Magazine article The Futurist

A Brilliant Future with Disabilities

Magazine article The Futurist

A Brilliant Future with Disabilities

Article excerpt

ln the future, as people live longer, more of us will face living with a disability. Fortunately, new technologies and new attitudes will make the future more enabling for us all.

On May 3, 1993, I got up in the early morning. I ran several miles, as I often did. Later that same morning, I had a chiropractic adjustment. As the result of a brain-stem stroke I had while in the chiropractor's office, I am now unable to walk without assistance, my speech is impaired, and my left side is paralyzed.

Since my stroke, people have said many things in well-intentioned attempts to comfort me (although I feel perfectly comfortable). Their comments reflect common problems in thinking about disability and the disabled.

"What a terrible thing to have happened," people say. "I hope it doesn't happen to me." It would have made more sense to say, "What a wonderful thing to have happened. I hope it happens to me." Of course, I would prefer being nondisabled to being disabled. But my alternatives were between disability and death, not between disability and nondisability. There are many obvious benefits to being disabled (rather than dead), such as additional decades of life, the chance to become a parent, or even the chance to be born in the first place. These benefits come for people who, like me, are fortunate enough to live in a prosperous country.

It doesn't take much to imagine a world without people with disabilities. Scientists could develop miracle cures for many disabilities. "Suicide doctors" could assist in the voluntary deaths of any remaining disabled people. And genetic screening and therapy will enable us to reengineer or abort fetuses with disabilities before they are born. But almost certainly the future will include more, not fewer, people with disabilities, just as the present includes more people with disabilities than in the past. (The number of disabled Medicare and Medicaid recipients doubled between 1975 and 1994.) The key to a bright future is to learn to live with and enjoy life with the disabilities that may be inevitable.

There are several myths held by the public and by disabled people themselves that impede our understanding of disability and how we should best approach disability in the future.

Myth #1: Disabilities Are Too Profitable To Be Cured

Some people imagine that there will be fewer people with disabilities when companies can no longer profit from them. The nursing-home industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the numerous industries making products for the real or perceived needs of disabled people are entrenched interests that may leach off of people with disabilities. Are they corporate villains keeping cures for disabilities a secret in order to increase their profits?

No doubt there is money to be made from disabled people who are rich enough to afford these products and services, but abolishing the profit motive does not mean there would be fewer disabilities. Most disabilities arise from situations unrelated to the profit motive, such as congenital birth defects, automobile accidents, and strokes.

In June 1995, actor Christopher Reeve was thrown from his horse and left paralyzed below the neck, unable to breathe without a mechanical respirator. The damage is likely irreversible. Reeve has charged that the high profits of insurance companies are responsible for the situation of people with spinal cord injury, but he is mistaken. It is simply unrealistic to believe that, if we spend more money on research, then spinal cord injury could be cured. Money could better be spent making it easier for people to live with spinal cord injury or other disabilities.

Myth #2: Development Means Less Disability

Does a higher level of economic development mean fewer people with disabilities? We've developed a vaccine for polio, declared war on AIDS, and campaigned against muscular dystrophy.

With increased development there is usually better care. …

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