Disability and Technology? No, Disability as Technology

Philosophy of disability is a relatively recent area of philosophical inquiry that has emerged in part as a critical response to the homogeneous and exclusionary character of philosophy, that is, insofar as the dominant tradition of Northern philosophy comprises the values, perspectives, beliefs, and experiences of nondisabled, white, European, cisgender men almost exclusively. Just as feminist philosophy, philosophy of race, trans philosophy, and other insurgent philosophies increasingly identify structural inequities, discriminatory assumptions, and personal biases in philosophy with respect to gender, race, and sexuality and, in addition, continue to provide alternative understandings of various social categories and identities, this new subfield—namely, philosophy of disability—exposes the oppressive character of certain taken-for-granted ideas, argumentative claims, and structural injustices with respect to philosophical (and other) research on disability; offers novel ways in which to conceive problems of (for instance) inclusion, oppression, distribution, and inequality with respect to disability; critiques the medicalized and individualized solutions that philosophers have proposed to resolve these problems; and furthermore, endeavors to develop innovative approaches to the ontology and epistemology of disability.

An astute philosophical discussion about disability in relation to technology must take account of the aforementioned metaphilosophical, material, and institutional contexts within which work in philosophy of disability is produced and against which it intervenes. Traditionally, philosophers have largely ignored disability, casting it as a prediscursive and hence philosophically uninteresting and politically neutral entity, as an inert and naturally disadvantageous characteristic of individuals that is appropriately and adequately addressed in the realms of science, medicine, and bioethics—which John Rawls’s refusal to consider disability in his theory of justice exemplifies—a disadvantageous personal characteristic to which individualized compensation, remedy, or cure should be directed—as the insurance scheme that motivates Ronald Dworkin’s resources-based theory of distributive justice vividly demonstrates.

In other words, prevalent philosophical frameworks advanced in response to disability, even if they are opposed to each other in certain ways, have relied upon shared assumptions about disability that naturalize, medicalize, individualize, and decontextualize the phenomena that it comprises. In short, the conception of disability that prevails in philosophy construes disability as a detrimental biological property of individuals that must be administered, managed, improved, or cured.

In dominant mainstream Western discourse and culture, disability and technology are generally understood to be related in this way: (naturally disadvantageous) disability is remediable through technology, that is, scientific and medical technology is understood to be the most superior means through which prediscursive, (i.e., transhistorical, transcultural, and natural) disability can be rectified, alleviated, or eliminated. When the vast majority of people think of technology vis-à-vis disability, that is, they think of the ways in which forms of technology can fix, ameliorate, or lessen the disadvantages that disability allegedly imposes naturally. On this understanding of the relation between technology and disability, disability is a politically neutral personal defect or flaw, an individual characteristic, while technology is understood to be a politically neutral artifact utilized to facilitate the ways that science and medicine addresses and administers the natural disadvantages that disability imposes. Whether it be prostheses, prenatal diagnosis, voice-activated software, or manual wheelchairs, technology is in short generally believed to be a politically neutral means through which to (paradoxically) improve the lives of disabled people.

Philosophers of disability (and disability theorists) perspicaciously point out, however, that many forms of technology—such as prenatal genetic screening, cochlear implants, and stem-cell research—are designed distinctly to modify the human in ways that detrimentally affect public perceptions of disabled people as a social group and perceptions of certain disabled individuals in particular, thus advancing eugenic aims. Although one strand of thinking about the ethics of technology holds that technology is value neutral in its emergence and purposes, most philosophers of technology believe that technological development is a “goal-oriented process” that, by definition, technological artifacts fulfill certain functions (Franssen, Lokhorst, and van de Poel 2018), and that these artifacts are therefore value laden in their application.

Indeed, unquestioned assumptions according to which purportedly politically neutral (yet goal driven/good) technology can alleviate or eliminate the allegedly natural disadvantages that are widely claimed to constitute disability condition work in a range of subfields of philosophy, including bioethics, political philosophy, cognitive science, and philosophy of technology itself. Political philosophers ask: To what sum of technological resources are disabled people owed in order to satisfy the demands of justice? Cognitive scientists ask: What can simulations of the (so-called) abnormal brain teach us about the maintenance of the (so-called) normal brain? Bioethicists ask: Should prenatal testing be compulsory? Philosophers of technology ask: What is the epistemic and moral status of technological interventions into the lives of “people with disabilities”?   

I contest the prevalent understanding of the relation between disability and technology upon which these explanations and questions about the respective epistemological and ontological statuses of disability and technology rely, that is, I contest the view that disability is a politically neutral, naturally disadvantageous, and inert characteristic (property, trait, or attribute) of individuals in relation to which technology–paradoxically cast as both politically neutral and goal-driven–becomes useful through its (explicitly value-laden) application in science, medicine, and associated administrative regimes, i.e., as means to eradicate the deleterious consequences of disability.

I maintain that the expanding production of technology that is directed at disabled people and the assumption on which this production relies–that is, the assumption according to which technology should increasingly be developed and employed to alleviate and eliminate the allegedly natural disabilities of individuals–are strategic mechanisms and effects of biopower, a distinctly modern form of power that operates in order to maximize the conditions conducive to “life,” the life of the species and the life of the individual.

I reject the ontological assumptions about disability and technology that (most) philosophers of disability who write about technology share with their mainstream counterparts in philosophy. On this shared understanding, technology is merely an instrumental externality of disability, while disability is paradigmatically a site for the implementation of technology. My argument is, rather, that technology is a constitutive mechanism of disability, that is, disability is a fully-fledged technology (artifact) itself, a complex and complicated apparatus of power, a composite of technologies and other artifacts.

