How HitchBot is Restoring My Faith in Humanity

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This adorable little robot recently made its way across Canada while using its unique ability to post pictures to Twitter and Facebook to report its locations as it hitchhiked across Canada. There is one “hitch” to Hitchbot’s journey, it doesn’t have any way of moving on his own. He sits on the side of the road with his thumb raised with a smile and requests to be taken as far as you are willing to carry it.

With the ability to speak, access to Wikipedia to tell you about local landmarks, and a grasp of how to create conversation, Hitchbot attempts to be a suitable traveling companion. He has solar panels to power him but also requires that he be plugged into a cigarette lighter to charge him. Relying on only the kindness of strangers, Hitchbot is a social experiment by two professors at Ryerson University.

The creators are testing a variety of things, but most importantly they are seeing how people relate to robots. Can people treat an artificial intelligence with the same kindness they would treat humans? Hitchbot cannot defend itself in any way, so in many ways, it is like a child making its way alone across the Canadian wilderness.

The results have been surprising, and this Hitchbot has acquired a variety of accoutrements such as a Dora the explorer backpack and a rain poncho. People are treating Hitchbot kindly, plugging him in when needed, and taking him on a variety of adventures. Hitchbot’s journey was a huge success.

According to the Daily Courier,

HitchBOT’s creators say it received at least 18 different rides as complete strangers took on the responsibility of transporting the robot closer to its destination. The robot’s many adventures included watching a First Nations powwow, crashing a wedding, having high tea in Victoria, and posing for countless photos at gas stations, in cafes and along highways across the country. HitchBOT co-creator Frauke Zeller, an assistant professor at Ryerson University, says she wanted to explore how humans would respond when the typical role of technology is reversed.  Read Full Article

This cute little robot is proving the inherent kindness of humans, well at least Canadians. It would be interesting to see how Hitchbot would fair in the United States, but I am guessing just as well. Let me know in the comments below what you think of Hitchbot and make sure to follow Social Work Helper on Twitter and Facebook for more technological wonders like Hitchbot!

Here is a link to Hitchbot’s website to find out more.

Supervised Injection Facilities: Is this a Solution to Drug Use?

Drug use is a significant contributing factor of poor health and rising mortality rates in Canada and the United States. In order to decrease these rates, public health authorities have hypothesized the idea of medically supervised safer injection facilities so that people can inject illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals. The establishment of these facilities reduced the practice of public injection in Canada, but can only accommodate a fraction of illicit drug users. Supervised injection facilities do not currently exist in the United States. Thus, the only legal supervised injection facilities is located in Vancouver, British Columbia, as much controversy surrounds the topic, which impedes the expansion of these facilities in other parts of Canada and the United States.

imagesGovernments believe that the provision of a legal centre to inject drugs could support initiation of drug use. The increased rates of injection drug use in the United States have lead to the banned funding for needle exchange programs; however, this ban has not occurred in Canada. In addition, supervised injection facilities demonstrate much potential in overcoming some of the inconvenient ecological factors that drug users encounter. Some of these factors include a less “rushed” injecting atmosphere and the encouragement of safer injection methods by drug users. Studies have also shown that attendance at supervised injection facilities could lead to entry into addiction treatment.

One of the main arguments in favour of supervised injection facilities is the fact that many people will continue to use drugs in the future. Since this is the case, there is a logical need for supervised injection facilities in order to protect individuals’ health and address unsafe methods of injecting drugs such as reuse of syringes and unsafe discarding of syringes. Most people who attend supervised injection facilities are long-time drug users and significant initiation of drug use has not yet been found. This suggests that drug use initiation at supervised injection facilities is lower than the level of community injection initiation.

Although this is the case, only a portion of injections can be accommodated at supervised injection facilities. For example, approximately 5% to 10% of injections that occur in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside are accommodated at the supervised injection centre in Vancouver, providing evidence that there is a need for more supervised injection facilities to be established. However, North American governments have yet to support and accept the use of supervised injection facilities as a means to decrease harms related to illicit drug use.

