For People With Disabilities, Technology Needs to Do More

AGAINST TECHNOABLEISM: Rethinking Who Needs Improvement,by Ashley Shew

Ashley Shew was teaching a class on cyborgs when she became one.

In 2014, when she was in her early 30s, she was diagnosed with bone cancer; she underwent a partial-leg amputation, after which she was fitted with a prosthetic foot and leg. A chemo drug affected her hearing, so she was also prescribed hearing aids. A philosopher of technology who teaches humanities courses to future engineers, doctors and nurses at Virginia Tech, Shew felt as if her new prosthetics had transformed her into a real-life version of the synthetic humans she’d been lecturing on: a self-described “technologized disabled person — a cyborg, a cripborg.”

Shew’s new book, “Against Technoableism” — a term she coined —is a kind of introductory seminar on the ways that our hyper-technologized age approaches disability. “When I became an amputee, people kept reassuring me (actually, reassuring themselves) that with advanced and wonderful prosthetic technologies, I would be back even better than ever,” Shew writes, “superhuman, enhanced, a 10-million-dollar bionic woman.” She finds one of the clearest expressions of this titular attitude in the words of Hugh Herr, a double amputee who designs (and uses) futuristic bionic limbs at the M.I.T. Media Lab. “I don’t see disability,” Herr has said. “I see bad technology.”

Shew acknowledges the transformative role that tech plays in her life; in her author photo, she affectionately cradles her unattached prosthetic like a ukulele. But in this series of short, wonderfully lucid essays, she argues that technoableism — the popular depiction of tech as a wholesale cure for disability — does real damage by positioning the disabled body as fundamentally broken. The goal of existing technologies is too often rehabilitation into the mainstream — the amputee ought to walk “normally,” the deaf person speak, the autistic person have “quiet hands” — and it’s up to engineering to get them there. Within this framework, any possibility of a joyful disabled life, lived without the need for improvement, is unimaginable.

Shew eventually affixed googly eyes to the toes on her prosthetic foot so that it could “stare back” at her, and she employs this same playfully confrontational style in her writing. This style also reflects the crossroads at which disability discourse now finds itself: at once a movement steeped in the vernacular of the extremely online; an emerging field of scholarship with its own academic vocabulary; a civil-rights call for sweeping policy change; and a marginalized identity on par with race or gender. As a result, a lot of disability writing today (Alice Wong’s “Year of the Tiger”; Elsa Sjunneson’s “Being Seen”) blends structural analysis, internet-chatty cultural criticism, scathing social-justice indictment and confessional narratives of medical trauma. “Against Technoableism” is an important addition to the genre.

Shew’s stand-alone chapters can be read in any order, reflecting what she calls the book’s “crip aesthetics”: “Why should people be forced to move linearly through the text?” I wondered if the book’s forceful reminders of its central arguments throughout might be another aspect of this “aesthetic” — useful repetitions for someone reading through the distractions of A.D.H.D., the fog of a chronic illness or poor eyesight. As is the case so often with both technology and disability, what at first presents itself as a flaw may ultimately be a feature, not a bug.

Andrew Leland is the author of “The Country of the Blind: A Memoir at the End of Sight.”

AGAINST TECHNOABLEISM: Rethinking Who Needs Improvement | By Ashley Shew | 148 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $22

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