Simon Stevens is a high achiever. A manufacturing and business graduate of Coventry University, he now works as an independent disability consultant, trainer and activist and has provided accessibility consultancy to eBay, lectured to students at universities, and helped organise and run European youth seminars.
He has even appeared in a Channel 4 TV comedy series, ‘I’m Spazticus’ – a new take on the hidden camera prank show – which ran in August during the run-up to the Paralympic Games and can still be viewed on the channel’s “4oD” online catch-up service.
Stevens, who has cerebral palsy affecting his speech, mobility, hand control and balance, is also a techno-wizard. He uses a PC, iPad and Lightwriter text to speech communication aid, and says such advances have benefited him hugely in day-to-day life.
“Technology enables me to do so many things and to be an independent, active citizen”, he says. “Without computers, email and internet… I would not be able to work from home, I would be more socially isolated, and it would be harder to do my banking, my shopping and order takeaways to be delivered. Most importantly it would be much harder to have a voice in society as a contributing citizen and be able to be heard in the way I believe I am.”
As long-term readers of E-Access Bulletin will also be aware, Stevens is also a pioneer in the popular online virtual world Second Life, becoming its first full-time virtual wheelchair user – meaning his online character or “avatar” is also in a wheelchair – when he joined in 2006. “While this felt very normal for me, I was unaware of the impact my decision to use a wheelchair made on others,” says Simon. “I have been interviewed in top mainstream media, like BBC World Service, about the issue, and it has been studied and researched by people all over the world.”
Soon after joining, Simon opened ‘Wheelies’, the world’s first disability-themed virtual nightclub in Second Life, with the aim of it being a friendly and inclusive place for disabled and non-disabled people from around the world to meet and have a virtual dance to the club’s music. In 2008, Simon was awarded the UK Catalyst ‘Revolutionary’ Award by then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown for his work on Wheelies.
Simon believes it is important for people with impairments to recognise the solutions that technology can provide, although he is aware that cost can be a significant barrier. It can expensive to replace a computer or tablet computer that may only last several years, with the added difficulty of finding reliable repair services when needed, he says.
Despite this, Simon believes that technology can be a key factor for increasing the ability of disabled people to become “modern, contributing citizens.” He says: “The internet gives everyone direct power over their lives and the ability to express themselves… in a way no previous generation has had. The technology has its practical difficulties, but it is far more accessible in comparison with other methods of communication, and therefore is an equaliser for so many disabled people.”
The achievement of which Simon is proudest is his 2004 award in the ‘Community’ category of the first Enterprising Young Brits Award. “The reason it was my greatest achievement was that it was a mainstream competition where I was the only disabled finalist, and as someone with a speech impairment who has faced a lot of prejudices in my life, it is a true recognition of how far technology has enabled me to make a difference.”
As for the future, he says: “I would like to continue to make a difference and demonstrate what someone with a significant impairment can achieve with the assistance of technology. I also look forward to the continuing improvement of technology, where we can achieve more and more in a way that is easier and easier.”
NOTE: Simon is a video champion for Go ON Gold, a new national campaign to promote awareness of the barriers disabled people face in accessing technology, and help people overcome those barriers. The campaign is supported by E-Access Bulletin, To find out more, including an exclusive video interview with Simon Stevens, see the Go ON Gold website.