Wednesday, December 07, 2011

From "disability" to "functional diversity" -- The wheels of life

This cartoon, Las ruedas da la vida, "The wheels of life," nicely illustrates an interesting concept -- functional diversity -- that redefines the ideas, issues and theories often lumped together under the concept of "disability," "impairment" or of "people with disabilities."  The picture shows a baby/boy/man moving through life with changing capacities of mobility and changing needs for wheeled devices to help him move.  It's significant that it also shows the need for people who become helpers along this spectrum of mobility as well -- the woman pushing a baby carriage at the beginning and a nurse pushing an old man in a wheel chair at the end of the sequence.

The basic idea is that all human beings are situated a points along a spectrum of functionality (actually wide range of conceivable spectra of this kind) that reveals what they able to do.  In this way of seeing, the human community is composed of a innumerable kinds of diversity in functionality, circumstances that change for all individuals during their lifetimes.  Thus, the familiar notions of "diversity" that encompasses gender, race, ethnicity, social class, age, etc. can be broadened further to include "functional diversity," an alternative to understandings and labels that have often singled out particular kinds of physical traits and personal features as "defective," "abnormal," "undesirable," and the like.

To the best of my knowledge, the concept of "functional diversity" was first proposed in Argentina as an alternative to derogatory terms that describe the features of persons often discriminated against in societies around the world.   It now has a strong presence in philosophical and policy debates in Spain and Latin America.   Here is an explanation of the basic idea from the seminal article, "Functional diversity, a new term in the struggle for dignity in the diversity of the human being." by Javier Romañach and Manuel Lobato (2005).

We, women and men with functional diversity, are different from most of
the population, from the biophysical standpoint. Due to having different
characteristics, and given the conditions of the context generated by society, we
are forced to do the same tasks or functions in a different way, sometimes through
third parties.

Hence, a deaf person communicates through the eyes and by signs or signals, while
the rest of the population does so basically through words and hearing. However,
the function that these perform is the same: communication. To move around, a
person with a spinal injury customarily uses a wheelchair, while the rest of the
population do so using their legs: the same function, but in diverse forms.

For this reason the term “functional diversity” corresponds to a reality in which a
person functions in a different or diverse way from most of society. This term takes
into consideration the person’s difference and the lack of respect of majorities,
who fail to consider this functional diversity in their social and environmental
constructive processes.

I first ran across the concept of "functional diversity" during my stay at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) in Madrid in 2010.  My colleagues in the Institute of Philosophy there -- Francisco Guzmán, Mario Taboso and Melania Moscoso --  are developing this idea in fascinating, systematic ways and have taught me a great deal.  In fact, I am just beginning to grasp the significance and broader (highly useful) implications of their work for philosophy, social science, public policy, political activism, design, and engineering.  I plan to write about these matters in future postings here.

[Alas, I don't yet know the name of the person who drew the cartoon.]

 * * * * * * * * 
[Correction:   Francisco (Paco) Guzmán has written me with the following point, " far as I know, the first official reference of functional diversity appeared in 2005 in the article by Romañach and Lobato, both Spanish. The first book where it was mentioned was "el modelo de la diversidad" released in 2006, written by Agustina Palacios, Argentina, in collaboration with Javier [Bustamante?]."
Thanks, Paco!]



  1. Great post, Langdon. So good to hear of the term Functional Diversity in the Americas

  2. Kathy Howery4:03 PM

    Thank you for your post. I have worked with people with functional diversity (mostly children) for nearly 30 years, most particularly in the area of what has traditionally been called "assistive" technology. Which arguably is really technology that exists because of the inherent barriers our ableist society allows to be constructed in the design of our current technologies.
    I am currently working on a doctoral degree in special education. I came to my studies knowing very little of the philosophy of technology or ways of thinking about (assistive) technologies other than those of so called "evidence based practices" which are grounded in positivism and the medical model of "dis"ability.
    My journey has taken me to the wondrous worlds of phenomenology and actor network theory. My research focuses on the lived experience of students who use speech generating devices to communicate. Based on my admittedly limited experience since I have embarked upon this course of research, I believe there is a gap in the philosophy of technology in that most of what I have read comes from the place of functional "normality" or "typicality". I am finding some diversity in this thinking in the writings of people like Ingunn Moser, but am excited to see that others, like yourself, may be joining that discourse!
    I look forward to following your writings.

  3. Dear Kathy,
    Thanks for your note. My involvement with issues of this kind goes way back. Ed Roberts, one of the founders of the movement of people with disabilities, was a classmate in political science at UC Berkeley. My reflections on the rise of that movement appear in an article, "Is There a Right to Shape Technology?" published in the journal "Argumentos". Appreciative but critical comments from my colleagues at CSIC have led me to re-think some of the basic terms and understandings.

  4. Thank you for your response to my post. I will seek out your article and perhaps, if you are willing, continue the dialogue as I am shaping my own research in this area.

  5. Great thinking on wheels of life . I got impressed by this the thing you have described is really very good concept.