The refrain of the upcoming “Technology and Disability: Counternarratives” forum goes like this: crip poetics, high-tech fixes, and a cyborg promenade.

This 2020 edition of the Choices and Challenges Forum — a three-decade-old Virginia Tech public engagement series — will explore ethical and social issues around advances in science and technology. The three-session Zoom series begins Nov. 9.

“The sessions will focus on diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, and how thinking through these issues should influence technological design and engineering,” said Lee Vinsel, forum co-organizer and an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

Vinsel credits his fellow co-organizer, Ashley Shew, also an assistant professor in the department, as the thought leader behind the event. He and a graduate assistant, Kuan-Hung Lo, are providing organizational and logistical support.

“Autism Tech and Autistic Experience,” the first session on Nov. 9 from 10 to 11:30 a.m., will feature presenters Finn Gardiner, Rua Williams, Elizabeth McLain, and Carolyn Shivers.

Gardiner is a community educator, researcher, advocate, and designer at the Lurie Institute for Disability Policy at Brandeis University and the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. Williams is an assistant professor in human-computer interaction at Purdue University. McLain, an instructor of musicology in the Virginia Tech School of Performing Arts, previously pioneered and implemented training on disability, accessibility, and inclusive teaching at the School of Music, Theatre and Dance at the University of Michigan. Also at Virginia Tech, Shivers is an assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science who studies siblings of individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Damien Williams, a doctoral student in science, technology, and society at Virginia Tech, will moderate the “Autism Tech and Autistic Experience” session.

Alice Wong
Alice Wong, the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project®, will tele-present at the forum.

On Nov. 11 from 10 to 11:30 a.m., Disability Visibility Project founder and director Alice Wong will present during the “High-Tech ‘Fixes’ and Disability” session.

“Alice Wong is an important hub in disability networks for disability storytelling and making stories visible to multiple venues,” said Shew. “She is also very active in #cripthevote. These are Twitter chats about disability politics. Disability Twitter is big because people who are homebound can be part of the conversation.”

Wong is a disability activist, media maker, and consultant based in San Francisco. Presenting alongside her will be Elizabeth Guffey, Yomi S. Wrong, and Jaipreet Virdi.

Guffey is an art history professor at Purchase College at the State University of New York, where her research involves art and design, visual culture, museology, and disability studies. Wrong, a University of Southern California Annenberg Health Journalism Fellow, is also the American Disabilities Act compliance manager for Sutter Health’s Palo Alto Medical Foundation. Virdi, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, is a historian of medicine, technology, and disability.

Science journalist Rose Eveleth will moderate this session.

Both the third session and the overarching theme of the forum stem from a bout of insomnia Shew experienced two years ago. Rather than fretting over her lost sleep, Shew began planning the forum.

In a frenzy of inspiration, while listening to Janelle Monáe albums about androids, Shew wrote down a series of thoughts. Included were words about Sammus, a rapper who takes her persona from a video game character. And that is how the Cyborg Promenade was born.

“As a teenager, Sammus loved video games,” Shew said. “And during one, she gets to the end of the game, and her avatar suddenly unmasks itself and it’s a woman — and an amputee with an arm cannon. When I learned this, I knew she needed to be part of this forum.”

Sammus — whose given name is Enongo Lumumba-Kasongo — will perform with Travis Chi Wing Lau, an assistant professor of English at Kenyon College and a poetic performer, during the Cyborg Promenade. The event will take place at the conclusion of the Choices and Challenges Forum, on Nov. 13 from 1:30 to 3 p.m.

By inviting several influential thinkers in disability studies to the forum, Shew said, the organizing committee plans to engage more of the disability community, along with marginalized populations, and the Choices and Challenges audience in conversations about the future of technology.

“It is never ‘technology is better,’” Shew said. “It’s more like ‘let’s figure out how we can use technology in a liberating way. Let’s figure out how to use technologies in ways that don’t hurt people.’”

Shew, who received a National Science Foundation CAREER Grant in 2018, is using some of those funds to host this event. Four years ago, she conceived of doing a Choices and Challenges forum on disability technology. She wrote it into the grant proposal.

The event is supported by the Department of Science, Technology, and Society; the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences; the Center for Humanities; the Office of Inclusion and Diversity; and An Advancing the Human Condition Symposium grant. The themes of the event also exemplify the work of the university’s Destination Areas.

To register for the free events, visit the Choices and Challenges website.

“I want to take a broader approach with this Choices and Challenges Forum,” Shew said. “This is important, especially given how many new technologies are on the horizon. We want to start narratives early to change the trajectory of where some researchers are working and to listen to the disability community for their solutions.”

Written by Leslie King