Technology and Disability Summer II 2020

Course Syllabus

STS 3284: Technology and Disability


This undergraduate course is designed to introduce students to the material cultures surrounding disability, 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.

Having successfully completed this course, undergraduate students will be able to:

  • Identify landmarks in the history of technologies for disabilities
  • Understand the social and medical models of disability and how those play into technological design
  • Recognize and critique common narratives and assumptions about technology and disability 
  • Analyze the relationship between disability studies and engineering orientations of disability
  • Discuss contemporary issues and controversies about technologies for disability communities
  • Identify, lift up, and defend the voices of disabled people in the context of policy and engineering
  • Recognize ableism in social narratives about technology and disability

Specific topics include:

  • Cochlear ear implants and hearing aids
  • Prosthetic arms and legs
  • Exoskeletons
  • Text-to-speech interfaces
  • Apps for ipads aimed at a people with disabilities
  • Closed captioning
  • ADA specifications
  • Mobility aids (wheelchairs, crutches, scooters, canes)

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. In all these things, we will take disabled people as experts on the experience of disability and on disability-related technologies.

Accessibility for all students

Disability rights are civil rights, and disabled people fought hard to secure the rights to your accommodations in the classroom and workplace. Those people who fought for your accommodations were spit on, arrested, isolated, and dismissed, but they wouldn’t take less than they deserve when it came to securing your rights to access education and other public goods. They are my heroes, and their work also works to accommodate me within our classroom as a multiply disabled university employee. You can bet that I really want you to use your accommodations, or help you get them if you don’t have any in place, or find a system that works for us if you don’t care to go through the official channels. Most requests are easy – and you don’t have to be disabled or diagnosed to request from me; I am happy to distribute any in-class readings in larger or otherwise more accessible fonts, disability issue or not! And, if you need text-to-speech software to read aloud with you, I would love to introduce you to my friends in Accessible Technologies and then make sure you get the formats you need to use the AT.


1) Syllabus Quiz. Due by Tuesday Sept. 3. Worth up to 50 points, you can re-take it until you get 100%.

2) Question Formation Exercises. Due every week.

Part 1, the questions, is due by 5pm Wednesday. Ask two (2) “how” or “why” questions about your readings for that week. Each question should be about a different sub-topic that you chose for that week (e.g. if for week 2 you chose the Institutions and Stigma sections to cover, one question would be about the Institutions readings, teh other about the Stigma readings). You should include which section your question is about either in the header to your post or on the first line of the post. Follow your questions with a quoted and cited passage from the readings that inspired the question, and a 150-300 word explanation of why the question is a good/important one.

Part 2, answering 2 other questions, is due by the end of the day on Friday of that same week. Posit an answer to 2 of your classmates’ questions. At least one question you answer should be from a section you did NOT read that week. You should skim the piece from which the question was taken in order to gain some good context for the question itself. You should reference at least one of the readings (it can be the same one the question was about, but any quote you use should be different that the one used by the asker), but I urge you to try to use the readings you did to answer the question about the readings you didn’t. This should help you draw connections between the different reading sections. Please spend 150-300 words on your answer.

Worth up to 100 points per week (25 points per post (question or answer)), for a total of 600 for the semester.

3) Photo Essay. Take 3-5 pictures of various spaces to which you have relatively easy access (including being able to keep 6ft of physical distance from others). These pictures should capture some part of the built environment or infrastructure that you consider to be discriminatory to disabled people. Only one picture may be of any kind of discriminatory architecture (e.g. you can only have one picture of a set of stairs). Describe the image, and describe who it discriminates against, how it discriminates against them, and how it might be built otherwise to be non-discriminatory. Post your essay to the appropriate discussion board by 11:59pm Friday, July 24th. Worth up to 150 points.

4) Reflection 1.

