Over at Cyborgology (a blog I am amazed I didn’t discover sooner, given its sister site is Sociological Images) Jenny Davis attempts to figure out if the assistive devices built by Ekso Bionics are “ableist” or if they represent genuine progress. She makes a pretty good case:
Less straightforward is the argument that Ekso represents a step backwards, a move towards the further denigration of physically impaired bodies. Here we have a product made to improve the lives of those with spinal cord injuries, and yet, it implies that walking, rather than wheeling, is necessarily the preferable state of mobility. I must point out here that a body in a wheelchair is already an augmented body. The technology of the chair, whether manual or electric, grants the mobility that is organically restricted. A practiced wheelchair user can indeed often move more quickly than a person relying on leg muscles alone. When in a wheelchair facilitating space, a wheeler can maneuver quite easily, accomplishing necessary tasks and acting independently. The problem, of course, is that many places and spaces do not facilitate such free use of a wheelchair. I wrote about this more extensively in an earlier post. With this in mind, I will now elaborate on is the difference between disability and physical impairment. It is in this difference, I argue, that we see the ableism that is built into the Ekso.
According to the social model of disability (as opposed to the medical model), an impairment is simply a physical condition. The legs are immobile. The eyes do not see. The ears do not hear. These conditions are inherently value neutral. They do not, in any essential way, hinder the extent to which a person can engage as an active member of society. These impairments become disabling, however, when experienced within an environment that fails to accommodate the spectrum of physical and mental states. Sight-only crosswalks are disabling for those with vision impairments. Public speeches without sign-language interpreters are disabling for those with hearing impairments. Buildings without ramps and/or elevators are disabling to those with mobility impairments. The technology of the Ekso assumes able-bodied advantage, and so works to fit the impaired body into an ableist environment. The impaired body is, by implication, devalued.