Els Meersschaert

A Totem to connect

A story told by Pascal Gautheyrie South East Coast, France

Pascal Gautheyrie is together with his partner Céline a small business owner. They sell e-bikes as well as an information totem for people with disabilities. They live on the south east coast of France.

During my conversation with Pascal Gautheyrie at the ISTO World Congress 2018 in Lyon, he recommends me to reread George Orwell’s 1984. Pascal is convinced we are heading towards a society where people are turned into willing slaves of big brother and in our specific case, big business. Asked if he considers himself pessimist, he prefers the claim that he views this evolution as inevitable in an overpopulated world.

 

When I ask him about the importance of holidays, he is at first startled by my question. He explains he hasn’t had a holiday in over three years. And in what follows he explains how his life as a small business owner has been really stressful the past few years, he has to travel a lot, even to the extent that for him a hotel room is absolutely the anti-thesis to what defines a holiday for him.

You could say our conversation is dark or heavy, or even both. And perhaps part of it is. But I would be denying you the other half the story if I stopped here.

Because when I ask Pascal what brought him to Lyon, he is very eager to explain about how his company. Innovative Access Services (IAS) has created the TOTEM, an actual terminal with all kinds of tools to improve accessibility for people with disabilities. It can be useful at short term events, festivals etc… but also in city centres or tourism offices.

IAS is not Pascal’s only business but his motivation to create the Totem is a personal one, his brother spent most of his life in a wheelchair and while the Totem is practical (it has WiFi access, wheelchair chargers, a defibrillator, fire extinguishers, touchscreens,…) Pascal believes there is more to it. As the Totem is of interest to everyone (it holds mobile phone chargers, fire extinguishers,…) it will create ‘little connections’ between people with and without disabilities. That is also the reason why he is now exploring the possibilities of working on an app that can improve the mobility of people with disabilities through a system of volunteers that share space in their cars. His aim is a ‘full’ participation in life for people with disabilities.

Escape

As I give Pascal time to reflect on what holidays mean for him, he explains how his getaway out of his stressful life is his boat. He owns a small and old boat and whenever he gets the chance, he takes it out on the Mediterranean Sea. It means absolute freedom to him. Freedom, but also what he calls de-connection. His worries are gone when he is out there. And more importantly, he is never alone: his partner in business and life, Céline is always and everywhere with him, they are two faces to one body. And as she only just recently put it, he recalls: “we might as well be out in the Caribbean Sea, instead of just here, 5km away from home”. And because he considers this de-connection a gift, he lends out his boat to whomever might need it. Even to the young father who – reluctantly, or so it seemed – sold him the boat in the first place.

Near the end of our conversation I ask what his dream is for the future. He is very decisive about it: “spend the few years I have left of this life on a boat as much as possible, maybe even travel a big part of the world on it”. Out there on his boat, he will have total independence from this world he believes is heading in the wrong direction.

So, now, while reflecting and writing, I hope Pascal and Céline will have the opportunity to travel around the world on a boat and come across the impressive totems you can find in a few places in Northern America. I hope they will remind him of his own Totem and how it brings meaningful connection into the world. How it’s not just an actual means of communication for people with disabilities but also a symbol for our human need to be connected, to be seen by others as full human beings. How he might be part of turning this world into another direction than that of 1984.

Epilogue

The most wonderful thing is that when I let Pascal proofread the manuscript, he tells me what his nickname is. His friends call him ‘the colibri’. After the story of the forest fire, where – amongst all the chaos and destruction – the little colibri keeps on going back between a pond and the fire. Being asked by the other animals what he’s doing, the colibri responds: “I do as much as I can do”.

Authored by Seppe Dams Ghent