We can start with elevators. Yes, there are a few humans who can run up the stairs of the Empire State Building. But its a small group. And there's even a smaller group that can carry, say, furniture to the upper floors of any of thousands of buildings in New York City, or even just groceries or the lunch order.
So we have technologies which enable us to exceed our abilities. And those technologies allow more of us to live and work together in ways impossible without technologies. And, in ways which do not require us to divide ourselves into people who can, (a) climb 3 flights of stairs, from people who can (b) climb 6 flights of stairs, from people who an (c) climb 9 flights of stairs.
Everybody gets to push the button and go up.
But we could go back further. New York City is a port built on an archipelago on the edge of a continent distant from its primary trading partners. Without first ships and then ships and bridges it could not ever have functioned as anything more than a great place to eat oysters.
The "default" methods of human movement are, I suppose, "bipedal locomotion," crawling, climbing, and perhaps swimming. The default method of moving "goods" is to carry them. The default method of storing and transmitting knowledge are face-to-face speech and memory. The default methods of learning are trial and error and memory.
|"Assistive Technologies" - George Washington Bridge (background), rowboat and oars (foreground),|
because not everyone can swim the Hudson River.
So, am I awakening in a city of cheaters?
Too many schools think so. They equate technological enhancement with cheating. Or, like those who understand why Oscar Pistorius might walk using artificial limbs - maybe artificial limbs which look like those they expect - but are very unsure he might run or race using limbs which seem unlike those they expect - they equate the unfamiliar technologies with cheating.
Schools have long accepted print literacy, for example, which Socrates derided as a symbol of learning's descent into laziness, though that technology dramatically - and artificially (there is no "reading center" of the human brain) - enhances human capability. They have also come to accept eyeglasses, pens, artificial lighting, they have even accepted - well, demanded - math on paper, distrusting those who do it "naturally" - in their heads.
In other words, certain "disabilities" are not "disabilities" at all, according to the "typical" school, and certain human "enhancements" are perfectly all right. So people are allowed to "cheat" in school regularly by storing information in books rather than memory, except on many tests, but if information is stored elsewhere, say, on the internet instead of a book, or if recall is needed during an artificial assessment process, it is "cheating." And people who might struggle with reading because of something different about their eyes are not disabled and get to use a whole variety of individual devices to help themselves, but people who might struggle with reading because of differences in brain use are disabled, and are often denied the use of their tools by teachers, school administrators, and state and federal politicians.
Parents who have money enhance their children's natural learning path with everything from houses full of books, to computer access, to travel, to tutors. But children without resources are denied these same enhancements in schools.
In other words, the idea of disability and the concept of enhancing the human is not just a social construction, but specifically a social construction of wealth and power. In New York the rich enhance their bodies via car ownership and access to cabs and limos. The poor lack those enhancements. Joel Klein wore eyeglasses and Cathie Black wears contact lenses to enhance their vision and reading as Chancellor of New York City's schools, but poor kids in those schools are denied the use of Text-To-Speech systems and audiobooks which would allow them to read. Arne Duncan daily enhances his human mobility and multitasking capabilities by being driven and flown around the country, but poor kids can't access tools which might get them to Duncan's "schools of choice" nor can they use the Blackberry which organizes Duncan's life in the schools he favors.
Friday I was lucky enough to meet people from DARPA and the MIT Media Lab Biomechatronics Group and the New York Hall of Science and the NYU ITP program, and many other brilliant people, and we pretty much came to the conclusion that our entire understandings of disability and enhancement need to be reconceived.
There are many examples of why, but I thought of one I personally observed. A high school non-reader I worked with was introduced to the WYNN Literacy Software. Within a month he was using this software to read at over 300 words per minute. Yes, in a month he went from not reading to exceeding the average adult fast reading speed by 20%. Thus, his tools, allowed him to "exceed capability." And certain educators were troubled by this. They actually wanted us to slow this boy down, so he would not have an advantage. These people never wondered about finding tools for the other kids which might maximize their abilities, rather, they were horrified when I suggested that this "special needs: kid now really needed to be in their gifted classes. He, like Oscar Pistorius, wasn't really doing it, his technology was, so he was "cheating."
Most of those teachers and administrators wore eyeglasses, one had hearing aids. And so I was confused.
Is "disability" a "thing" or an "idea"? Is "enhancement" anti-human or what humans do? And if we re-think these ideas, what does that mean for the way we operate schools.
And with that I will travel 985 miles in the next three hours. Am I enhancing my human capabilities? And if I couldn't afford the plane ticket, would I be disabled?
- Ira Socol