Disrupting Normality

Examining the Trajectories of Assistive Technologies in Inclusive Education

Written by Anna Ajlani


Anna Ajlani writes on high tech assistive technologies in educational contexts as means of integration. What are the politics around disabilities and assistive technologies in schools? What is the role of traditional infrastructures and how can technology forward inclusion and participation?


For decades, people who experience disabilities have been fighting for recognition and participation in a society and infrastructure that has been designed for the able-bodied. Although German legislation and policy are supposed to ensure that people with disabilities are guaranteed participation in all social spaces, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which investigates on behalf of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities has criticized Germany in 2015 for not sufficiently adhering to the convention which the country has ratified in 2009 (Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2015). One of the areas affected by this slow progress of inclusion is education. As of 2014, every tenth school for general education in Germany was a “Förderschule”[¹] (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2014: 170). Children and adolescents with disabilities are still at a disadvantage compared to their able-bodied peers. As Gibson et al. (2017: 498) summarize, young people with disabilities “engage in less diverse leisure activities, more ‘passive’ recreational activities (such as watching television) and fewer social activities”. In light of the current debate about equality and feasibility in the context of inclusive education (see e.g. Die ZEIT 2018) this article will discuss which barriers continue to hinder inclusive education and how assistive technologies can be employed in order to empower children and adolescents with disabilities in integrative processes. First, the definition of disability and the infrastructures surrounding and enacting it are discussed. Following that, I will work out the politics and power relations that play an often-invisible role in the trajectories assistive technologies take. Finally, the results from the preceding discussion will be applied to the case of inclusion in the German education system in order to identify the requirements for an empowering application of assistive devices into classrooms. Assistive devices exist both in the form of low and high technology (see Campbell et al. 2006); this article focuses on high tech assistive devices as they require more training as well as environmental adjustments. This article includes all kinds of disability ranging from learning to motoric disabilities under the umbrella term, even if only some can be explicitly named and discussed.

Deconstructing (dis-)ability
The boundary between abled and disabled may be widely perceived as “natural” and unpolitical, but as Blume et al. (2013: 99) clarify, the definition of disability is “the outcome of a complex medico-bureaucratic process” with the goal of making (dis-)abilities manageable and governable. Admon-Rick (2014) elaborates on the infrastructures that have been constructed to encode, calculate, and classify disability on the example of the Azuhei Nehut, the Israeli Disability Percentages System. To her, the biomedical understanding of disability is a “form of technoscience” designed to simplify heterogeneity and, at the same time, embed cultural values into numerical figures, thus “stabilizing their existence” (ibid: 109; 112). Admon-Rick (2014: 114f) further points out that while the person evaluating the level of disability is usually assigned the role of a neutral observer, the component of human interaction is unveiled through the emergence of the attribute “ugly” when classifying scars. The same is the case in the rare 100% rating that blindness receives: The emotionally charged notion of tragedy associated with being or becoming blind is projected and translated into an exceptionally high ranking (ibid: 113f). Nonetheless, the high rating can also partly be attributed to the strong barriers non-sighted people face in a quite visually oriented infrastructure. Looking at these structures from a large-scale perspective based on the work of Star (1999), the classification of disabilities would not be useful if it weren’t for the economic and social orders requiring it. Modern lifestyles are formed around an education-employment-retirement pipeline, which emphasizes productivity that is exchanged with currency needed to afford basic life necessities such as rent and food. If these expectations of productivity, which is classified and normed itself, cannot be met due to disabilities, human rights legislation implores that there is some form of reimbursement set in place to ensure that a person’s needs are met (Admon-Rick 2014: 118). In Germany, these compensations are categorized through social insurance legislation in the SGB IX. Without these larger systems in place, a classification and numeration of disabilities would not have any meaning. A strictly biomedical interpretation of disability places it as a personal attribute and not as the result of barriers and inaccessibility put in place by exclusionary infrastructures as the WHO (2013) suggests. Mankoff et al. explain their advocacy for a postmodern model of disability which includes both a medical and a social perspective as follows:

Because some conditions may require medical attention and involve serious secondary problems, it is worth understanding (and perhaps improving upon) the medical model of “impairment.” At the same time, social models of disability should not be abandoned, as they reduce the risk of “blame the victim” social policies […]. Finally, a cultural understanding of disability is needed to avoid the mistaken assumption that the ultimate goal is “normality.” (Mankoff et al. 2010: 4)

Admon-Rick (2014: 121;124) describes a duality of disability percentage systems as on one hand, the individuals and the ways in which they are affected disappear behind a number, on the other, she remarks that receiving a classification symbolize “recognition, a civil identity, and a gateway to receive government subsidy”. Wise (2012: 169) illustrates how the relationship between technology and disability can be ambivalent as well on the examples of the telephone and computer or smartphone screens, as both were massive societal innovations but exacerbated barriers in accessibility for those with aural and visual impairments at first. The next chapter will showcase how whether technological innovations alleviate or worsen barriers for people with disabilities is highly dependent on the inclusion of users in a devices’ early stages of development.

