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Gadgets for the Technologically Impaired

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There's this curious traveling trade show called the Abilities Expo that draws disabled folk of all shapes and sizes, races, religions, and creeds. It's a gathering of manufacturers demonstrating the latest technology for getting in and out of bed, going to the bathroom, etc. Basically it's a toy store for gimps.

Some people are downright rabid for the expo and never miss it. I'd never been. It's supposed to fill us consumers of this technology with an intoxicating feeling of independence, but I always feared it would have the opposite effect. Here I am feeling like Joe Self-Sufficient who's got how to get through each day all figured out, and then I go to the Abilities Expo and find out I've been kidding myself all these years. Instead of getting in and out of bed with the help of brawny minimum-wage college students, I learn, I could be using the patented wheelchair ejector seat.

And all it costs is $10 zillion. So now you've just got to have it. But unless you have $10 zillion on you, you have to set about the excruciating process of squeezing it out of some place like the Department of Public Aid. Which is worse, you ask yourself, the pain of genuflecting to Public Aid or the pain of living without the hippest of transfer devices?

I preferred my ignorant bliss. But this year the Abilities Expo was held in Chicago for the first time, so I thought I'd go. As we drove out to the O'Hare Expo Center, my friend Chris, a veteran of dozens of trade shows, told me about some of the more surreal ones he's been to. At one the opening ceremony was skydivers ascending with streams of colored smoke coming from their heels. Then a helicopter landed and Suzanne Somers got out, stepped to the podium, and exhorted the home builders to do their patriotic duty and build, build, build!

Another time the home builders met in the Astrodome, where John Wayne was supposed to give the opening pep talk. But he died. So they flashed his face on the scoreboard and played over the loudspeaker the voice of a John Wayne impersonator exhorting all to do their patriotic duty and build, build, build!

If the pomp and circumstance of a trade show's opening ceremony is indicative of the degree to which the targeted consumer group has arrived in a capitalistic society, then the opening of the Abilities Expo was quite sobering. It consisted of a Boy Scout color guard standing at attention while Larry Gorski, a quadriplegic who runs the Chicago Mayor's Office for People With Disabilities, tried to cut a ribbon with huge wooden scissors. He didn't really cut the ribbon. He just sort of knocked it down. The planners forgot that there's nothing more useless to a quad with no finger function than a pair of scissors.

Instead of the Astrodome, the venue for the Abilities Expo was like a concrete-and-steel airplane hanger. Inside a corral of pleated bunting were about 200 display cubicles in orderly rows. Countless sparkling new wheelchairs, from the sturdy, conservative models of Everest & Jennings to the flashy, colorful racers of Action Technology, the trendiest of the wheelchair makers. Bright and shiny vans with platform lifts. A booth for a guide-dog training school called Paws With a Cause.

There was a conspicuous absence of trade-show T and A. No spokesmodels in sequined dresses trying to lure us to their display: "Hi, I'm Ginger, and this is the Commode 2000."

Things were pretty lonely at the booth for the Love Lift. No doubt it was the name. Some of these manufacturers give their wheelchairs really embarrassing names like Rascal and Sparky.

The Love Lift is no ordinary motorized wheelchair, the salesman said. He removed a flap under the seat, revealing a hole--voila, the Love Lift was now the Love Commode. The video showed how the seat and back flatten into one long pallet that swivels to ease the transfer into bed. The Love Lift is the Swiss Army wheelchair. Price tag: $9,500.

More popular was the stand-up wheelchair. A salesman was heavily strapped into it, like he was about to be executed. He cranked a handle with each hand until the seat and back straightened him into a standing position. Perfect for concerts and ball games, where the only idiots standing up are inevitably the ones in front of the wheelchair section. Price tag: $6,200.

A lot of folks in wheelchairs were in line to get in the Kneel Kar, a minivan with a specially contoured sunken floor and a ramp on the back. When the salesman pushed the remote-control button, the whole van squatted down a few inches to lessen the pitch of the ramp. But all this and it holds only one person in a wheelchair. Price tag: $12,000 for just the conversion of your van.

A few aisles down from the van sat a husky, no-nonsense paraplegic in marine fatigue overalls. He had a bushy gray beard like a mountain man. He called himself Griz. Griz invented the Iron Horse wheelchair. It looked like an ordinary wheelchair, until he pointed out the heavy-duty piston suspension on the back wheels. This made it the kind of rugged, all-terrain transport the wheelchair outdoorsman needs. Price tag: $1,200.

A picture in Griz's display booth showed a fisherman sitting in his Iron Horse, knee-deep in a roaring river. Until that moment I never once mourned my inability to go fly-fishing. But now that I knew I could, I had to go.

I told myself I would call Public Aid first thing in the morning.

Or maybe, I then thought, I should petition them to buy me the wheelchair/surfboard manufactured by Action Technology. It was called the Wave Board, and it looked just like a surfboard with an adult-size child's car safety seat mounted to it. Just Velcro yourself into the seat, the salesman said, and the wonderful world of surfing or water skiing can be yours. Price tag: $800.

I couldn't help envisioning a sharp wave flipping this thing and finding myself upside down underwater, strapped to a capsized surfboard. "What happens if it tips over?" I asked.

The salesman thought about it for a few seconds, as if no one had ever asked him that before. Then he shrugged and said, "You drown."

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