Spring 2019 Syllabus


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

I want you to have the advantages that other students have and would be happy to work with you in any case. Please let me know how we can set the class up to enable you to participate fully and succeed. I’m happy to meet with students at any time about how to best support their learning and engagement, even if it is mid-semester. If you need a reasonable (or even unreasonable) accommodation, please let me know what you need, and I will do my best to make it happen. And please don’t be afraid to approach me with a request or note from SSD, especially if you have non-apparent disabilities or are someone who tries to pass. Your needs to access materials and lectures and assignments are not special. Many adaptations – large font, specific fonts, different pacing, image description, etc. – are really easy for me to make. If you’d like to register with Services for Students with Disabilities and haven’t already, please see their website: http://www.ssd.vt.edu/


Absences, tardy arrivals, or 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. While I do not always take attendance, class participation and engagement is an essential part of this course, and so missing many classes will count against you.

Electronic Devices

If you are viewing your texts digitally, you may want to bring a tablet or a laptop computer with you, since you should have a copy of the text at the ready during class discussion. Hard copy does have advantages, and you should consider using hard copies where possible. 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 distract others by checking email or social media on your phone, tablet, or laptop, using a music player or headphones (unless they are attached to a hearing-assistive device), or doing work for another class during our discussions. Make space for your own learning by tuning out and even turning off devices that will lead do your distraction. Students making distracting use of electronic devices will be asked to leave class.

What to Call Me, Other Faculty, and TAs

I prefer to be called Ashley, Dr. Shew, or Professor Shew. My preferred pronouns are she/her/hers. Faculty members, regardless of gender, should be referred to by title or degree, “Professor X” or “Dr. X,” unless they specifically tell you otherwise. Visitors or teaching assistants who have not obtained a doctoral degree or hold a relevant academic title should be referred to as “Mr. Y,” “Mx. Q,” or “Ms. Z,” never using “Miss” or “Mrs.” unless you are explicitly told otherwise.

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 2.0
I have updated how I grade this course, which was once radical anarchy where everyone chose their own work (with approval). This semester, due to growing numbers, we need to pare down the anarchy. 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 40% total of your grade:

  • Book Group Presentation: We will have book sign ups during the second week of class. Groups of 4-5 will select from a limited selection of books, which all group members will read and present on during the semester. Groups will be assigned one day on which they lead class in book presentation and discussion. (30%)
  • Pathways Assessment Quizzes: These are for record keeping purposes for the new Pathways curriculum model. They help me keep up with your attendance, participation, and engagement. Some of these will be online before or during class. (10%)

The rest of your grade will depend on your choice of assignments. You must decide and submit your adventure plan by choosing from items below to constitute the other 60% of your grade:

  • Topic Projects (40): Topic projects involve research on a topic or theme. Projects may be individual or group (or you can do one of each). Pick a technology 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. You are welcome to work in teams, but that is not required.
  • Traditional Research Paper (40): Please turn in topics for your papers for approval by mid-semester. Research papers should either argue for some point or demonstrate some idea. 4,000-6,000 words.
  • Opinion/Editorial (20): Write an Op-Ed Style article that stakes a position on some item of policy or politics about disability, technology, or health. Get topic approval first.
  • Unit Development (40): Students are asked to choose a technology and disability not represented on our syllabus and develop a class unit on the topic. What readings or resources would you select? What are key points to bring forward in class? What questions would prompt discussion? I would expect 3-5 pages of notes on how you might pitch a unit on the technology & disability you’ve chosen. You will be expected to share your unit with the class during the presentation weeks at the end of the semester.
  • ADA Campus Survey (20): 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 findings to share with the class. Students can assess two spaces for 40% instead of one for 20% – ideally, providing a report comparing the spaces.
  • Engaged Participation (20): This is a participation grade, which you are welcome to include in your Adventure Plan. Participation isn’t simply attendance; participation can be reflected in your engagement with topics, your questions about a topic, and your attentiveness during field trips and speaker visits. At different points, I will solicit questions from class members to prepare ahead of speakers, ask for feedback on topics, and more. These participatory activities fit into this assignment.
  • Create Your Own (???): I’ve had people make comic strips, design objects, make 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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