investigating normal.


ENGR 3299   Investigating Normal: Adaptive and Assistive Technologies

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Fall 2016 syllabus is here; thanks for your patience while we merge these sites.

Fall 2015

Olin College of Engineering

Tuesdays 1:30-5, and Fridays, 1:30-3, AC 128

Instructor: Sara Hendren

Course Overview

Assistive technologies usually refer to prosthetics and medical aids: tools, devices, and other gear that either restore or augment the functioning of body parts. Historically, these have been designed for people with diagnosable disabilities. In this course, we look at medical as well as cultural tools that investigate the “normal” body and mind, and we design our own devices—high-tech, low-tech, digital or analog—with these ideas in mind. Through readings, site visits, guest speakers, and projects, we investigate both traditional and unusual prosthetics and assistive technologies, broadly defined. We talk to end-users, to engineers and industrial designers, to artists, and to others whose technologies assist with visible and invisible needs, externalize hidden dynamics, and create capacities far beyond or outside ordinary functionality.

Key to our discussions will be the implicit and explicit narratives that get created by and with prosthetic technologies. We’ll look at popular prosthetic tools and examine how their users “perform” them, keeping economic and socio-political factors in mind. We’ll also investigate the ways these narratives get lumped together or distinguished from the available and popular cultural narratives about the cyborg self, about human-machine interfaces in general. With this analysis in mind, I’ll ask you to consider new possibilities for manufacturable prosthetic and medical technologies in the interest of better treatment, especially if that’s where your personal interest lies. But I’ll also ask you to engage in what’s been called interrogative design, or critical design, or resonant design: that is, problem finding as well as problem solving; suspending questions by pressing together, in one artifact or set of artifacts, seemingly disparate or opposing ideas; thinking about what Anthony Dunne calls “para-functionality”: design that lives among recognizable realms of utility, but expands, as he says, beyond conventional definitions of functionalism to include the poetic, or activist, or socio-political.

The class themes are heterogeneous in the first half of the course—on purpose. With visitors and projects and readings, we’ll jump quickly between and among high-tech, low-tech, practical and impractical tools and wearables. The idea is to have you exposed to as many dispositions for making your projects as possible. This “field” is very wide indeed, and its generativity is still under-recognized. Be ready for some zigs and zags along the way, but the goal is to help you elicit your own questions as potential engineers in this broad research space.

It’s worth mentioning right up front that you should divest yourself of the common and well-intended—but utterly misguided—earnestness that drives many designers’ assumptions about “assistive technology.” It may be tempting to find some technical novelty or functional gadget and then, only afterward, look for an application “for the disabled.” I’ve seen too many projects in this vein lately.

Be aware, first, that a central tenet of this class is that all technology is assistive technology: No matter what kind of body you inhabit, you are getting assistance from your devices and extensions and proxies every single day. And second, gird yourself with a proper humility: Ask lots of questions, do the research on precedent tools, and respect the stunning sensory organism that is the living, breathing, adaptive human body. White canes, ankle braces, and assistance animals, after all, are extraordinarily sophisticated prostheses. Digital tools offer unique capabilities, yes—but they’re not inherently “smart” because of their digital nature. The point here is to see ability and disability as an exciting, expansive lens with which to think about many bodies and many kinds of needs.

Finally: This video with Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor is a kind of manifesto, a solid frame from which the ethos of the course proceeds. Please watch early and often:


Please let me know in advance if you absolutely must be absent, either day or night. Missing more than one class will significantly affect your evaluation.

Course Components

Short experiments: We’ll work together in teams—once or twice in class, and once or twice on your own—on some short exercises to jumpstart the making process.

Weekly readings/viewings: See each week’s required and suggested readings.

Precedent studies: Each student, in prepping for the final project, will prepare a short (1 page) essay and presentation on two precedent projects that ideally operate in the direction you’re headed, either topically or methodologically. I can talk with you about some suggestions for projects if it helps.

Final projects: After October 6, all students will self-assess both skills and interests, and we’ll line up teams to match with client collaborators accordingly.

Experimental context: The class has an ambitious scope in this first few iterations at Olin; that’s because we’re trying out several possible partnerships for the long term of the class and the adaptation + ability group. Be flexible! Some readings may change; some class time arrangements may change. I’m interested in being responsive to the particular direction of this group.

