Disability and Defamiliarizing the Smartphone: A Class Activity

(Originally posted on HASTAC.org)

In Spring 2013 and Fall 2013, I was the TA for “Cultures of New Media,” an undergraduate class in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism taught by Prof. Kathi Inman Berens.  The course focuses on how ubiquitous computing has contributed to a cultural shift in practices around privacy, storytelling, branding, and commerce.  In the latter third of the semester, the class focuses specifically on mobility and everyday life, critically reading works by Jason Farman (The Mobile Story, Mobile Interface Theory) and Sherry Turkle (Alone Together) among others.

Each semester, during this unit, I’ve incorporated a disability studies lens into a 90 min. guest lecture on mobility and mobile media.  Both times that I’ve taught it, I’ve regretted not having more time to go into the nuances of disability theory and models of disability.  Many students I’ve encountered have difficulty understanding technology as anything other than something that “liberates” or “revolutionizes” the lives of people with disabilities.  Most have never spent much time with assistive or adapted technologies (low-tech or high-tech, hardware or software).

In order to defamiliarize their smartphones and better understand the relationship between disability and communication technologies, I lead a simple activity at the end of the lecture in which I ask students (in a class of about 30 – but I think it could be done with a larger lecture class) to explore the accessibility options on their own phones.  (Anything that connects to the media and technologies that students regularly use seems to be a good entry point to critical or complex concepts.)  To be clear, this activity is not a voyeuristic or essentializing experiment whereby I ask them to “imagine” what it would be like to have a disability.  Rather, I want them to understand very concretely that the tools they use every day have certain politics – values, beliefs, and ideas reflecting positions of power and agency – and that these politics are reflected in what can and cannot be done with their phones in different contexts and under different circumstances (also known as affordances and constraints).

The following activity takes about 20-30 minutes:

Disability and Defamiliarizing the Smartphone

1. Break students up into small groups of 4-5.  Make sure that each group has a mix of make and models of phones (by brand, by generation, by smart or feature phone).

2. Ask students to find the accessibility settings on their own phones and play around (10-15 min).  They will inevitably ask you to show them where those settings are. Do not.  Instead, encourage them to spend a bit more time looking or ask someone in their group for help.  Move around the different groups if you can, getting a read for what they’re finding/not finding, discussing/not discussing, etc.

3. If they haven’t discovered it on their own, I particularly like to spend a few minutes showing them that one can hear the description of Apple’s emoji keyboard symbols if you type the emojis (e.g. in a text) when VoiceOver is enabled.  For anyone who has ever wondered what some of the more abstract emojis are supposed to mean, this is pretty cool.  It is also good way to get students to think about the design and coding of apps – namely, that VoiceOver reads the labels attributed to particular buttons.  Buttons that are unlabeled or mislabeled are not helpful if someone who is blind or visually impaired is using VoiceOver in order to navigate their phone.

Some prompting questions (10-15 min. discussion)

Have you ever used any of these settings before?  For what purpose? (I’ve found that a number of students have used various accessibility settings when their phone breaks down in some manner.  A common occurrence is when the “Home” button on the iPhone fails to work.  This has ended up being a natural way to introduce the notion of universal design).

Did playing around with these settings make you uncomfortable in any way?  How?  (Some students have expressed anxiety about accidentally getting their phones “stuck” in a certain setting and potentially “breaking” their phones.  This has evolved into conversations about invisibility and transparency in the design and functionality of communication technologies).

What did you learn [about these technologies, about disability, about mobility] in a public, group setting that you might not have learned if you’d played around with these settings alone or in private?  (This gets into a conversation about public and private uses of communication technologies, and able-bodied privileges.  Each session, a number of people mention that they feel exposed or violated when they turn on the VoiceOver setting and they open up their text messages or Snapchat, and that the others standing around them can hear what they are reading).

Does something from this activity remind you of the material you read for today or what we covered in this lecture? (A good concluding question to congeal some main ideas/key topics: the design and coding of apps; the politics of universal design; infrastructure, invisibility, and transparency; public/private; ableism)

Feel free to borrow this lesson – and I’d love to hear any ideas for modifications or suggestions for improvement in the comments section!

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