You are all here for a reason. In this reflection I want you to look inward, and reflect on that reason. Write me a short piece which describes why you are here in this course. Yes, I know, this course covers certain requirements for your majors, minors, and graduation, but why this course? In writing about this, please try to cover the following questions:

  1. What do you want to get out of this course? Beyond the checkmark for CLE area, Pathways, or major requirement. You chose this course instead of other possibilities. What do you feel like it will bring to you that others wouldn’t?
  2. What do you understand the relationship between disability and technology to be?
  3. What relationship do you have, if any, with disability? This can be personal (you identify as disabled yourself), relationship (a family member or friend might be disabled), or something else. You can be vague here if you would prefer not to disclose specifics to me, but if you do so, try to investigate why you wish to be vague, and what that might mean to you and to society.

There is no word minimum or maximum for this assignment. Please be as descriptive as you feel you need to be, but do not feel you are required to send me a 5-page paper.  A 3-sentence, 200-word piece will probably not be enough to satisfy me, but neither would said 5-page manifesto. 1-2 pages should be sufficient (400-1000 words).

Grading for this assignment is almost binary. If you turn in something sufficient, you will get full points (i.e. I’m not going to nitpick about grammar, spelling, and structure). If not, I will return it with feedback so you can re-submit for full points.

This paper is due by 11:59pm Sunday, July 12. Please submit it on Canvas.

Worth up to 50 points.

5) Reflection 2.

Return to your first reflection. Read through it and consider your experience in this course. Did it turn out like you thought it would? Do you have a different perspective now than you did when we started? Write me a short piece about the differences between what you expected coming in and what you experienced. In doing so, please answer the following questions:

  1. Did you get from this course what you thought you would? Do you feel what you learned was valuable for you (personally or within your major or minor)?
  2. Did your view of how technology and disability are related change at all? If so, how?
  3. What sections of the course did you find particularly interesting? Why?
  4. What sections did you find less interesting? Why?
  5. Do you feel like your relationship to disability has changed through this course? If so, how?

As with the first reflection, there is no minimum or maximum word count for this essay. Be as descriptive as you need to. Obviously a 200-word piece will not be sufficient, but neither should you send me a massive tome.

This essay is due by 11:59pm Friday, August 14.

Worth up to 150 points.

Possible total points: 1000

Extra Credit:

Life happens. We get sick, we drink too much, we burn out and need a mental health day… it happens to us all. To that end, should you be so unfortunate to miss an assignment, or didn’t do as well on one as you would have liked, I allow for unlimited extra credit. You will need to pitch a project to me, discuss it in person or over email, along with a possible point total and rubric before you turn it in. Any extra credit must line up with the themes of the course, but in theory you could do none of the work assigned and still get 100% if you do enough extra credit. That said, the amount of effort per point for extra credit will usually be higher than your average assignment from the syllabus.

Principles of Community

Virginia Tech is a public land-grant university, committed to teaching and learning, research, and outreach to the Commonwealth of Virginia, the nation, and the world community. Learning from the experiences that shape Virginia Tech as an institution, we acknowledge those aspects of our legacy that reflected bias and exclusion. Therefore, we adopt and practice the following principles as fundamental to our on-going efforts to increase access and inclusion and to create a community that nurtures learning and growth for all of its members:

  • We affirm the inherent dignity and value of every person and strive to maintain a climate for work and learning based on mutual respect and understanding.
  • We affirm the right of each person to express thoughts and opinions freely. We encourage open expression within a climate of civility, sensitivity, and mutual respect.
  • We affirm the value of human diversity because it enriches our lives and the University. We acknowledge and respect our differences while affirming our common humanity.
  • We reject all forms of prejudice and discrimination, including those based on age, color, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, national origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, and veteran status. We take individual and collective responsibility for helping to eliminate bias and discrimination and for increasing our own understanding of these issues through education, training, and interaction with others.
  • We pledge our collective commitment to these principles in the spirit of the Virginia Tech motto of Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Honor Code

The Undergraduate Honor Code pledge that each member of the university community agrees to abide by states: “As a Hokie, I will conduct myself with honor and integrity at all times.  I will not lie, cheat, or steal, nor will I accept the actions of those who do.”