The Politics of Assistive Technologies
Ravneberg (2012: 261-267) breaks down the four stages of users acquisitioning a new assistive device according to a framework provided by Silverstone et al. (1994): first, there’s an appropriation phase in which a device transitions from a market commodity to an object, followed by the objectification phase in which users evaluate usability and aesthetics of the device. Here, gender inequalities unravel with Ravnebergs (2012: 265f) re-narration of an interviewees experience with a wireless alert system enclosed in a wristwatch that she perceived as clearly designed for men with its size and black color. When the device was introduced in a “female version”, it had lost its functionality as a wristwatch. The incorporation phase surrounds the stage in which users include the device in their everyday lives. If a device is so incompatible with users needs and expectations that it ends up unused, the potential consequences include a decrease in safety and availability (ibid: 266). The final conversion phase is characterized by the meanings the device takes on through both the users and their environments (Ravneberg 2012: 266f).

Assistive technology is not always welcome with and suitable for those with disabilities. Blume et al. (2003: 100) re-evoke the case of the Cochlear implant which was rejected by the deaf community who saw it as another instrument of forcing spoken communication on them instead of recognizing sign language as a valid form of communication. Ravneberg (2012: 262) highlights the highly medicalized component of assistive technologies and that their design is often only re-shaped by users long after the creation and implementation stage. A feature that distinguishes assistive technologies from other high tech devices is the way the market for them is composed. Assistive devices are often part of public disability benefits. In light of the “slimming” of welfare state funds that is globally taking place, users are rarely free to choose from a range of products, but are assigned “the most reasonably priced types of assistive aids that meet the user’s needs“ (ibid: 263). Keeping the correlation between disability and poverty (Hughes 2013) in mind, a lack of autonomy in a social structure that puts a high value on individual freedom and free markets becomes visible. Ravneberg (2012: 263) suggests that this could also hinder flexibility and innovation. She describes another form of paternalism occurring in the distinction between “professionals” and “end-users” in advertising and websites from the producers (ibid).

According to Lupton and Seymour (2000: 1855), the definition of what constitutes assistive technologies is blurry: people with disabilities have named technologies such as air condition and keypads as relevant parts of their everyday lives, even though they were not developed with the key purpose of supporting those with disabilities. In order to essentialize the relation(s) that develop between a user and an assistive device, Winance (2006) draws on the Actor-Network-Theory approach to map and depict the relationship of human and non-human actors in the case of people with neuromuscular impairments and wheelchairs. One key insight her work offers is that the disability and its contexts are fluid and highly perceptible to change. She describes the process of the user and the wheelchair adjusting to each other; through years of use and unique wear and tear, the wheelchair is not merely a wheelchair, it has become this specific user’s wheelchair that is like no other (Winance 2006: 58). Likewise, the user adjusts just as much to their device during years of usage. Winance refers to this connection as an emotional and material community (ibid). She offers an interpretation of assistive technology devices as a mediator enabling a person who wants to perform an action to execute that desired action (Winance 2006: 60). Through Winance’ perspective, the social perception of the “body […] coded as a dysfunctional body” (Lupton and Seymour 2000: 1852) gives way to an understanding of the ability or disability to perform one certain task at a specific point in time (Winance 2006: 66). She concludes that “the person is made through the interactions he or she has with other entities (human or nonhuman)” (ibid: 67).

