CFP: Conceptualizing Disability as a Public Health Issue: Impairment, Enhancement and Emerging Biotechnologies

Brocher Foundation, Geneva, Switzerland
26th-28th January 2015

There is broad evidence indicating that the total number of persons experiencing disability has increased substantially in recent times. Emerging biotechnologies offer the possibility to affect and transform (and disrupt) many aspects of life of those labelled as having a disability. In recent decades, developments in prosthetics technology and other biotechnologies designed to restore ‘impaired’ physical functioning have raised pressing ethical, social and legal questions about the category of ‘disability’. In emerging fields such as biomechatronics—technology that combines human physiology with electromechanics—we see much more than the restoration of the body to some notion of ‘native’ or ‘normal’ functioning, but the concrete possibilities of super human enhancement.

As the possibilities for bodily ‘restoration,’ enhancement and augmentation arising from emerging biotechnologies, in the context of ‘correcting’ disability, become concrete realities, pressing questions emerge within public health policy, biomedicine and disability ethics. These questions concern both conceptual challenges in terms of delimiting concrete categories, with respect to parameters such as ‘treatment’, ‘enhancement’, ‘normal’, ‘disability’ and ‘impairment’, while also concerning practical matters for public health bodies regarding the allocation of resources, research and development of biotechnologies, the ‘ability rat race’ (raising the bar of what is considered ‘normal’ or ‘adequate’ functioning), issues around inclusion and exclusion with respect to treatment and services, and the extent to which restrictions on enhancement technologies are ethically defensible. Theoretically the possibilities for the development of disability-diminishing technologies are limitless but only a fraction of these may ever be developed. How is technology development prioritised – does it relate solely to profitability? Should prioritisation depend on the societal benefits that might be expected to deliver to those with the greatest need rather than on the fiscal gain? Should pubic policy have a role in determining which technologies are developed and made available?

We welcome proposals for papers that engage with these themes.

Please send an abstract (500 words) prepared for blind review by 19th August 2014 to Barry Lyons (Bioethics, School of Medicine, Trinity College Dublin) and Luna Dolezal (Dept of Philosophy, Trinity College Dublin).

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