Do not go gentle into that Good Grip

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.

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4 Responses to Do not go gentle into that Good Grip

  1. Jane Vincent says:

    So other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the movie? Of course, between _Million Dollar Baby_ and his resistance to making his hotel wheelchair-friendly, ol’ Clint has never been the poster child for accessibility, but that’s another topic.

    Thank you for this excellent essay; I plan to read it at a class I’m teaching tomorrow night about assistive technology and elders. A few savvy marketers have figured out that this is an issue and have designed campaigns accordingly; think The Gap ads for “easy-fit” rather than “middle-age-spread” jeans, and those annoying late-night ads for what are functionally low-end hearing aids but are promoted as ways to spy on your neighbors with “sonic hearing.” But ultimately, people with accessibility needs—like any consumer—will be more likely to accept products that, in the words of Pip Coburn, address a “crisis [that] is greater than the total perceived pain of [product] adoption.” IF using a cell phone were important to Clint (and that may be a big if for many Boomers/elders), and IF he were finding it frustrating to use his current phone, THEN he might just have not reacted by asking his benefactors if they “felt lucky.”

    Now, if overall more products’ design included a modest amount of realization that people with a wide range of capabilities would be using them, this would be even less of an issue…

  2. Richard Bray says:

    Folks who haven’t seen this amazing and important film (Gran Torino) might not easily get from these insightful and somewhat confusing comments that Clint Eastwood’s character’s son appears not only pretty uninterested in his father but actually quite selfish and uncaring (a ‘dipstick’ only mentioned at the very end of the piece).
    Thanks for the comments.

  3. Jim Mueller says:

    As I wait patiently for Gran Torino to become available for rental, I can’t comment on the movie itself, but the commentary it has spawned is familiar.

    Assistance, whether delivered by an individual or by technology, need not stigmatize. That’s what universal/inclusive design is all about – design that is not only needed by people of all ages and abilities, but also desired, even coveted.

  4. Jim Tobias says:

    I think there’s a proverb that goes “Father helps son, both laugh; son helps father, both cry.”

    Jim, I agree that assistance needn’t stigmatize, especially if the design is deliberately non-stigmatizing. My point was that once we’re through designing them, products go out and have a social life all by themselves. In literature they call this “reader response theory” — the author writes the book, but cannot dictate how the reader will respond to it because of the inevitable intrusion of personal expectations, experiences, associations, etc.

    The 2 products in the film have left their blueprints behind to become part of the unsuccessful relationship Clint is having with his kin. As such the reacher and phone are no longer connected to how they came to be designed. It may be that the massive underutilization of accessible and usable products and features lies not in their inherent quality or applicability, but in the network of meanings attributed to them by users and others.

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