“Making a difference. One app at a time”? : Disability, Distinction, and Domestic Access

The new media landscape for youth with communication disabilities is currently undergoing a significant technological and cultural shift. Costly traditional electronic speech aids (used most famously by physicist Stephen Hawking) are increasingly being replaced with more affordable, accessible, and socially acceptable tablet computers such as the Apple iPad and assistive speech apps. With these communication technologies, youth and their families have the potential to develop voice and assert more control over their lives. However, it is crucial that we avoid using technological and social determinism to explain the adoption and use of these tools. Over the course of 16 months, I observed and interviewed parents of 20 non-speaking children ages 3-13 in the Los Angeles area who have developmental disabilities such as autism and who communicate using the iPad and the most popular assistive speech app, Proloquo2Go. Drawing on theories of cultural capital and structural inequality, I argue that parents’ ability to mobilize distinctive social, economic, and especially cultural resources shapes their interactions with the clinical, educational, and media systems regulating these technologies. I suggest ways in which various stakeholders—including policymakers, practitioners, and engineers—can apply these findings so that more youth with communication difficulties—not just those who are privileged—can speak and truly be heard. Moving forward, supporting youth and adults with disabilities requires us to trace the broader role of what I term “networked immobility” in how disability and other dimensions of difference are experienced in the digital age.

Speaker Details

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and a Research Associate with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop. Alper critically studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication. Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney. Her research has been published in a number of journals, including New Media & Society, International Journal of Communication, and Journal of Early Childhood Literacy. Her new book, Digital Youth with Disabilities (2014, MIT Press), examines the out-of-school media and technology experiences of children, adolescents, and teenagers with disabilities. Alper graduated magna cum laude from Northwestern University, double majoring in Communication Studies and History. She also holds a certificate in Early Childhood Education from UCLA.

Meryl Alper