By Mark E. Smith
For 17 years, I’ve worked in various roles within a power wheelchair and scooter manufacturer, most recently in the capacity as a general manager. That seems like a straight-forward career, doesn’t it? After all, how complex can wheelchairs and scooters and accompanying products be?
The answer is, quite. See, ultimately, I don’t just work with mobility technology, but the people who use it – and that is phenomenally complex. Living with disability ranges from complicated at best, to harrowing at worst, and the people I serve experience some of life’s most difficult emotions. To further this complexity, no two people I serve are in the same circumstance. Day to day, I deal with all socio-economic positions, the widest range of medical needs, and, alas, an infinite number of perspectives on living with disability. As I bluntly put it, individuals I serve can range from frustrating to heart-wrenching. It is a role, however, I cherish because as one with a disability myself, I often feel that I’m in the trenches right next to those I serve.
Interestingly, my career has paralleled the growth of the Internet and e-commerce, where virtually all of those I serve reach out to me electronically, from email to Facebook to texting – the ways of 21-century communication. If someone is in need of my assistance, it lands as a font in front of me on a screen. While digital correspondence is effective – and has allowed me to serve countless individuals over the years – I recently realized that it wasn’t fully meeting the needs of many I serve. Yes, it’s convenient, gets a point across, and works 24 hours per day. However, I’ve long found myself reading between the lines of digital correspondence. Sure, wheelchair problems are easily written. But, often there are hints of issues beyond a rattling wheel or growling motor. Topics from I don’t have anyone to help me to I lost my health insurance creep into the correspondences. So, I wondered, how could I better serve individuals beyond what’s volleyed in text on a screen? How could I get more of individuals’ stories in order to both better meet their mobility needs and connect with them, person-to-person?
I did something radical – I literally went backward with technology in order to improve my relations with those I serve. One Monday morning, I put a stake in the ground and vowed that my response to any electronic correspondence I received was going to be, “Please call me at your earliest convenience, and I’ll be glad to help.” …And it worked. My office and cell phone began ringing, and not only was I able to more quickly, accurately diagnose individuals’ mobility needs, but I was able to get to know them on a very real, personal level, and that, too, allowed me to better serve them.
The result has been astounding. I still hear heart-wrenching stories, but not so much anger or frustrations, and more importantly, I hear the entirety of individuals’ experiences. Each call serves someone’s mobility needs, but also connects us on a far more interpersonal level than digital correspondence. What I’ve learned is that the greatest technologies of all are the ones that best allow us to truly connect in our shared humanity.