“Assistive Technology or: (Re-)assembling dis/abling practices” ALTERCONF 2019, Cologne 5-6 September

The panel is part of the conference HISTORIES, PRACTICES AND POLICIES OF DISABILITY International, Comparative and Transdisciplinary Perspectives (Cologne). It was organized by SP 2 Techno-Sensory Processes of Participation in collaboration with colleagues from the DFG project “Assistive Media” (Leuphana University Lüneburg).

In our presentations, we focus on techno-sensory modalities and conditions of partaking in and through contemporary technologies for visually impaired and deaf or hard-of-hearing persons. According to Michael Schillmeier, „focusing on sensory practices […] allows us to outline a concept of […] dis/ability that (1) does not separate off a priori socially attributed disabilities from individual physiological or mental impairments and (2) explores how (visual) dis/ability is the outcome of social and non-social, human and non-human configurations.“ (Schillmeier 2007: 197) While oftentimes criticized discourses on ‘enablement‘ and ‘empowerment‘ conceptualize assistive apps or complex attendance systems as ‘neutral’ agents of normalization, we would like to focus on complex techno-sensoric and situational practices , which do not invoke the differentiation between enablement or disablement in order to overcome these differences, but, instead, to bring them to attention in a productive and critical manner: In doing so, the talks will analyse the relations between heterogeneous practices of (re-)assembling human bodies, material objects and sensory technologies in order to deconstruct established power relations and simplistic dichotomizations. We thus present three talks: Starting with a media ethnographic study on music hearing practices with cochlear implants by Beate Ochsner and Markus Spöhrer, Robert Stock continues with critical reflections on assisitive app solutions for visually impaired and blind person, and the panel will be closed by a mediaarcheological talk on tactile practices in the context of the (never realised) project of a hearing glove by Anna Wiechern. By referring to Haraway’s partial perspective on heterogeneous companion-ships, we on the one hand intend to uncover and describe the complex relationships that produce both participation and non-participation in relation to specific mutually shaped techno-sensory or socio-technical constellations respectively. On the other hand, we want to analyse the power relations, which produce asymmetries between agencies and ultimately between different actors.

Schillmeier, Michael. 2007. “Dis/Abling Practices: Rethinking Disability.”  Human Affairs 17 (2):195-208.


In our talk, we present the results of a media ethnographic study on music hearing practices with cochlear implants (CI) conducted in cooperation with the Cochlear Implant Center in Freiburg, Germany. We departed from the idea that in our contemporary society music is ubiquitary, it gives access to different forms of experiencing and purchasing knowledge, and thus enables us to take part in social live. Thereby, the ability of hearing is an equally necessary and both unreflected condition. Music hence challenges deaf or hard-of-hearing persons, and they respond in different ways like sign language, sign dancers, visual jockeys or, a technical solution, the CI. By transmitting incoming acoustic signals to the brain the neuroprosthesis opens interfacing processes between medical technology, audiology, media studies and music or music therapy that are not only of direct use for CI-listeners, but also call for interdisciplinary research projects.

While most medical studies or audiological trainings aim at standardizing and normalizing hearing, our project departed from the research premise that CI-hearing practices are part of an interactive process of subjectivation and socialization in and through which technical, medical and sociocultural decisions and experiences are intertwined. Therefore, we focused on CI-hearing practices with different music devices, in diverse situations and environments that, at least partly, cause the transformation of the CI from a therapeutical instrument to a life style product. We thus elucidated the complex processes of CI-hearing, (hearing) control and self-control, asymmetric power relations, possibilities of deliberately ignoring, i.e. not-listening, as well as individual descriptions of affecting and being affected by hearing music with CI. Methodologically we conducted our research by making use of (video)ethnographical tools, questionnaires and standardized interviews, which in a second step were framed by actual theories of dismediation (Mills/Sterne2017) and methods of STS (Schillmeier 2010; Mol2002).


Mills, Mara and Jonathan Sterne. 2017. Dis-mediation. Three proposals, six tactics. In: Ellcessor, Elizabeth, and Bill Kirkpatrick, eds. 2017. Disability media studies. New York: New York University Press, 365-378.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The body multiple. Ontology in medical practice, Science and cultural theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Schillmeier, Michael. 2010. Rethinking disability. Bodies, senses and things. New York u.a.: Routledge.

The proposed contribution takes a media-archaeological approach and investigates into the development of the so-called “hearing glove” and the succeeding project “FEELIES” (later “Felix”) at the MIT Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) between 1948 and 1951. This vibrotactile apparatus transformed sound into palpable signals, sent to the user’s fingertips through a vibrating diaphragm. It was designed by Norbert Wiener and Leon Levine, who made use of an earlier patent by Homer Dudley and intended to assist persons who were deaf or hard-of-hearing.

