Module 5: Integration of Findings

The capstone module will integrate the findings, and in particular bring together the various lines of inquiry to reflect upon the key issues in implementing disability rights in technology: what are the key institutional and practical lines that ensure that the principles of human rights are fed into the way digital technology is developed? how would such lines be developed given the market-based nature of the field? what role does regulation play, and by which actors? what is the interplay among technology companies, designers, users, and regulators? The draft findings of the project, and the issues it raises, will be the subject of the culminating symposium.

Module 4: Disability & Digital Media Policy: Activating Rights for Better Design

In module 4, I study the global policy frameworks relevant to digital media and disability accessibility. The objective is to study the development of two main policy frameworks that influence disability and digital technology, especially concerning media:

1)      implementation of technology provisions of the CPRD. Here the research will be organized around the following questions: how are different actors shaping the processes of CRPD implementation — be they governments, regulators, technology developers, companies, user groups, or non-human actors? how are people with disabilities using digital technologies to advocate for rights in relation to technology? how is the CRPD being mobilized and used — discursively and rhetorically, as well as legally –– in activating disability rights in relation to digital technology? what kinds of outcomes are emerging from the implementation of the CRPD regarding “best practice”?

2)      the development of disability rights in relation to notions of rights in global media policy. Here I will include a case study of disability in a ten year comprehensive review of World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) (WSIS + 10; to be held in 2015).

Overall, this module will focus on an analysis of the practical translation of human rights principles into the field of application of digital technology and media — and how the two key international policy and legal endeavours can be explicitly co-ordinated and inter-related to give effect to disability rights.

Module 3: Digital Technology, Disability & Accessibility: Case Studies

In module 3 I turn to digital technologies, building directly on the historical and theoretical account of disability and technology in module 1. Module 3 aims to document, analyse, and explore shaping of disability in the contemporary moment, concerning technologies used by, and marketed to, users today. The central research question orienting module 3 is: how, to what extent, and with what implications, have disability and accessibility been incorporated into design, implementation, and adoption processes that shape digital technologies? The module comprises case studies of accessibility and disability in three important areas of digital technologies: mobile media, namely, smartphones and tablet computers, but also locative media (emerging location-based technologies incorporated into mobile media); e-readers; online health technologies, associated with the National Broadband Network (and other next-generation broadband Internet) and portable media devices.

  1. Designing Mobiles: From Smartphones to Tablets

In this module, I focus on disability in the design of mobile media. I  will undertake three case studies of how technology companies and designers have incorporated disability and accessibility into design: Apple iPhone and iPad; Google’s Android Operating System and devices;  and disability and accessibility in low-cost, low-bandwith mobile media in global south, using the case of phones developed in India. While there has been much interest in the iPhone/iPad, and Google’s Android, in particular, there is very little available research that documents and studies how disability and accessibility figured in the development of these technologies. In the case of low-cost mobile media in the global south, while there is a specialist international group of researchers, technology companies, and activities working on disability accessibility, as yet it is unresearched.

2. Reading Disability: Accessibility & E-Reading Technologies

Building on the historical study of reading and writing technologies in module 1, this case study focusses on the social shaping of disability in contemporary e-readers — in particular, the Sony Reader (the e-reader with the longest product line), and Amazon’s Kindle (the device most credited with popularizing e-reading, apart from Apple’s iPad). The research will entail collection and analysis of documentation on the development of both e-readers, and analysis of standards for electronic publications, then fieldwork including interviews with: key figures in design and development in both Sony and Amazon; leading technology experts in disability and e-reading in other sectors of e-publishing; disability advocates involved in key legal battles around accessibility of devices, and intellectual property issues arising from their multimedia content.

3. Healthy Broadband: Disability & Technologies of Health in Next Generation Broadband Internet

Historically disability has been approached as a subordinate part of health and medicine. Many common understandings of disability, and, especially, government policies still subsume disability under health, without acknowledging where requirements of disability might depart from health, and require different approaches. This currently occurs in health technology. Accordingly, this case study will focus upon e-health, health apps, and other technologies of health currently being developed for next-generation broadband networks, such as Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN), and interlocking mobile and wireless broadband networks. Health technologies are a leading edge of digital transformations in everyday life, with significant healthcare investments in these from government as well as private sector. Often unwittingly, many instances of these new health technologies address aspects of disability. Yet disability is rarely explicitly addressed or articulated in its own right in relation to health technology.

Module 2: Disability Human Rights and Technology

Having developed an account of disability and technology, in module 2 I turn to a consideration of human rights. The central question orienting this module is how we should understand human rights in relation to technology — especially when it comes to disability. My approach draws on cultural studies account of human rights, and focusses on how rights are conceived and activated in particular settings.

Firstly, I will analyse the kinds of social justice and rights developed in relation to technology and disability, guided by the following questions: how have technologies been provided to people with disabilities historically? what expectations have different groups had about the distribution of technology and disability, especially when some individuals or groups were treated unequally in relation to this? how do these — largely implicit accounts of disability rights to technology — articulate with available general accounts of how conceptualize rights to technology for citizens? how are such ideas concerning rights and technology culturally shaped?

Secondly, I analyse the function of design in disability and technology. Design is accorded a pivotal role to deliver accessibility and otherwise satisfy users (Pullin, 2011), yet design is not well-understand in accounts and practices concerning rights to technology. Hence my inquiry will be guided by the question: how do we deal with the centrality of design to technology in considering disability rights? Here I critically analyse influential accounts that govern contemporary approaches, especially participatory design, and universal design (the governing concept in the CRPD, and much disability rights discourse).

