Emerging Technologies and Their Impact on Disability


Technological innovation is transforming the prevalence and functional impact of child disability, the scale of social disparities in child disability, and perhaps the essential meaning of disability in an increasingly technology-dominated world. In this article, Paul Wise investigates several specific facets of this transformation. He begins by showing how technological change influences the definition of disability, noting that all technology attempts to address some deficiency in human capacity or in the human condition.

Wise then looks at the impact of technology on childhood disabilities. Technical improvements in the physical environment, such as better housing, safer roads, and poison-prevention packaging, have significantly reduced childhood injury and disability. Other technological breakthroughs, such as those that identify genetic disorders that may lead to pregnancy termination, raise difficult moral and ethical issues. Technologies that identify potential health risks are also problematic in the absence of any efficient treatment.

Wise stresses the imbalance in the existing health care delivery system, which is geared toward treating childhood physical illnesses that are declining in prevalence at a time when mental and emotional conditions, many of which are not yet well understood, are on the rise. This mismatch, Wise says, poses complex challenges to caring for disabled children, particularly in providing them with highly coordinated and integrated systems of care.

Technology can also widen social disparities in health care for people, including children with disabilities. As Wise observes, efficacy—the ability of a technology to change health outcomes —is key to understanding the relationship of technology to social disparities. As technological innovation enhances efficacy, access to that technology becomes more important. Health outcomes may improve for those who can afford the technology, for example, but not for others. Hence, as efficacy grows, so too does the burden on society to provide access to technology equitably to all those in need. Without such access, technological innovation will likely expand disparities in child outcomes rather than reduce them.