Can you hear me

7 05 2013

I blew my students’ minds today.

No, not anything brilliant on my part: I brought up an issue in my bioethics course that I’ve mentioned in previous courses—had thought I’d mentioned previously in this course—and a number of them lost it.

I told them that there were deaf people who didn’t think there was anything wrong with being deaf, and furthermore, they’d like you to keep your cochlear implants and whatnot to yourselves, thankyouverymuch.

That did not compute.

Now, the backdrop for this moment of brain splatter was a discussion of social coercion, normalization, enhancement, disability, and morality (among other things). Somewhere in this discussion I noted that devices which are promoted as aiding the disabled might be more about assuaging the discomforts of the non-disabled. This was one of Anita Silver’s points in her essay “A Fatal Attraction to Normalizing” (in Enhancing Human Traits, ed. by Erik Parens), as exemplified by the decision of the Canadian government to push children affected by thalidomide into prostheses and forbidding them to roll or crawl. “The direction of resources to fund artificial limb design and manufacture rather than wheelchair design was influenced by the supposition that walking makes people more socially acceptable than wheeling does.”

A number of them did not like where I was going with this. So how far do we go to accommodate those people, they said. If we’re the majority, shouldn’t they, you know, have to adapt? Are we just supposed to design everything around them?

One of them even complained about ramps: Why should I have to go around and around if I just want to take the stairs?

I pointed out that ramps rarely replace stairs, but are instead treated as an addition, meaning that the stairs remained. I also noted that crappy design is bad for everyone. The building in which the class is held, Carman Hall, is a terribly designed building—you have to go down a flight of steps just to enter the building—and suggested that it’s just possible that being forced to think about accessibility for, say, wheelchair users might just lead to designs which are good for everyone. Curb cuts, I noted, are useful for those pushing strollers or, say, 3 weeks worth of laundry in a cart.

Besides, I noted, at some point we’re all, if we’re lucky, going to get old and frail, so designing for access is, in effect, designing for everyone.

In any case, my mind was a little blown by their sense that accommodating people who came in a model unlike themselves was unfair.

Okay, now back to their shorted neural circuits. Deafness, I noted, is a condition, and some who are deaf are also a part of the Deaf community. These Deaf members see themselves as distinct, not disabled, and their community as worth preserving; as such, they see cochlear implants as a way of eliminating members of that community. Furthermore, since cochlear implants are imperfect, not only will these deaf people not gain the full range of sound as hearing people, they will never gain full status as hearing people: they will also be lesser “normals” than full and “normally” Deaf.

But why would they want to be deaf? they asked. Doesn’t that limit them? Why wouldn’t they want cochlear implants?

Well, I noted, we’re all hearing in our class, so if we lost our hearing we would, in fact, experience it as a loss. But while we might be able to see only the limitations of deafness, they see other capacities enabled by it.

They were dubious. What about contacts, one of the students asked. I’d be blind without my contacts. J., I said, you would not be blind, you would simply have bad sight, which is more akin to being hard of hearing than being deaf.

(That said, it was a provocative question: is their a Blind community akin to the Deaf community? And what would be the implications of that? What are the implications of a lack of a Blind community?)

I’m used to students gasping a bit at the thought that Deaf people might not have a problem with their own deafness, but I can usually get them to consider that the problem with deafness is the problem that hearing people have with deafness. No, I’m trying to force them to accept the Deaf argument—I’m not quite sure what to make of it myself—but I do want to crowbar them out of their own defaults, their own unthinking attachments to normal.

There are streams within bioethics which maintain their own unthinking attachments to normal, as well as those who prefer to poke a stick into the concept. I’m more in the latter camp (big surprise), but as I think normalizing is impossible to avoid, my approach is simply to unsettle, and be unsettled by, the normal, and go from there.

The students weren’t so much unsettled as shocked, and given that shocking can lead to reaction rather than reflection, I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that they held ever tighter to their own normality.





You can’t always get what you want

28 07 2011

Completely irresponsible.

Yes, I disagree with the Republican agenda in general and the Tea Party agenda in particular. No surprise there.

And I’m not particularly happy with the Democrats, either—see my various Bam! posts—and their apparent inability even to generate an agenda (which is likely related to their lack of overall purpose).

But there are certain realities which are indifferent to ideologies and agendas, realities which include a high unemployment rate, divided government, and a wary global economy. There are, in other words, constraints on one’s aspirations, constraints which ought to discipline one’s behavior.

And yet they do not. Or, to put this another way, “limits” are apparently to be used only as an ideological battering ram by the TeaPers, rather than marking out the boundaries of a difficult debate.

Difficulty? What difficulty? We’ll simply wave our “don’t-tread-on-me-flag” and declare that our will is what is.

Why deal with reality when you are the Master of Your Own Universe?

It must be admitted, of course, that life in the real world is a little less heady, a little more complicated, and contains more than its share of frustrations. The notion of living within one’s means requires that we nail down just what we mean by “living with” and “one’s means”, and that the old Rolling Stone lyric is wrong only in that, honestly, you don’t always get even what you need.

We can change the world (the universe? not so much), but not by declaring the world changed. We have to do the work.

So, members of the House of Representatives, put down the flag and do the fucking work.

If you don’t like how and how much the government spends, you deal with that in the budget process. Want less spending? Then allocate fewer funds. Lower taxes? Ditto.

If, however, you want to increase defense spending, maintain agricultural price supports, protect subsidies for oil companies, fatten up the transportation/highway spending budget, fence out all illegal immigration, give money to survivors of tornadoes, hurricanes, drought, and fire, well, then, you have to make some decisions about those taxes.

You don’t get to say “no deficit spending” and then vote for deficit spending.

You want a balanced budget? Then produce a FUCKING BALANCED BUDGET.

And after you’ve produced an unbalanced budget, don’t pretend to have been victimized by your own actions.

Don’t say “hey, spend money on this,” and then refuse to hand over the credit card.

I’d prefer more spending: on multiple high-speed rail routes, a single-payer health plan, scientific and medical research, aggressive development of green technologies, elder care, day care, welfare, environmental protection, job (re)training, mixed- and low-income housing, education—the whole social welfarist shebang. Higher taxes, more and better services.

You want more, you have to pay more, full stop.

But maybe you don’t want to pay more. I think the anorectic approach to governance is wrong, but legitimate—or it is only legitimate if you actually lower your spending levels to match your revenues (and, frankly, if you don’t off-load any costs on to other entities). If you’re willing to tell people that they’ll receive precious little in return for the precious little they pay, then, okay.

But you don’t get say “I’ll cut—and there will be no blood.” And then double-back and proclaim your courage in dealing in “hard truths”.

Don’t paint yourself as a martyr—“I’m willing to risk my seat over this!”—for doing your fucking job, especially when you’re not doing your fucking job.

You took a job in government, a government which has obligations which predate your arrival and will incur obligations after you’re gone. Whether you like it or not, you’re responsible for those obligations.

So start acting like it.