Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars

I’ve been tweeting for the @WeAreDisabled this week, and I worked my way to talking about tech (and not just disability issues) today.

The thread where I briefly lay out my own current work is here: @ashleyshoo on @WeAreDisabled. I am copying the text below for two reasons: (1) this seems like a blog post and not a series of short tweets and (2) word is that screen readers can’t all read the new 280 character Twitter posts (only the first 140 characters). Here it goes:

Thinking about Cyborg and/or technologized bodies. Attended a tech conference last week where many people had in mind “fixes” to problems of aging and disability (even when it was not couched that way).

I got to speak, and I felt like it was in a different language – about disability pride, about how everyone will one day be disabled (if they get to live), about designing while respecting “nothing about us without us.”

I love the stuff I get to use. But there’s a real problem with glamorizing technology and/or being cyborg. Glamorizing the tech and the idea of these technologized bodies makes us ignore important issues, like maintenance and social meanings.

Keeping technologies in and on one’s body actually takes a lot of work. My fake leg breaks – and it disrupts my week or month, depending. I might end up gluing pieces of it together or trying to find the right screw combo as I sit on the floor of my local hardware joint.

Every 6-8 weeks, we flush the port-a-cath installed on my chest w saline. If it doesn’t flush: extra appts at the hospital to check it out with radiology. This device is hella useful for someone with hard-to-locate veins and ppl with strong chemos – but it takes maintenance.

If my hearing aids need work, I send them away for the week while my dealer’s company fiddles with them — usually a quick turn around, but this is disruption.

 

Cyborg bodies aren’t these shining examples of human “overcoming” and technological triumph. I use stuff because I need it – and sometimes I even like it. But ideas about cyborgs usually gloss over what it is actually like.

I’ve started to reflect on this idea and plan a book project around it — technoableism. Technoableism is a particular strand of ableism that is perhaps most prominently figured in narratives around transhumanism, but enjoys wider capital than that.

Technoableism suggests a very particular narrative about overcoming disability, how to do that and how other folks should engage in it. And, if you question it, the replies you get back doubt your experience and suggest that you actually agree.

In other words, either you are wrong/deluded about your experience or you actually agree because – gasp – you do use technology. It suggests that using devices amounts to agreeing with narratives about technology as overcoming disability.

I like my tech – sometimes I even have multiple things for the same state of my body, using crutches or a rolling-walker or a prosthetic leg…. That doesn’t mean that every tech device that attempts to solve a “problem” – as framed by someone nondisabled – should be lauded.

And technoableism completely ignores social factors. The awfulness it is to go out as a young person with a walker, for instance, is why I might not use my walker more often.

Even though walkers/rollators are hella rad.

I just want to write an ode to my third shiny blue rollator now. I take off my leg at the end of each day, and sail away with the fluid movements of my body on wheels. No more heavy, only free — as long as I stay on the wood floors. LOL.

Technoableism also discounts different devices for different situations and bodies. It imagines that there will be a solution to the problem of body – with the idea that bodies are problems. But the problems are often surfaces, environments, interfaces, places, and others.

I gave a talk a few weeks back in a colleague’s class. The colleague’s class has a theme of planning to live on Mars. He wanted me to give some history to help students imagine social justice issues in this context. I, cheekily, presented about how Mars is for disabled people.

Mars is an environment so unlike Earth that any human making the journey there would become disabled, if they are not already. Their bodies and minds would not be normatively nondisabled as people consider them now. (Yes, this does play on the medical model a bit.)

I had the students give me many examples of this from what they learned, and we had a ton of fun with it. Because they had had the assumption that disabled people couldn’t and wouldn’t be astronauts. And opening this space was huge.

Also part of this suggestion was that some disabled people may be better constituted for Mars, especially when we consider what it is to move in space. I showed them some of the Crips in Space narratives from and videos from the CFP from the group.

Technoableists can’t see the value in disabled bodyminds. Thinking about does some of that work, though.

Technoableism allows people to celebrate the glamorized image of the cyborg as a mode of freedom and resistance while also completely neglecting those with actually technologized bodies and what they say.

Technableism enables disability discrimination through this neglect. And it continues to perpetuate it in how tech is created, marketed, and understood.

(See, really very bloggish. Apologies for shortened words and abbreviations. #twitter.)
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Author: techanddis

Dr. Ashley Shew, Assistant Professor, Virginia Tech. Please address queries to shew@vt.edu.

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