Disability Studies · Media

Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media

Next up in the annotated bib installment: Digital Disability.

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Cover image of Digital Disability
Digital Disability by Gerard Goggin & Christopher Newell

Digital Disability is frequently cited as an initial and influential exploration of how disability shapes and is shaped by new media and communication technologies. Goggin and Newell take a social constructionist approach to disability and new media, positioning their book as an attempt “to cast a critical gaze upon the very technologies that are supposed to provide the solution to disability—and show how new media technologies actually build in disability” (xv). They question assistive technologies that are often touted as tools to overcome disability and instead argue for the development of technologies that embrace, rather than erase, disability by inviting the disabled to co-develop and produce new media.

“Part One: Technologies of Disability” explores how disability is shaped by the development and normalization of particular technologies by able-bodied creators. Something that has also been critiqued by rhetoric and composition scholars, Goggin and Newell critique “new” media, arguing that the “new” label makes particular technologies more attractive and seemingly more necessary; essentially, they critique a positivist view that technology is inherently better. They write, “The idea that technology is autonomous conceals the political and social contradictions and conflict associated with traditional and mobile telephones, the computer, the Internet, digital broadcasting and other digital technologies—especially in relation to how disability is constructed with these technologies” (9).

This concealment is paralleled by the normalization of particular bodies and technologies, which is explored in Chapter Two, “Disability in Its Social Context.” Here, Goggin and Newell use the cochlear implant to argue that technology is political, tied to particular cultural values, and excludes the knowledge and life experiences of particular users: “Deaf people in various countries see themselves as disabled by a hearing culture that uses an oral approach, rather than inherently having a deficit. An excellent example of the clash of cultures is found in the cochlear implant, which is shown to be inherently ethical from the perspective of the hearing world, but unethical and destructive of culture from the perspective of the Deaf community” (xvi). This example shows how particular people and technologies are constructed as disabled or as assistive, reinforcing the critique that those who have historically been legitimized or authorized as knowledgeable are those in power: the able-bodied (19).

In Chapter Seven, “Cultures of Disability,” Goggin and Newell note that discussions of the interactivity of online spaces positions disabled users as capable of being more active and achieving fuller participation when in fact this framing creates new and different ways to marginalize and erase disability (130). Framing technology as interactive positions disability as a “deficit to be overcome, redressed, or made invisible” (131) by new media spaces that “equalize” user experience. Though the authors critique disablist values within new media spaces, they also focus on the cultural production of new media by disabled users, questioning whether the Internet removes disability or creates new dimensions of and possibilities for disability (131). Specifically, creation of and interaction within online communities reinforces disability culture and creates new cultural spaces for disabled users (132).

Finally, Chapter Eight, “Rewiring Disability” focuses on how we can make new media spaces and communicative technologies more inclusive, accessible, and truly equitable. Goggin and Newell are wary of inclusion for the way it assimilates and often normalizes the disabled rather than critically engaging with disability (149), and they are also hesitant to embrace Universal Design (UD) because its practice often identifies abstract needs rather than working with disabled users and identifying real, material needs (150). They ask, “Certainly, universal design is worthy of aiming for, but whose account of universal design will win the day?” (150). This question is particularly resonant in current critiques of UD as a neoliberalist cure to inaccessibility.

Ultimately, Goggin and Newell critique the idea of a technology that can “supersede or overcome or do away with disability” (153), arguing that we must critically interrogate our values in order to create technologies that are inclusive to, respectful of, and co-developed by disabled users.

Here’s the whole quotation, which is one of my favorites:

In different accents and voices, we are ceaselessly promised that technology will deliver us from disability. Yet we would suggest not only that technology will never deliver society from the reality of disability, but that disability continues to be constructed through such technology. We can never supersede or overcome or do away with disability. (153)

Boom.

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Goggin, Gerard, and Christopher Newell. Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.

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