Words Without Hands

A Le Court Film Unit production - an essay by Christina Lee - Digital Volunteer for the Rewind Project

It was a happy coincidence that when I was transcribing Words Without Hands for LCD ‘Rewind’, I was reading Don Ihde’s Bodies In Technology which got me thinking that in many ways, this film is about how bodies do not just use technology, they are technology. Presented by Robert Robinson, together with many disabled users of assistive technology or ‘gadgets’, Words Without Hands demonstrates how technology redefine disabled people’s relation to the world and their bodies.

Go, go, gadgets!

With an air not unlike Q in a Bond film, Robinson introduces us to a variety of easy-to-use DIY ‘gadgets’ to help weak hands read and write books, from paperclip page-holders, head sticks, foam-wrapped pens, to rubber-tipped paintbrush typewriter sticks. These ‘gadgets’ are for people with arthritic conditions or chronic pain that prevent them performing these tasks repeatedly and quickly.

For people with more serious or complex conditions, bedbound patients or patients with very little use of their muscles, Robinson has solutions too. There’s the ‘cinema miniature’, which like a Kindle, projects pages of a book onto a screen in front of the bedbound patient, , is operated by the patient in bed with a switch to turn the pages backwards or forwards.

If the person cannot hold a pen to write, there is the typewriter. The typewriter, the ancestor of the modern keyboard, had stiff keys and required manual paper feeding and loading, which can cause problems for someone with limited mobility. But never fear. There’s an arrow shaft that can be pressed with the tongue and mouth that operates the lever which picks up paper and deposits it into the typewriter as the person types with the typewriter stick. The typed paper then falls into a wired tray attached to the typewriter so it does not cascade onto the floor.

The cyborgic body

Mr Driver, whose arms were paralysed by polio, reads and feeds himself using an ‘articulated rocker’. The ‘articulated rocker’, which is attached to the wheelchair, lets the user rest the paralysed arm in one socket, and move the whole arm with a swivel of the shoulder. The rocker extends the range of the movement of the arm while using minimum muscles. For Mr Driver, the rocker is his arm; it performs all the tasks he would otherwise have done with his own paralysed arm. Indeed it looks and moves very much like an arm.

Then we meet Mrs Cornford, who is ‘as paralysed as you can get and still stay alive’, is an example of the saying ‘There’s no such thing as too disabled to speak’. She types using the ‘suck-and-blow’ method on the beautifully named ‘P.O.S.M.’: Patient Operated Selector Mechanism, which translates a muscle flicker into other actions such as typing on the typewriter or switching on/off radios and other devices. The P.O.S.M. reads the series of blows like Morse code to enter letters of the alphabet, which allows Mrs Cornford to write stories.

The Human machine

As Mr Driver and Mrs Cornford use machines to read and write and do other things, it is difficult to say where their bodies begin and where they end. When he uses ‘articulated rocker’ to read, it doesn’t just extend Mr Driver’s arm, it technologises and turns his arm into a piece of technology as well. The ‘gadgets’ in the film may seem impractical and cumbersome to modern viewer who is used to smartphones and laptops. And it is evident that these problems were felt by the users too. But they gave disabled people the ability to ‘do’ things, and be an ‘actor’ in the world in control of their own lives, not just a thing acted upon. And that, is the whole point of assistive technology.