August 17th, 2021

Access and Tinkering: Designing Assistive Technologies as Political Practice

By drawing on science, society and technology studies (STS), Crip Technoscience (Hamraie/Fritsch 2019) and approaches from participatory design research and practice, a 2-days-symposium at Berlin Humboldt University discusses body-technology relations from inter-, transdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspectives. The organizers argue in favor of extending the concept of materiality beyond the borders of the physical object to include practices and relations and consequently, want to question common concepts of norm, normality, and normativity. Because these notions are not only entangled with artefacts but also with their design and the practices they involve, which include bodies embedded in historical, cultural, infrastructural and institutional contexts. Thus, they can be considered situated (Haraway 1988). As a result, questions and demands for inclusion and social participation, too, become virulent (Star 2017, 1999; Winner 1980) and have been problematized as politics of assistive artefacts (Mills 2012). In sum, the event proposes to re/frame technology and body (differences) as interacting entities within societies.

“Access and tinkering…” aims to think critically through a theoretical framework in the context of dis/abilities that recognizes assistive technologies as political as well as situated interconnections. On this basis, the workshop endorses to reflect on infrastructures of design for questions of inclusion and participation – cross-cultural, inter- and transdisciplinary. Reflecting on open source practices in medical and assistive technologies (e.g. 3D printing) will allow us to question the effects of heterogeneous interests, economic implications and everyday affordances of socio-material assemblages produced within the frameworks of participatory design research.

Download the program (PDF) here.

In her keynote, Aimi Hamraie (Assoc Prof, PhD, Vanderbilt University) aks to what extent design is informed by the lived experiences of disability inherently political. Several concepts exist within critical disability studies to name disability-led design. These include crip technoscience (Hamraie 2017; Hamraie and Fritsch 2019), “microactivist affordances” (Dokumaci 2020), “Criptastic hacking” (Yergeau 2014), and the “design theory of disability” (Guffey and Williamson). These approaches center disability as a latent feature of material culture, a difference that results in designing otherwise. Yet, design by disabled people renders disability as an individual identity, rather than a methodological or cultural framework for approaching the world. In her talk, Hamraie takes a more expansive approach by thinking about the field of “crip making” as a relational and epistemological phenomenon. She contrast crip making with disability making geared toward normalization and assimilation. Then, she reads crip making practices through feminist concepts of standpoint epistemology and situated knowledge, philosophies of “critical making” and “critical design,” and theories of “design friction.” Finally, she draws on examples from the Critical Design Lab to illustrate crip making as a frictioned, relational approach to design that approaches accessibility as an always-unfinished project.

In the second keynote, Anne Waldschmidt (Prof Dr. rer. pol., University of Cologne) proclaims that it is Critical Disability Studies as an innovative discourse, which has significantly contributed to revising simplistic and individualistic views of disability and impairment. Introduced in the 1970s, the social model of disability has since fundamentally changed the international disability discourse. This approach, as Disability Studies scholars and disability rights activists know well, implies the assumption that disabled persons are a minority group discriminated against and excluded from mainstream society by a variety of barriers, prejudices and demeaning attitudes. Proponents of the social model of disability usually argue for an inclusive, fair and equal society as solution for this ‘disability problem’; this vision implies that once accessibility is granted full inclusion becomes possible, and disabled people will enjoy full participation on an equal basis with others. From the view point of social theory, this picture sounds too good to be true. Drawing on Michel Foucault and his notion of ‘dispositif’, and considering, in addition, the works of Erving Goffman and Pierre Bourdieu, her presentation argues instead that both inclusion and accessibility and normality should be understood as complex, dynamic and contingent arrangements, in which ‘disability’ and, at the same time, ‘ability’ are constantly negotiated, constructed and re-produced. What is needed is an integrated perspective that understands, for example, accessibility as a multidimensional ensemble, that is to say, on the one hand as a discursive, institutionalized and materialized structure, on the other hand as a performative practice that is repetitive and creative at the same time, and last but not least as a subjective experience and identity construction.

While Tomás Sánchez Criado (PhD, Humboldt University) discusses the “Pharmakon of Collaboration” (Activating Research with the Independent Living Forum), Thomas Miebach (solicited), Daniel Wessolek (Open Health HACKademy), Zeynep Karagöz (ROBOTEL/ e-nable, promaker) and Isabelle Dechamps (be able) debate on “DIY-Prostheses, Toys and Remote-Prototyping”.

In order to integrate body-technology relations from interdisciplinary standpoints as well as an awareness for the need for participatory design research as a policy of inclusion in social contexts, a maker session will be organized. For this purpose, hands-on kits will be sent out to participants after prior registration. The kits serve to didactically convey an understanding of how technological innovations and design issues related to body modifications or diversely enabled bodies are viewed both in terms of their effects on society and as shaped by societal norms, values, and frameworks (The number of kits is limited. If you are interested, please register by 20 August 2021).

“Access and Tinkering” is organized by Tom Bieling (Hamburg), Melike Şahinol (Istanbul), Anna-Lena Wiechern (Lüneburg), Robert Stock (Berlin). Find more information via the DIS-/ABILITIES AND DIGITAL MEDIA scientific network!