Having established the key elements of a theory of disability, technology, and human rights, thirdly, I focus on the case of CRPD as the most forceful, comprehensive assertion of technology as integral to human rights. Here the key lines of analysis will be guided by the following questions:

  • what kind of theory of technology and disability does the CRPD suggest? how does the CRPD connect technology with rights, and what kind of stipulations of technology for disability rights does it indicate?
  • what kinds of struggles — and alternative ideas — figures in the conception and drafting of technology provisions during the formulation of the CPRD? what kinds of aspects of disability are left out — or not well addressed — by the technology provisions of the CPRD?
  • how does CPRD address the complex question of design, as a strategically important yet ambiguous “bridge” into rights; how does the CPRD relate to notions of communication, culture, and media in other areas of rights, (including the Declaration and associated treaties of universal human rights)?
  • what does disability (via the CPRD and its critique) add to our general understanding of rights and technology, given the prominence technology plays in disability rights and social participation?

This module will culminate in a workshop in which feedback will be sought on key findings, with participants including key disability rights advocates and their organisations, disability and human rights scholars, and policymakers.

Module 1: Cultural and Media Histories of Disability and Technology

In module 1, through a disability and cultural historical investigation, I review four classic areas of disability and technology:

  • mobility technologies: the iconic technology of the wheelchair, which transformed the prosthesis, or support (such as walking stick, caliper, artificial limb), and now has opened up into an ecology of mobilities transportation technologies, such as scooters, cars, and public transports, that increasingly converge with digital media technologies and networks;
  • technologies of space: the rise of accessibility and design in built environments, and how it feeds into policy frameworks around a range of technologies, including digital technologies (not least accessible “virtual environments” and smart cities);
  • reading and writing technologies: I trace the development of bespoke technologies of reading and writing for the disabled, starting with the invention of Braille in the late nineteenth century, then the development of reading technologies after World War II, through to Talking Books, screenreading software of the 1970s, and the DAISY Digital Talking Books initiative of the mid-1990s ;
  • communication technology: telephone technologies, including the telephone (famously invented by Bell, who taught Deaf people to speak), as well as early mobile communication.

In each module, the investigation will comprise: identification of key moments in development of technology; collection and analysis of key archival documents; analysis of how disability was conceived; how the design process unfolded; which interest groups and actors (including non-human actors) were involved in technology development and adoption; how ideas, expectations, and requirements of people with disabilities were taken into account; how the technology fitted into prevailing social relations of disability; formulation of standards for the particular technology; which governing ideas from a particular technology have influenced contemporary design of successor technology; adaptive use and development (“co-creation”) of technologies by people with disability.

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?

Aims of the Disability and Technology Research

Technology is now central to social participation in everyday life, especially for people with disabilities. Adopting a media, cultural, and human rights approach, the project investigates the development, design and policy processes and challenges in making digital technology accessible for all. In particular, it focusses on the new technology-centred provisions in the UN CRPD and explores their potential in accessibility of crucial technologies, including smartphones and tablets, broadband and next generation networks, and electronic reading technologies. Thus, the project aims to:

  • construct a theory of disability and technology, especially pertaining to digital technology;
  • explore the conceptualisation and activation of disability dimensions of human rights in relation to digital technologies and their cultural contexts;
  • analyse development of accessible design in key digital media technologies;
  • study the implementation of the technology provisions of the CRPD, and investigate the interaction internationally between disability and accessibility specific and general media policy frameworks;
  • provide a framework for understanding social justice and human rights in relation to digital technology, building on the example of disability;
  • build capacity for research and policy in the achievement of accessibility in digital technology.

In the broadest sense, the project’s approach is underpinned by a distinctive, interdisciplinary framework across disability, rights, culture, media, and technology. Centrally, the project is located within the new disability studies, often termed “critical disability studies”. Within, and extending, this larger interdisciplinary approach to disability, I will develop three new approaches on: 1) disability and technology; 2) human rights, disability and media; 3) disability rights and global media policy.

Firstly, the project constructs a comprehensive theory of disability and technology, something that does not exist, yet is necessary to advance our understanding of the striking gap between aspiration and delivery. Here I offer an integrated account of disability and technology, on the model provided by Judy Wajcman in her classic 1991 study, Feminism Confronts Technology To accomplish this, I will draw upon the research literatures and concepts of science and technology studies (STS). Underpinning the project’s investigation of digital technology, the approach is also informed by media and cultural studies concepts and methods, including my own research on mobile phones and mobile media.

Secondly, the project develops a new theory of human rights, disability, and media. Compared to other potential approaches — for instance, social inclusion — human rights based approaches to disability offer theoretical richness, as well strong principles and interventions, taking account of non–discrimination but also dimensions such as participation in political life, freedom of speech, right to associate, right to work, and the right to take part in the cultural life of a community. In particular, my theory will combine a set of important ideas which have not yet been brought together: capabilities; alternative conceptions of disability rights; media justice.

Thirdly, the project’s approach is located within the body of research and practice centring on international media policy. I draw upon and elaborate the specific policy literature on disability and accessibility developed within convergent media policy that grapples with telecommunications and Internet. I seek to connect policy making on disability and digital technology with the long-standing efforts in international media policy, and examine how these are concretely enacted in international policy frameworks, supra-national, and international policy bodies, in interaction with regional and national policy-making, policy processes, and institutions. A particular focus will be how disability fits into, and extends, longstanding concepts of communication and media rights in international laws and treaties, inaugurated with the 1948 Universal Declaration, and more recently developed through World Summit on the Information Society.