By Gregor Wolbring

A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series

First let me thank Andrew for inviting me to write a piece for his blog. Andrew states that his blog is about “how technology innovation should contribute to living in the 21st century” and about “providing a clear perspective on developing science and technology responsible”. I will focus on two aspects here. Under ‘Innovation for whom’ I look at disabled people and their visibility in the science and technology (S&T) and problem identification discourses. Under ‘innovation for what’ I look at the issue of goals and ableism.

Innovation for whom?

S&T have huge positive potential, however bringing the positive potential to fruition depends on the right social environment and foresight to identify societal and other problems, and the willingness to address them.

How do disabled people fare in a) influencing the S&T discourse and b) highlighting their problems? Science and technologies have an impact on disabled people in at least four main ways. S&T may develop tools to adapt the environment in which disabled people live and give disabled people tools that would allow them to deal with environmental challenges. This side of S&T would make the life of disabled people more livable without changing the identity and biological reality of the disabled person. S&T may develop tools that would diagnose the part of disabled people’s biological reality seen by others as deficient, defect and impaired thus allowing for preventative measures. S&T may develop tools that would eliminate that portion of disabled people’s biological reality seen by others as deficient, defect, impaired. And S&T may influence and be influenced discourses, concepts, trends and areas of action that all also impact disabled persons. However disabled people seem to be invisible in most S&T governance and priority setting discourses (e.g. see Wolbring (2007) Nano-Engagement: Some critical issues Journal of Health and Development (India) Vol. 3 No 1-2, pp. 9-29). It is in particular striking that especially disabled people who do not perceive themselves as defective are mostly absent from the nano governance and priority setting discourses. Disabled people are also not part of the geoengineering or the synthetic biology discourse. And the list can be extended. This invisibility does not only exist for disabled people but extends to many other marginalized groups.

Disabled people are also highly impacted by contemporary problems such as climate change and disaster adaptation and mitigation, access to water and sanitation, access to food, and energy and so forth and are invisible in the discourses around contemporary problems.

I highlighted for example in the 2009 paper A culture of neglect: Climate discourse and disabled people that

  1. it is believed that climate change will disproportionally and differently impact disabled people;
  2. the record of disaster adaptation and mitigation efforts towards disabled people is less than stellar;
  3. despite the fact that other social groups such as women, children, ‘the poor’, indigenous people, farmers and displaced people are mentioned in climate related reports such as the IPCC reports and the Human Development Report 2007/2008 Fighting climate change: human solidarity in a divided world, disabled people are not mentioned in these reports although they are uniquely impacted by the problems covered and
  4. the adaptation and mitigation knowledge  existing among disabled people is not mainstreamed.

I highlighted in my nano water column that the first world water report ignored the different needs and insights disabled people have with respect to water and sanitation. The third edition of the world water report published in 2009 again ignored disabled people’s needs and insights with regard to water despite mentioning other marginalized groups such as indigenous peoples, women in developing countries, the rural poor and their children.  A memorandum for a World Water Protocol (MWWP) was recently generated. It also omits the mentioning of people with disabilities. It states “Place particular emphasis on the participation, especially those groups of citizens that are under privileged, notably, women, young people and workers/peasants.”

It seems the right social environment and foresight to identify societal and other problems does not exist in regards to disabled people and many other marginalized groups.

Innovation for what?

The Converging Technologies for the European Knowledge Society (CTEK) report (PDF) states “Converging technologies are enabling technologies and knowledge systems that enable each other in the pursuit of a common goal.” If goals are the drivers what drives the generation of goals, the favouritism for certain goals? Is there a common goal?

Ableism is one concept that shapes goals people put forward and is often a goal in itself. Ableism is at the root or a major contributing factor of many societal dynamics in history, today, and very likely the future. Science and technology research and development and governance and different forms of ableism have always been and will continue to be inter-related. The desire and expectations for certain abilities led and will continue to lead to the support of science and technology research and development that promises the fulfilment of these desires and expectations. Science and technology research and development led and will continue to lead to products that enable new abilities and expectations and desires for new forms of abilities making possible new forms of ableism.

So what is it?

One form of ableism favors normative species-typical body abilities and perceives non normative ‘sub’ species-typical body abilities as a state of lesser being and is criticized by disability studies scholars for a while.  However ableism is much more ubiquitous (for online articles see here and here). “This form of ableism is a main contributor to a social dynamic that leaves disabled people invisible in many discourses and only heard in certain discourses. It promotes a “we”, “other” dynamic whereby the “we” are the  species-typical and the  “other” are the ‘sub species-typical’. In its general form, it’s a set of beliefs, processes and practices that produce a particular kind of understanding of oneself, one’s body and one’s relationship with others of one’s species, other species and one’s environment. Ableism is based on a favouritisms for certain abilities that are projected as essential by certain individuals, households, communities, groups, sectors, regions, countries and cultures which at the same time label real or perceived deviation from, or lack of these essential abilities, as a diminished state of being. Ableism exists in many forms such as biological structure based ableism, cognition based ableism, ableism inherent to a given economic system, and social structure based ableism. The favouritism of abilities contributes to other isms such as racism, sexism, cast-ism, ageism speciesism, and anti-environmentalism. Furthermore certain issues are a reflection of the desire for certain abilities such as GDP-ism, consumerism and competitiveness-ism.

If one reads the Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information technology, and Cognitive science Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance (NBIC) report it mentions productivity over 60 times and the term efficiency 54 times and the term competitiveness 29 times. The CTEK report states “Europe may value global competitiveness and economic growth above all else or may seek to balance it against values of social and environmental justice.”

The jury is still out which abilities we try to support with science and technology advances. We have to choose which abilities we cherish and which ableism we exhibit. I submit that the fields of Ability and Ableism ethics, studies, foresight and governance are essential lenses for responsible S&T advancement.


Gregor Wolbring is an Assistant Professor at the University of Calgary, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Community Health Science, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies. He is Affiliated Scholar, Center for Nanotechnology and Society at Arizona State University, USA; Part Time Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa Canada and Adjunct Faculty Critical Disability Studies York University, Canada. He is among others President elect of the Canadian Disability Studies Association and Chair of the Bioethics Taskforce of Disabled People’s International.

For further information, see:

Ableism and Ability Ethics and Governance blog:

The Choice is Yours column:

Nano Bio Info Cogno Synbio Blog:

What Sorts of People blog: