If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t fix It, But What if It’s Enhanced?

Gary Karp, who sustained a spinal injury in 1973, which prevents him from using his legs states that although his spine is technically broken, he is not.  Although he confesses that he would want to walk again, he clarifies that he would not want to do so at any cost.  He writes (click here for the entire blog post):

Well, it’s not about whether I want to walk. Of course I want to walk. That is, if I could walk the way I did before my injury. Easily, without fatigue, secure in my balance, painlessly. That’s a pretty tall order (especially given that I’m six foot two!).

The problem with paralysis, Gary argues, is that it is viewed as a thing to be fixed and thus people with injuries like Gary’s are viewed as damaged or broken.  He writes:

If the prevailing view of paralysis—or having a disability of any kind—is that the most important thing is to try and fix people (because, of course, what else could broken people want?), then how will I be viewed as the whole person I am—in the context of my paralysis? If I’m damaged goods, then I’m a person whose life can only be improved—much less be a meaningful and satisfying life—if someone repairs my brokenness.

His view on technological advancements like the exoskeleton is this:

What, then, of the exoskeleton? I don’t see it as something that will fix me, that will fill in something horribly missing in my life. After 38 years I’m so thoroughly adapted that not being able to walk is normal. For me.

The exoskeleton, however, is just a hint of what is possible.  What lies beyond is far from mere fixing; the possibilities point to enhancement.  If Gary and others like him decided to “upgrade” their legs with some future technology inspired by the exoskeleton, would those with “regular” legs be in need of fixing?  In a world of enhanced humans, would all people be born damaged or broken?

Oscar Pistorius is a contemporary example of what may one day be possible.  Oscar is a double amputee and a world class sprinter.  His legs, which were made by the same company the CEO of Ekso Bionics worked for at the time, have been the cause of the IAAF’s ruling making him ineligible for competitions conducted under its guidelines.  This decision was eventually reversed, but the reasons for reversal were not that the use of artificial legs is not an issue, but rather that they do not give him any advantage over other competitors.

Of course, there must be some restrictions set on competitions.  For instance, using a bicycle or a motorized vehicle to win the 100m dash certainly does not seem to be in the spirit of that particular sporting event and so the use of mechanized legs can surely lead to questions.  However, the issue of advantage in sport due to technological advancements does not begin with Oscar Pistorius.  Shouldn’t better running shoes fall into this same category?  What about better diets and certain dietary supplements?  What about the advancement in training efficiency?  Are these not technological improvements?  I doubt that Coroebus of Elis, who won the stadion race in 776 B.C.E., would be a match for Usain Bolt, who won several races at the 2008 Olympic Games.  Does fairness dictate that athletes should have equal access to advantage conferring technologies?  So, in the case of the IAAF’s objections to Pistorius,  was the underlying issue of fairness related to the fact that his legs were not equally accessible to other athletes?  What about Usain Bolt’s physiology?  Is it on par with mine?  If I trained as he does, ate as he does, slept the same amount of time he does, etc., would I also be able to run 100m in 9.72 seconds?  I doubt it!  Does Bolt have an unfair advantage over me?  Insofar as he is better predisposed than I for such great sprinting performance, I guess he does have an unfair advantage.  Do I need fixing?  Am I broken?  Well, no.  I’m not a sprinter, so I don’t need fixing, right??  What about Coroebus of Elis?  Was he broken?  Well, no.  He won the first ever recorded Olympic race!

I am certainly not making claims about the IAAF’s decision, nor about the reversal of the IAAF’s decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  I also am not questioning the logic behind the rules and boundaries in sporting events.  What I question, however, is whether any competitors can truly be said to be advantage-less?  And I think the answer is no!  If that is the case, however, then it would seem that the point of contention about Pistorius’ alleged “edge” over his co-competitors might actually stem from a deeper apprehension about what our society considers to be abnormal.  Could it be that both Gary (who cannot walk) and Oscar (who can outrun much of his “normal” competition) are somehow viewed in terms of being in need of “fixing” because they are abnormal?  If this is the case, then it’s not merely an ableist fear because Oscar Pistorius, to my mind, is more than able to win races against “normal” sprinters.  Perhaps people are suspicious of difference?  I just hope they never figure out that taller people take bigger steps when they sprint.

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