Disability, Mobile Media, and Family Life

(This post originally appeared on the HASTAC Scholars website.)

Hello HASTAC scholars, mentors, and the rest of the internet!

Having turned the corner and passed my qualifying exams in September, my research focus has narrowed and deepened as I enter the dissertation phase of the Ph.D. program here in Communication at USC Annenberg.  My dissertation is tentatively titled “Home Screen Home: How Parents of Children with Communication Disabilities Navigate Family Media Use.”

My project is an ethnography of LA area parents whose children ages 3-13 have developmental disabilities (e.g. autism, cerebral palsy) and significant difficulty producing embodied oral speech.  Though they may not “talk” in the traditional sense, these children use the iPad and the app Proloquo2Go to produce synthesized speech.  Some of these iPads are purchased by parents, and others are provided by the child’s school district.  Some of these iPads are used by children primarily for what is known as “augmentative and alternative communication,” and some of these iPads are also used by kids to watch YouTube, play games, and take pictures.  So much to write about – let’s just say it’s a very interesting time to be studying iPads that go back and forth between home and school among Los Angeles public school students!

My dissertation aims to address the following question: How are parents of children with complex communication needs negotiating the introduction of this technology into their lives?  I have three expected outcomes: 1) to better theorize about the relationship between embodiment, mediated relationships, and interpersonal communication; 2) to uncover richer understandings of the role of new media technologies in contemporary family life; and 3) to disentangle how notions of ability and disability help construct dominant conceptions of childhood in the digital age.

I’m very pleased to have finalized my dissertation committee, an all-star team including my advisor (and personal Yoda) Henry Jenkins (USC – Communication), Ellen Seiter (USC – Cinema), François Bar (USC – Communication), and Beth Haller (Towson University – Mass Communication).  Among many things, Henry is an expert on social and cultural shifts in new media.  Ellen is one of the foremost scholars on parents and consumer culture, as well as digital media and learning.  François focuses on the social impact of new media, particularly user-driven innovation and technology appropriation.  Beth is an expert on all things media and disability, and I’m really excited that she’s agreed to be on my committee as a non-USC faculty member.

It was incredibly rewarding last year to collaborate with a number of HASTAC scholars on a forum entitled, Dis/Ability: Moving Beyond Access in the Academy, a resource I continually find myself returning to.  I’m interested in continuing to learn and share best practices when it comes to increasing accessibility in the classrooms we currently teach in and aim to teach in, continually and reflexively inquiring into the social, cultural, and political conditions shaping definitions of access and mobility.

I’ve been pleased to connect with scholars of disability and technology this fall, including Mara Mills (NYU) and Kevin Gotkin (UPenn) at the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) conference.  Mara posted a really provcative prompt on the SHOT website, regarding the opportunities for dialogue between disability studies and science and technology studies – a great sampling of key texts in that space.

Feel free to reach out to me on Twitter (@merylalper) or check out some of my other musings at merylalper.com.  I look forward to learning more about the latest cohort of HASTAC scholars!

Best, Meryl

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