Exoskeletons And Cyborging vs. Wheelchair Access: No Arguing Necessary

Exoskeletons v wheelchairs  Disability advocates clash with futurists over  offensive  solution

Apparently, there’s a bit of a tiff going on between at least one advocate for expanding and maintaining access in public spaces for those who use wheelchairs, and at least one advocate for not maintaining that accessibility, and instead spending funds for accessibility on developing exoskeletons and implants to make wheelchair ramps and the like obsolete.

There’s no need for argument. The ‘tiff’ seems to come from the futurist saying that societies shouldn’t be investing in accessibility and the disability advocate seeing a different solution than the present one as implying that the disabled are ‘broken’.

Again, there’s no need for it to come to an argument. They’re both trying to make their cases in strong terms, because these are visceral issues to them. And as so often happens — we’re on the internet, folks, you know what I mean — people get all hyperbolic and troll-y in those circumstances.

But let’s be real.

Ending spending on accessibility for the disabled abruptly because tomorrow we might have improved means of mobility for those who need it, is ridiculous. We need to provide for today’s needs today, even as we progress toward different future needs. Because when you need to go to the supermarket or a government building or… you know, anywhere people go, you need to go today. And if you need to go today, and you need a wheelchair ramp to be there to accomplish that, you need a wheelchair ramp today, not an exoskeleton ten years from now. You should have to wait? No, you should not.

Nor should talking about walking exoskeletons or cybernetic versions of same be taken to imply that a person who needs a wheelchair for mobility today is ‘broken’ and needs to be ‘fixed’. A wheelchair, or leg braces, or crutches, and so forth, simply represent the technological capabilities of the era they were invented in. They’ve been improved: lighter materials, stronger materials, better bearings for wheels, clever construction for foldability to enhance portability, and so forth. Improving that technology wasn’t a commentary on the user, it was a commentary on the technology. We’re humans — we like to tinker and find improved ways to do things. An exoskeleton that allows a person who uses a wheelchair today to walk tomorrow is a technological advancement, just like a lighter and stronger wheelchair. And like a lighter and stronger wheelchair, it is not a means to insult the user — unless, of course, someone wants to be enough of an ass to make it an insult. And while humans are nearly infinitely clever in making devices to do just about anything, we are equally clever in making anything into an insult. You know this. If you’re highly intelligent, someone has insulted you for it. If you’re not highly intelligent, you’ve been insulted for it. Tall, short: someone has insulted you with that fact. Same for pretty much any trait you care to name.

Improving mobility for those who need those improvements is not innately an insult — though some asshole might make it into one. All we can do about the assholes is attempt to either educate or ignore them. But a wheelchair ramp is no more, in and of itself, of a slur against a person who needs to use one to enter a building than is an exoskeleton that allows one to walk up that ramp or up stairs, or a walker, or a cane, or a hypothetical nano-procedure that reconstructs or constructs nerves, bones, and muscles to allow one to walk into that building, or a frickin’ jetpack.

I suspect the wheelchair and its ramp will coexist with the exoskeleton and the nano-procedure for quite some time; the enthusiastic futurist’s 25 year horizon for technology making the ramp obsolete is probably a product of enthusiasm. The wheelchair will remain less expensive to build and maintain than exoskeletons and exotic procedures, and so we’ll need those ramps for years to come. Maybe we’ll still need them 100 years from now, for when someone’s exoskeleton breaks down.

Or maybe we’ll invent a wheelchair that’s way better for the needs of a person who can’t walk than the exoskeletons are, for reasons we don’t know yet, because those wheelchairs haven’t been invented.

All we can do is move forward as best we can, and try to be as good to each other as possible, and try our best to forgive the trolls who make the non-insulting things into insults.


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