Supervised injection facilities also reduce the negative factors associated with public injecting. Public injecting often takes place in unsanitary environments that do not allow hygienic injecting. Drug users who inject in public have increased risk of abscesses, damage of veins, syringe sharing, HCV infection, HIV infection and overdose. Public injecting users are often more concerned about the risks of interruption (ie. Interruption by police or interruption due to missing a hit) rather than practicing safe injection methods. The establishment of supervised injection facilities aims to decrease harms such as these.

In addition, users of supervised injection facilities report reduced participation in public injecting. However, the potential benefits of supervised injection sites have not been fully realized which has lead to many limitations that are present within these facilities. Some of these limitations include the inability to assist individuals with injections, affordable housing, accessible toilets and the consideration of programs aimed to enhance drug users’ personal safety; however, the introduction of these programs have not occurred due to governments’ opposition.

Indeed, individuals do not support supervised injection facilities for valid reasons as well because there are instances where drug use has been initiated as a result of supervised injection facilities. However, initiation that occurs at supervised injection sites is lower than initiation that occurs in the community. Despite this, political opposition fails to recognize the many benefits supervised injection facilities provide and has only allowed small-scale studies to take place to measure the effectiveness of these facilities in the past. As a result, there is not enough research to communicate the clear benefits of supervised injections sites, which has prevented other facilities to open in Canada and internationally.

Although use of supervised injection facilities are not supported by government parties, drug users require awareness and education regarding safe injection practices. They also require easy access to addiction counselling, which can evidently lead to discontinuation of drug use as well. Positive correlations between attendance at supervised injection facilities and entry into addiction treatment programs have been implicated. Supervised injection facilities also show evidence of less initiation of drug use than initiation of drug use in the public. Given the compelling benefits of these facilities, it is evident that more supervised injection facilities should be established internationally. This would allow increased amounts of injections to take place on a daily basis and would address issues surrounding travel, wait times and hours of operation of these facilities across the globe.

References:

Stolz, J.M.,Wood, E., Miller, C., Small, W., Li, K. et al. (2007). Characteristics of young illicit drug injectors who use North America’s first medically supervised safer injecting facility. Addiction Research and Theory , 63-69.

DeBeck, K., Kerr, T., Bird, L, Zhang, R., Marsh, D. et al. (2011). Injection drug use cessation and use of North America’s first medically supervised safer injecting facility. Elsevier, 172-176.

Grinman, M.N., Chiu, S., Redelmeier, D.A., Levinson, W., Kiss A. et al. (2010). Drug problems among homeless individuals in Toronto, Canada: prevalence, drugs of choice and relation to health status. BMC Public Health , 1-7.

Petrar, S., Kerr, T., Tyndall, M.W., Zhang, R. et al. (2007). Injection drug users’ perceptions regarding use of a medically supervised safer injecting facility. Elsevier , 1088-1093.
Kerr, T., Tyndall, M.W., Zhang, R., Lai, C. et al. (2007). Circumstances of first injection among illicit drug users accessing a medically supervised safer injection facility. Research and Practice, 1228-1230.

Rhodes, T., Kimber, J., Small, W., Fitzgerald, J.,Kerr, T. et al. (2006). Public injecting and the need for ‘safer environment interventions’ in the reduction of drug-related harm. Society of the Study of Addiction, 1384-1393.

Small, W., Rhodes, T., Wood, E., Kerr, T. et al. (2007). Public injection settings in Vancouver: physical environment, social context and risk. Elsevier , 27-36.

Photo Credit: www.ctvnews.ca

Global Analysis of Health and Social Determinants with Dr. Dennis Raphael

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If providing health care and a social safety net for citizens were an Olympic event, the United States would be in a dead heat for last among developed nations. Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Dennis Raphael a professor at York University in Toronto Canada. Dr. Raphael has done extensive study and research on social systems and health disparities on a global scale. I reached out to Dr. Raphael specifically for his international perspective and global research analysis because I was interested to see how the United States compared to other developed nations. It appears that my suspicions are worst than I had imagined.

