Ableism, Bionics, and Helper Robots

As I read more disability literature, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to ableism, a term that describes not only prejudice against people with disabilities, but also the idea that people with disabilities should be fixed. I recently came across this post which helps to clarify the meaning of the word from the perspective of a disabled feminist. 

The process of doing research into mobility disability opens my eyes a bit more every day to the unique circumstances, and many perspectives that define disability. I recently watched this amazing TED talk by MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics leader, Hugh Herr, who is developing bionic limbs for himself and others. Herr lost both legs in a climbing accident 30 years ago, but never accepted the thought that he was broken, and has worked for 30 years to perfect his new legs. His view of disability is unique and inspiring, and completely at odds with some of the literature I have read. Ableism, defined as ‘fixing’ someone with disabilities is usually, understandably, met with hostility by many in the disabled community. People with different kinds of disabilities resist efforts to ‘fix their disability’ because their identity is so closely aligned with their physicality. At the same time, incredible advances in technology, such as Herr’s bionic legs and exoskeletons are making the possibility of restoring physiological functionality a reality. The cost of these bionic limbs and exoskeletons is currently prohibitively expensive, but if they were made widely available and affordable, would people with mobility disabilities take the chance to walk again? 

The truth is that almost all of us, if we are fortunate to live long enough, will experience a decline in our mobility and lose our ability to function to some degree. People are notoriously bad at estimating risk, but the truth is that adults aged 20 have a 1 in 4 chance of becoming disabled by the time they retire. According to the census, the rate of ambulatory disability begins increasing rapidly for people in their mid-60’s. A friend sent me another TED talk about how we will rely on robots in the future to help us with this reality, and act as caretakers as we get older and more frail. Near the end of the video, Rodney Brooks explains how robots will fill the care-taking gap that is unfolding before our eyes. Will people embrace these helper robots, or will the robots come to symbolize their vulnerability? Will the robots help us become more comfortable with the reality that we will all need help someday?

Going back to Hugh Herr’s talk, I am glad that he mentions other physiological disabilities that we often don’t consider as a disability, like debilitating depression. There are so many reasons beyond physical impairment that cause immobility and they should all be addressed to guarantee everyone’s right to participate in society. My favorite quote from his TED talk: “Humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken. Our built environment, our technologies, are broken and disabled. We the people need not accept our limitations, but can transcend disability through technological innovation.”

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