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  • Electric Moms and Quad Drivers: People with Disabilities Buying, Making, and Using Technology in Postwar America
  • Bess Williamson (bio)

In 1958, a young mother named Ida Brinkman reflected on her life after contracting polio. Five years had passed, she told the readers of the Toomeyville Junior Gazette—a magazine for polio survivors—since she had become paralyzed in her arms, legs, and abdomen. After a two-year stay at the Toomey Pavilion, a rehabilitation center in Ohio, she admitted she was “secretly frightened” about how her home life would be, using an iron lung at night, a “chest shell” respirator during the day, and a wheelchair to get around.1 “This is beginning to sound pretty grim,” she wrote, admitting concern about resuming her life as a wife and mother; still, she continued, it really hadn’t been so bad. At home, her husband Johnny had taken up shopping duties, while her three children helped keep house and prepared their own breakfasts. A cartoon accompanying the article showed Ida in a wheelchair, a tube at the center of her chest connecting her to an electric respirator, as her little daughter gazed at her quizzically. “Bonnie gets acquainted with her Electric Mom,” read the caption [Figure 1]. “To my glee,” Ida reported, “she accepted me.”2

Ida Brinkman’s life as an “Electric Mom” extended beyond the plug-in chest respirator that drew her chest muscles up and down. She ticked off a number of tools she and her husband selected and, in many cases, altered to support a busy and active life at home. Johnny constructed a flat aluminum connector for the hose of her respirator, making the breathing apparatus less bulky. The electric Hoyer lift that Ida used to get into and out of bed included “a new wrinkle added [End Page 5] to it ala hubby [sic]”: a shorter hook that could be used to help her into the car, effectively making two lifts out of one. Ida’s father built a portable wooden ramp that was “especially practical for steep declines”; she used an extended cord and headset for the telephone; and, in case of “urgent s.o.s.” while alone with her children, she had an “alarm box which can be set off by a flick of a foot.”3 In a photograph in a later issue of the Toomey J Gazette (as the magazine came to be known), Ida appeared propped up in bed, reaching past the customized respirator tube to type with a “mouthstick”—probably a simple dowel with a sharpened tip—clenched between her teeth [Figure 2].4 Surrounded by her collection of medical, homemade, and standard consumer technologies—the chest shell and “mouthstick,” the hospital bed, an over-the-bed desk, and the typewriter—Ida showed herself in action as a writer and editor.

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Figure 1.

“Bonnie gets acquainted with her Electric Mom,” Toomeyville Junior Gazette, Winter 1958, 13. Courtesy of Post-Polio Health International.

Ida Brinkman was one of a growing number of people with significant physical impairments who lived at home in mid-century America.5 Given innovations such as the “iron lung” respirator and advancements in spinal surgery, people who [End Page 6] survived disabling diseases and accidents were more likely to live long, relatively healthy lives after the 1940s. The new medical specialty of “rehabilitation” emphasized a return to home, rather than long periods of convalescence, as the end goal of treatment. Despite these improved prospects, however, individuals with paralysis, missing limbs, weakened joints or restricted breathing left the hospital for home lives full of physical obstacles. Accommodations now familiar in the United States, such as wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, accessible toilets, and “kneeling” public buses were not widely extant until the late 1970s and 1980s.6 The American National Standards Institute published “Specifications for Making Buildings and Facilities Accessible to and Usable by Handicapped People” in 1961.While these standards were officially adopted for new construction in many states and municipalities, few accessible buildings and streetscapes were actually built in the 1960s. Features such as curb cuts, wheelchair ramps to public buildings, and accessible restrooms were not common sights in...


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