Call for papers: Media and disability


Media and disability


Neta Alexander, Colgate University of New York

David Friedrich, University of Western Australia

Mara Mills, New York University

Domenico Napolitano, Scuola Superiore Meridionale of Naples


Even before disability gained a prominent role in scholarship thanks to the contribution of disability studies, disability and media have been in a strong relationship, at least since McLuhan’s theorization of media as prosthesis. This thesis has been recently revised and problematized from several perspectives. On one side, scholars have highlighted how disability has been employed in media studies “as a metaphor in the service of another’s cause” (Alper, 2017, p. 2): although it calls on disability as emblematic of the human experience, it doesn’t directly address the real conditions of those with disabilities and the system of organizations, institutions and technologies which marginalize, reduce to silence, and therefore disable those people on a daily basis. On the other side, scholars have noticed how media are the very sites where disability is defined and constructed: media operations embed images of the user which assume certain abilities, while also measuring performances and contributing to produce epistemologies on which systems of assessment, sometimes employed to reinforce exclusion dynamics, are grounded. Media such as assistive technologies produce also regimes of visibility for certain impairments – as it happens with hearing-impairment or speech-impairment – in this way intersecting issues of social representation and stigma. “Not only do media produce disability through their textual representations of disability, they produce disability through their very operations, their institutional existences, and their policy and juridical dimensions.” (Mills and Sterne, 2017, p. 236). Contributions in history of technology and media-archaeology also highlighted that users with disabilities are often at the forefront of innovation in media systems that make them more useful for everyone (Mills, 2012), although those innovations (like “universal design”) often end up leaving those very disabled users outside, or, being addressed to everyone, risk concealing disability as a social identity. As Hamraie (2017) argues, knowledge inscribed in the design of objects and tools can provide or deny access for certain people, thus becoming inextricably interwoven with operative power.

On the background of these considerations works the classic distinction between a medical model of disability, which defines disability “as an individual defect lodged in the person, a defect that must be cured or eliminated if the person is to achieve full capacity as a human being” (Siebers, 2008, p. 3) and the social model of disability, inspired by disability studies, which defines disability “not as an individual defect but as the product of social injustice, one that requires not the cure or elimination of the defective person but significant changes in the social and built environment” (ibidem). This emphasis on “the social and built environment” is at the basis of the dialogue between disability studies and disciplines such as media studies and organization studies in recent years. If disability is constructed through normative assumptions underpinning socially constructed categories of difference, those assumptions are not located only in ideas and discourses, but also built into material artifacts, technologies and organizational structures. In this perspective, while new media technologies, from the Internet to AI, have been presented as tools that can radically improve the lives of disabled people, providing access, inclusion and agency, the critical perspective emphasizes how the “technological fix” rhetorics (Alper, 2017) risks concealing the wider social factors of marginalization which afflict disabled people, as well as the ableist assumptions and systems of value embedded into technological materialities (Ellis & Kent, 2011; Sterne, 2021). It has also been noted how the narratives of personal liberation (Garland Thomson, 2001) associated with assistive technologies are grounded on an “ideology of ability” (Siebers, 2008) which assumes an original, untouched condition of ability and perfection, subsequently corrupted by disability, which must be restored through medical intervention and technology.

Issues of inclusion and accessibility have now become a main concern of several scholarships, from sociology to law and organizational studies, design, engineering, computer science and others. This shows how the issue of media and disability is not just a concern of media studies. How argued by Ellcessor, Kirkpatrick and Hagood (2017): “we need perspectives and methodological tools to analyze how disability shapes media texts, technologies, and industries—and how our media, in turn, shape what it means to be ‘disabled’ or ‘able-bodied’ in contemporary society.”

The centrality of assistive media technologies for disciplines concerned with inclusion is well clear when looking at data technologies such as navigation apps, Internet of Medical Things, AI-operated glasses or voice assistants. Those technologies are not only worth of investigation as for the image of disability they embed in their operations, but also for the issues of privacy and of corporate interferences in public services they open (Alexander, 2020). The extensive use of telepresence platforms for both disabled people and general users to access public services in schools, universities and public institutions, usually provided by private corporations who have property on use data and metadata, in order to provide public services in schools, universities and public institutions, highlights how issues of inclusion (Adamson et al., 2020) are intertwined with technological, social, political, juridical and institutional factors, as those very platforms are usually provided by private corporations who have rights on data and metadata of platforms’ use (Van Dijck et al., 2018). Data gathered by medical or assistive apps can also be translated into automatic assessments of a person’s status which can bias or prejudice processes of hiring (Brown, Shetty & Robinson, 2020). At this regard, it has been noted (Fleet, 2019) how inclusion is also a matter of the very access of disabled people into tech companies’ design teams and of their participation in the social and material crafting of media technologies. Moreover, Covid-19 pandemics, as a mass debilitating event, has shed light not only on the possibilities and limits of digital platforms as accessibility tools, but also on the role of media in communication and management of sickness and disability, making research on this topic ever-more urgent.

