Bionics: Who’s disabled now

Bionics: Who’s disabled now

In the first part of this series Mik Scarlet explored the advancements in technology that every day are bringing us all nearer to a world that was once only found in science fiction. A world where technology could be used to “rebuild” disabled people, replacing lost limbs and regaining lost function in a way that could even allow our abilities to outstrip the non-disabled community is approaching faster than we might think. So with the technology developing at such a rate it becomes even more important that disabled people play a role in asking about the ethics of creating a world where we can be “fixed”.

It was this question, about the “should we?” that got me started on this journey. Sarah Chan is a bioethicist and is one of the first academics I have met who not only understands the Social Model of Disability but totally accepts it as correct.

“It’s an element of the discussion around cybernetics that needs more consideration, and the involvement of disabled people,” she states. “It’s a common preconception within the medical and technological research communities that all disabled people dream of being repaired, but there is little consideration of what that says about the experience of having an impairment.

“As this technology will be rolled out to be available for disabled people first, and may be able to make the abilities greater than what can be achieved by non-disabled people the big question will become: If the social model is correct then will those people who have not been augmented be the new disabled? We then face a future where you have two disparate groups, those who have been technologically augmented, with abilities and skills far in advance of what we now think of as normal or possible, and those who have not, who to all intents and purposes would then be seen as less able… or disabled.”

It’s a big concept. If someone gets both legs replaced with bionic legs that allow them to run faster and jump higher than is possible for non-disabled people, who now is disabled? Especially if this solution becomes commonplace. If in the future you fix impairments with the use of tech that makes the recipient able to perform superhuman feats then will it not be those without those enhancements that are “disabled”?

Of course before we get to this future world of super-cripples looking down on the poor “now disabled” non-disabled types, we still have to ask how such fast-moving advancements impact on the day-to-day lives of disabled people now.

Technology, who needs it

When Rich Walker told me of the plans to build a mind-controlled wheelchair that had robotic arms attached to act as a vehicle and personal assistant, I immediately thought of my good friend Sophie Partridge. As one of the people at the head of the campaign to save the Independent Living Fund, and who uses full-time personal care herself, what might her views be on a future where machines took over the duty of caring.

“To be honest, I don’t pay much attention as it doesn’t interest or appeal to me. I get the feeling it’s portrayed very ‘positively’ though, like ‘next best thing to a cure’. I think all the acquired versus congenital experiences come into play here; for newly disabled people, it probably seem positive but for us congenitals, it’s all pretty negative because it can feel like the message is: ‘You’re not good enough as you are with all your missing and/or bendy bits!'”

When I asked her about the concept of a robotic personal assistant and if she might ever consider one she emphatically replied, “In a nutshell; NO! Personally with my level of ‘need’, I must have human interaction for assistance to be safe and successful. My concern is that it will lead to cost-cutting in other areas, such as have a bit of equipment instead of a PA. Also, ultimately it could lead to people not being ‘allowed’ to be who or what they are in terms of physicality and not supported as themselves.”

Walking, who wants it

Disabled people have been at the forefront of creating cybernetics assistive equipment. The most well-known piece of cybernetic assistive tech is the ReWalk, the robotic strap-on unit that facilitates those with paralysis to walk again, which was designed by Dr Amit Goffer who states he was driven to create the technology due to his own disability. I headed up to Hull to chat with Dave Hawkins, MD of Cyclone who used to sell the ReWalk in the UK. As a wheelchair user himself I wanted to know what Dave had thought of the product and how it impacted on disabled people.

“When I first went into the chair I tried crutches and callipers and now my shoulders and my wrists are shot through trying to keep walking. What an exoskeleton will do now and even more so in the future as things get refined is to provide an opportunity to stand and to interact on an eye-to-eye level once again, without fear of such injury. Ultimately they system will be worn under the clothing and will be lighter, faster, quicker and quieter. We are at the dawn of a new technology really.”

He regarded this kind of technology as being especially beneficial for those newly injured. He also recognised the irony in his company having sold  the ReWalk at the same time as custom wheelchairs, and jokingly wondered if there maybe a future where the technology combines in a sci-fi style transformer wheelchair.

Whatever dreams of the future, I won’t deny I’ve always found the ReWalk a little troubling, if for no other reason than it re-enforces the public’s stereotype that one day we will all be able to walk again and so why try to make the world a more accessible place? Even though Dave offered me a chance to give the ReWalk a try, I turned him down. Not on moral grounds, but as I have one leg much shorter than the other, I am positive it wouldn’t work for me.

As I left Dave’s factory and robot leg training centre, I felt a little confused. The Mik of today would never want to use such a cumbersome contraption as the ReWalk, but what of the newly paralysed Mik? The one who loved the Six Million Dollar Man and hadn’t even heard of disability politics or the social model? To be honest, however much the “could we?” or the “should we?” questions matter, the big issue is “would we?” If the market is suddenly flooded with new forms of assistive technology and bionic enhancements, would we as disabled people take up the offer of being rebuilt and made “Faster, Stronger, Better”? That is what I will explore in the final part of this series.

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