I watched Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” last night. For those who haven’t seen the movie, Clint plays an aging bigot in a shifting neighborhood who gets caught up in gang violence after his wife’s death. Clint’s crusty persona sprays bitter contempt onto the changing world around him as his own health fails.
There’s a scene with his son and daughter-in-law on his birthday that stayed on my mind. They arrive with presents: a reacher and a big-button phone. Needless to say, Clint does not express his appreciation; his subsonic growl builds as they cautiously suggest moving to an assisted living facility. We don’t get to see Clint’s explosion, but we do see the pair hurriedly leaving in exasperation at their own attempt to reach out to him.
My first reaction, of course, was “Thanks, Eastwood, you dipstick, for thoughtlessly stigmatizing accessibility and usability to score shallow cinematic points! Just what the world needs, another portrayal of comfort and convenience as sissified and demeaning.” I slept the righteous sleep of the professionally self-justified.
I awoke less so. People on the receiving end of our beneficence *do* have reactions of reluctance, resistance, and rejection. Are they all dysfunctional fools, or are they just paying resentful attention to the social markers invisibly embossed on every manufactured object? If an upscale watch means “I’m stylish and rich”, what does a reacher mean? And what does giving someone a reacher mean?
When “practitioners” look at a reacher we see an elegant interaction between the sophisticated, painstaking domains of clinical insight and design excellence, and we’re right. It’s just that someone else looking at it sees a prop for a tragedy, and they’re right, too.
I’m sure we’re all doing as much as we can to trim the stigmatic overtones from highly usable and assistive products, and I wouldn’t want anyone to slack off because those efforts are not always rewarded with elder-glee. But I think we’d better pay more attention to how the recipient views the exchange. Sometimes it’s not the chrome-plated heart of the gadget I can’t do without; it’s the chrome-plated face on the dipstick who gives it to me.