Fall 2019 Syllabus

STS 3284: Technology and Disability, Fall 2019

CRN 89711 -Tuesdays & Thursdays, 12:30-1:45

Dr. Ashley Shew, Assistant Professor, Science, Technology, & Society


This undergraduate course is designed to introduce students to the material cultures surrounding disability, the social meaning of “health” technologies, and the lived experiences of those who deploy, resist, and wrestle with technologies aimed at their bodies and minds.

Having successfully completed this course, undergraduate students will be able to:

  • Identify landmarks in the history of technologies for disabilities
  • Understand the social and medical models of disability and how those play into technological design
  • Recognize and critique common narratives and assumptions about technology and disability 
  • Analyze the relationship between disability studies and engineering orientations of disability
  • Discuss contemporary issues and controversies about technologies for disability communities
  • Identify, lift up, and defend the voices of disabled people in the context of policy and engineering
  • Recognize ableism in social narratives about technology and disability

This course will be “hands-on, minds-on.” We will “play” with different technologies, visit labs on campus that works on bionics and other assistive tech, speak with practitioners, and hear from users of the technologies we track. Students will also play an active role in the development of classroom content, leading class in discussion, presenting on individual technology projects, and engaging with literature on their selected topics.

Specific topics include:

  • Cochlear ear implants and hearing aids
  • Prosthetic arms and legs
  • Exoskeletons
  • Text-to-speech interfaces
  • Apps for ipads aimed at a people with disabilities
  • Closed captioning
  • ADA specifications
  • Mobility aids (wheelchairs, crutches, scooters, canes)
  • Other technologies as incorporated by student choice

We will pay close attention to the historical and social contexts within which technologies are aimed at disabilities, resistance to and acceptance of technologies, and identity and passing in the context of technologies. In all these things, we will take disabled people as experts on the experience of disability and on disability-related technologies.

Classroom Accessibility for all students

Disability rights are civil rights, and disabled people fought hard to secure the rights to your accommodations in the classroom and workplace. Those people who fought for your accommodations were spit on, arrested, isolated, and dismissed, but they wouldn’t take less than they deserve when it came to securing your rights to access education and other public goods. They are my heroes, and their work also works to accommodate me within our classroom as a multiply disabled university employee. You can bet that I really want you to use your accommodations, or help you get them if you don’t have any in place, or find a system that works for us if you don’t care to go through the official channels. Most requests are easy – and you don’t have to be disabled or diagnosed to request from me; I am happy to distribute any in-class readings in larger or otherwise more accessible fonts, disability issue or not! And, if you need text-to-speech software to read aloud with you, I would love to introduce you to my friends in Accessible Technologies and then make sure you get the formats you need to use the AT.

Attendance and Participation

Absences, tardy arrivals, and early departures interfere with your concentration and ability to take advantage of this course. If you will be missing a number of classes for illness, religious holidays, sportsball participation, or other reasons, please let me know in advance when possible. For some of our classes, it will be possible for me to Zoom you into class if you are ill. While I do not always take attendance, class participation and engagement are an essential part of this course, and so missing many classes will work against your engagement and robust participation.

Electronic Devices

I don’t have a laptop policy in this course because laptops can be accessible technologies for those who need to type notes rather than write, and laptop policies require disabled student to identify themselves in ways that can be discriminatory and discourage full access to a course. However, I urge you to use your technologies responsibly. Studies show that students are better off if they take notes on paper and transcribe it onto their computers rather than type directly; I make no rules about how you take notes or how you view materials, but want you to be informed. Please don’t work on other classes during our class, and don’t distract others by checking email or social media on your phone, tablet, or laptop. Make space for your own participation and full engagement.

Principles of Community

Virginia Tech is a public land-grant university, committed to teaching and learning, research, and outreach to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. Learning from the experiences that shape Virginia Tech as an institution, we acknowledge those aspects of our legacy that reflected bias and exclusion. Therefore, we adopt and practice the following principles as fundamental to our on-going efforts to increase access and inclusion and to create a community that nurtures learning and growth for all of its members:

  • We affirm the inherent dignity and value of every person and strive to maintain a climate for work and learning based on mutual respect and understanding.
  • We affirm the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely. We encourage open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect.
  • We affirm the value of human diversity because it enriches our lives and the University. We acknowledge and respect our differences while affirming our common humanity.
  • We reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination, including those based on age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status. We take individual and collective responsibility for helping to eliminate bias and discrimination and for increasing our own understanding of these issues through education, training, and interaction with others.
  • We pledge our collective commitment to these principles in the spirit of the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Honor Code

The Undergraduate Honor Code pledge that each member of the university community agrees to abide by states: “As a Hokie, I will conduct myself with honor and integrity at all times.  I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I accept the actions of those who do.”

