Soulless husks: queer and disabled cyborgs in the age of bionic perfection
(some notes on language use: I use queer/lesbian/dyke/disabled/crip interchangeably. I don't believe I can make myself legible to nondisabled/straight audiences by trying to separate out my experiences or labels further than that without misrepresenting myself. I am not Deaf. I use Mike Oliver's nondisabled/disablism rather than the American-English abled/ableism because disability is the result of social violence not physical or mental difference. I write in academic english only to the extent that it alllows me to remain in the academy and will translate academic terms/phrases into plain english if emailed at email@example.com)
Over the past 10 months I’ve been experimenting with interaction design as an avenue for better living as a queer disabled lesbian, but increasingly I’m finding there’s a conflict between my own values and those of the industry/community at large which leads me down technological blind alleys and has exposed me to upsetting phenomena I now understand to have pervasive consequences on queer disabled lives. This essay is an exploration of ways that computational and design culture order and enact queer disabled misery, told through the figure of the cyborg as both utopian superhuman and unholy abomination.
There’s a tangible disconnect between the way queer disabled people and the rest of the world use the word cyborg. Haraway’s assertion that we are in fact all cyborgs because all human bodies interface with the nonhuman organic and the mechanoelectrical synthetic belies the fact that for people like me the ways in which we interface with the world are stigmatised precisely because of this framing. For some, having an altered body or one that is integrated into the carbon or silicon based systems on Earth is a marker of prosperity, while for those of us who have the audacity to live unapologetically with sick bodies, minds and desires, our adaptability is seen as a sign of our moral and spiritual failure.
When a nondisabled or straight person uses the word cyborg, they’re usually alluding to the poetic/fictional utopian figure of human-mastering-machine as neatly modelled by OpenBionics appropriating imagery from the Deus Ex series to sell their bionic limbs (open, here, clearly not meaning open source in any meaningful sense), or human-as-planetary-symbiote as in solarpunk and afrofuturist fiction. When queer crips use the term, however, it’s more likely we’re referring to literature that questions the humanity of the cyborg like Masamune’s Ghost in the Shell, that articulates fear of the aberrantly vital Other like Akira, and that derides the hubris of the scientist for “going against god” as in fundamentalist Christian resistance to everything from fertility treatment to wheelchair use.
Perhaps, then, it would be useful to examine ways in which the practise of cyborging, of figuring-as-cyborg, manifests for different classes of people. If we think of cyborging as the provision or creation of bionics (i.e. parts of a body that are understood to be synthetic or not-body), how does the ways in which those “in tech” allocate funds, power and education order society hierarchically? I’ve written more thoroughly about prosthetics and what constitutes a tool vs a prosthetic/bionic on my reflective blog, but for the sake of this paper please read bionic to mean anything the user might understand to be part of their body but which transgresses hegemonic conceptions of what constitutes a “natural” human.
I’ve been working to on two prosthetics projects this year; first, a glove for stenographic typing that provides force feedback (eliminating the need for cues from one’s own body), and secondly a prosthetic tentacle that can be controlled by any currently idle limb or muscle group (to account for prosthetic needs that aren’t the result of limb difference). I don’t think either of these projects are particularly radical or original, I’m just responding to needs I’ve experienced that I feel are generalisable to enough people like me to be worth exploring. I am however, finding that despite the amount of venture capital that gets thrown at prosthetics and disability/queer related tech, there’s a real paucity of research or extant tech that’s even close to what I want to do. I think some of this comes down to soft robotics and e-textiles being relatively young areas of research but I think also it’s just that not many people like me have these skills and access to the resources necessary to even start doing this research. So what research is being done? What kind of bionics are people like me coming up with on our own and what is being made for us?
When working on their own bodies, nondisabled straights typically envision bionics as an artistic (expressive) or civic (though routinely not civilian) practice, whether that’s neodymium implants, forked tongues, hip replacements, or powered exoskeletons. Those into bionics as expression are increasingly called biohackers (acquiring social capital in the process), and those working on bionics for civic purposes are variously called interaction design engineers, roboticists, cybernetics engineers, somaesthetic designers, and surgeons (acquiring money, power and prestige in the process).
When designing for disabled and queer people, however, nondisabled straights take on a very different role. While there are certainly outliers who’ve donated their time and resources to enabling us, most are at best renting our bodies and autonomy back to us at inflated and dehumanising rates, and at worst trying to “fix” us to operate in ways that don’t offend their homogenising, eugenicist expectations of humanity.