Dr. Raphael goes in great detail and provides a host of resources for anyone who may be researching poverty and health care disparities. We have all heard the Liberal and Conservative view points for or against Obamacare, but what does the rest of the world see when viewing the normal course of business and politics in America?

As Americans, we are always ranking things in order to assign value, worth, and level of importance. One of the biggest revelations for me from this interview was seeing how the United States poverty rates compared to other countries. It’s astonishing! Here is what Dr. Raphael had to say:

SWH: Could you tell SWH readers about your background and your work on poverty and health care inequalities?

DennisRaphaelHead2DR: I am a professor of health policy and management at York University in Toronto Canada. I was originally trained in child development and educational psychology and have come to have an interest in health policy as it became apparent that the health and well-being of children and families was tightly related to the public policies that are implemented within a society. These public policies affect the health of citizens through what have come to be known as the social determinants of health. These public policies shape social determinants of health such as income and income distribution, employment and working conditions, food security, housing, and the availability of health and social services.

My work and those of others have also demonstrated that these social determinants of health have a much stronger impact on health than does the usual villains of physical inactivity, excess weight, excessive alcohol use, and even tobacco use. These effects are especially great for those living in poverty.

It is very convenient for governments and governmental authorities to blame individuals for their own health shortcomings by pointing to these so-called lifestyle factors rather than the public policies that have much importance in shaping health. My recent work has focused on differences among nations in these public policies and the social determinants of health such as the USA, Canada, and other wealthy developed countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

SWH: How does the United States Model for Health Care and its social safety net compare to Canada and other developed nations?

DR: What has become apparent and is now well accepted in the literature is that the quality and distribution of the social determinants of health in nations such as United States and Canada lag well behind those seen in other wealthy developed countries. The United States is an especially great outlier as it is the only developed nation that does not provide citizens with healthcare as a matter of right. It also has the most unequal distribution of the social determinants of health and, not surprisingly, has the worst population health profile among all wealthy developed nations with the exception of Turkey and Mexico. US poverty rates are the highest outside of Mexico and Turkey.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that the reason for this has much to do with the dominant political ideologies of those who govern these nations. As unbelievable as it may seem for those of us who live in the United States and Canada, most developed nations are led by leaders who take an active interest in developing public policy that promotes the health and well-being of citizens. Most wealthy developed nations provide universal affordable childcare to all members of society, provide workers with legislative guarantees that provide some semblance of job security but also the availability of job training and if unemployment occurs, payments that allow them to live a life with dignity. For the last 20 years, the United States has been an exceptional outlier in providing people with virtually none of these social determinants of health, and the United States is the only nation that does not provide people with guaranteed vacation time, guaranteed supported maternity leave, and of course health care.

Unfortunately for us living in Canada, Canadian leaders have chosen to emulate the American model of public policy over the last two decades rather than the more sophisticated and helpful approaches adopted among European nations. The result is that Canada’s population health profile and the quality and distribution of the social determinants of health is increasingly beginning to look like that of the United States, with the accompanying expected declines in quality of life and overall health of the population. The primary factor that has become apparent is the nations that take seriously the provision of quality social determinants of health to its population are governed by political parties that are identified in the literature as being either Social Democratic or Conservative.

Despite what many people think, the so-called conservative parties of North America are not really conservative as much as “liberal”. This applies to both the Democratic and Republican parties in the USA. Despite the meaning of the word “liberal” in North America which many people think as meaning progressive, the term liberal in political science and political economy actually refers to a form of governance where governments take little if any interest in providing the population with the means of maintaining and promoting health. I’ve written extensively about the distinction between Social Democratic, Conservative, and Liberal welfare states, and I urge readers to take a look at some of these works. In essence, the approach governments have taken in the United States and Canada towards providing the means of their population to maintain health are incredibly undeveloped as compared to the nations of Europe.

SWH: Can you provide a snapshot of major social safety net programs put in place by the Canadian government to address income disparities and to assist vulnerable populations within your country?

