Background for Disability and Technology Research

Full participation in society, cultural engagement and expression, is increasingly reliant on digital technologies. People with disabilities are no exception, and indeed have contributed distinctive cultures of use and user innovations that have enlarged our understanding of how to grapple with the socio-cultural aspects of such technologies. This “digital participation” imperative has been given its fullest formal expression in the CRPD. As well as finally achieving an international human rights treaty in the area of disability, the CPRP is remarkable — though not yet well understood — for its many detailed articles calling for governments to ensure accessible, technology for all, especially digital technology. Thus there is recognition that different levels of everyday life for disabled people will be enriched by better access to digital technology — social participation, cultural expression, political voice, and democratic participation — with corresponding benefits through such enhanced inclusion for the whole of society. However, there is little discussion as yet of the ways in which individual and civil rights and violations closely interact with a social and political environment, that includes technologies. Further, the politics of digital technology in disability human rights, as yet, are little understood, researched, or discussed.

Real challenges remain in designing, implementing, and making affordable, accessible, and widely available technologies for people with disabilities. Internationally, there has been a body of practice and research on telecommunications and accessibility, led by European and American groups of disability groups, companies, technology developers, and researchers. In Australia, there has emerged a distinctive approach to telecommunications and accessibility, arising from particularities of market and policy. Accessibility of mobile phones, wireless technology, and mobile media has attracted much attention, but there have been few studies that document, assess, and evaluate how accessibility evolved. There is very little research, for instance, on disability with smartphones, tablet computers, e-readers, and apps, and particular accessibility and intellectual property issues have received scant policy attention, even in specialized fora.

Available research, technology development, and policy discussions indicate the scale, scope, complexity, and impact of the current and future plans for disability and digital technology. What is missing, however, are the breakthroughs in our understanding of the social and cultural dynamics of technology and disability, that would ground a novel yet crucial understanding of the human rights associated with communication, media, and cultural citizenship. Such insights are also urgently needed to show how these rights can be secured and delivered in the practical contexts of national policy, now very much shaped by globalization of media and international legal regimes on disability and human rights. In tackling this imperative, overarching objective to deliver a breakthrough in understanding of disability and technology, this project will seek to address strategically important questions such as:

  • how do we explain the unique relationship between disability and technology? how does this relate to our current theories of technology and its cultural and social role in general?
  • how can an understanding of the uses of digital technology by those with disability enrich our wider knowledge of technology?
  • how do disability and accessibility get dealt with in the processes around technology design? why is disability left out of — or ineffectively dealt with – in policy frameworks for technology, and what are the “best practice” ways this can be addressed?
  • what insights does a human rights based approach bring for how we think about disability and digital technology? what is the role that technology plays in accounts of human rights and policy frameworks?
  • what are the implications of new international policy and legal frameworks on human rights and disability for our general understanding of the place of technology in social and cultural life?
  • what are the lines of influence between international human rights frameworks, on the one hand, and global media policy paradigms, on the other, that could be better co-ordinated to address disability technology?
  • what are the specific challenges for Australian policymakers, technology companies, and interested communities, groups, and actors, in activating disability rights in digital technology for social participation and cultural benefit?