At present, the way interaction design treats disabled queers is to adopt eugenics and cisheteropatriarchy as core design values. In my job as a technician for interaction design students I’d say I field a student enquiry once every few weeks about designing something for Deaf/disabled “users”; what among politicripples is usually referred to as “crip crap”. Of those, around 1 in 5 students will be responding to a request from the user; the others will be responding to a perceived inadequacy in the user’s way of existing. Most commonly, these take the form of things that arbitrarily translate sounds into other sensory output, or devices designed to obsolete (read: destroy) sign language among hearing or mixed (those containing, but not exclusive to, Deaf people) communities. Deaf and (sign language using) autistic theorists have written extensively on the social violence underpinning and enacted by sign language tools, most commonly translation gloves, that place the burden of communication solely on nonspeaking/Deaf people for the sake of the convenience of those around them, but still these mindsets are commonplace both in the academy and in industry. Less often, students will have similar ideas intended to normalise or facilitate bodies and how they move through the world. Meanwhile, the uk government encourages disabled adults to adopt bionics that make them more “manageable” and “promote independence” (reduce burden on others) like fitting unsafe catheters to people instead of providing PAs that allow them to piss safely. Companies that manufacture or install essential bionics typically charge criminally large amounts of money for them, to the extent that even in countries with nationalised healthcare it’s routine for powerchair users and trans people to have to fundraise for them.
Meanwhile in terms of sex, nondisabled straight designers and surgeons create bionics that simulate sex acts rather than sensations, that make patriarchal assumptions about female sexual function and desire, and that attempt to order the way queers fuck to closer resemble their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. Parts of trans people’s bodies that have been surgically/medically altered or are made of synthetic materials, lesbian sex and disabled people’s sexual adaptations are all codified as fake or invisiblised based on Aquinan logics of nature that tragically don’t lead to more natural law proponents stepping out into invisible traffic or forgoing fake coats in winter. Sex shops are awash with rabbit vibrators as though all women enjoy vaginal penetration, low power vibrators that can be concealed and won’t achieve reliable orgasm as if owning one’s sexual pleasure is shameful and vibrators are for “foreplay”, and dildos shaped like penises as if the glans doesn’t exist for the owner’s pleasure. Trans women’s vulvae are considered real and functional only insofar as they’re able to accommodate a man’s penis and look “natural” to cisgender eyes rather than based upon the alleviation of dysphoria and presence of sexual comfort and pleasure for the owner. Trans men are discouraged from getting bottom surgery because they’re told a penis that requires manually erecting isn’t a good enough surgical outcome. Dental dams are still not stocked in most sexual health clinics and devices for securing them are almost never available in sex shops. Bionics to allow people who do not have a penis, or do not maintain a stable erection, the ability to penetrate their partner, and those that make being penetrated safer and more enjoyable, are the butt (lol recursion) of constant unbodying, recloseting, dehumanising jokes among The Straight Nondisableds. Straight people STILL try to fix gay people through therapy, cure camps and hormone regulation. The UK government is still legislating against depictions and discussions of queer sex and transgender existence in our porn and in our schools.
First, however, I’d like to look at what happens when disabled queers design for ourselves or each other. Firstly, we treat stigmatisation as an affordance like any other, and typically deprioritise it over things like functionality or maintenance requirements. We push limits and work outside operating instructions. We have fun with our bionics. We charge phones off our wheelchair batteries, we set the mood to kiss a handsome butch with our omnipresent low intrusion media centre control schemes, we work for twelve hours without moving by draining our nutrient supplies and filling our catheter/stoma bags. We fuck for two days straight while our PAs cook our meals. We build illegally fast (yes there is a legal cap on wheelchair speed) high-torque offroad wheelchairs. To quote Connie Panzarino “Trached dykes eat pussy without coming up for air”. We fuck with adjustable size dicks that do things that biodicks can’t. We do poppers and use gloves smoother than human skin and lube slicker than vaginal secretions so our girlfriend can get her whole hand inside our cunt. We wear harnesses so our boyfriends can grab us from any angle. We put things in places things serve no biological function (besides blissful gay pleasure) by being put there. We fuck in public. We publicly talk about how we fuck on social media to meet compatible queers to fuck. We have no refractory period. We synthesise hormones. We self administer hormones. We dilate in the living room. We do physio during sex. We take our meds during sex because their side effects make it more fun. We use AAC and BSL to speak to our partner while her dick is in our mouth. We take our dicks out of our pants and throw them at transphobes in the street. We transgress social expectations of what bionics are desirable, safe, attractive or private. To be a queer crip is to design your life in ways that are only constrained by the shame and violence and resource/skill privation put upon you by your oppressors.
When I read that list, I feel a powerful and holy connection to a legacy of proud and creative lineage of interaction designers. I suspect to a nondisabled straight it scans as a list of alien traits, cruel acts and senseless choices. I suspect this because the current government revokes life sustaining care and finance on its basis. Because homophobes have beaten me in the street for it. Because my trans sisters are refused access to treatment because of it. Because it makes my lovers unable to be naked in front of me without crying or apologising or trying to compensate me for their bodies. Because disabled people are restricted from doing it. Because hearing people do not bother to learn BSL. Because nondisabled people would rather build 100 musical instruments that don’t enable creativity for disabled kids than teach 1 of those kids physical computing. Because right now, somewhere, a nondisabled person is securing venture capital funding for another fucking deaf glove while a cripple’s project is turned down for failing to have “widespread demand” and another workplace refuses to send its staff on BSL training because it’s an “unjustifiable expense”. Because a preteen baby butch is being taught physical computing by a homophobic female teacher who is only interested in the revolutionary power of teaching girls how to make unicorn robots and smart dresses. Because wheelchairs are “unhealthy” and using a cane will “exacerbate things”. Because the standard tv gag to communicate a sleeping person is a weirdo is to give them a cpap mask. Because I was made homeless for fucking wrong. Because men turn violent when they realise that I know for a fact that my girlfriend can do more for my cunt with a drawer full of bionics than they could ever do with their magical ultimate Man Penis and heteropatriarchy taught them they’re not allowed to start their own drawer. Because straight male faculty members misread my Kentish/lesbian surliness, autistic flat affect and nodule-addled voicebox to mean I will be One Of The Lads and believe that making sexual innuendo at me is Banter and not Sexual Harassment. Because even when it’s a legal requirement, nondisableds won’t spend £40 to adapt their buildings to accommodate bionics that have been in widespread use for centuries. Because I spent two years having dates interrupted by nondisabled people wanting to ask my girlfriend invasive questions about her visible bionics. Because when I went vegan I started getting thrown out of vegan restaurants because my partners’ professionally trained service dog made the other vegans concerned about hygiene. Because almost all media about cyborgs contains questions about how much of your “body” can be “replaced” before you sacrifice your “soul”, “essence” or “ghost”.
