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What does thinking about disability teach us about a good life?

In this video, Gerard Goggin describes how non-disabled people view a good life and what we can learn from people with disabilities about a good life.
MAN: FutureLearn. [THEME MUSIC] UNSW Australia. Learning from people with disability.
GERARD GOGGIN: So disability and the good life– it’s a big question. And I suppose one of the important things I think about disability is that it really teaches us that many of the ways we imagine and live the good life are very limited. So I think experiences of people with disability and just thinking through disability makes us realise that there are lots of ways to live a good life, that we need to embrace the life cycle as part of that. We need to think about the ways in which sometimes we experience limitations, conditions, and situations that we don’t like, particularly if you think of impairment, accidents, ageing process, and even health.
Often, we reject these things– and I think our society rejects these things– and think, well, the good life is actually a place where we don’t have disability. A good life is a place where we don’t have a illness. A good life is a place where we’re superhuman and where we don’t die. And I think one of the things about the experience of disability, in all its diversity, is that actually, life is exactly about all these experiences that humans have. And we really need to think about, and that, particularly now, when we are considering technology as being really crucial and central to our lives.
And often we turn to technology to actually think, OK, well, we can achieve what we need in life and our visions of the good life through technology– I think if we can understand the ways in which technology crosses over to disability, that helps us a lot, because we have these myths that technology will help us to be faster, stronger, more efficient, more economically productive. And a lot of these are just really myths and sort of visions.
And if we are aware of some of the concrete ways in which technology intersects with disability, that can help us think more generally to think, OK, well, if we’re thinking about a good life, we need to think about a whole bunch of other things about what we think technology means, how we can design it for everyone, or as widely as possible, and how we can actually put it into our lives or use it in our lives in ways that are realistic, and indeed, more humane than often we think about when we think about these things.

In this step we start to think about the many ways we might learn from people with disabilities to inform new ways of thinking about the organisation of our society, a good life, and what it means to be human.

In the above video, Gerard Goggin, Professor of Media and Communications at the University of Sydney, reminds us that thinking about disability can teach us a lot about what a good life can be. Gerard suggests that contemporary society assumes that a good life involves becoming ever faster, stronger and bigger — often with the assistance of technology. But this superhuman vision of what it means to live a good life is very limiting. It doesn’t just exclude disabled people, it is impossible for everyone.

In Step 6.1: Valuing human flourishing, Duncan explained that some people’s sense of their own good life is constructed at the detriment of others. As Gerard stresses here, experiences of impairment and disability are positioned as the opposite of a good life, rather than being embraced as a part of it.

You may recall that in Week 3, Gerard described how people with disabilities are leading innovation — developing new technologies, and using existing technologies in new ways. In this step, Gerard points out that technology can be a useful case study to understand how people with impairments. He suggests that thinking through disability can create new possibilities. Rather than technology making us faster, stronger and bigger, in collaboration with people with disabilities technology can be useful, responsible and empowering.

We have a lot to learn from people with disabilities about what a good life means, and how we can enable a good life for everyone.

Talking points

  • Do you agree that when able-bodied people imagine a good life, they hope to ignore the realities of illness, old age and dying? Do you think this is unique to Western societies?
  • Are contemporary technologies and other aspects of society too focused on developing the perfectible (and/or superhuman) body, rather than other parts of life, such as community and belonging?
  • What can we learn from people with disabilities about what it means to live a good life?
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Disability and a Good Life: Thinking through Disability

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