Fix Discriminatory Attitudes and Broken Sidewalks, Not Humans

This piece is a rebuttal to Zoltan Istvan's editorial about broken sidewalks in Los Angeles.

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Apr 8 2015, 6:39pm

Photo: ​Jorge Gonzalez/Flickr​

Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist who maintains the blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You're welcome to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

​I am not broken.

There is nothing that needs to be changed about my state of being. There is nothing I want to change. I am a whole human being whose body moves forward through life in turns of the wheel, and my reality is not for anyone else to decide.

Aspiring presidential candidate Zoltan Istvan has the audacity to think otherwise. The title of his recently published article on Motherboard says it all: "In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities, Not Sidewalks."

Istvan's appalling piece was prompted by an early April court case ruling that Los Angeles must repair its broken sidewalks in order to make them more wheelchair accessible. Honestly, I believe this same ruling should apply to most places around the world, because uneven sidewalks with no curb cuts are notoriously an enemy of wheelchairs. Eliminating broken sidewalks is an obvious solution.

Istvan has another perspective on a "solution," though his article makes it clear he has no true knowledge or authority whatsoever on the topic of disability. It's a frightening place, this vast Internet where anyone can speak their minds, even when it denies the humanity of entire communities. And this is exactly what Istvan does, using his belief system, "transhumanism," to back up his faulty logic. He presumes to have the right to make the sweeping declaration that all people who use wheelchairs should just be "repaired," instead of repairing the sources of the problems that we face.

He ponders, "In the case of disabled people getting better sidewalks, I'm wondering if the nearly three million Americans in wheelchairs might rather have exoskeleton suits that allow them to run, jump, and play active sports." This sentence right here proves that Istvan has no clue about the implications behind what he's saying. He is neither a wheelchair user nor an expert in exoskeleton technology. He does not know how technologies work with each person's individual body, and he sure doesn't know what all wheelchair users want. The levels of activity wheelchair users can or want to do, and the way we choose to use technology in relation to our bodies is our business. How dare he try to position himself as posing a viable solution regarding issues he obviously understands nothing about.

No legislative action truly eradicates or fixes the stigmatizing attitudes that are the real barriers for disabled people.

First, Istvan tries to juxtapose curing heart disease through a robotic heart with the concept of curing disability. He's not wrong in his beliefs that technology provides hope for fatal health problems, but heart disease and disability is a totally illogical comparison. Heart disease can be deadly. Using a wheelchair as a mobility device is not.

Moreover, Istvan asserts that "Many Americans' disabilities prove too much for them to be currently employed, but exoskeleton and other types of technology would give them the means to jump right back into the work force." It's absolutely true that many Americans do not work because they are disabled, but to proclaim that movement technologies are the means to completely fixing this problem is an oversimplification that demonstrates a total lack of understanding of the numerous real problems causing a high rate of disability unemployment. Problems such as discrimination, current Social Security policies, transportation issues, and of course—environmental access issues, like inaccessible sidewalks and curbs.

Interestingly, Istvan raises some points that would actually be spot on, if not for the absurd context in which he expresses them. He observes that America has a "bandage culture" in which they try to come up with quick fixes instead of actually resolving issues. This is true, but not in the way Istvan believes. The problem with America's bandage culture is that courts put forth rulings requiring Los Angeles to spend $1.3 billion repairing sidewalks, but no legislative action truly eradicates or fixes the stigmatizing attitudes that are the real barriers for disabled people.

Perhaps the worst part of the article, however, is Istvan's proposition that "Another method would be to just outright cure various physical disabilities." He believes legislation should be passed "on eliminating disability via technology and modern medicine." This sentiment is downright offensive and directly echoes years of discrimination and eugenic practices that disability rights advocates continually fight against. For someone who comes across as believing in the power of the future, he certainly appears to be moving backwards in much of his thinking.

I do not object to humane medical research and technologies that could alleviate true suffering or fatalities. But the fact that Istvan published something so painful and dehumanizing is an incredibly disheartening commentary on how society and media continue to negatively, and often inaccurately, perceive disability. Being disabled does not make a person any less of a person. I am not in "disrepair," and I do not need to be "fixed."

I am not broken.