‘Many non-disabled people who work in disability consider themselves experts’

16 Jan 2019

Dr Ashley Shew, assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at Virginia Tech. Image: Virginia Tech

Dr Ashley Shew of Virginia Tech is helping to shine a bright spotlight on the realities of being a disabled researcher in an ableist world.

After receiving her bachelor’s degree in 2005 with a major in philosophy from the University of South Carolina, Dr Ashley Shew completed a master’s in science and master’s in philosophy at Virginia Tech in 2007 and 2008, respectively.

Following the completion of her PhD (again in Virginia Tech) in 2011, she is now an assistant professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society at the university.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

My research is in the liberal arts with a specialisation in the philosophy of technology. I am a researcher, but not a scientist.

I was lucky to get to work as an undergrad research assistant with a philosopher of science and technology, starting the summer of my freshman year in college. This exposed me to what research in the humanities looks like and led me to the work I do today.

Usually, we think about researchers as people in labs who might do things with cell cultures or test tubes or brain-imaging or cutting on mice. I really didn’t know what humanities researchers did until working with Dr Davis Baird at University of South Carolina on the history and philosophy of nanotechnology, where we talked about that nature of seeing and instrumentation, how scientific instruments come to be trusted, and thinking about the narratives that frame and encourage growth in an area of interest, as well as their political ends.

Can you tell us about the research you’re currently working on?

My work today is still about the narratives we tell ourselves, though rarely about nanotechnology these days. My first book, Animal Constructions and Technological Knowledge, addressed the narratives we tell ourselves about animals, and how this lets us neglect tool use and construction on the part of animals as being less complex and interesting than these occurrences really are.

My current projects concern the cultural and design narratives we tell ourselves about disability and technology, and how these narratives are contrary to many of the stories disabled people have about technology.

For this work, I have a National Science Foundation Career Award, which has enabled me to better incorporate my love of teaching on technology and disability, as well as my commitment to disability community activism and service into my research. I also now supervise three student researchers at a time through this grant.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

The research I do is important for both the understanding of disability within technological imagination (who designers think they are serving) and of disability within our wider culture. Too many stories we tell ourselves about disability are written by non-disabled people and feature non-disabled actors pretending to be disabled.

We need authentic stories to properly understand the diverse interplay between disabled people and technological infrastructure. The narratives that come from the disability community make us think in bigger ways about the systems in which technologies are deployed, funded, taken up or potentially rejected, and how these technologies are socially marked.

These stories also recognise the contributions and designs of disabled people themselves who are often seen as test subjects or users, rather than equal intellectual partners and compensated contributors on designed technologies for disability.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a researcher in your field?

Ableism is the sauce we are all marinated in. My work aims to address ableism as it occurs in technological design and engineering environments, a phenomenon I call ‘technoableism’. I find that people can be dismissive of the type of humanistic research I engage in, as well as carry many ableist assumptions that contribute to how work like this gets undermined.

When ableism is so common and represented in so many media explorations of disability, it’s hard to start conversations about the ways in which narratives about disability are so often incorrect.

Poet and fellow amputee Jillian Weise wrote: “For a while, all the experts on African-Americans were white. All the experts on lesbians were Richard von Krafft-Ebing. All the experts on cyborgs were non-interfaced humans.” My work, and that of others, elevates disabled voices as experts on disability and on technology related to disability.

Many non-disabled people who work on issues related to disability consider themselves experts in ways that can be dismissive to disability activists and community; getting these people to listen to disabled expertise on disability is one of the larger challenges to this type of work.

Are there any common misconceptions about this area of research?

Many people don’t really know this is an area of research, but I’ve run into the sentiment that I’m so nice to work with disabled people, as if I do this research out of helpfulness or kindness, and not out of a commitment to justice and fairness and a better world in which disabled people can face less stigma.

Also, I’m disabled, so I already know that not everyone who works with disabled people is helpful, nor do they necessarily have a clue about ableism, disability history, disability community and disability pride.

What are some of the areas of research you’d like to see tackled in the years ahead?

I want it to be easier for people to identify as disabled without being dismissed, and to use the best equipment for them without the stigma that can come from using disability technologies. I want disabled people to be heard when they share their stories and also when they share their expertise, even without sharing those stories.

Are you a researcher with an interesting project to share? Let us know by emailing editorial@siliconrepublic.com with the subject line ‘Science Uncovered’.