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Alternative Futures of Disabilities

Sohail Inayatullah

Professor, Graduate Institute of Futures Studies, Tamkang University; University of the Sunshine Coast and Transcend Peace University. [1]


Why explore visions of disability when the problems of today are so pressing? First, the present is often politicized. It feels unchangeable. Attitudes and structures, paradigms and  policies, prevent us from changing today.[2]
 Does this mean then that the future is more open, a table rasa, on which we can write freely?  Unfortunately, our futures are often colonized – they are filled with the thoughts of others, the dogmas of history.

They are colonized by others’ who have thought through the type of world they want, often through the use of instrumental rationality – reason for personal gain.
 But the problem is not just out there. The future is colonized as well by our own internal images  – these are often unconscious -  ensuring that the futures we create are not ours.


 As well, when we focus on the futures we want, we use the intent of only our intellect. Thus, the minute we decide we want a particular future – a mission, a goal, or an objective,  strangely enough "the universe" conspires to create resistance, or so it seems. This may be so that we become spiritually stronger. Or it may be that our future creating process is fragmented. We create it through a particular self, and we disown, we distance our other selves.[3] These disowned selves, or futures, then bite back. These are our fears, our cynicisms, but as well our hopes and cravings.  

 An integrated vision, or indeed as the Minister suggests, our visions, must include these disowned aspects. What parts of your life have you disowned to get where you are today? By owning these, our futures have a greater chance of success. They have the as Wayne Dyer writes, the power of intent with surrender.[4] And as P.R. Sarkar has argued, they are in the Rasa, or the flow.[5]

 To get here, we thus have to own or disowned selves. This means using multiple ways of knowing the world – head, heart, spirit, action.


 Other steps are also necessary.

 1.The systems we live in also influence the future. It is not a static world or even just a dynamic world but a complex adaptive world, meaning, as we change, as we set goals, the world out there also changes – it adapts with us, changes with us. Forecasts and goals are often not realized because the planning environment is assumed to be stable, fixed, oblivious to our selves. But we are part of this system, as we change, so does the system.  

Thus along with having visions is the need for adaptability, the capacity to change.

2.      As just mentioned, we need to own our collective selves and disowned selves.

What aspects of disability at the collective level, in qld, have been disowned, positive and negative. Eg, Brisbane as it became international disowned its historical self, in positive form, its little country town self, and in negative form, its deep north image, as the site of brutal racism towards all those who did not fit conventional definitions of  citizenship.

To own and disown is necessary, but another step is necessary.

3.This is decolonizing the future. Challenging the current trajectory, unless that is our preferred.

This is not an easy task. Doing so requires some steps.

  1. Map our history – what are the patterns, what are isolated events
  2. Identity current problems.
  3. Identify future issues, develop consequences of this issues
  4. Develop scenarios or alternative futures  - the plausible futures.
  5. Develop visions and vision ideas of disability.

We have trained facilitators who will aid in this task. I do not see this as a light task, it will be fraught with problems – anger at the historical system, frustration with the current system, and bleakness about the future.

It is crucial that all this must be named.

However, once named, if we want a different future, certain steps are required. Merely to go back in the past and historical wrongs, will ultimately not help us create desired futures. Where do we want to go?

  1. Conceptualize the possibility of a new future.
  2. Create visions of new futures – what will they look like?
  3. Steps to create them – Not a strategic plan, those fail daily, but little steps, we can take, with others, to begin the process of creating different futures.

To move to the future, some conceptual history is required.


The first approach (and the dominant) to understand disability futures is:

1. Karma plus Spencer plus Darwin – ksd – kiss of death[6]

  • Survival of the fittest
  • Past karma determines current life
  • Triage – there are real limits – population, earth’s resources – finite world
  • Efficient but inhumane. Blame other.

But it is not others per se but the deeper system and of course the worldview – the myth of survival of the fittest.
Professor Chris Newell describes it as disability apartheid:
"For those of us who are wheelchair users just hailing a taxi from the street is an unrealised dream. Accessible taxis need to be ordered well in advance- and so often we wait, sometimes for more than an hour, for the special taxi which does not come, as many other regular taxis pass by.

Airline travel reinforces narrow norms and is a fresh opportunity for stigma as we have to be specially boarded first, and taken off last. In my case I need a medical certificate to say I am allowed to fly.

If I ever start to believe I might be “Dr Newell the valued frequent flyer” I quickly learn in travelling that I am “The Wheelchair in 3C” and the dangerous security risk with an oxygen cylinder.

One factor is certainly cost –this is a real tension and will most likely become more so in the future.

