2015 Syllabus

STS 4984/5984: Special Study: Technology and Disability

Fall 2015: Tuesdays & Thursdays 2:00pm-3:15pm

Course Developed and Taught by Ashley Shew (shew@vt.edu)

Availability of the instructor is by appointment and prior to class on Thursdays


This graduate and advanced undergraduate course is designed to introduce students to the material cultures surrounding dis/ability, 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.

Learning objectives

Students should will be able to:

  • Distinguish the social model of disability from the medical/interventionist model
  • Problematize the relationship between people (all people) and “helpful” technologies
  • Increase awareness of the cultural baggage that comes with “assistive” technologies
  • Challenge common assumptions about what counts as disabled and abled, normal and pathological, and therapy and enhancement
  • Understand the problems with disability simulations
  • Consider personal use of technologies in their daily lives
  • See common threads between disability studies and cyborg studies
  • Understand how materiality (“the thinginess of things”) plays into our experiences

This course will be “hands-on, minds-on.” We will “play” with different technologies, visit labs on campus that work 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
  • 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 projects – up to 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.

Access Statement

Please let me know how we can set the class up to enable you to participate fully and succeed. If you will be missing a number of classes for illness, religious holidays, sportsball participation, or other issues, please let me know in advance if possible. I’m happy to meet with students at any time to talk about how I can best support their learning and engagement. If you’d like to register with Services for Students with Disabilities, please see their website: http://www.ssd.vt.edu/

Values Statement

Please abide by both the Virginia Tech Honor Code and Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community. Information about the Honor Code can be found for graduate students at http://ghs.graduateschool.vt.edu/ and for undergraduate students at http://honorsystem.vt.edu/. Virginia Tech’s Principles of Community can be found at http://www.inclusive.vt.edu/vtpoc/index.html.

Choose Your Own Adventure Grading System

Please sign the following assignments to yourself by choosing from the following menu and getting it approved with your instructor; please include your name on the paper you turn in. Make sure your break down adds to 100 for undergraduates and 120 for graduate students. Please turn in your Adventure Plan by September 10 at the very latest; plans will be approved or renegotiated by September 17. You can do two of the same assignment where feasible.

Individual Topic Projects (40) or Group 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 con temporarily depicted; what is the story of some technology or object aimed at disability? Students will present on these topics in the last few weeks of class.

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.

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.

Webpage Content Development (40): For each unit of class, students develop content for the class website, summarizing the key issues surrounding an individual technology and disability. For instance, when we talk about cochlear implants and deafness, students engaged in this assignment will explain perspectives on the issue and relevant social, historical, and medical details. Students who choose this project would work collaboratively.

ADA Campus Survey (40): 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 report of their findings to share with the class.

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, make youtube videos explaining concepts for general audiences, 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.

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