Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2005, Volume 25, No. 2
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies

The Intimate Relations between Technology and Disability

Gerard Goggin, Ph.D.
Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies
University of Queensland, Australia
E-mail: g.goggin@mailbox.uq.edu.au

Christopher Newell, Ph.D.
School of Medicine
University of Tasmania, Australia
Email: Christopher.Newell@utas.edu.au

Whether in the home, at work or leisure, technology plays an important role in the lives of people with disabilities, and also in the way that disability is conceived, experienced, and framed in society. A wide range of technologies are adopted, consumed, and used by people with disabilities. We do so, moreover, in unexpected and innovative ways, often unforeseen by the designers and promoters of such technologies.

There are iconic technologies of disability. The wheelchair, for instance, often stands in as the technology, and sign, of disability, rivalled by the crutch, walking stick or other external prostheses. Other technologies of mobility, such as scooters, calipers, lifts, or automobiles, do not fit the stereotype quite so neatly. Yet, they do serve to confer disability, while providing essential assistance.

In recent years, there are many technologies more intimately associated with our bodies — such as those pharmacological, machinic, or informatic assemblages classed as medical technologies — that, for at least those countries or individuals who can afford them, have a complex relationship to impairment and disability because they alter the balance between death and life; lead to a reconceiving of the relationship between body and machine; or a recasting of issues of quality of life. The national debate in the USA in 2005 over whether or not Terri Schiavo should live dramatically illustrates the stakes, and contested perspectives with regard to the nature and status of life-sustaining technology. Such technologies enable us to survive and yet with new forms of multiple, and complex needs.

Reaching even further within the body, developments in genetics and biotechnologies raise profound issues of ethics, value, and power, at which disability is often at the heart — yet still too infrequently credited and pondered. The telos of stem cell and other biotech research is to find a cure for disability; so those with paraplegia may walk again, a desire that the late Christopher Reeve, as perhaps the pre-eminent celebrity with disability, embodied. Yet for others, there is an obscenity found in the many low-tech ways of supporting people with many impairments found in the focus on the quest for the high-tech cure, at the expense of other support.

In the area of networked digital technologies now so pervasive and ubiquitous in many countries, accessibility for people with disabilities is often now a focus of discussion yet still more often honored in the breach. Important initiatives have been taken in the area of the World Wide Web to make the Internet accessible, yet the overlapping cluster of software, hardware, and networks associated with online communications is proving far more intractable. More than one billion people worldwide own cell phones, more than fixed phones, yet inclusive and accessible technologies for text, video, and voice communications for mobile and wireless devices have been overlooked or have only slowly eventuated.

In all this, disability is customarily invoked as a warrant for development of new technologies, from biotechnology to information and communication technologies, and "smart homes." Yet the rhetoric of such claims, their purposes, truths, and styles, are rarely analyzed and interrogated. Nor are the unexpected uses and ends of these technologies scrutinized. For instance, too often the introduction of new technologies can create new forms of exclusion for people with disabilities. There are many contests over the meaning and implications of technology, as, for instance, in the case of the cochlear implant (or "bionic ear"), yet little general recognition or study of these richly ambiguous and conflictual sites of social action and significance. There are also specific cultural and social codings of technology and disability that remain little recognized, and political and economic discourses that require sustained examination.

Ironically, there would appear to be a substantial amount of money available from governments, funding agencies, and charitable foundations to study technology and disability. Many conferences on technology also include a session or more featuring disability. Much of this work is worthy, to be sure. However, we discern a real gap here. Baldly stated, we believe there is a paucity of work that examines the technology of disability in terms of its cultural and social context, constitution, and relations.

Critical Disability Studies and movements of people with disabilities, as reflected in this journal for instance, insist on the socio-political nature of disability. Mutatis mutandi, the bearings, materialities, and moorings of disability in minds, bodies, identities, and collectivities has debated, theorized, and recast. Disability's social, cultural, and discursive production has been established to counter and displace biomedical and charity discourses of disability.

Similarly, in the past two decades there has been efflorescence in science and technology studies, with the rise of the social studies of technology tradition. Central to such developments was, first, then the acknowledgement of the social shaping of technology, then, second, the radical grasping of this in work such as actor-network theory to emphasis the provisional, contingent performance of both "society" and "technology" in their mutually interactive constitution.

Yet there is a lack of dialogue between these two traditions, situated at the interface of disability and technology. On the one hand, technology is so central to the live course and experiences of people with disabilities, yet few disability scholars have undertaken systematic work in the area, even if many day-to-day struggles unfold around them. On the other hand, disability is such an important proving-ground for many concepts, methods, and themes in technologies studies, yet it is mostly overlooked. Or perhaps disability is misrecognized in work that is preoccupied with what it sees as matters of medicine, health, or bioethics, even when disability is crucial to the framing of such technology.