But perhaps deeper than cost it is this way because disabilities are the disowned self of  Darwinian man – disability means vulnerability – the other tribe and the post-eden nasty world, where life is brutish and short.

Can we recover this disowned self and rethink evolution – ultimately this must the purpose of any meeting on the future. To heal the traumas of not just this life but our millions of years of evolution, and make the transition to a wise, reflective, integrative planetary species.

And did Darwin really say all this?
Writes David Loye of the Darwin Project.

Of the so-called Darwinian idea that the primary drivers for our species are selfishness and the evolutionary dictate of “survival of the fittest” — which for more than a century has been used to legitimize the most predatory and globally devastating policies and actions for regressive individuals, governments, and corporations — he writes:

“But the more important elements for us are love, and the distinct emotion of sympathy.”

Darwin wrote only twice of “survival of the fittest,” but 95 times of love.

Of selfishness — which he called “a base principle” accounting for “the low morality of savages” —he wrote only 12 times, but 92 times of moral sensitivity.

Of competition he wrote 9 times, but of cooperation — which in his time they called mutuality and mutual aid —24 times.

2. Bacon, Descartes and science-military-industrial complex[9]

Science has been reductionist, giving humanity great gains. However, it is focused on the problems of the dominant and the powerful. Indeed without intervention of the Gates Foundation, third world diseases would get little funding (malaria, river blindness). We need to remember that by some estimates 50-95% of all scientists are employed in the military or with military associated projects. Focused on martial heroism, science has disowned its concern and care for the most vulnerable.

Is there a Kiss of life? Perhaps

3 Judeo-Christian

  • Good Samaritan – care of the other. Heal wound.
  • Dependency though - Victimhood becomes reified.

3a. Marxist-Islamic

  • Power – mostly class power, wealth.
  • Justice is the issue. Advocacy, power battles. To the trenches.
  • The other is seen as enemy, the inner enemy is ignored. Our disowned selves return to haunt.

4. Foucault and social constructivism[10]

  • Not the disabled as a category but how the real disables us. As a verb, a practice.
  • Society creates conditions in which we are abled and empowered and disabled and disempowered.
  • Reality  is diverse, bell curve of what it means to be human
  • How we define what is the true, the good and the beautiful is most important.

5. Sarkar, the Dalai Lama and the perennial wisdom

For Sarkar[11], humanity is a caravan, we need movement, progress toward a goal, but all must be on board. Ultimately we are not physical or mental selves but spiritual selves – beyond all gender, race – spiritual humanism is our shining light, our dharma.

6. Capra, Swimme and Ravetz[12] - The New science – what has emerged from Foucault, Sarkar and others is a new post-normal science, which while remaining tied to the empirical brings in culture, paradigm, and asks questions from the views of the other (feminist science, vedic/tantric science)  – it uses tradition, not ridicules,  it asks different questions, searches for new areas (not genetics but bio-mimicry)  – it is the new integrative science, uniting knowledge.

7. Venter, Drexler and Kurzweil – the three wise men from Silicone land[13]

Anything is technologically possible. We can manipulate our gene structures to eliminate that which causes pain. Disability, as conventionally defined, but also death or at least death before 120. Nano-machines will help us walk. Stem cells will help us see.

Our abilities will be amplified.

The real world will increasingly be virtual – our brains will be alight with experience. History is the problem, this is the great transition.

In the meantime, mobile phones, smart buildings, all will make life easier for persons with visual disability.


What then are the futures of disability in qld? You are the experts but let me do my best here.
First, what are the main images pulling us forward.
These are:  

1.      Techno-utopianism  - the problem of disability has a technological solution – enhanced application of science and technology are called for – ending disability

2.      Caring Society – disability remains a problem but moral authority leads to the disability having an improved quality of life – better people are called for – ending disability discrimination

3.      System Change – disability has defined remains located in the person, instead of the broader field or system that constructs who, how, and the where of the disabled. -  a new society is called for – a society that enables potentials

4.      Governmentalism – disability is like any other problem that faces government. They need to solve it now – more fair and efficient application of governance is called for – institutionalizing disability

5.      Disability as the other – social apartheid – hidden throughout society.


 What are some emerging issues in the next 5-15 years that may change the map of disability.  Emerging issues analysis patterns issues along an s-curve, searching for high impact low probability issues. Some emerging issues develop into trends (that have quantitative data) and some trends eventually become full blown problems.[14]


Many of these changes are technological.

