Innovation in technology to enhance capabilities

Innovation has changed the meaning of rehabilitation

What has changed on the 10th anniversary of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities

This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities. This Convention is the first universal and effective human rights treaty in the field of disability. It covers all relevant fields of life affecting persons with disabilities. What makes it important is that more than 150 countries have already ratified it.

As a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), I am–together with other 17 members–responsible for following the implementation of the UN Convention in the States, which has ratified it. In my mind, however, it is not my job to extend or modify it, but I feel the need to raise issues that may become relevant in the future.

However, we now observe new issues that no-one could have ever anticipated 10 years ago, which are currently not treated by the Convention. It is essential to take into account the developments brought by incredible technologies, which change the entire meaning of (re)habilitations, as they open the door to enhancing capabilities beyond that of any person without disabilities.

Tech shift

Numerous articles and commentaries have now appeared in magazines such as Nature, The Economist, Popular Science, Newsweek and Scientific American about the so-called fourth industrial revolution. It leads to progress linked to DNA-related research, applied robotics breakthroughs and machine ethics. As in any emerging field, experts have diverging opinions on the moral and legal implications of these new technologies. Only one thing appears to be certain: nothing will be impossible in the near future.

As some of you may already know, I am myself almost profoundly deaf. However, I can, to some extend, enjoy listening to music. I also sense that the music I can hear in a limited way, must be more beautiful to those without a hearing impairment. It is an ability I sometimes regret not possessing. However, I learned to adapt to this situation and I know I can live a full life with this limitation.

Like many others in the same situation, human rights as a tool helped me protect and defend my quality of life when confronted with obstacles stemming from my disabilities in society. The reality is that human rights is an ever changing concept, tied to the circumstances and technological development in any given society.

Bespoke abilities on-demand

But what would happen should our abilities go beyond what we currently know? This is no fiction, according to a 2015 TED talk by neuroscientist David Eagleman, titled ‘Can we create new senses for humans?‘. He believes that our brain can learn and understand any kind of information regardless of its source.

This could mean that, thanks to new biotechnological innovations and solutions, we may soon be biologically able to deal with new types of information that are currently only available to animals. We might be able to have even the navigation skills of a bat. Or the eyesight of a hawk. In other words, humanity is on the verge of being able to re-design itself and enhance its capabilities.

At the same time, we are already capable of harnessing the power of machines by engineering new generations of smart software replacing the skills of hundreds or even thousands of people. These are able to learn from and teach each other as featured in a recent Scientific American article entitled ‘Machines that teach themselves.’

Re-enabling solutions

This phenomenon will indeed help persons with disabilities lead a more independent life. In addition, the so-called 3D printing technology is expected to bring an entirely new way of rehabilitating people with disabilities.

This suggests that a disabled person may routinely receive missing–and stronger–body parts. What’s more, the replacement parts might even be better than the original in many respects. The case of Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius speaks for itself. He had to be tested by experts to check that he was not gaining an unjustifiable advantage over non-disabled athletes.

These examples show that new developments to enhance the abilities of all humans are likely to stem from innovation. This is why the UN Convention, in its article four, supports greater innovations and research in the following words: “States Parties undertake …to promote research and development of universally designed goods, services, equipment and facilities … to meet the specific needs of a person with disabilities.”

In this new technology-enabled era, (re)habilitation could be interpreted in an entirely different way. In this context, the UN convention itself is not about preserving a right to remain disabled. Instead, it is about providing choices and opportunities which science can provide by respecting individual identity and free choice, as well as by maintaining an anti-discriminatory approach regardless of anybody’s disability when it comes to services and the environment in which we evolve.

László Gábor Lovászy

László is a member of the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), responsible for following the implementation of the UN Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Featured image credit: Nomad_Soul via Shutterstock

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