The scholar Helen Keller and Leo Sablosky, a man who lived nearby the RLE – both deaf-blind – contributed to the development process (Mills, 2011). Not only did Keller and Sablosky participate in testing sessions. It is also reported that both, long before they became involved in the work at the RLE, already used a similar “technique” when touching their opposite’s lips, throat or chest in face-to-face conversation in order to feel the vibration of their voices (Keller, 1929; Mills, 2011). As highlighted by Mara Mills (2011), insights offered by persons with disabilities were – and still are – of fundamental importance to the development of “prosthetic technologies”. Adopting Mill’s approach, I intend to illustrate how the hearing glove produces a tactile practice revealing an inherent material potential of the body to assist itself in the sense of becoming its own “prosthesis”. Consequently, I would like to put forward that:

I) it is the sense of touch in particular which holds these self-sufficient potentials

II) these auto-assistive bodily practices usually reveal themselves in the course of interactions aiming to facilitate communication between “non-disabled” and “disabled” people and, therefore, may be considered acts of translation.

Finally, these insights will be read against the backdrop of today’s haptic feedback experiences (see Parisi, 2018; Harrasser, 2017) generated by digital devices.  


Harrasser, Karin, ed. 2017. Auf Tuchfühlung. Eine Wissensgeschichte des Tastsinns. Frankfurt New York: Campus Verlag.

Keller, Helen, 1929. Midstream: My Later Life. New York: Crowell.

Mills, Mara, 2011. “On Disability and Cybernetics”, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 22 (2 and 3). doi 10.1215/10407391-1428852

Parisi, David, Mark Paterson, and Jason Edward Archer. 2017. "Haptic media studies."  New Media & Society 19 (10):1513-1522. doi: 10.1177/1461444817717518.dion Sample Description

Our daily, socio-material practices (Mol2002) are increasingly enacted through the entanglement of people, digital technologies and complex infrastructures. Smartphones, other mobile devices and apps are becoming ubiquitous (Wade/Murray2018). They complement and challenge established forms of mobilities, communication and sensory modalities. It is a critical moment, where the question is raised of how digital technologies can be accessed and in which ways they facilitate or inhibit forms of cultural and societal participation (Ellcessor2016). This is also related to a tension between prescriptive assistive technologies, over-the-counter mainstream technologies and assistive apps.

Against this background, my presentation starts with an overview of current mobility apps for visually impaired and blind people (Blindsquare, Soundscape) and then analyzes how contemporary sensory practices are re-configured by assistive app arrangements. By referring to Schillmeier (2010:138) and Mol (2002:33), I argue that sensory practices and dis-/abilities are enacted by heterogeneous (non-)human actors. This enactment is situated in events where user and the environment are produced reciprocally and simultaneously. I consider selected applications – Camassia (2018) and The vOICe (since 1992) – that use sonification (Supper 2012) to render information on the surroundings hearable showing how auditory practices, sonic skills and acoustic spaces are interlaced.

This presentation is part of a postdoc research where I analyze dis-/abling practices, music, sound and digital technologies and how they shape processes of in- and exclusion. It will draw on diverse materials (TV and other advertisements, scientific articles and newspaper articles). Particular emphasis is put on app reviews by blind users on blogs, in online forums or video sharing platforms. Expert interviews with blind app users are also planned. For the analysis of my material I use extended discourse analysis, film analysis and qualitative interview analysis. My interdisciplinary inquiry connects the currently emerging media disability studies (Ellcessor/Kirkpatrick2017) with the field of sound studies (Bull2018; Friedner/Helmreich2012).


Bull, Michael, ed. 2019. The Routledge companion to sound studies. London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

Ellcessor, Elizabeth. 2016. Restricted access. Media, disability, and the politics of participation. New York London: New York University Press.

Ellcessor, Elizabeth, and Bill Kirkpatrick, eds. 2017. Disability media studies. New York: New York University Press.

Friedner, Michele Ilana, and Stefan Helmreich. 2012. "Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies."  The Senses and Society 7 (1):72-86.

Mol, Annemarie. 2002. The body multiple. Ontology in medical practice, Science and cultural theory. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Schillmeier, Michael. 2010. Rethinking disability. Bodies, senses and things. New York u.a.: Routledge.

Supper, Alexandra. 2012. "The Search for the 'Killer Application': Drawing the Boundaries around the Sonification of Scientific Data." In The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies edited by Trevor Pinch and Karin Bijsterveld, 249-272. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wade Morris, Jeremy, and Sarah Murray, eds. 2018. Appified. Culture in the Age of Apps. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

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