Disabled or Not Disabled?

I recently came across a sports biography book for kids featuring athletes with disabilities, like Jim Abbott, Curtis Pride, and others.  Only….. one of the athletes profiled was missing a finger.  Really?  I barely consider myself disabled when I am missing my entire forearm, and this guy gets the label with a slightly different from usual hand?

But the book explained that his difference affected his ability to play baseball–for the better, actually, since it gave him a pretty wicked curve ball.  Fine.  I guess I’ll allow it.

Of course, that’s a pretty straight-forward situation compared to the recent question of whether Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee who uses prosthetic devices to run, could compete in the Olympic Games among fully abled athletes.  He raised new questions among the Olympic Committee about the nature of the games and of athletics.  Are prosthetic legs the same as real legs or are they something else altogether?  I’m not sure that I can answer that question for myself, much less for anyone else.

This article on the NY Times web site looked at the science behind whether Pistrorius’ prosthetics help or hinder back in 2007, and he ultimately did compete in the 2012 games.  He will also be competing in the Paralympic Games, which started this week.

I remember a presentation I gave in one of my library school classes years ago on assistive technology.  One of my classmates asked a smartass question: “Isn’t any kind of technology assistive technology?” I would be the first to say yes to this because I’m the sort of person who thinks of my prosthetic arm and my glasses and a step stool as all in the same category, but the question feels so semantic that it doesn’t seem worth the time to consider.  Or so I thought.

Professor Andy Miah has actually given plenty of thought to the question.  He studies ethics and emerging technology, and in this BBC report about the technology of the Paralympics he said,

“In the future, we will think of everybody as already disabled, and it won’t be a question of whether people who have disabilities are better or worse.  It’s about trying to ensure that everyone with their particular limitations are able to use technology in a way that optimizes performance.”

My prosthetic arm

It sounds like something out of a science fiction novel.  Actually I can’t help but think of the Vonnegut short story “Harrison Bergeron” in which the U.S. Handicapper General makes sure that everyone is equal by placing handicaps upon anyone with extraordinary talents.   Really, though, I say stuff like this all the time.  Every time a kid asks me about my fake arm, I explain that I’m just like them.  We all use different things to help us do what we want to do.

Our differences might affect how we throw a baseball, but we can still throw.  We might have to fight for our place in the game, especially if we have a cyborg pitching arm, but it’s a question worth exploring.

See Fake Arm 101 for more about my assistive technology.

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