In this context, the purpose of this themed double-issue of Disability Studies Quarterly was to address this gap, and provide a timely, interdisciplinary reconsideration of the connections between technology and disability.

The first part (issue 2, vol. 25) gathers together seven papers under the rubric of "Access, Equity and Citizenship."

Susanne M. Bruyère, William E. Erickson, and Sara Van Looy's "Information Technology and the Workplace: Implications for Persons with Disabilities" discusses the results of a survey of more than 400 representatives regarding their organizations' use of information and web technology in human resources, their knowledge of computer and Web barriers to employees with disabilities, and their familiarity with assistive technology and resources. Given the growing importance of online technologies in shaping the nature of work, workplaces, placement, and conduct for people with disabilities, their detailed findings raise important questions regarding the construction of such technologies.

Judith A. Cook, Genevieve Fitzgibbon, Drew Batteiger, and Dennis D. Grey also investigate the development of the Internet with respect to disability, in their "Information Technology Attitudes and Behaviors Among Individuals with Psychiatric Disabilities Who Use the Internet: Results of a Web-Based Survey". They too carefully place their study in the context of North American social science studies of use of the Internet, contributing a fertile study of people with psychiatric disabilities. Especially thought-provoking is the relationships they trace between information technology and the two important areas of self-determination and advocacy.

In their "Engaging Citizens with Disabilities in eDemocracy", Deborah Stienstra and Lindsey Troschuk explicitly address citizenship dimensions of online technologies. Evaluating the participation of people with disabilities in two Canadian federal government eConsultations, they open up the "black box" of access. They underline the importance of thinking about the broader social and political dimensions of democracy, and the need to achieve genuine inclusiveness through traditional and newer electronic modes of citizen engagement with the policy processes presided over by the state.

In his "How to Make Technology Work: A Study of Best Practices in United States Electronic and Information Technology Companies," Anthony Tusler reflects on questions of accessibility and equity as they bear on the practice and policy of the information technology industry. Drawing on research involving experts from industry and the disability movement, Tusler identifies key foci and strategies to achieve transformation in technology that better identifies and serves the needs and desires of people with disabilities.

With Sheryl Burgstahler and Andrea Doyle's "Gender Differences in Computer-Mediated Communication among Adolescents with Disabilities: Empowerment and Connection in Cyberspace," we find an important new angle on the enduring questions regarding gender and the Internet. Their study focuses on the strategically vital area of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, and how male and female students fare with peer and mentor support.

The final two papers enlarge the geopolitical scene of technology and disability, moving us from North America to the emerging, populous, powerhouses of India and China respectively. In their "Rethinking the Digital Divide in relation to Visual Disability in India and the United States: Towards a Paradigm of 'Information Inequity," Vandana Chaudhry and Thomas Shipp offer a cross-national, cross-cultural study of digital technologies and visual disability. In doing so, they add their voices to the critiques of the digital divide, and to the widespread effort to reconceptualize what is at stake for equality and democracy here. Jin Huang and Baorong Guo map disability and digital technology in their "Building Social Capital: A Study of the Online Disability Community." In doing so, they contribute a closely observed study of the uses of the Internet by Chinese people with disabilities, as well as gauging how online technology is woven into identities and communities.

In the second issue we further explore the theme further in terms of "Technology and Disability: Ethics, Utility, and Possibility."

We were very fortunate in being overwhelmed by responses to our call for papers, and there were quite a number of papers we were not able to include here that we hope will be published elsewhere. We believe that the contributions well fulfill the mandate of DSQ, exemplifying a wonderfully diverse "range of methods, epistemologies, perspectives, and content that comprises multidisciplinary disability studies." While a number of the contributors are based in institutions in the USA, we are pleased the collection is international in its scope with contributions from Canada, Sweden, Britain, Australia, and Aotearoa New Zealand, with cases discussed encompassing North America, Europe, China, India, Japan, and Australasia.

For their encouragement, wise counsel, and editorial skill, we thank Beth Haller and Corinne Kirchner, the general editors of DSQ. We are greatly indebted to the many reviewers across disciplines and sectors we called upon for their critical acumen and generosity of spirit. Finally, we thank the authors for sharing their work and cheerfully meeting tight deadlines in the process, and look forward to the future conversations, debates, and studies we hope this collection will inspire.

Copyright (c) 2005 Gerard Goggin, Christopher Newell

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

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ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)