“Hello. This is Lydia X.Z. Brown. Pronouns they/them. I’m a young-ish East Asian person with short black hair and glasses, currently wearing a blazer that has two pins on it. Behind me is what I refer to as a fake Zoom mansion. It’s a place that I wish and fantasize about living in, but will realistically never be able to afford under the death machine of capitalism. Outside the windows, there is a savannah with grassy flora and there’s a glistening lake. Anyway, I just wish I lived there. But unfortunately, I do not.”

So began Brown’s DISCO Network Lecture Series talk, “Algorithmic Ableism at the Intersections: Disability, Race, Gender, and New Technologies.” This unique introduction acted not only as an inviting gesture to bring participants with varying access needs into the experience; but also, served as a grounding symbol for the kinds of examples Brown would explore throughout the talk.

As an American attorney, author, and disability rights activist, Lydia Brown’s work examines the ways in which new technologies and algorithms serve to exacerbate and accelerate existing harms impacting disabled people. The first step in this endeavor, Brown states, is to “ground the conversation with a clear understanding of what ableism is.” Ableism, as defined by Brown, is “a system of values and beliefs about whose bodyminds are valuable and desirable, and whose bodyminds are expendable and disposable.” The term “bodymind,” coined by philosopher William H. Poteat, refers to the interconnectedness of the body and mind, recognizing that they are inseparable and should be considered holistically. The exploitative nature of ableism targets those who have been deemed by society, by their communities, to not fit the ideals of a normal bodymind.

As our reliance on technology and algorithms increases, the more embedded the system of ableism becomes within our social fabric. Particularly, these technologies—combined with practices that have long been established in capitalist nations—often lead to determinations about whose lives are worth protecting, and whose lives are not. These conclusions contribute to the perpetuation of macro forms of ableism, systematically excluding disabled people from access to basic needs.

For example, it is generally accepted that access to housing is directly tied to the ability to generate an income. However, due to increasing algorithm usage in employment processes, candidates with disabilities tend to be ruled out in the primary stages, leading to an over-exclusion of disabled persons from the labor market. This results in increased rates of poverty for disabled people, depriving people from access to affordable housing. Brown argues that by following conclusions made by algorithms blindly, institutions can contribute to far-reaching disparate negative impacts they may or may not be aware of. “There is no possible way for us to conceptualize the current state of our affairs, and the role that algorithmic and other technologies play in it without acknowledging the realities that shape our present social and political conditions,” Brown declares.

However, Brown reassures us that there is hope. Turning to the work of disability justice advocates and organizers beyond the scope of academia, Brown states that our approaches to solving problems must be more equitable and sustainable. Considering the housing example, rather than solely relying on technology to determine who is worth employing and thereby housing, communities can work collaboratively to adopt an abundance mindset, which shifts the focus away from individual competition and scarcity-based thinking, and instead, towards collective action and mutual aid. This can involve advocating for policies and programs that prioritize the creation of accessible and affordable housing as well as inclusive housing design.

Brown suggests that we should move away from relying on limiting technologies and capitalistic concepts of reform, and instead involve all community members to develop solutions that prioritize wellness, care, and meeting basic needs. While the idea of the Zoom mansion may remain a fantasy, it represents a future where individuals with disabilities can exist in our digital society without experiencing the systemic failures of ableism. However, the opulence and wastefulness associated with the imaginary Zoom mansion must be replaced by a more equitable and sustainable vision of the future. We can work together to create a future where everyone, regardless of their abilities, has access to the resources and support they need to thrive.