A similar image emerges when we turn to the trajectories of computers. As pointed out by Wise (2012) above, these technologies heightened barriers for people with visual impairments due to their highly visual design in the beginning. It seems reasonable to assume that computers were invented for use by “everybody”, however, people with disabilities can become “invisible” through isolation and a stabilized perception of the “normal” body. The solutions that have derived from this problem are copious, examples that come to mind are the “Be My Eyes” app[2] that both reduces isolation and enhances independence for people with low or no vision or the technology that the first deaf-blind Harvard graduate Haben Girma[3] is using to communicate and advocate for the disabled community. It is substantial to mention that these numerous advancements in assistive technology have also been brought forward by the emancipatory movement of people with disabilities who have demanded a voice and space inside society for decades (see Mankoff et al. 2010). As Mankoff et al. (2010: 6) make clear, this perspective is indispensable as “screen readers only work well if web pages are designed with them in mind”. After exploring the trajectories and ramifications assistive technologies can take on, the next chapter is set on providing a framework for an adoption of assistive technologies into inclusive education that proves beneficial to the end-users.

Assistive technologies – A pathway into inclusive education?
At the time of writing this article, there were few studies concerning a correlation between inclusion in education and assistive technologies to be found; instead, a big part of the available literature centralized assistive technologies for the elderly. While this strong tendency of research is understandable amidst the significant demographic changes that will challenge established care systems and policies in the closer future, the progress of inclusionary education deserves more attention given the great impact education has on later life chances and outcomes. Despite having ratified the UN CRPD almost ten years ago, Germany remains to have one of the most segregative special education systems worldwide and has made little progress in educating children with and without disabilities together (Biermann 2019: 19f). Not all “Förderschulen” offer an official degree to graduate with (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2014: 181). Studies have determined a grave difference between acquired skills in students with disabilities who were schooled segregated and those who visited integrative schools (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2014: 180). The authors do point out that this cannot exclusively be interpreted on the grounds of inclusion; other factors such as the severity grade of a disability certainly play a role in this outcome (ibid). Yet, there are positive developments in relation to measures taken to increase participation observable in Germany: the German disability sports youth organization has seen a significant increase in members under the age of 21 since 2001 and universities are making constant progress in removing barriers for students with disabilities (ibid: 184f). One example is the DoBuS department of the Technical University of Dortmund[4], which also offers a pool of assistive devices to students.

Drawing from Winance (2006), I argue that assistive technologies that remove or weaken barriers hindering children with disabilities from efficient learning can take on the role of “carriers” that ease the “crossing” process for those children from segregated outgroup to ingroup in the setting of schools. This endeavor cannot easily be executed by merely supplying schools and/or families with the available technology, though; albeit there needs to be a political component in overcoming the “structurally conservative” argumentation used against inclusionary measures by state actors and profession representatives (Biermann 2019: 22). Biermann (2019: 22f) unveils the underlying barriers created by conservatism around institutionalized knowledge. Debates in Germany only go as far as asking how special education expertise can be transferred into general education knowledge while seldomly suggesting the abolition of school segregation altogether (ibid). Assistive technologies might be of aid in a reform of the German educational system by balancing out differences in learning speed, concentration capacities as well as offering support for potentially challenging activities such as reading or writing with zoomable screens and customized keypads. A press release from the Ministry of Education and Research from 2017 (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung 2017) announces funding for digital tools to enable mobile attendance of people with disabilities in lessons, yet this funding is confined in the boundaries of occupational education and seems to be tied to cooperation with employers.

The structurally conservative standpoints that Biermann (2019) describes become quite distinguishable in the case study of the Athens Metro by Galis and Lee (2013). The authors implemented the terms distortion, estrangement, rejection, and disruption into the aforementioned concept of mapping all actors involved into a network in which they take on individual roles. These processes do not have to happen in chronological order (ibid: 154ff). The planning process of the Athens Metro is exemplified to demonstrate how one group of actors can increase their power by distorting the interests of another actor group and subsequently framing their agenda as irrelevant. In this case, distortion was accomplished by individualizing and depoliticizing disability. To counteract the disability movement efforts to participate in the Metro planning, a newly elected conservative government laid out a model of institutionalization under the guise of helping people with disabilities. The model saw rehabilitation centers and “houses equipped with accessibility technologies” instead of granting people agency and independence through making their environment accessible (Galis and Lee 2013: 160f). The ambiguous nature of assistive technologies becomes amplified during these events; they are not exclusively tools for inclusion and removal of barriers but can confine people to their homes if the surrounding infrastructures remain inaccessible. The case of assistive technologies becoming weaponized in a power struggle is applicable to the field of education as well: Actors who oppose a school system reform could use technology that enables students to attend classes from home as a method of stabilizing segregation by arguing that school buildings do not need to be made accessible if students can participate online. This emphasizes the relevance of meaning assigned to artifacts and relationships in a debate which Biermann (2019) addresses. Galis and Lee (2013: 165) further point out how alliances formed in order to push the disability movement out of the participation process, citing economical and aesthetical concerns and claiming that passengers with disabilities were too few to take into consideration. The disability movement refused to succumb to their rejection and attempted to “reproblematize” accessibility by creating a very public controversy. This reproblematization proved successful but also resulted in ontological boundaries being set by Metro employees and architects who monopolized their knowledge and rejected disabled persons expertise as irrelevant, thus denying them “technopolitical participation” once again (Galis and Lee 2013: 166-170).

