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Disability and Technology - A Critical Realist Perspective

Christopher Frauenberger

The 17th International ACM SIGACCESS Conference on Computers and Accessibility (ASSETS 2015)
Lisbon, Portugal, October 26-28, 2015


Assistive technology (AT) as a field explores the design, use and evaluation of computing technology that aims to benefit people with disabilities. The majority of the work consequently takes the functional needs of people with disabilities as starting point and matches those with technological opportunity spaces. With this paper, we argue that the underlying philosophical position implied in this approach can be seen as reductionist as the disabled experience is arguably richer and often more complex as can be projected from the functional limitations of people. Thinkers and activists in Disability Studies have conceptualised disability in various ways and more recently, critical realism was proposed as a philosophical position through which the many different facets of the disabled experience could be incorporated. In this paper, we explore the possibility of using a critical realist perspective to guide designers in developing technology for people with disabilities and thereby aim to contribute to the philosophical underpinnings of AT. After a brief review of historical conceptualisations of disability, we introduce the critical realist argument and discuss its appeal for understanding disability and the possible roles technology can have in this context. Subsequently, we aim to translate this philosophical and moral debate into a research agenda for AT and exemplify how it can be operationalised by presenting the Anonym project as a case study.

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