Students enrolled in this course are responsible for abiding by the Honor Code. A student who has doubts about how the Honor Code applies to any assignment is responsible for obtaining specific guidance from the course instructor before submitting the assignment for evaluation. Ignorance of the rules does not exclude any member of the University community from the requirements and expectations of the Honor Code.

For additional information about the Honor Code, please visit: https://www.honorsystem.vt.edu/

To add to this statement, please ask questions as we go if you want clarification on what is expected in this course.

Mandatory Reporting

Please be advised that, as a faculty member at Virginia Tech, I am a mandatory reporter, which means that I am obligated to notify the Title IX Office at Virginia Tech if I am given knowledge about sexual assault or violence by other employees and students. Confidential sources, those who do not have to report to the Title IX Office, include staff members at the Schiffert Health Center, the Cook Counseling Center, Virginia Tech Mental Health Centers, and The Virginia Tech Women’s Center.

Additional Notes

If you are a student who faces food insecurity or issues with housing, please contact the Dean of Students Office in Student Affairs. They can also help arrange medical leave and help students in crisis. https://www.dos.vt.edu/


Choose Your Own Adventure Grading System, Version 3.0
I have updated how I grade this course, which was once radical anarchy where everyone chose their own work (with approval). Recent semester with growing numbers have required me pare down the anarchy, but I am committed to deep individualized learning in this particular course. You will now be graded on a more structured system, but one that still allows for pursuit of your own interests within the topic of Technology and Disability.

Here are the assignments everyone will do, for 50% total of your grade:

  • Individualized Book Assignment: Students will schedule to meet with the instructor during the second and third weeks of class. From the conversation we have (scheduled for 15 minutes/student), students will be assigned a disability studies book to read. There will be appointments made throughout the semester to come back and have an oral exam conversation about the book you read with the instructor. The oral exam for your individual book will count for 25% of your grade.
  • Assessment Quizzes: These quizzes help me keep up with your attendance, participation, and engagement and will be taken through Canvas outside of our class time. Parts of these quizzes will be factual about our readings and other parts will be short essay format. Each of the two quizzes will be work 12.5% of your grade, both for 25% total of your grade.

The rest of your grade will depend on your choice of assignments. You must decide and submit your adventure plan by choosing from the following for the other 50% of your grade:

  • Topic Projects (25%): Pick a technology or theme in disability culture and follow its history or how it is contemporarily depicted; what is the story of some technology or object aimed at disability? Students will present on these topics. Please include two dates on which you would be willing to present on this topic in your adventure plan. You are welcome to work in teams, but that is not required. You will have 10 minutes during one of our classes to share what you’ve found.
  • Opinion/Editorial (25%): Write an Op-Ed Style article that stakes a position on some item of policy or politics about disability, technology, or health. Make an appointment with your instructor to talk about what you are interested in writing on, and get approval on the topic.
  • ADA Campus Survey (25%): Mike from the ADA office will be showing us how to measure bathrooms to ADA specifications, as well as some other facets of the law. Students completing this assignment will pick an area of campus to measure and do a survey of the area; students will then prepare a narrative report of their finding to turn into your instructor. Students can assess two spaces for 50% instead of one for 25% – ideally, providing a report comparing the spaces. We will have a day at the end of class for people to share any surprising findings.
  • Create Your Own (25-50%): I’ve had people make comic strips, design objects, make *captioned* youtube videos explaining concepts for general audiences, write poetry, review a scholarly book for an academic journal, and more. For Create Your Own, please propose something you’d like to make, write, act, build, or do, and please tell me how much of your grade you think it should be worth.

Every class member will tell us about their projects, research, funky piece of create-your-own, etc. during the last few class meetings. Adventure Plans (how you wish to be graded) should be uploaded for my assessment by the third week of class. (See Canvas.)

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