Becoming Users: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology

16 Feb 2017
4:00 pm - 5:30 pm

470 Stephens Hall

Event Type

Elizabeth Petrick
Assistant Professor, Federated History Department, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Since the mid-twentieth century, computer technology has grown exponentially, affecting individuals in all aspects of social life. During this period, people with disabilities experienced the emergence of disability rights activism, fighting for independence and the enactment of civil rights protections. The people and the technology meet in the struggle for accessibility and full participation in the social world. The needs of people with disabilities as computer users have often been ignored by computer developers, who—largely until the 1990s—did not view them as either a viable market or as a desired employment demographic. At the same time, people with disabilities were often spoken for by nondisabled people: parents, academics, philanthropic corporations, and therapists. Uncovering the historical perspective of computer users with disabilities presents challenges both methodological and theoretical. However, people with disabilities have participated in the history of computer technology, as commercial and professional users, as research subjects, and as developers. Analyzing the relationship here between development and use allows for the uncovering of often invisible user voices and the significance of their role in the technology development process.

In this talk, I examine a number of case studies demonstrating aspects of the relationship between people with disabilities and computer technology, including: blind computer programmers in the 1960s, early academic research on online socialization, disability and technology advocacy groups during the personal computer revolution, screen reading technology during the change from text-based to graphical user interfaces, and the twenty-first century use of touch-sensitive devices in autism therapy. I trace the ways that users and technology interact in these examples, who is representing the users’ desires, and the kinds of computer technology providing benefits or obstacles to users. I find that people with disabilities were actively involved, in very different ways, in the development of both computer hardware and software, not as an exceptional case but as a group who, while frequently seen by researchers as a special beneficiary of computer technology, demanded inclusion along with everyone else in the growing digital world.

This event is sponsored by CSTMS.
Additional sponsorship comes from:  CSTMS

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