A recent New York Times story: A nine-year-old South Carolinian named Lexie Kinder, suffering from an immune disorder, is tutored for years at home to avoid infection. Then she is taught to control a VGo, a “camera-and-Internet-enabled robot that swivels around the classroom and streams two-way video between her school and house.” The VGo, dolled up by Lexie in a pink tutu, ends the little girl’s pervasive isolation. Her robot, which looks like a laptop and webcam bolted to a child-height cart, sits at an ordinary school desk, interacts with both teachers and classmates, stands in line for recess, and even is evacuated with its controller’s friends during fire drills.For any parent of a disabled child — for any parent, really — the slide show that the Times posted to its website to accompany its story grips both mind and heart. Technology, in particular the robot-plus-internet model, seems suddenly to offer real hope of mitigating the many educational disadvantages faced by the disabled. It tantalizingly hints not only at the possibility of genuine equality of educational opportunity for disabled children, but of real social integration to boot. Were I the parent of a child like Lexie, I would be exuberant. I would also would be on the phone to the VGo distributor. Were I the parent of a disabled child whose challenges were different from Lexie’s, I would likely be nearly as enthusiastic, joyously welcoming the possibility of adapting her family’s model to my own child’s needs. The potential of robotic technology to realize these kinds of equality is very real. But this paper argues that, in the context of the legal structures that govern education of the disabled, robotic technology is also deeply threatening. The same robots that can open schoolhouse doors that had been closed to individual children with disabilities can, collectively, work to slam those doors shut for the disabled as a class. The idea of “special” education is that the disabled have special needs that must be protected by a grant of special legal rights. The very ability of robots to satisfy those needs in ways heretofore unimagined has the potential to erode the justifications and the institutions that guarantee special legal rights. This could move disabled children backwards, towards less equal educational opportunity.
Aaron Jay Saiger will present Robots in School: Disability and the Promise (or Specter?) of Radical Educational Equality on Friday, April 4th at 2:00 PM with moderator Kate Darling on the Panel on Robots and Social Justice at the University of Miami Newman Alumni Center in Coral Gables, Florida.