Sunday, April 19, 2009

Digital Disability summary

Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media, by Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell, dances around the terminology of the "digital divide." They offer a nuanced, interdisciplinary introduction to the processes by which new media technology produce inequalities on the basis of disability. Yet, the digital divide, understood as social, cultural and economic gaps between technology users and non-users, obviously applies to the situation encountered by people with disabilities.

The authors invoke disability studies theory, relying primarily on the social model of disability, which asserts that while individuals may have impairments, those bodily differences only become disabilities in the context of a society unprepared for their needs.

Chapter three goes into the history of disability in relation to telecommunications, the authors' usual area of expertise. They first provide histories of telephony in the UK, US and Australia. As telecommunications became privatized and deregulated, and as cell phones rose in popularity, concerns of accessibility were brought by disability organizations. Still, no matter how often accommodations for disability had to be made after the fact, disability remained an afterthought. Similar exclusion, explored in chapter four, has characterized the development of "internet superhighways" and standards of network development. This leads Goggin and Newell to warn that disability could become a worldwide site of exclusion as the world's cultures and economies grow even more connected (68).

In chapters four and five, Goggin and Newell explore the 2000 Olympics and Paralympics to describe the cultural representations and construction of disability in visual digital media, such as television and the web. They conclude that the poverty of representations of people with disabilities enables the ongoing ignorance of the needs, experiences and contributions of people with disabilities in society.

Chapter six addresses internet theory and cultural studies, interrogating ideas of the "cyborg" and prosthetic connections between human and machine. While these metaphors abound, the reality of life with a disability is elided (112). Goggin and Newell call for disability to be explored and integrated as a form of analysis similar to race or gender in cultural studies work, allowing for more nuanced critiques of new media and access. This nuance is brought to bear in chapter seven, which addresses the forms of cultural production that people with disabilities have gained access to through digital media. The ability to connect with others, form communities, and create their own self-representations may challenge the dominant representations and attitudes toward disability (135).

In concluding, Goggin and Newell suggest that the full inclusion of the perspectives of people with disabilities in governments, industry, and civil society is necessary to moving away from the predictable disabling effects of new media.

The most underdeveloped element of this book was the economics of accessible technology. An entire industry of adaptive technologies for people with disabilities has developed, and corporations regularly invoke expense as a reason not to develop accessible technology. Further exploration of these industrial factors would have been interesting, and connected Goggin and Newell to the problems of poverty and lack of educational opportunity among people with disabilities.


  1. This sounds really interesting, Liz! I provided personal care assistance for a guadriplegic man for over a year, and had a lot of experience using accessible technology. Although they were helpful, and enabled him to have control over his basic surroundings, they were quite flawed as well.

    But aside from that, I thought it was interesting how being able to use the computer allowed him to 'escape' his disability in a way. His online interactions with people based solely on his ideas and words, leaving out any physical barriers, prejudices or uncomfortableness that would sometimes arise in face-to-face interaction. His computer and Internet access were by far his most valued possessions. On one occasion during which his Internet was down for a week, he (a 36 year old, grown man) cried. It provided a livelihood that he could not replicate in other areas of his life. In ways, his 'on-line' identity was extremely important to him and significantly increased his quality of life.

    I'm looking forward to hearing your presentation!