This series of considerations show how the topic of media and disability is not limited to assistive technologies: media, in fact, are sites where knowledge about disability is produced, represented and enacted, while assistance, accessibility, inclusion are not a matter of technological fix but are themselves concepts to be redefined within the material, social, political and economic context in which media are designed and operate.

We ask for contributions which explore the topic of media and disability in the multiple configurations above outlined, accounting for social, material, theoretical, aesthetical, experiential, historical, political and institutional perspectives. We welcome papers that address, but are not limited to, the following topics:

- media operations in assistance of disability

- media representations of disability

- histories and archaeologies of disability and media technologies

- media and organizational inclusion of disabled people

- design of assistive technologies

- AI, robotics, data technologies, medical devices in relation to disability

- sickness, disability and media

- marketing and economies of assistive technologies

- normative aspects of assistive technologies

- theoretical and epistemological perspectives on media and disability

- methodological perspectives for the study of media and disability

- ethnographies and autoethnographies with assistive technologies

- ethical and political issues related to assistive technologies

- aesthetics of disability in media and the arts


Guide for submission and deadlines

Authors are invited to submit by January 31st, 2023 (extended to February 22nd 2023):

  • title and abstract of maximum 1000 words (.doc, .docx, .odt, .txt, .rtf). Abstracts must be submitted in English.
  • Contact details (full name, e-mail, post address and affiliation)

Acceptance of abstract by 28th of February 2023. If the abstract is accepted, the Authors should submit the FULL article by June 30th2023. The maximum length of a paper is 60.000 digits (spaces included), including references, tables and figures. The articles will be double-blind peer-reviewed.



Adamson, M., Kelan, E., Lewis, P., Śliwa, M., & Rumens, N. (2021). “Introduction: Critically interrogating inclusion in organisations”, Organization, 28(2), 211–227.

Alexander, N. (2019), “Our Bodies, Ourselves”, Real Life Magazine: (accessed 09/02/2022).

Alper, M. (2017), Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Brown, L.X.Z., Shetty, R. & Robinson, M. (2020), Algorithm-Driven Hiring Tools: Innovative Recruitment or Expedited Discrimination? Washington, D.C.: Center for Technology & Democracy, (accessed 09/02/2022).

Ellcessor, E., Hagood, M., Kirkpatrick, B. (2017), “Introduction: Toward a Disability Media Studies”, in Ellcessor, E., Kirkpatrick, B. (eds.), Disability Media Studies, New York, New York University Press.

Ellis, K., Kent, M. (2011), Disability and New Media, New York, Routledge.

Fleet, C. (2019), “Accessibility, Augmented”, Urban Omnibus, (accessed 09/02/2022).

Garland Thomson, R. (2001), “Seeing the Disabled: Visual Rhetorics of Disability in Popular Photography”, in P.K. Longmore and L. Umansky (eds.), The New Disability History: American Perspectives, New York, New York University Press, 355–74.

Hamraie, A. (2017), Building Access. Universal Design and the Politics of Disability, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Mills, M. (2012), “Do signals have politics? Inscribing abilities in cochlear implants”, in T. Pinch, K. Bijsterveld (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies, New York, Oxford University Press.

Mills, M., Sterne, J. (2017), “Afterword II: Dismediation – Three Proposals, Six Tactics”, in Ellcessor, E., Kirkpatrick, B. (eds.), Disability Media Studies, New York, New York University Press, pp. 365-378.

Siebers, T. (2008), Disability Theory, University of Michigan Press.

Sterne, J. (2021), Diminished Faculties: A Political Phenomenology of Impairment, Durham, Duke University Press.

Van Dijck, J., Poell, T., de Waal, M. (2018), Platform Society. Public Values in a Connected World, Oxford University Press.