DR: The most apparent difference between Canada and the United States in terms of social safety net programs is that in Canada every Canadian is entitled to the provision of healthcare as a matter of right. While this may seem exceptional to Americans, this is also the practice in every other wealthy developed nation that belongs to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. For people like me and others who work in health, it is almost unbelievable that the United States does not provide health care to citizens as a matter of human rights. It should not be surprising that this lack of any kind of coordinated system in the United States leads to the United States having the most expensive and apparently least effective health care system among nations in the developed world. The US also has exceptionally high poverty rates which are particularly ironic considering its overall wealth.

Canada provides other aspects of the social safety net that are not available to Americans. In Canada the so-called RAND formula stipulates that once a union is certified in the workplace, all employees must belong to that union. In the United States the so-called “right to work laws” actually weaken unions and the economic and social security Americans obtain and as a result, Americans have some of the lowest wages among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the highest poverty rates among virtually all wealthy developed nations. Only 7% of Americans belong to unions and as a result their job security and working conditions, as well as their wages, are among the lowest of those working in wealthy developed nations.

In contrast, in the Scandinavian nations over 80% of people belong to unions and an even greater proportion of them work under collective agreements. Even in the conservative nations of Continental Europe, when unions themselves have lower membership than in Scandinavia, virtually all workers are covered by collective agreements. As a result, they experience greater job security, more employment and training opportunities, and generally greater security which translates into better health, and their poverty rates are the lowest among wealthy developed nations.

 In Canada, 31% of workers belong to a union and while this figure is low in comparison to other nations, it is of course rather high as compared the United States.

Other social safety net programs that Canadians have access to are guaranteed maternity leave that is supported through the employment insurance system. Women who have been employed are entitled to close to 60% of their average salary during the 12 months that constitutes maternity leave in Canada. In the United States there are no such provisions. Even then, provisions are stronger in many European countries where women are entitled to close to 100% of their average salary during their maternity leave. And even then there are nations in Europe when men are entitled to paid maternity leave.

SWH: Over the course of your work, have you done any comparisons of the Canadian and USA  social security systems to those of other industrialized nations, and what were your findings?

DR: I have written numerous articles that have compared the differing situations between the United States, Canada and other members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Two of these articles recently appeared in the journal Health Promotion International and these titles are appended at the end of this interview. In addition, I recently published a book entitled Tackling Health Inequalities: Lessons from International Experiences. This book consists of a number of case studies of differing wealthy developed nations and includes a chapter on the United States in addition to ones on the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. I urge readers to take a look at these documents and to consider the United States situation in relation to that seen in other wealthy developed nations.

To summarize the findings succinctly, United States is an incredible outlier in its approach to providing citizens with the conditions necessary for health. Canada does somewhat better and for many Canadians the comparison to United States gives cause for much satisfaction. However, when the Canadian situation is compared to the situation in other wealthy developed nations Canadians have much less to be happy about and there are many individuals, groups, and professional associations that are trying to move the public policy picture in Canada to that of these other wealthy developed nations and away from the United States model.

SWH: In your opinion, how has austerity measures implemented by various governments in developed nations contributed to or helped alleviate health inequalities of its citizens?

DR: In a nutshell, the austerity measures implemented by developed nations have served to contribute to the health inequalities that are apparent among the citizens. I direct your readers’ attention to three books in particular: To Live and Die in America, Class, Power, Health and Health Care by Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson (2013), Social Murder and Other Shortcomings of Conservative Economics by Robert Chernomas and Ian Hudson (2007), and The Body Economic: Why Austerity Kills: Recessions, Budget Battles, and the Politics of Life and Death by David Stuckler and Sanjay Basu (2013).

SWH: Do you have any current projects and/or publications that you are working on or recently released, and how does someone find more of your research?

DR: In addition to my recent book Tackling Health Inequalities: Lessons from International Experiences that was published in 2012, I have written numerous articles that document how public policy is related to the health and quality of life of citizens in wealthy developed nations such as United States and Canada. More recently I’ve been examining how differing ways of thinking about health among public health departments lead to different directions in approaching their mandate. I’ve also written extensively about the mainstream media and how these media think about health and means of promoting public education that can lead citizens to think differently about health and become more involved in the public policy process in order to create the conditions necessary for health. People can see some of these recent articles by going to this link, and  I’ve also produced a primer that should be of interest to all readers entitled Social Determinants of Health: The Canadian Facts. This can be obtained online at http://thecanadianfacts.org.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this ongoing discussion that is of such importance for those of us living in North America.

