Two Possible Futures for Persons With Disabilities

> Posted by Josh Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

Economic inclusion for persons with disabilities (PWDs) is more possible than ever because of technological innovations that can transform the workplace, by making it accessible for persons with different kinds of disabilities. Screen reading software for the blind is just one example. Furthermore, there are some twenty-first century jobs that may perfectly fit the skill set of certain PWDs.

One recent stellar example of PWDs entering the workforce in a new way was reported by Emma Jacobs of the Financial Times on June 7. She spotlights the achievement of Thornkil Sonne, a Danish businessman (and Ashoka Fellow) who supplies autistic recruits to the IT industry and has shown that people with autism routinely demonstrate superior skills compared to their non-autistic peers. Many persons with autism (but by no means all) excel at data entry, software programming, and other technical tasks. This has persuaded SAP, the profit-driven German business software company to recruit 110 autistic employees to test its software products.

Globally, there are millions of vacant jobs in IT. So this could just be the beginning! Such employment opportunities that capitalize on the strengths of the differently-abled to such a degree that they are actually preferred candidates for certain positions in a competitive marketplace is truly extraordinary, even revolutionary, and is something we can all celebrate. But there is a dark side to technological innovations that may doom PWDs just as new opportunities and new acceptance appear on the horizon.

Right after I read the article about Thornkil Sonne, I read another one about advances of prenatal screening technology that pose an ever-growing risk to the opportunity for PWDs to be even born – let alone work. (Please note that there is no “right to be born” in Article 10 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).) It used to be necessary to retrieve amniotic fluid for genetic testing for Down syndrome, writes Carolyn Y. Johnson in The Boston Globe. “The invasive test was uncomfortable and scary, and it carried a small risk of miscarriage.” Jump ahead to 2013 and “In the short span of a year and a half, four companies in the United States have launched prenatal tests that use maternal blood to detect syndromes such as Down, which are caused by abnormal numbers of chromosomes, as early as nine or 10 weeks into pregnancy.”

How many Down syndrome babies will never be born as a result of this new simple test? What genetic tests are in the pipeline that will endanger the live births of other differently-abled people? How many of us in the future will be “screened out of existence?” Which is the title of a fascinating new article by disability rights attorney and activist Janet Lord. As Andrew Solomon, the author of a recent book, Far From the Tree, about the life of families with differently-abled children, recently said at the UN Conference of States Parties, which I attended, and I paraphrase, “If there had been a fetal test to determine gayness, all gays would have been eliminated en masse while in the womb.” Already, the prenatal screening of gender has led to the abortion of millions of female fetuses in countries like China and other countries that have strong preference for boys.

I have been staunchly pro-choice all my life but have a growing concern as this ever-expanding toolkit of prenatal screening preempts the birth of little girls by the millions and more and more fetuses with disabilities. What subset of fetuses will be the next to face elimination after Down? So just as opportunities are growing for people with disabilities to more fully participate in civil society, they may be robbed of the chance to even be born.

The knowledge now available about the growing fetus can and does put prospective parents in an impossibly difficult position when it comes to making a decision on bringing a baby to term. Where will this end?

These bioethical questions that beset us now and will beset us even more in the future are truly daunting and have no easy answers.

Image credit: Spatial Source

Have you read?

A Call for Disability-Inclusive Development at the UN

Vulnerable Minorities: There’s an Elephant in This Room

The Difficult Crawl Towards Non-Discrimination – Financial and Otherwise