Claims about the construction of the human being are no longer cavalierly dismissed in philosophical circles, where work on the constitution of subjects by authors such as Foucault, Ian Hacking, Linda Alcoff, and Andrea Pitts (among others) is now given its due. If the claim that the human is constructed must be taken seriously and, furthermore, if it makes sense to say that the phenomena that constitute the human—such as disability—are themselves socially constituted, then the human and phenomena that constitute the human have emerged into being and have histories, that is, are artifactual. If it makes sense to say, furthermore, that the human and the phenomena constitutive of it are artifactual, that is, if it makes sense to say that the human and the phenomena constitutive of it are artifacts with histories, then it seems plausible to say that the human and the phenomena constitutive of it can be regarded as technologies whose characteristic functions are themselves products of history.

Indeed, an examination of the notions of technology and disability that employed a certain kind of historical methodology—namely, genealogy, in Foucault’s (1997) sense—would trace a conceptual and material path through the vicissitudes of predecessors of our current notions of technology and disability, as well as the relation between them. This kind of “history of the present,” to use Foucault’s phrase, would lead to the conclusion that disability and its phenomena are, themselves, technologies. Like other technologies, constructions (technologies) of the human and the phenomena constitutive of it—including disability, race, gender, and nationality—do things. They have effects.

The assumption that technology is external to disability, that disability is a transhistorical, transcultural, and natural human characteristic for which technology is developed and to which it is subsequently applied, can be traced back to Aristotelian ideas about a fundamental distinction between natural things, on one side, and human-made artifacts, on the other, as well as to Aristotelian ideas about the relations of natural things and human-made artifacts to causation. Aristotle (Physics II.1) wrote that the principles of generation and motion are internal to natural entities, whereas artifacts, insofar as they are artifacts, are generated by external causes, that is, by human aims and forms in the human soul. For Aristotle, that is, natural products—animals and their parts, plants, and the four elements of earth, air, water, and fire—move, grow, change, and reproduce themselves in accordance with inner final causes, that is, the purposes of nature motivate them. By contrast, artifacts, for Aristotle, cannot reproduce themselves but rather require human attention and intervention without which they lose their artificial forms and decompose into natural materials (also, Franssen, Lokhorst, and van de Poel, 2018).

The division between nature and culture of Claude Levi-Strauss’s twentieth-century structuralism can arguably be traced back to this Aristotelian divide between the natural and the artifactual, as can the sex-gender distinction of late twentieth-century North American feminism, where nature and sex are to the natural and prediscursive as culture and gender are to the artifactual, to the technological. Gayle Rubin had at one time explained the (structuralist) distinction between sex and gender in this way: “Every society has a sex-gender system—a set of arrangements by which the biological raw material of human sex and procreation is shaped by human. social intervention and satisfied in a conventional manner” (Rubin 1975 ). Although the structuralist nature-culture distinction was putatively invented to facilitate cross-cultural anthropological analyses, the universalizing framework of structuralism obscures the multiplicity of cultural configurations of “nature.” Insofar as structuralist analyses presuppose that nature is prediscursive (that is, prior to culture) and singular, they cannot interrogate what counts as “nature” within a given cultural and historical context, in accordance with what interests, whose interests, and for what purposes.

Most philosophers of disability (and disabled activists) assume a conception of disability that conforms to Aristotelianism, distinguishing between the natural and the artifactual. Against the prevalent understanding of disability as a natural disadvantage, that is, these philosophers of disability endorse a sociopolitical conception of disability such as the British social model of disability (BSM) in whose terms disability is a contingent form of social disadvantage that is imposed upon “people with impairments” by a society that excludes them from public participation; discriminates against them in employment; denies them accessible, affordable housing; withholds educational opportunities from them; and subjects them to hostility and violence.

In other words, philosophers of disability who endorse the BSM or some other “social” conception of disability distinguish between impairment—a natural and hence politically neutral personal attribute—and disability—an artifactual set of social and political arrangements. Notice, then, that the distinction between impairment and disability of the BSM replicates the structure of the nature-culture and sex-gender distinctions and is rooted in Aristotelian metaphysics: impairment is to the natural as disability is to the artifactual.

For philosophers of disability who assume this conception of disability, technology is, therefore, understood in instrumental terms as a tangible, human-engineered thing that is external to humans rather than constitutive of them, that is, as a constitutive feature of them. Technology, on this view, may be directed to some feature or aspect of disabled people in order to either change (cure, fix, eliminate) them in some way, thereby reinforcing rigid norms about (say) human function, appearance, motility, behavior, and size; or, according to this view, technology may be utilized to change social environments and their contents in ways that adapt them to the functioning of a variety of people, including disabled people.

On this conception of disability, technology would increase a society’s sum of disability and ableism (i.e., become more oppressive) in the former case; and, alternatively, technology would alleviate a society’s sum of disability and ableism (i.e., become less oppressive and more accessible) in the latter case. Thus, philosophers of disability who assume this conception of disability and this conception of technology ask these sorts of questions with respect to the relation between disability and technology: What distinguishes curative technology from assistive technology? What kinds of technology best advance social justice for disabled people? How should disabled people justify their claims of entitlement with respect to assistive technology? My argument is designed to undermine  the assumptions about both disability and technology upon which these questions rest.

Against philosophers who argue either that (1) a disability is a personal defect or flaw that forms of technology should alleviate, ameliorate, or eliminate altogether; or that (2) a disability (construed as transhistorical and transcultural properties of individuals) is not naturally disadvantageous and technology should be utilized to make societies more inclusive of people with disabilities, I contend that disability  is not a property of individuals at all but rather is a complex apparatus of force relations, is itself a bona fide technology, in which everyone is implicated and in which everyone is entangled and entwined.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.