Relevant Readings:

Raphael, D. (2012). Tackling Health inequalities: Lessons from International Experiences. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Bryant. T., Raphael, D., and Rioux, M. (2010). Staying Alive: Critical Perspectives on Health, Illness and Health care, 2nd edition. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

Raphael, D. (2013). The political economy of health promotion: Part 1, national commitments to provision of the prerequisites of health. Health Promotion International, 28, 95-111.

Raphael, D. (2013). The political economy of health promotion: Part 2, national provision of the prerequisites of health. Health Promotion International, 28, 112-132.

Raphael, D. (2011). Mainstream media and the social determinants of health in Canada: Is it time to call it a day? Health Promotion International, 26, (2), 220-229.

Photo Credit: Picture of Family Courtesy of  www.mlive.com

Class Picture Singles Out Student With a Disability

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Though class pictures can create nostalgia about our younger years, for one young boy his elementary class group picture caused his parents to become mortified by the lack of insensitivity shown to their son, and their outrage caught the attention of social media.  Miles Ambridge is a 7-year-old boy who attends Herbert Spencer Elementary School in British Columbia, Canada.

Miles has spinal muscular atrophy, which is a disorder that affects the spinal nerve cells; Miles is unable to walk, and uses a wheelchair to move about.  In the class photograph, Miles is clearly separated from his classmates and can be seen leaning his body towards his classmates in order to be a part of the picture.  When Miles’ parents saw the photograph, they wrote the British Columbia school asking for the photograph to be retaken.  Though Miles did not seem to have been negatively affected by the blatant act of insensitivity that occurred, his parents were not pleased with how their son was treated.

When I heard about this story, it broke my heart.  I remember my teachers, teacher assistants, and personal aides ensuring that I felt equal and as important as my able-bodied elementary school classmates.  I played on the jungle gym and other fun contraptions on the playground, went on class field trips, and participated in almost every school program/event offered.  I never felt “different,” even though I knew that I was in a wheelchair and had to do physical therapy during school hours.

The fact that the teacher, the photographer, and other adults who may have been present, condoned (by “condoned,” I am referring to the adults’ inaction and/or lack of awareness about how Miles’ placement would be perceived) what took place truly disturbed me.  It caused me to ponder how we view students, who will eventually become adults, with disabilities.

Do such actions of insensitivity and lack of awareness cause students with disabilities to realize that they are different?  When the “innocence of differences” veil is removed in this manner, how does that affect one’s self-esteem about who and what they are?  Miles is fortunate to have such proactive parents, but what about children whose parents are hesitant to make waves and demand equal treatment?  What can be learned from this incident about how we treat students and adults with disabilities, and how such actions and attitudes can affect one’s psyche and sense of self-worth?

The Today Show released Thursday morning the new class picture that shows Miles sitting with his classmates, with a big smile on his face.  The picture made me smile, knowing that a wrong has been corrected, but how many more “Miles'” must there be before we truly become a society of inclusion and empowerment for all people, despite ability?

This story can be seen as an example of ableism, which is the discrimination and prejudice of individuals with disabilities.  Though this particular story took place in Canada, ableism is practiced here in America, and other parts of the world.

Despite the fact that we have the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and other policies  that are suppose to create an equal playing field for people with disabilities to enhance their quality of life, these policies do not always prevent individuals from displaying offensive behaviors or voicing inappropriate opinions about people with disabilities.

More has to be done to ensure that our students are being treated fairly and have access to adequate resources in their schools, and that adults are able to pursue their dreams without fearing that their disability will hinder their efforts towards independence and self-sufficiency.

Being disabled should not mean being disqualified from having access to every aspect of life.

Emma Thompson

Retaken Class Picture of Miles Ambridge

(Featured photo:  Courtesy of the Today Show.)

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