Students enrolled in this course are responsible for abiding by the Honor Code. A student who has doubts about how the Honor Code applies to any assignment is responsible for obtaining specific guidance from the course instructor before submitting the assignment for evaluation. Ignorance of the rules does not exclude any member of the University community from the requirements and expectations of the Honor Code.

For additional information about the Honor Code, please visit: to an external site.

To add to this statement, please ask questions as we go if you want clarification on what is expected in this course.

Mandatory Reporting

Please be advised that, as a faculty member at Virginia Tech, I am a mandatory reporter, which means that I am obligated to notify the Title IX Office at Virginia Tech if I am given knowledge about sexual assault or violence by other employees and students. Confidential sources, those who do not have to report to the Title IX Office, include staff members at the Schiffert Health Center, the Cook Counseling Center, Virginia Tech Mental Health Centers, and The Virginia Tech Women’s Center.

Course Schedule

Week 1, July 8-10: Disorientations

Wednesday, July 8:

Thursday, July 9:

  • Read: “Care Webs: Experiments in Creating Collective Access” from Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (2018). pp 32-68.
  • Watch: Cripborgs Resist (Part 1), by Dr. Ashley Shew on Disability Tropes

Friday, July 10:

Week 2, July 13-17: Violence Against Disabled People; State, Systemic, and Individual

Choose two (2) or more subsections to cover.

Science as Violence

  • Read Adam Cohen Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (2016), Introduction and Chapter 1.
  • Read Chapter 23: Eugenics in Keywords for Disability Studies.
  • Read The Science of Human Perfection (2012) Epilogue
  • Read: David Perry: We’re Failing our Test Run for CRISPR.




Interpersonal Violence (All of the Trigger and Content Warnings)

Week 3, July 20-24: Infrastructure and the (Built) Environment

Choose two (2) or more subsections to cover.


The Built Environment

War and the Military

The Environment

Week 4, July 27-31: Digital Technologies and Media

Choose two (2) or more subsections to cover.

Hearing Aids, Cochlear Implants, Audism and d/Deaf culture

Speech, Text, & Captions

Social Media

  • Peruse the Twitter hashtags #DisabilityTaughtMe, #DisabledAndCute, #a11y (which stands for accessibility, not ally), #DisabilityDongle, #SuckItAbleism. Try to find other disability hashtags, what are those about?
  • Also, peruse the twitter accounts of Imani Barbarin (@Imani_Barbarin), Alice Wong (@DisVisability & @SFdirewolf), Jaipreet Virdi (@jaivirdi), Matthew Cortland (@mattbc), and Ashley Shew (@ashleyshoo). What topics are they discussing? With who?
  • Peruse the podcast Disability Visability. Find 2 or 3 that you find interesting and listen to them.
  • Revisit Care Webs (from week 1), paying particular attention to how social media is used in creating these webs.

Representation in Media


Week 5, August 3-7: Prosthetics and Transmobility

Choose two (2) or more subsections to cover.





Disability Dongles & Lifehacks

Week 6, August 10-14: Neurodiversity and Crip Futures

Choose two (2) or more subsections to cover.

Autism and ABA

Madness & Intellectual Disability

  • Read Diagnosis and High-Functioning chapters from The Collected Schizophrenias
  • Watch Intelligent Lives via PBS
  • Read Mad Studies and Neurodiversity: A Dialogue

Genes and Futures


Disability in Fiction

  • Read Bodyminds Reimagined: (Dis)Ability, Race, and Gender in Black Women’s Speculative Fiction, Introduction, Conclusion and 1 other chapter of your choice. Plus one of the following books:
  • Kindred by Octavia Butler (For Chapter 1)
  • Stigmata by Phyllis Alessia Perry (For Chapter 2)
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (For Chapter 3)
  • The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemison (For Chapter 4… this is the second book in a trilogy, fyi)

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