1. Robot guide dogs in shopping centres for persons with sensor disability.[15]

2. Robot arms – 50,000 $usa per arm [16]

3.Smart toilet and other smart diagnostic devices – immediate relay of health information to health provider.

4.Ultimately, this is about the health-avatar – always on, always sending information on relevant data.

5.Smart house – one step further then the avatar. The entire house is embedded with technology, indeed, technology can not even be seen.

6..Stem cell research – reversing all sorts of sensory, physical and even neurological disabilities.

7.Stem cell research, fixing what has gone genetically astray – replacing organs and tissues, even reversing parts of aging.

8. Robots as carers

Pushing the technological dimension further, James Dator writes:[17]

What is considered a desirable ability is in part environmentally and largely culturally defined. Many of the physical and mental characteristics of the past that made people "disabled" in a hunting and gathering or agricultural--or even an industrial society (the celebrated "able- bodied laborer")--don't matter much any more, and will mean less and less in the future, not only for the technological reasons you mention (we can develop technologies that will enable the blind  to "see" and the halt to "walk"), but mainly because people may not need to "see" in certain environments and certainly will not need to walk--indeed, having legs is a handicap in weightless environments.

I write this midway to Vancouver where the International Space University is having its annual summer session this year, and even the most "able bodied" earthling is helpless in the gravity-free vacuum of space, and functional in the lesser gravities and atmospheres of the Moon and Mars only with bulky prosthetic assistance.

But if space examples are exotic and irrelevant, then think of the fact that women ([constructed as] the "weaker sex" in a society that requires a lot of hard physical labor) are quite competitive, and perhaps advantaged in a sedentary information society and even more so in the coming dream society. 

Beyond that, I use discussions of "disabilities" to problematize the entire notion of "normal" and "abnormal", which is just a different focus on the point above, plus the fact  that cultures of robots, cyborgs and Genetically modified humans suggests that entirely new notions of "normality" and "disability" are emerging, and should be encouraged to emerge now.

Thus, from technological change we get social and definitional change as well. We create technology which redefines us.

Some emerging issues are social

1.Change in transport and community making patterns. Not just designing quicker and better highways, but redesigning cities for communities. Going far beyond equal access to creating the sustainable and fair city. Green belts, real travel choices. Based on current research on correlation between city design and obesity.[18]

2.Government that takes seriously the social challenges – breakdown of family, future under-population – and funds carers, pre-school, kindergarden. This goes beyond “have three kids, two for the family and one for the State” by actually creating a society that supports the family, and thus the community. 

3.Foresight in government – a state that is smart and long term oriented, not always focused on surviving current problems. Run by professional not by the pathology of a immediacy based media and a fearful politician.

 4.No funding for disability as the enormous problems created by system breakdown (global warming, aging, lack of infrastructure, pollution, violence, depression) overwhelm. 

5. Failed cities – Globalization without social justice leads to OECD following the route of Asian cities – a permanent underclass, fortress within and without:  we all give up. 

Some are spiritual          

 1.   A new emerging image of what it means to be human – [19]                                               

  • Beyond national identity to planetary identity
  • Beyond material identity (I shop therefore I am, I am the sum total of my possessions) to spiritual identity (I am a self in the process of learning, self is spirit having a material experience).
  • Beyond industrial identity (the pyramid is the most efficient structure, ie power above and a line of authority to the minions below) to networked identity (I am who I connect with, the system is  a sphere, learning, evolving, and at times being a pyramid, but just in times or crisis)
  • Beyond patriarchy (men and how men define the world – speed, self, wealth, ego-power) to gender partnership (difference is biologically real but cooperative learning and women’s way of knowing honored – take back the night for example)

2. Meditation and IQ – enhancing IQ, productivity, learning[20]

 3. The Triple and quadruple bottom line really applied to all organizations.[21]

 4.Transpersonal medicine – healing at a distance, and certainly healing through touch, music leading to integrative medicine – inner and outer dimensions.


 What are some of the scenarios – I will use the simple structure of Business as Usual; Worst Case, Outlier and Best Case.

 Business as usual – This is the governmentalised plus institutionalized-caring society …disabled are cared for because that is what government is supposed to do. Caring but that is part of religious history. Funding remains marginal, social changes are all fought for. As well, as societal problems increase – global warming, aging, terrorism, depression – the disabled become less crucial for the agenda. Once voice among many vying for governmental attention.

 Worst Case – Surveillance society. Advances in technology coupled with continued rise of the religious right with neo-liberal economic rationalism lead to a society where whatever that does not fit is: 1. Fixed. 2. Is watched, monitored. This starts out benign but eventually as in totalitarian nations everywhere, the spirit dies as no innovation is possible and deep dependency results. It is not Big Brother, but the Nanny State.