After the current state of affairs surrounding the German education system and the ambiguity of assistive technologies has been established, the rest of this article will suggest a framework of optimal conditions for the adaptation of assistive technologies to lessen segregation and expand agency. Campbell et al. (2006: 3) name two important factors: First,  assistive technologies must include the services and human assistance that is needed to receive and adopt them and second, children should be taught the use of these devices in their early years before they enter the education system. Given the shortage of teaching personnel in Germany which is cited as one of the reasons for the opposition of inclusion in schools (see Die ZEIT 2018), teaching children with disabilities the usage of assistive devices upon school entry would further tighten the time teachers have to assist all students. Many of the studies discussed by Campbell et al. (2006) showcase how training the usage of assistive devices can be integrated into play activity. This can smoothen out the acclimatization process and let children learn to use the devices without directly associating them with (dis-)abilities. Valadão et al. (2011) confirm this, adding that assistive technologies – in this case, robotics – can counteract “learned helplessness” and encourage children with severe impairments to explore their surroundings more. Specifically, but not exclusively robots should have an age-appropriate appearance in order not to trigger the “Uncanny Valley-Effect” (Watson 2014). Further design considerations may include unobtrusiveness, size and lightweight materials for easier transportation (Valadão et al. 2011).

The shortage of additional teachers who an inclusion process in “regular” schools might require as mentioned above is an issue of policy and public funding, however, assistive technologies in classrooms may bridge potential gaps in learning speed and concentration and enable teachers to distribute their attention and assistance more equally. Furthermore, if an education reform would be realized in the form of abolishing special education schools, the expertise and personnel could be transferred into newly inclusive schools (Biermann 2019). Leaning on the evidence that children with disabilities who learn together with able-bodied peers see better outcomes in skills acquired (Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2014), the integration of special education classes in regular school buildings that are slowly dispersed with the implementation of assistive technologies may present a more easily feasible first step.

The goal of this article was to disrupt the linear narrative of disability as a deficit by exploring how traditional infrastructures construct exclusion and how assistive technology can act as an antagonist to barriers. There is a wide array of research concerning adaptation of assistive technology devices by the elderly, however, few studies and papers focus on the inclusion of children with disabilities into “regular” schools accompanied by assistive technologies. Campbell et al. (2016: 9) bring this issue up as well, stating that “[future] studies should align with current recommended practices and test intervention effectiveness not just for performance or improvement of isolated skills but for promoting children’s successful participation within a variety of everyday activities and routines”. Adding to this, Ravneberg (2012: 268) determines that the “aesthetical side of design, user satisfaction and user abandonment of devices are important but neglected issues”. As (dis-)ability and participation are also influenced by other social positions such as class and gender, it is essential to approach the topic with an intersectional perspective. The accessibility of technology for people experiencing disabilities should not be an afterthought. As Mankoff et al. (2010:6) mention, a universal usability approach does not only grant inclusivity but can spark innovation and improvement in existing technologies, which further demonstrates the blurred lines between assistive and “regular” technologies. Three areas which require change can be identified: First, there is a lack of research on the relationship between assistive technologies and inclusive education. Second, the discourse about inclusion of schools as Biermann (2019) has described it should give more space to members of the disability movement and broaden to consider a reform of the segregated school system. The current segregated education system in Germany is not conform to Article 24 of the UN CRPD and requires a reform in order to fulfill its commitment to not exclude anyone from the regular education system due to disability and to enable people with disabilities to fully participate in society (see Autorengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2014: 157). Third, people with disabilities should be included in the early creation stages of new assistive technologies. Examining medical technologies in general and assistive technologies in particular through the perspective of Science and Technology Studies can be especially valuable as it unveils underlying power imbalances in the long tradition of critical disability and postcolonial studies. MCTS might build a bridge between these disciplines and provide considerations that help ensure that the growing possibilities to empower people with disabilities through technology, especially in the field of education, do not stay unexplored due to inflexible institutionalized structures.

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