Inclusive Extensions: A Summary of the Discussion Event

On 20 December 2019, various experts in the field of disabilities came together to discuss how art, design and technology can adapt towards difference and inclusivity in society. Together, Amble Skuse, Marije Baalman, Jacqueline Kool and Simon Dogger exchanged ideas from their own field of expertise.

In the discussion, some interesting projects came by concerning disability and freedom of movement. One of these projects was Creating the Spectacle! produced by Freewheeling in collaboration with Sue Austin, as mentioned by Jacqueline Kool. The project contained a series of live art and filmed performances of the underwater wheelchair, which was developed through the Arts Council funded project Testing the Water!. In one of the filmed performances, you can see Sue Austin moving around in a wheelchair, underneath the surface of the ocean.

Kool mentioned that in general, people respond to people with a disability in a negative way, especially people in a wheelchair. It is difficult, you are bound to it, stuck to it. However, the wheelchair can also be an object of freedom. Austin played with this by diving into the ocean with her wheelchair. What she shows is that people with disabilities can become very creative when they start to think about what really matters. In this case, Austin would like to raise awareness: having a disability is totally different from what society thinks or says it is. With this project, Austin shows that we need to make room for people with a disability to say what they think and want to do.

This general way in which people with a disability are viewed, is related to how society is structured. In the discussion, it came forward that nowadays, we live in a society where the so-called medical model has the overhand. This model is mainly about fixing. When you have a disability, the overall view is that you are ‘broken’ and need to be ‘fixed’. However, this doesn’t mean that this is the best way to look at disability, as it is a very narrow view. Opposite to the medical model, the speakers offered a more inclusive model, which is more inclusive. It is the so-called social model, where it is not about fixing, but about giving the people with disabilities a voice to share their experiences so that we can learn from them.

In addition to this, Amble Skuse mentioned that there is already an entire network of people with disabilities who have been working on this for years. These people see their disability as a way of learning: a way to help them think about their body in space and what society thinks about that. In addition to this, people with disabilities have a lot of experience of what it means to be human. Because the medical model is maintained in society, it is society that tells you that you are broken and need to be fixed. It is society that disables you.

According to Kool, the only solution to give people with disabilities a voice is to meet and share thoughts with each other. It is important to create a space in society for people with all kinds of diversities, so that they can share their experiences and we can learn from them. We are all social beings and need to connect.

Also, because of the way in which society is structured, many technological devices for people with a disability are made by non-disabled people to fix disabled people. However, Skuse stated that when it comes to the disabled persons themselves, they do not want that. Why do people with a disability have to adapt to fit in with society? Why not turn it around, and let society adapt to people with disabilities? It is important to let disabled people take the wheel and let them decide what they want to do.

Skuse argued that we need to give the tools to the disabled people themselves. We need to train people with disabilities to create their own technologies. Disabled persons should be involved in making these technologies, because they have the experience. We have to put the tools back into the hands of the people that need it.

Even though this is something that needs to get more attention, there are already people with disabilities who design their own devices. Simon Dogger is an example. In the discussion, Dogger mentioned his invention the Emotion Whisperer, a device that is able to translate body language and emotions into sensory signals. With this device, people can literally feel someone’s emotions. He asked the question what to think about a device like this.

Of course, designing something like this solves a lot of problems for people with a disability. In this case, for people with a visual disability. Instead of seeing someone’s emotions, they can feel them, which makes social interaction with other people easier for them. However, Baalman responded to Dogger’s question by mentioning that there are also some difficulties. She mentioned that emotions are complicated and that they are difficult to label. How do you label emotions? Also, who decides this, and can this even be decided? By asking these questions, Baalman offered some important things to think about.

Overall, the conclusion of the discussion was that society as it is now, is not very inclusive, especially for people with disabilities. Society nowadays is mainly based on the medical model, where in general, people with disabilities are seen as ‘broken’ and need to be ‘fixed’, in order to function properly in society. However, in the discussion it came forward that this is a very narrow view to look at people with a disability. The speakers argued that it is important to use a more inclusive, social model, in which people with a disability are seen as people with a lot of experience in certain fields and that we can learn a lot from them. It is important to use a social model in which people with disabilities themselves are given the tools to certain technologies, so that they can use their creativity to create what they want and share them with us.

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