prince Charles, he was known to take a few tumbles from his horse. Henry sustained a jousting injury which together with his other pursuits resulted in mobility problems in his latter years. From research carried out by the historian David Starkey, amongst his possessions in Whitehall Palace was a stair lift. It was a chair of wooden construction which was moved by a system of ropes. Servants hauled on them and the ailing giant of a king was transported up and down the stairs, in stately manner, on his chair lift throne! Keith Simpson, managing director of Castle Comfort Centre, with its head office in Wolstanton, Newcastle-under-Lyme, can no longer claim the title of ‘Stair Lift King’ it seems. Henry beat him to the accolade!
What possible connection could there be between mobility products and the Spanish Armada?
There is in fact another Royal link in the person of King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598)
Philip married Mary Tudor in the old capital of England, Winchester, on the 25th July 1554, just two days after they met.  Philip used a wheel chair at the service. It was designed by one Jeham Lehermite.  (shown in a sketch from 1595).The chair was made from iron with small wheels on each of the four legs, a foot rest and an adjustable back. With the marriage, he became King of England and Ireland. Mary was a Catholic, and her marriage to the Catholic King of Spain was a move to ensure that England once again became a seat of the Roman Faith. Mary died of cancer in 1558 and was succeeded by her sister, Elizabeth 1st, daughter of Henry VIII, and a protestant.

On the death of Mary Tudor, Philip lost his claim to the English throne and had to resort to battle to defeat the English Protestants. The Spanish launched a sea battle which was known as the Spanish Armada. Neither the Spanish King nor the Pope could control the English climate. The adverse weather forced the Spanish fleet to flee for shelter and the battle was lost. King Philip, addressing the survivors, expressed his exasperation at the defeat:

‘I sent you to fight with men, not the weather.’

Here we see an image from 1680 of the renowned Chinese philosopher Confucius being grandly transported along in what resembles the later concept of a wheel chair.

(Source: Wikipedia)

It is arguable that the history of the wheel chair as a specific walking aid dates back to 1655. Stephen Farfler, a young disabled watchmaker, set about solving his own mobility problems. He built a wheel chair. Earlier vehicles needed other people to pull or push them along, but Stephen wanted independence. His design was a box-like structure supported by three wheels. He cleverly attached a lever to the front wheel that could be turned to propel the chair along.

The next significant period of wheel chair development was not to be seen until the 18th Century.
What became known as a Bath Chair, was built by one John Dawson in 1783.  I always associated the name with a bathing aid. In fact the origin of the name is the City of Bath, the inventor’s home town. Dawson’s chair was of a three wheeled design, with a reclined seat in basket weave. Bath Chairs can often be seen in stately homes whose wealthy occupants could afford such an aid to mobility and of course had someone from ‘below stairs’ to push them around the estate.

It was to be a long time before a light weight wheel chair, more akin to those of today, was invented.
There is a difference between a transport chair and a wheel chair. A transport chair, often used in hospitals, has to be pushed. A wheel chair is self-propelled by the user, usually by means of a frame around the large side wheels.

The first lightweight, folding wheel chair was probably the 1933 invention of an engineer, Henry Jennings. He designed the chair for the use of a friend, Herbert Everest, a paraplegic. The road to mass production was to follow when the two men founded a manufacturing company of Everest and Jennings.

It is the case that trade names can become a generic name for a particular product. You don’t vacuum cleaner the carpet, you hoover it, (using a Dyson or Electrolux probably) You don’t ask to borrow a bic or a parker, you ask for a biro. No doubt when facing the tiresome task of wrapping Christmas parcels you look for the cello tape, not a roll of transparent sticky tape perhaps really called Scotch Tape.

A few years ago, a teacher friend of mine took up an exchange post in a junior school in Australia. He expected a change of culture of course, but he was taken aback when a squabble broke out between two young boys, barely eight years of age.

What is this all about?” he asked as he parted the warring parties.
Charlie started it Sir, he’s pinched my Durex.”

He understood that kids grew up quickly on a good diet and warm Australian sunshine, but such a level of child development came as a shock. He voiced his concern to a colleague only to be assured that Durex was a generic Australian name for sticky tape!

Such product names becoming generic also applies to walking aids. People refer to a Zimmer, regardless of manufacturer. 

The Zimmer Frame was probably the idea of the idea of one Andrejz Muiza, a Latvian who moved to the United States after World war Two. In the UK a walking frame was first filed at the Patent Office in August 1949.

In the USA in the 1950’s, a patent was filed by William Cribbs Robb who hailed from Stretford in Manchester UK. This was followed in 1970 by a later design from Alfred A Smith. The design was taken up by the Zimmer Corporation in Warsaw Indiana. The company was created in 1927 by Alfred O Zimmer. In 2009, the corporation reported a staggering turnover of $4.095 billion. It employs 8,200 people, 49000 being in the United States, and 3,300 mainly in Europe and Japan and now specialises in orthopedic joint replacements.

The evolution of disability living aids has a long and varied history of helping to overcome physical difficulties and improving the quality of life for millions of people world - wide. The 2012 Paralympics displayed not only the courage and tenacity of disabled people, but was also a showcase and testament to mobility aids technology.

1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to say that I have just read your recent blog and who would have thought that mobility aids would have had such a place in history, its interesting to see how wheelchairs, stairlifts and zimmer frames and other disability aids have evolved over the years and now give people the such a better quality of life!


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