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Cognitive/Neuroenhancement Through an Ability Studies Lens



Ability expectations are the basis of, and permeate many of the preferences and actions that have shaped society in the past and will shape society in the future. Exhibiting certain abilities is at the root of power to access privileges such as income, political influence, and employment,1 and having power allows one to influence which abilities are seen as essential. In effect, it sets the tone for how we treat and label people who do not have those “essential” abilities. Cognition is one example of a cherished ability; the ableism of cognition (meaning that certain cognitive abilities are seen as essential) is often used as a tool to give one social group power over another. To provide a few examples: the power structure controlled by men constructed an artificial narrative that valued rationality as a cognitive ability expectation to the extent that it was seen as essential (ableism of rationality); men ultimately had the power to control the narrative around who were and were not deemed rational beings. The issue of rationality played itself out around the Suffragette’s fight for women’s right to vote, whereby the dominant narrative was that women were not rational and, as such, lacked an essential ability; this premise, in turn, was used to disable women in many areas, such as denying them voting rights.2 The claim that women are irrational beings is still used3-4 to justify sexism. Irrationality is also used as a tool to discredit ones opponents in many discourses5-6. The Bell Curve1 is an example of using IQ, another cognitive ability expectation, to justify disabling racist tendencies and racism.8 In general, numerous cognitive ability expectations are used to label people as lacking and to disable them.9 Cognitive ability expectations are often linked to other ability expectations, such as being competitive. Sleeter outlined how “learning disability” was constructed as a category10-11 in the United States in response to the raising of cognitive ability standards in US schools in the 1960s for the purpose of keeping the nation in competitive standing against the Soviet Union after it launched the Sputnik satellite.10,11

Discourses around cognitive/neuroenhancements are part of our societal focus on cognitive/neuro abilities, are influenced by numerous ability expectations, and influence various ability-related dynamics. Our chapter is organized as follows. In the next section, we describe the field of ability studies, the framework of ability expectation and ableism, and its linkage to and difference from the academic field of disability studies. In the section “Ability Expectation Narratives,” we present data on the imagery of the user in the brain-machine interface (BMI)/brain-computer interface (BCI) academic literature and discuss the results through the disability studies and ability studies question: what is the impact of such imagery on the self-identity security of the user (where one is accepted for one’s set of abilities and where one is not forced, physically or by circumstance, to accept a perception of oneself that one does not agree with)?12 In the section “Some Other Ability Expectations- Related Questions,” we engage with other ability studies-related questions, such as: what ability expectations drive human enhancement in general and cognitive/neuroenhancements in particular? What is the impact of a given cognitive/neuroenhancement on ability inequality and inequity? What is the impact on ability security (where one is not forced to have a prescribed set of abilities to live a secure life12 and what is the impact on ability privilege?1 In the section “Anticipatory Governance and Ability Expectation Governance,” we link the field of anticipatory governance to ability expectation governance, one area of focus by ability studies scholars that we link back to earlier sections. A final section concludes the chapter.

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