Ultimately, it would seem that straight nondisabled people are only interested in permitting or enabling design for queer disabled people if the end result makes us less disgusting to look at, easier to ignore, and cheaper to warehouse, or if it makes them feel like noble philanthropists for coming up with ideas to make us happier in ways they value (“Deaf people must really wish they could enjoy music”). They are also deeply invested in retaining creative and financial control of design knowledge and practice, often with the rationale that disabled people are not capable of doing things for themselves, that queer people are too small a section of the market to be worth giving the reins or that giving them the reins might hurt straight people (porn websites have no interest in a lesbian category that contains no men because the desired users of that category are men fantasising about threesomes, tinder will never filter all men from lesbians’ swipe deck because that would make tinder harder for straight couples to find another woman to experiment with). Their dream for us is to be the smiling amputee (ideally one who lost their limb in the military) using a shiny, expensive, cutting edge, normalising bionic arm. To be the normy gay couple who have tidy, sterile gay sex inside monogamous relationships and behind closed doors (though the homophobe’s end goal is always to force gay people back into the closet and heterosexual marriage, they’ll push for assimilation as a transitional, conciliatory demand). To be the servile, gender conforming, heterosexual trans person who apologises for their existence constantly, announces their trans status readily and will answer any questions about their body at any time (a transitional demand on the way back to forced psychiatric institutionalisation and mass killings). Their self image is of the renaissance inventor, mastering nature and becoming one with the environment without compromising the purity of the natural human form. Their perception of us taking matters into our own hands is of corruptors of the very things that make us human. We’re perverting nature. Sara Ahmed insists that queer use is to pervert an intended use, and that queer existence is life where only death has been assigned. To play the game according to their rules is to suffer a slow death by suffocation, because they will neither provide us resources nor freedom to live fully or sustainably. All that’s left for us is to embrace shame and transgression because a soulless life beats no life at all. We have no hope but the disgusting, terrifying, impossible hope we design for ourselves.
Academic referencing doesn't leave a lot of space for people outside academia contributing unless you steal their work and present it as your own. I want to acknowledge that for queer crips knowledge is typically shared in conversation not literature, so Rowan Mason-Jones, Esther Leighton, Imogen Fox, Bennett and others contributed as much as if not more than any academic to this paper, though the words and ideas presented here are my own as much as can be said of any academic writing.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Minnesota Press, 2016 – I wanted to at least acknowledge this text as as jumping off point for thinking about cyborg as symbiote, but I think it presents a view that doesn’t really account for dissonant bodies in a way that’s adequate for talking about disability and queerness outside of a very white nondisabled cisgender feminist framework.
Erard, Michael. “Why Sign-Language Gloves Don't Help Deaf People” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/11/why-sign-language-gloves-dont-help-deaf-people/545441/ - this topic comes up over and over again in disability circles and this article makes reference back to several other critiques of deaf gloves and nondisabled design
Ahmed, Sara. “Queer Use” Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2018/11/08/queer-use/ - Ahmed provides a framework for thinking about use as transgressive and perverted appropriation of the oppressor’s resources in a way that’s transformative to design thinking and liberation politics
 Haraway, Donna Jeanne. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Minnesota Press, 2016
 Briefly, though, I want to acknowledge that despite the claims of technovangelists, the end goal of “optimisation” holds no value for the nondisabled straight proletariat. A body that is bionically able to work more efficiently is a body ripe for exploitation. As much as capital reveres biohackers and engineers working on optimising its workforce, this isn’t in the genuine interest of most nondisabled straight people. I look forward to seeing hijacked industrial exoskeletons used to disrupt fascist organising and fracking operations, I do not look forward to seeing exoskeleton pilots being intentionally nerve-stapled to facilitate longer hours in the mineshaft.
 Erard, Michael. “Why Sign-Language Gloves Don't Help Deaf People” The Atlantic, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/11/why-sign-language-gloves-dont-help-deaf-people/545441/
 Ahmed, Sara. “Queer Use” Feminist Killjoys, https://feministkilljoys.com/2018/11/08/queer-use/