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Journal Issue: Children with Disabilities Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2012

Emerging Technologies and Their Impact on Disability
Paul H. Wise

Defining Disability and Assistive Technology

The definition of technology used in this discussion is comprehensive in nature and refers to the application of scientific knowledge for practical, applied purposes, here directed toward improving health and well-being. The definition of disability has undergone dramatic evolution over the years, conforming to evolving analytical frameworks and societal perceptions. For the purposes of this discussion, I use the definition of disability proposed by Neal Halfon and his colleagues in their article in this volume:


A disability is an environmentally contextualized health-related limitation in a child's existing or emergent capacity to perform developmentally appropriate activities and participate, as desired, in society.1

In relation to this definition, technology can refer to both preventive and therapeutic interventions and can take on a variety of forms, including vaccines, other pharmaceuticals, engineering, or alterations to the physical or social environment. A primary objective is the maximization of a child's ability to function independently, which is in many ways determined by the ability to perform essential daily tasks, including those involving hygiene, mobility, and social interaction.2 Another central objective is the minimization of the impact that the child's disability has on caregivers, both in their provision of direct assistance and more generally as part of day-to-day family life.3

A careful examination of the relationship between disability and technology, however, raises important questions related to the definition and societal meaning of disability in the face of rapidly changing technological capabilities. First, a changing technological environment can dramatically alter the functional impact of any given disability. For example, the development of the telephone greatly enhanced communication in general society. At the same time, the central importance of aural communication in a telephone-dominated society made deafness an increasingly debilitating disability. Similarly, the emergence of a computer-dominated society and its text-based reliance on e-mail and cell phone texting has placed new burdens on the blind. Second, the dynamic interaction between disabilities and technology development underscores the rather arbitrary nature of disability definitions. Virtually all technologies attempt to address some deficiency in human capacity or in the human condition. Automobiles address human inability to move quickly over long distances; telephones address their inability to communicate with their voice over long distances; typewriters and their successors compensate for poor and slow penmanship. At some level, therefore, the definition of disability and the role of technology reflect both the prevalence of a lack of a particular capability and the social response to it. The interactions between disability and technology are, therefore, intensely dynamic and generally evade static categorization or definitions. Indeed, these interactions are undergoing such rapid evolution that they have generated a proliferation of philosophical challenges that have transcended the meaning of disability to seek the meaning of being human.