Guest Blog post by Hanna Herdegen, researcher on the Disability, Experience, and Technological Imagination Grant (NSF #1750260)
When we talk about disability and technology, we often operate from within a paradigm that places disabled people, designers, and technologies in a hierarchical arrangement. That is: disabled people as tragic victims of their circumstances, technologies as their saviors, and designers as facilitators of this salvation.
We must break out of this paradigm for several reasons. Imagining disability as tragic and disabled people as victims validates ways of thinking that reinforce inequitable social systems and act to deprive disabled people of agency and choice. These ways of thinking have consequences for disabled people that range in severity from everyday grievance to systemic extermination.
When designers, in particular, cannot imagine disability outside of the constraints of this paradigm, they tend to produce technologies that do not adequately respond to the needs of their users—because they have, in fact, very little idea what disabled life really looks like. This is not necessarily an individual designer’s fault; like all of us, they live in a world where authentic, diverse, and self-directed stories about disabled lives and ways of living remain, for the most part, untold and undervalued. The problem persists and becomes pernicious, however, when designers, because they believe themselves to be in a position of saving disabled people from their tragic circumstances, do not listen to the disabled users who are ready and willing to tell them how they might improve their designs—or, in some cases, that it would be best if they simply took their projects and ambitions elsewhere.
Disabled people are not passive recipients of technology. They are an active and diverse user group who face particular restrictions on their technology use—not because they are disabled, but because of designers’ failure to accurately imagine their lives and needs. Disabled technology users often must respond creatively to imperfect and ill-fitting devices while at the same time resisting ableist narratives about disabled technology use circulated by both designers and the general public.
[Stella Young video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8K9Gg164Bsw]
What might a more accurate picture of disabled technology use look like?
We need to acknowledge the ways in which disabled people accept, adapt, and alter the technologies they use. We need to understand how these responses are dynamic; they change by circumstance and context. We also need to account for the role of the intent and expertise of disabled users in the dynamic transformation of the form and function of their technologies.
Rayvon Fouché talks about ‘vernacular’ technology use by Black technology users, who, through intention and circumstance—i.e. through the creative use of technologies at a particular intersection of race, culture, and political moment—transform the meaning and affect of their technologies (1).
Similarly, I would argue that we might talk about the technologies disabled people use as falling into three broad categories based on their intended use: general-purpose technology, adaptive technology, and cripped technology. We can also talk about disabled people using these technologies in three use-instances based on their expected use-context: dominant use, alternative use, or transformative use. Technologies and uses can exist in multiple categories simultaneously.
By looking at these uses and use-contexts, we can see how disabled technology use is creative, resistive, and transformative. We can also see how designers might better serve disabled user groups by engaging more closely with the particular needs and actual experiences of disabled people.
A general-purpose technology is a technology that is not intended to mitigate a disability. An example of this kind of technology might be a sweater. We can imagine three use-instances involving a sweater to see how a disabled person might adapt this technology to their varying needs.
Instance One: A disabled person uses a sweater to keep warm on a cold day.
This instance is an example of a dominant use of a general-purpose technology. In other words, the disabled person is using the sweater exactly how it is expected to be used.
Instance Two: A disabled person carries a sweater in their bag during a day out in case they get a migraine and experience a drop in body temperature.
This instance is an example of an alternative use of a general-purpose technology.
The disabled person in this instance is still using the technology for its intended purpose (to keep warm) but the use context has changed: the technology has been adapted by the disabled person to help mitigate their disability.
Instance Three: A disabled person uses a sweatshirt to prop up their foot after an ankle dislocation.
This instance is an example of a transformative use of a general-purpose technology. The use-context has changed and the technology is not being used for its intended purpose: it has been transformed by the disabled person to mitigate their disability.
In this video, Summer uses a camera bag as a chronic illness supply bag. This would be an example of an alternative use of a general purpose technology.
Adaptive technology is technology that is intended to mitigate a disability. An example of adaptive technology might be an extended-reach claw. Once again, let’s imagine three use-instances:
Instance One: A disabled person uses an extended-reach claw to grab a bag of pretzels that is out of their reach.
This instance is an example of a dominant use of an adaptive technology. The disabled person is using the claw exactly as it was intended to be used.
Instance Two: A disabled person uses an extended-reach claw to pull their sister’s hair.
This instance is an example of an alternative use of an adaptive technology. The technology is being used for its intended purpose (to reach something), but the use context is unexpected.
Instance Three: A disabled person uses an extended-reach claw as a bat to play balloon volleyball in their kitchen.
This instance is an example of a transformative use of an adaptive technology. The use-context is unexpected (the person is not completing a task, but playing a game) and the technology is not being used for its intended purpose.
A cripped technology is a technology that has been designed, redesigned, or repurposed by a disabled person to mitigate a disability.
These technologies are nearly all examples of transformative use. We might talk about the sweatshirt-as-ankle-prop, or the extended-reach-claw-as-balloon-bat as examples of cripped technology, though these uses are temporary. There are other examples which are more permanent, like sawing off the legs of a bed to make the frame an appropriate height for crawling into.
Jordan’s glitter arm is an example of a cripped technology.
Disabled people are creative, adaptive, and transformative users of technology. They are not simply recipients, not people trapped in or by their technologies, not grateful objects of technological philanthropy. Disabled people have power and agency in their technology use—and when they are denied it, they work hard to resist, redesign, and sometimes destroy the technologies involved in that denial.
Fouché, Rayvon. 2006. “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud: African Americans, American Artifactual Culture, and Black Vernacular Technological Creativity.” American Quarterly 58: 639-661.
Hamraie, Aimi and Kelly Fritsch. 2019. “Crip Technoscience Manifesto.” Catalyst 50(1):1-34.