 Outlier – Technology enabled augmentation of mind and body. A disabled person holds the 100 meter record and traditional definition abled and disabled Olympics disappear. Dramatic success in reversing numerous genetic based diseases through stem cell and nano-medicine. Far less concern to social reasons for disadvantage, and far less concern on intellectual impairment. Perhaps the Jetsons but without the chirpy-ness.

 Best Case – I would prefer  a society guided by deep sustainability – focused on not just solving problems but understanding that all problems have systemic reasons for them, and underneath they have a worldview context and a deep myth or stories that gives it foundational legitimacy. 

 I see this scenario as having four levels – each level is crucial, most of us live at level 1 and 2 –the problem at the systemic, but I see four levels to reality – the visible, the systemic, the worldview and the myth – all are real, and the best policymaking touches all four levels. Only staying at one level leads to failure, for example, in Queensland to  blame Dr. Patel, instead of the system, or search out systemic inefficiencies instead of seeing that the problem is rooted in our modern medical system, or do all three but forget out the myth of the heroic doctor, or scientist, or the myth of immortality – the fear of death. 

1. Solutions emerge a the level of the person. Inner change, finding one's power, searching for assistance, partnership with others – essentially self-discovery. 

2. Solutions emerge as systems are changed – technology, building design, city design, transportation systems are designed for community making and efficiency. They are tailored for persons and the communities they exist in. Technology is seen implicated in worldview and not neutral. Technology is used to help but is not seen as the holy grail … it can help communicate, not heal the soul. 

3. Deeper change is Worldview shift– moving from industrialism to spiritual sustainability (but leaving out the population discourse that there are too many people – is not people but our footprints that need to be reduced). It is certainly not darwinian; the evolutionary challenge is one of cooperation within the self and within the social systems. It is not so much karma focused by dharma focused – our collective purpose. 

  1. Deepest is telling the new story - Myth – the story of the caravan, of the extended family. This is a different story than that of triage or survival of the fittest. Evolution was random; human dignity can make it purposeful.

 Deep sustainability also requires the critical edge of transformation. Not everything needs to be sustained. Much needs to be transformed. 


As you go through the next two days, start to think about what is your preferred image of the future; what are the weights holding you back from creating this future; who are your allies in creating this future?

 What emerging issue might disturb your map of the future?

 And what are the scenarios you see ahead.

 Finally, what are your visions and vision ideas that you believe can transform the past, present and future.

[1] I would like to thank David Turnbull for extensive comments on earlier drafts of this presentation and Christopher Newell for his futures work in the field (See Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell,"When Tomorrow Finally Comes: Imagining Disability" Australian Journal of Communication. Also see their new book, Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid. Sydney, UNSW Press, 2004.


[2] For more on this, see Sohail Inayatullah, Questioning the Future. Tamsui, Tamkang University Press, 2005.

[3] See the brilliant work of Hal and Sidra Stone.


[5] See Sohail Inayatullah, Understanding Sarkar. Leiden, Brill, 2002.

[6] For more on this, see Johan Galtung and Sohail Inayatullah, Macrohistory and Macrohistorians. Westport, Praeger, 1997. See, in particular, chapters on Spengler.


[9] See the works of Zia Sardar for a critique of science.

[10] See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, New York, Vintage Books, 1973; Also see: Michael Shapiro, Reading the Postmodern Polity: Political Theory as Textual Practice, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1992

[11] See Sohail Inayatullah and Jennifer Fitzgerald, eds, Transcending Boundaries, Maleny, QLD, Gurukula, 1999.

[12], and for more on postnormal science. Also, see Sohail Inayatullah, ed., The CLA Reader. Tamsui, Tamkang University Press, 2004.


[14] Graham Molitor, The Power to Change the World: The Art of Forecasting. Potomac, MD, Public Policy Forecasting, 2003.



[17] Personal email, July 21, 2005

[18] Reid Ewing et al, “Relationship between urban sprawl and physical activity, obesity and morbidity,” The Science of Health Promotion (September/October, Vol 18, No. 1), 2003.

[19] See, for example,  See work by P.R. Sarkar, Duane Elgin, Riane Eisler. The classic remains: O.W. Markley and Willis Harman, eds, The Changing Images of Man. Elmsford, NY: Pergamon Press, 1982.

[20] See

[21] Sohail Inayatullah, "Spirituality and the future bottom line?," Futures (Vol. 27, 2005), 573-579.


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