Global Times: The evolving concept of disability

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By László G. LOVÁSZY

Last December the world celebrated the 11th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). As a (Hungarian) member of the UNCRPD Committee, my job is to scrutinize the implementation of the Convention in those more than 160 countries that have ratified it so far. Hungary is the second country in the world that ratified the Convention as well as the optional Protocol to it and this also obliges me to help other governments and countries understand and interpret the rules of the Convention in light of human rights and sustainability.

Even though reduced mobility-related disabilities have been dominant in the 20th century based on escalated armed conflicts and wars, according to WHO, hearing loss will be the most prevalent disability after 2020 due to the accelerated pace of ageing, even in the so-called middle-income countries all around the world. At the same time, more and more pieces of information are pouring in about technological developments and amazing innovations.

Ten years after the Convention was introduced, we are beginning to realize that entirely new solutions are coming out that no one could ever have dreamt of, even 10 years ago. It means that technology and science have been developing at a previously unprecedented speed and seemingly without any obstacle. Practically it looks as if there are no boundaries on the horizon at all. The US-based MIT Technology Review has recently listed 10 breakthrough technologies, which can be made known to the public. It varies from reinforcement learning and gene therapy 3D to paying with your face, as well as reversing paralysis.

In contrast to common belief this is not a danger, but rather an excellent opportunity. I believe that all achievements of mankind have relied on technology and innovation, inspired by outstanding individuals, as well as committed companies or state projects with visionary leaders and hubs of talented researchers.

Are we in the age of a newer industrial revolution? Yes, we are. Technology has been evolving much faster than we ever anticipated. Looking back on history again, the so-called classical industrialization, in which Britain had a leading role once, took almost 90 years in 18-19th centuries. Computers have evolved over 4 decades only, and the Internet invented in the US needed just 2 decades to be ubiquitous. The first most popular and successful touch-screen phone is just celebrating its 11th anniversary like that of UNCRPD Convention. And now China is becoming the most powerful economic powerhouse in history. What is more, if I am not wrong, the industry can now produce electronic circuits functioning about a million times faster than our human thinking. These newer devices and applications can perform about a million times faster than the human minds that built them. Generally speaking, it means a leap in human evolution in terms of dependence on enhanced tools. By borrowing the notion of Kurtzweil of Google, who wrote about the technological singularity we are going to face, these innovations and inventions will perform 20,000 years’ worth of human-level intellectual work week after week.

Let me talk about a personal story. But what if that were not true anymore? What if my disability (I have 80% hearing loss since birth) are not going to be relevant in the future as I argued at the Technology and Society Magazine of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (USA) March 2017?

Even though the notion of rehabilitation has been identified as a medical model, which one had been abandoned and refused by the time the Convention was adopted, we believe a new world may come, in which everybody can have fully individualized, as well as adapted environment. It follows that this kind of rehabilitation will not mean an obligation of forced adaptation for persons with disabilities, but rather that more people will be provided with options and access to a much more efficient support and opportunities based on smart technology, people with disabilities included. Diversity is the key element of this approach – diversity is not only for or among persons with disabilities but also for persons without disabilities. More innovations can be achieved in more diverse circumstances like finding solutions to go to the outer space or to the bottom of deep oceans. It will change everything we know, and perhaps even more.

I have identified at least five signposts in terms of technological advancements.

First, we have to think about the evolution of wearable devices, hearing aids and exoskeletons included. Whilst these items and tools are going to be an everyday issue and experience, we also have to scrutinize certain aspects relevant to privacy, accessibility, interoperability, as well as affordability, otherwise persons with disabilities could be excluded. At this point, in light of interoperability and conformity, we have to highlight that the State parties have an obligation to make sure customers can have access to those products and services without interference problems.

