Why technology could end the concept of disability

WIRED 2015: Next Generation is our annual event dedicated to inspiring young minds, where innovators aged 12 to 18 years old gather at London’s Tobacco Dock for talks, hands-on workshops and Q&As. For more from the event head to our WIRED NexGen Hub.

The world ‘disability’ is no longer fit for purpose, ‘bionic teenager’ Patrick Kane told WIRED Next Generation at London’s Tobacco Dock.

“‘Disability’ will prevent certain people from doing the things they are capable of doing that this word will tell them they cannot,” he said.

“Technology is bridging the gap between disability and ability […] The word itself is damaging and I think we need a new one.”

Kane became one of the youngest people in the world to be fitted with an artificial limb, just a few years after after falling ill with meningococcal septicaemia at the age of nine months. His heart stopped, his veins collapsed and it looked as though he would become just another of the 37,000 people who die due to sepsis every year in the UK.

He survived, of course, but at a cost; a long stay in intensive care at St. Mary’s Hospital in London left him alive, but with no leg below the right knee, missing fingers on his left hand, and part of each of his right hand fingers lost.

Shortly after he turned one, Kane had a passive false leg fitted, and gradually upgraded to a more useful version (“I learned to walk age 17 months on a prosthetic limb” he said). But upper body false limbs remained unsatisfying, he said, offering no function or use.

That changed when he was 13, and heard about Touch Bionics, a company which makes advanced, powered prosthetics called ‘ i-limbs’. And “since then I’ve had a few upgrades,” he said, demonstrated his impressive i-limb revolution limb on stage in front of the rapt WIRED Next Generation audience. Kane is also an ambassador for Sepsis UK and was a torch bearer for the 2012 London Olympics.

But while technology is offering advances — 3D printing is “transforming the cost” of false limbs he said, adding that “Disability is curable with the help of modern day technology” — there is still work to do.

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