Eksobionics, a company dedicated to the augmentation of the human body, recently developed Ekso—a “bionic exoskeleton that allows wheelchair users to stand and walk.” In this post, I pose a question to which I honestly do not have a definitive answer: Does this development represent human progress or does it further perpetuate the subordination of physically impaired bodies?

I begin with a brief background on the company and a description of the product. I then present arguments for both progress and ableism. Finally, I question —but ultimately defend—the validity of this dichotomy.

Eksobionics was founded in 2005 under the name Berkeley Exoworks in partnership with the Human Engineering Laboratory at UC Berkeley. They began by developing exoskeletons that allow humans to carry more weight and move more efficiently on diverse terrains. In true cyborg-development style, the company received funding in 2008 from the department of defense to develop and eventually distribute their technology for military field use. Today, under the name Eksobionics, the company has developed and is prepared to distribute Ekso (the bionic exoskeleton that allows wheelchair users to stand and walk) to rehabilitation facilities. By 2014, they hope to make it available for everyday use.

The argument that Ekso represents human progress is quite straight forward and easy to make. The physically impaired human body is augmented by this device, given the ability to stand and walk where before this ability was not granted. Not only does this give wheelchair users access to spaces previously unavailable, but can have positive health benefits, as the wheelchair user can exercise hir leg muscles, improve breathing capacity, and relieve the skin that becomes susceptible to pressure sores from extended periods of sitting. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, many (though certainly not all) people with spinal cord injuries do hope to walk again. This technology aids in the accomplishment of this goal.

Less straightforward is the argument that Ekso represents a step backwards, a move towards the further denigration of physically impaired bodies. Here we have a product made to improve the lives of those with spinal cord injuries, and yet, it implies that walking, rather than wheeling, is necessarily the preferable state of mobility. I must point out here that a body in a wheelchair is already an augmented body. The technology of the chair, whether manual or electric, grants the mobility that is organically restricted. A practiced wheelchair user can indeed often move more quickly than a person relying on leg muscles alone. When in a wheelchair facilitating space, a wheeler can maneuver quite easily, accomplishing necessary tasks and acting independently. The problem, of course, is that many places and spaces do not facilitate such free use of a wheelchair. I wrote about this more extensively in an earlier post. With this in mind, I will now elaborate on is the difference between disability and physical impairment. It is in this difference, I argue, that we see the ableism that is built into the Ekso.

According to the social model of disability (as opposed to the medical model), an impairment is simply a physical condition. The legs are immobile. The eyes do not see. The ears do not hear. These conditions are inherently value neutral. They do not, in any essential way, hinder the extent to which a person can engage as an active member of society. These impairments become disabling, however, when experienced within an environment that fails to accommodate the spectrum of physical and mental states. Sight-only crosswalks are disabling for those with vision impairments. Public speeches without sign-language interpreters are disabling for those with hearing impairments. Buildings without ramps and/or elevators are disabling to those with mobility impairments. The technology of the Ekso assumes able-bodied advantage, and so works to fit the impaired body into an ableist environment. The impaired body is, by implication, devalued.

Having laid out both sides of the argument, I must now take a step back and question the validity of the dichotomy itself. Indeed, I have laid out a theoretically false dichotomy between ableism and progress. At an academic level, this dichotomy, as with most dichotomies, is problematic. It incorrectly assumes a zero sum game where a device that aids in walking necessarily denigrates the wheeling body. Empirically, however, this dichotomy is not false. The development and distribution of technologies require resources, including time, money, space, and innovative minds. These resources—especially money—are limited, and choices must be made. Will we use these resources help wheelchair users walk, or to make inaccessible buildings more accessible? Will we use these resources to help blind people see, or to improve web-reading devices? Will we use these resources to develop medications for ADHD, or to develop curriculums and work spaces that accommodate those with high energy and quick moving thought patterns? In a perfect world, these “or” questions would be nonsensical. In the real world, however, the allocation of resources into one side means a decrease in resources for the other. So do we want to use our limited resources to improve ability at the individual level, while perpetuating an ableist environment, or create a more accommodating environment, where impairments are no longer disabling?

An issue not to be overlooked here is one of access. Who can afford the treatment and devices that improve individual mobility? If their proliferation perpetuates a disabling environment, then what is to come of those (likely the vast majority) who cannot afford these specialty devices? The result could be potentially devastating.

On the other hand, and to disclose fully, as a woman who terribly misses hiking in the Virginia mountains,  is rejuvenated by a brisk walk, and basks in the sweat-pouring experience of a long run in the mid-summer Texas heat, were I to acquire a serious spinal cord injury, I would find hope in a device like the Ekso. But then again, I am a product of an ableist society.

Note: Special thanks to Huong Le for bringing the Ekso to my attention