Second, the evolution of the so-called invasive devices (e.g. cochlear implants for the deaf), including brain and computer interfaces, could be part of our life to a much greater extent, which also raises interesting aspects such as the integrity of persons, as well as autonomy, liability and responsibility for their decisions. Not to mention, who could bear the consequences of hacking and other malicious activities and to what extent? When it comes to competitiveness and employment, we also have to identify the weak points of technology in terms of ethical issues and fairness at social level.

Third, the evolution of DNA-related technologies, gene-editing (CRISPR) included: certain issues could be relevant not only in terms of prevention (it is not the topic of the Convention, by the way), but also for adults with disabilities (see the recent legislation on the so-called three-parented babies in the United Kingdom). It follows that the time will soon come in checking the balance between the medical aspect of disability and (re)habilitation in light of the human rights based model in accordance with the Convention. Why? Around 100 years ago hundreds of scientists and politicians discussed the results and expected outcomes based on then popular methodology of desired genetic traits and sexual reproduction approaches in London. Today gene-editing is a hard fact and more or less a reality. Modern, as well as scientifically developed societies have a responsibility to handle this technology in a responsible and sustainable way. It will have an effect on almost everything we know in terms of social behavior and drivers, not to mention social mobility. At the same time, we have to reinforce that the Convention is about ensuring free choices and not forcing persons with disabilities to adapt to only one solution, against their preferences – it also endangers the notion of “letting a hundred flowers blossom (…) for promoting progress (…) in the sciences” as well.

Four, the evolution of Artificial Intelligence-related services, applications and products built on them are going to be extremely useful not only for persons with limited mobility and/or multiple disabilities, but also for the Blind, the hearing impaired, as well as persons with mental disabilities and autism based on virtual assistants and avatars, which will create an entirely new momentum in modern societies. Not to mention the possibility of early recognition and intervention services for disabled children at home. I believe this aspect of technological evolution will ease the burdens of all (persons with disability, family, professionals, taxpayers) when it comes to education. In light of education, our children will not only learn about facts to be memorized but also how to organize and synthetize those facts and data by triggering upper levels of skills in synthesizing for further specialization of knowledge.

Five, the evolution of robotics will also change everything that we believe in when it comes to societal consequences. According to estimates, by 2020 at least 5 million care robots at home will be deployed worldwide. It follows that independent living and inclusive education will also have an entirely different approach when it comes to humanoid robots and smart toys with emotions and programmed educational attitudes, as well as robot caregivers in institutions and at home. It will also transform the customs and habits of families and the current approaches towards work-life balance as well.

We all have to recognize and acknowledge the fact that innovation stems from finding solutions to a specific, even personal purpose or problem. In addition, we should not forget that all scientists are also humans and mortal; and that they are addressing a niche market or financial opportunity first, in accordance with financial interests and the stamina of markets.

The Convention is about dignity, diversity and human rights. As the Convention states, we have to make more efforts in terms of research and innovations; however, I am always of the opinion that at the same time we also have to cherish the value of freedom, competition and diversity in technological development and services on the grounds of reasonableness and fairness. Why? Because evolution of technology also serves a purpose of reasonably finding and meeting the different needs of our very diverse humanity. This is based on societies’ different developments and situations, which could provide us with flexibility and affordability in accordance with the given economic status.

It follows that we must not close the door on new things, even unusual ones. We must not curb innovation, freedom and more importantly, motivation in science; however, science and technology should serve the people themselves. We cannot forget those with special, even extreme needs, either. What’s more, in the future everybody might be somehow disabled in one way or another in comparison to intelligent and smart software and services. We are talking about a kind of evolution of disability itself too.

Technology is not the purpose but always a means in the hands of humans. In this regard, even the most developed societies and countries see an evolving concept of disability since technology evolves as the nature of disability changes as well.

For closure, here is a testimony. The UN Convention is not about maintaining a right to remain disabled, but about ensuring choices and chances. It is our turn today to open our eyes together with governments and stakeholders; as well as to seize the opportunity to learn more about what the future has to offer.