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Reynolds Gets $250,000 NEH Grant for Disability Work

Grant Funds Community Conversations on Disability and Technology

UMass Lowell Asst. Prof. of Philosophy Joel Michael Reynolds Photo by K. Webster
Asst. Prof. Joel Michael Reynolds specializes in bioethics and the philosophy of disability.

By Katharine Webster

Asst. Prof. of Philosophy Joel Michael Reynolds’s brother and best friend, Jason, was born with several genetic conditions and disabilities. 

Reynolds’ training in philosophy, coupled with his understanding of Jason’s experiences, helped him to analyze the assumptions on the part of able-bodied people that affected his brother’s quality of life and his medical care.

So Reynolds has dedicated his life to the growing field of bioethics and the philosophy of disability, examining how social, political and cultural values and beliefs about disability affect everything from prenatal genetic testing and genomic research to end-of-life care. 

“Disability is a fundamental aspect of every single human life,” he says. “We all have to learn how to navigate the world with some impairments at some point.”

Now Reynolds, who is also the inaugural 2017-2020 Rice fellow of The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics think tank based in Garrison, N.Y., is co-directing a series of six community conversations on disability and technology, funded by a $250,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant, with senior research scholar Erik Parens.

Reynolds says the conversations consider how the experiences of people with disabilities can inform the development of assistive technologies that affect fundamental aspects of quality of life, from communication to parenting. Since many assistive technologies are initially developed to address the needs of people with disabilities, those people are the experts on their uses and limitations, he says.

“If we want to reflect upon how technologies improve or detract from our lives, we need to listen to the experiences of people with disabilities,” he says. “It’s good ethically and it’s good for developers, engineers and designers, because able-bodied people can make bad assumptions about what will best serve people with disabilities.”

The conversations also address larger ethical issues, including equity in access to assistive technologies and new medical treatments.

Reynolds was a postdoctoral fellow in bioethics and the humanities at The Hastings Center when UMass Lowell offered him a faculty position, starting in fall 2018. He continues to serve as a fellow at The Hastings Center, which is hosting the series, “The Art of Flourishing: Conversations on Disability and Technology.”

The first conversation, held in early December, focused on community and communication – specifically, technologies that mediate between the Deaf and hearing communities. The featured speakers included one who communicates in American Sign Language and English, one who identifies as Deaf and is also blind and uses Braille, and one who is Deaf and also uses a cochlear implant.

The discussions are shedding light on the kinds of experiences that able-bodied industrial designers and engineers need to understand when they’re trying to “solve” the problems of people with disabilities, Reynolds says. For example, a recent advertising video shows a high-tech exoskeleton helping a person in a wheelchair to stand up and walk.

“Able-bodied people often think, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if you could walk again?’” Reynolds says. “People who use wheelchairs report wanting better wheelchairs – more comfortable wheelchairs with batteries that stay charged longer.”

Reynolds is also the founding editor of a new academic journal, The Journal of Philosophy of Disability, to be published by the Philosophy Documentation Center. The journal will be co-edited by Assoc. Prof. Teresa Blankmeyer Burke of Gallaudet University. Burke was the first signing Deaf woman in the world to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy.

“The philosophy of disability is exploding as a field, with more and more books and articles being written all the time, and there has never been a dedicated place to allow those conversations to occur in a sustained manner,” Reynolds says. “A lot of philosophers are seeing this as a crucial area to consider.”

The journal will start accepting submissions in June, including academic articles that will be subject to peer review, book reviews and personal essays. It is scheduled for initial publication in fall 2021.