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Technology, Media, and Disability

Last month, MIT announced that MIT professor Hugh Herr, and colleagues from Brown University and the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center have begun a five-year multidisciplinary research project to restore arm and leg function to amputees by creating “biohybrid“ limbs….
January 17, 2005

Last month, MIT announced that MIT professor Hugh Herr, and colleagues from Brown University and the Providence Veterans Affairs Medical Center have begun a five-year multidisciplinary research project to restore arm and leg function to amputees by creating “biohybrid“ limbs. These new limbs will use regenerated tissue, lengthened bone, titanium prosthetics and implantable sensors that allow an amputee to use nerves and brain signals to move the arm or leg.

Herr, who is director of the Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group and his colleagues will focus on creating active knees and ankles which will be controlled by an amputee’s own nervous system using the BION (TM), a wireless microchip about the size of a grain of rice.

This story fascinates me both as a student and as a disabled person with prosthetics of my own. One of my areas of focus in discussing disability and technology is how it reflects our own social attitudes about what each of us is able to do, and how we all use prosthetic devices every day to increase our abilities. Most people don’t think of their everyday technologies such as contact lenses and PDAs as prosthetic devices, but the basic definition of a prosthetic as a manufactured device which fulfills the function of a biological body part is applicable. People adopt the technology and then adapt it for their own personal use until the fact of that use becomes invisible, unacknowledged and uncommented upon.

At least, this last is true until some event–a change in visual acuity, a crash of the PDA’s OS–which forces the user to become aware of how much he or she relies upon the device. Without the prosthetic, everyday tasks become much more difficult and frustrating, and suddenly there is this feeling of…disability.

This whole idea of ability and disability as it connects to technology is my main obsession, particularly when it also intersects with media images of disability. Perhaps one of the most fascinating stories along this line has been that of Gary Trudeau’s comic strip, “Doonesbury,“ and its character B.D. Over the past year, B.D.’s experiences as a newly-disabled veteran of the war in Iraq has provoked a lot of response about the everyday trials and tribulations of people with disabilities.

Starting off with a bang back in April when a number of newspapers, including the Boston Globe, decided to not run the strip which revealed B.D.’s initial reaction to waking up in the hospital and realizing he had lost a leg (he skipped the denial phase and proceeded right to swearing), and continuing with his confrontations with the always-cheerful counselors and the frustrations of making his home accessible, the comic strip has resulted in a new awareness of what disability and ability can mean.

As mentioned in an article which followed the announcement of the MIT research project, “CARING FOR THE WOUNDED: Doctors cite need for prosthetics as more lives saved,“ which appeared in the December 9, 2004 issue of The Boston Globe “US troops injured in Iraq have required limb amputations at twice the rate of past wars, and as many as 20 percent have suffered head and neck injuries that may require a lifetime of care…“

It is the US Department of Veterans Affairs, responding to this increased need for improved prosthetics, which is helping to fund the $7.2 million research program which scientists at MIT and Brown will be working on.

According to the Boston Globe article, the data on the injuries and amputations among U.S. troops, which was compiled by the US Senate, and included in the 2005 defense appropriations bill, states that “6 percent of those wounded in Iraq have required amputations, compared with a rate of 3 percent for past wars.“

The Globe article also contains an intriguing quote from Dr. Roy Aaron, one of the Brown University Medical School doctors who will be working on the research project: “’Amputee research has never been a high priority because it’s not… fashionable,’ said Aaron. ‘Iraq has changed that.’“

It’s an intriguing quote because it implies that it is possible for disability to be perceived in terms of being “fashionable.“ Though it may seem a somewhat dubious word choice at first, there is a sense that “fashionable“ can be used to mean “aware“ or “accepted,“ and in this regard the images we see and read about in regard to disability can seriously affect not only social attitudes about disability but the appropriation of funding for research which produces technology intended to increase the abilities of people with disabilities.

For this reason, I’ve been really curious about what Doonesbury readers have to say about their perceptions of how B.D.’s life has been altered by his new disability. Here is my favorite quote, from the Doonesbury web site

“Yep – B.D. can rock climb. The Christmas Day strip where his daughter optimistically gives him a pair of rock-climbing shoes brought back a vivid picture
of a rock-climber at Taylor’s Falls, MN. He had half a leg, and a prosthesis, and climbing shoes on both “feet.“ And he could outclimb most of us.“

As both new media images and new technologies change the definitions of what disability means, it will become increasingly difficult to make assumptions about what someone can or cannot do based on a disability. While this particular example of the influence technology and media have upon each other is from within the context of war veterans and prosthetics, the results of both the research and the media images which will come after will continue to be adopted and adapted for many purposes as yet unthought of.

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