337 Claudia Cohen Hall
Elizabeth Petrick, Assistant Professor of History, New Jersey Institute of Technology
Demanding Inclusion: People with Disabilities and Computer Technology
Since the mid-twentieth century, computer technology has grown exponentially, affecting individuals in all aspects of social life. During this same period, people with disabilities experienced the emergence of disability rights activism, fighting for independence and the enactment of civil rights protections. The people and the technology meet in the struggle for accessibility and full participation in the social world. The needs of people with disabilities as computer users have often been ignored by computer developers, who--largely until the 1990s--did not view them as either a viable market or as a desired employment demographic. At the same time, people with disabilities were usually spoken for by nondisabled people: parents, academics, activists, and therapists. Uncovering the historical perspective of computer users with disabilities have played an active role in the history of computer technology, as consumers and professional users, as research subjects, and as developers.
In this talk, I examine three case studies, from the 1960s to the 1990s, concerning the relationship between people with disabilities and computer technology: blind computer programmers of the punched card era, early academic research on online socialization, and screen reading technology during the change from text-based to graphical user interfaces. I trace the ways that users and technology interact in these examples, who is representing the users' desires, and the kinds of computer technology providing benefits or obstacles to users. I find that people with disabilities were involved, in very different ways, in the development of both computer hardware and software, not as an exceptional case but as a group who, while frequently seen by researchers as a special beneficiary of computer technology, demanded inclusion along with everyone else in the growing digital world.