Disability + Technology (15th October, 2019)

In this session we read:

[Book cover of Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto black & white photo of woman and man in front of machine]
What is crip technoscience?

We began the session with a question of ‘what is crip technoscience?’ In the manifesto, Hamraie defines crip technoscience as a field that combines critical scholarship, theory, and practice with the goal of using design as a site of disability political activism. 

Crip technoscience braids together two provocative concepts: “crip,” the non-compliant, anti-assimilationist position that disability is a desirable part of the world, and “technoscience,” the co-production of science, technology, and political life (Hamraie, p.2).

Crip technoscience joins crip theory with feminist technoscience studies, to explore how a critical disability lens can make science and technology more inclusive and produce new ways of using technology in/as activism. However, while we were supportive of the principles proposed in the manifesto, e.g. that crip technoscience centres the work of disabled people as knowers and makers, we were unsure of how the manifesto could implemented in practice. One major obstacle to achieving this goal is the ableism embedded within the structure of the design and technology industry. As Hamraie points out, disabled people are highly adaptive and when existing technologies do not meet their needs they engage in ‘creative tinkering’ to inventing new technologies. But although almost every disabled people will tinker with technology in some form or another to personalise tools for their needs, the science and technology industry as a whole remains largely dominated by nondisabled people. The products designed by nondisabled people rarely cater to actual disabled people’s needs but rather to how nondisabled people perceive or imagine disability. Disabled people are rarely involved in the design process or credited for their contributions while companies profit their expert lived knowledge of disability. Frequently this results in the production of unpractical or meaningless (and expensive) technologies that ordinary disabled people are unlikely to actually use in real life (e.g. exoskeleton suits and stair-climbing wheelchairs).

Looking further into the existing technologies available to disabled people, we observed that while medical aids are sold to consumers as tools that will enhance disabled users’ independence, they are also used to promote a narrative of normalisation and prosthesis, that disabled people’s bodies are somehow incomplete and undesirable unless they are fitted with technologies that will enable them to imitate nondisabled bodies. Cochlear implants are an example of medical technologies that normalises and erases Deaf culture in the process of ‘curing’ disability. What we found regrettable about the rise of such technologies was that while they do make disabled people more independent to some degree, when the disabled person is removed from the disabled community and ‘integrated’ into the nondisabled world they effectively lose the interdependence and sense of identity associated with being deaf or disabled. Ironically, sometimes medical technologies also make disabled people more dependent. When the cochlear implant, or the expensive, stair-climbing wheelchair breaks down, the disabled person who cannot sign or push manually is suddenly made powerless and reliant on others. From a social model of disability, the enthusiasm that industries and institutions have for high-tech ‘solutions’ to disability distract from the fact that it is the stairs and not the wheelchair that disables the person. Making buildings and spaces accessible are easier and ultimately more cost-effective, yet the medical technology industry continues to peddle the ‘miracle cure’ narrative for profit.

What is a cyborg?

The monopoly of large corporations over the production of aids like wheelchairs and adaptive equipment means that they can be extremely expensive which limits disabled people’s access to essential aids that would otherwise greatly enhance their quality of life. While the NHS currently is still able to provide some equipment for disabled people, practicality often trumps aesthetics and there is little range or room of customisation for them to express their personality. Whereas eyeglasses are now considered fashion accessories, wheelchairs are still medical aids. This led to more questions: what makes a tool a medical aid, and when does a user of technology become a cyborg?

A person with poor vision can take her eyeglasses off and this will not damage the ‘wholeness’ of her body. But an amputee’s body is considered to be continuous with the prosthetic (in illusions of normalisation) and it is this blurring of boundaries that allow some users to identify as cyborgs. In her article Kafer questioned the application of the concept of cyborg to disabled users of technology. Notably popularised by Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, the cyborg is held up as a symbol of transgression of human/machine, animate/inanimate, a hybrid that resists dualist thinking and offers possibilities of an emancipatory future. While Kafer agrees that cyborg theory is useful for critiquing discourses of wholeness, she is sceptical of the way its usage is elided with ‘physically disabled person’ (and often, ‘fixing’ the disabled person). We took Kafer’s criticism further and noted that this usage goes beyond physical disabilities. Birth control implants, mood stabilisers, hormone injections, are all technologies that radically alter a person’s chemical, mental, sexual, and physical being. Should people who take these drugs therefore also be considered as cyborgs? The uses of wearable or injectable technology to ‘fix’ pain, impairment, or deviant behaviour point to a curative future that is aimed at erasing rather than integrating disability into society. The demands for disabled people to function ‘normally’ is alienating people from themselves as they are forced to tolerate the side-effects of psychotropics in order to carry on their labour.

The cyborg produces two kinds of narratives about disabled bodies. On the one hand, it suggests that the disabled body can be enhanced with technology to become ‘superhuman’ (super crip) and more than normal; on the other hand, it implies that without technology disabled bodies are essentially ‘subhuman’ and worthless. Either way, the disabled person remains ‘not normal’ and separate from organic nondisabled bodies. The notion that natural bodies are more vulnerable than tech-enhanced bodies assumes that technology can provide more control over how bodies are used. But this focus on performance neglects the person’s experience as a body and their relation to other people. The uses of pain/chemical/mobility technologies are not fixed events but experiences through time and space and how a disabled person relates to the technology will be different from person to person and day to day. Therefore rather than viewing all disabled users of technologies as cyborgs, which carries the danger of erasing the person’s individual identity and making them inhuman subjects, it is important to respect and value how disabled people view themselves and understand how they use technology. Technology can be life-changing and has the potential to make the world more accessible for everyone, but only if disabled people are included in every step of the way.

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