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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Are Exoskeletons “Ableist?”

Kyle Munkittrick


January 28, 2012

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.

She had me until the section I’ve underlined (bold is the author’s). The problem? Davis conflates using wheelchairs with those who have mobility impairments. They are not the same.

The default state of a person who has mobility impairments is limping, stumbling, crawling or not moving at all. A cane might be all that is needed. Or crutches. Or a wheelchair. Or a power chair. There is a vast spectrum of mobility impairment and to imply that the manual wheelchair holds some sort of privileged status such that it is representative of all who have mobility impairments is faulty logic. Often these discussions tailspin into some “you’re more biased” than I, but that’s not where I’d like to go. Davis’ struggle is an intellectually honest one and she makes a reasoned effort to connect Ekso’s wonderful progress with her desire to prevent the otherizing and devaluing of those who wheel to get about. What her logic misses, however, is that the chair is merely a cruder version of Ekso. They are both mobility assistive devices, but one doesn’t require environmental modification.

Yes, our society is built around those who are able. That is, in large part, due to the fact that the vast majority of people are able-bodied. Ableist privilege can be framed as, “you’re disabled? It’s not worth the effort to change things for you.” Ableism dismisses the need for ramps and elevators or blind-accessible buildings and applications or deaf-accessible speeches and television. But we must also acknowledge what all of these things are: attempts to enable individuals when medical science cannot. We build ramps because we couldn’t come up with something better than a wheelchair. So our innovation turned to the environment, to make it wheelchair friendly. Then Ekso came along and reinvented the wheelchair.

When a person wants to build a tool to make the disabilities of others less disabling, they are not devaluing those with that disability.  In a sense, our current effort to recognize the needs of the disabled is by making the man-made environment itself a tool to make a person’s disability less disabling. Any structure or system that makes the life of a person with a disability easier is an act of recognition that those with disabilities have immense value. The Ekso is not a privileged device that says those who wheel are inferior because this isn’t a discussion about those in wheelchairs, it’s a discussion about those who cannot walk. Ekso is a device that is designed to give those who cannot walk another option for mobility. A person who cannot ambulate as an able-bodied person must use an assistive device for mobility. Some of these devices are limited in their abilities and require modifications to the environment to allow the people who use them achieve mobility parity with the people who do not require assistive devices. The Ekso attempts to circumvent that and provide full mobility to those who are disabled without the need to modify the environment.

Technology is reaching a point where those who have been disabled can be re-enabled. We do not say we devalue the disabled when we cast a broken bone or do rehabilitative therapy to ensure someone is able to heal properly and walk again. Thus, those who focus on disability rights must begin coming to terms with the simple fact that options for the disabled will increasingly include a return to being able-bodied. Be it by direct healing of the injury, by-passing the disabled nerves, or by augmenting the body with cybernetics, those who are disabled will have more choices about how they want to be enabled. And that is a great thing. Ekso’s test-pilots seem to think so too.


Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.

Nicole Sallak Anderson is a Computer Science graduate from Purdue University. She developed encryption and network security software, which inspired the eHuman Trilogy—both eHuman Dawn and eHuman Deception are available at Amazon, the third installment is expected in early 2016. She is a member of the advisory board for the Lifeboat Foundation and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.


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