Inclusion Statement

It is Olin College’s policy to comply fully with all state and federal disability laws. Olin does not discriminate against applicants or students with disabilities, and will consider modification to academic programs where necessary to ensure that our requirements are not discriminatory, as long as the modifications do not fundamentally alter the nature of our programs. The Office of Student Life coordinates services for students with learning disabilities, sensory impairments, psychological disabilities and medical conditions. Students are responsible for identifying themselves to the Assistant Dean of Student Life for Advising and providing appropriate documentation of their disability and need for accommodation in a timely manner. Students requesting accommodation should contact the Assistant Dean of Student Life for Advising as soon as possible after matriculation.

Services for students with learning disabilities may include, but are not limited to, academic accommodations, coaching on organizational and time management skills, faculty notification and academic advising. Services for students with physical, sensory, or psychological impairments as well as medical conditions may include, but are not limited to, academic accommodations, assistance with adaptive technology, accessibility accommodations and academic advising. Any specific modifications granted will be based on detailed discussions with each student about their particular situation, and on information from a medical care provider concerning the student’s disability and related needs.

I assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of any course will accommodate each student differently. Please talk to me as soon as you can about your individual learning needs and how this course can best accommodate them. Even if you do not have a documented disability, remember that other support services are available to all students.

Class 1, Friday 9/4: Overview

Course overview. Introductions, themes of course and broad introduction to key concepts, plus lots of projects. Dispositions for the designer and disability. The relationship of the class to the larger lab and a broad net for possible collaborations and research. Narratives of disability.

“Examined Life” plus / “My Vagina Ain’t Handicap” / “Song of the Machine” / Guinness Wheelchair Basketball commercial /

Class 2, Tuesday 9/8: Adaptive Design Association and cardboard tutorial with NINJA Lauren Froschauer

Look at the Adaptive Design Association‘s web site, including all these short videos. Read about them in the New York Times.

Consider your own environments for adaptations. If you like, take a look at this Pinterest collection of cardboard furniture—it’s everywhere! We’ll discuss Thoughtless Acts? by Jane Fulton Suri. Collect 3-5 by Friday.

Also read prior to class:

1) Graham Pullin’s introduction and the sections on “Exploring Meets Solving” and “Provocative Meets Sensitive” from Design Meets Disability. PDFs are in the public drive.

2) All Technology is Assistive.

3. Show Your Work. When looking through this book, think about what grabs your attention, what you could work on in this class: Is it photography skills? Video?  Capturing process as well as product? Telling stories to multiple audiences? I’ll ask you to each set your own learning goal in the realm of documentation in addition to the subject area of the course, so think carefully about the premises of Kleon’s book. Who are your publics, as a maker? How and why are you speaking with them about your work, in this class and in your Olin career in general?

Class 3, Friday 9/11: documentation how-tos, with Jeff Goldenson and NINJA Adit Dhanushkodi

With Jeff Goldenson, you’ll be looking at typologies of documentation and best practices for showing your work. The purpose of this session is to inspire you to document the project work you do in the class with multiple audiences in mind, with an ear for story, with artful modes of representation. Believe me, this is absolutely critical skill-building. Adit will join and/or follow Jeff with some information about his role as “documentation ninja.” He’ll share some ideas and let you know the kinds of supports he can offer as you proceed through assignments and the project phase. He can also consult (as can Lauren) on ideas for your cardboard/low tech adaptations.

Watch The Crash Reel.

Read: “Introduction: Imagined Futures,” in Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip, [PDF, in the public drive], plus Resource on First-Person Language, “I’m not a Person with a Disability; I’m Disabled.” And watch: “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.

First writing assignment due Saturday, Sept 12 at 5 pm.:

Using Alison Kafer’s text as a broad background, analyze two or more of the essays or films we’ve looked at together around the individual or medical model of disability, versus the social/political/relational model. Kafer defines these terms for us; now where do you see evidence of these assumptions at play in the language, look-and-feel, and messaging of the written and video work we’ve talked about? Use concrete examples. 2 pages single spaced. if you like, make a visual representation that would distinguish the models, and locate the various media there.

 Class 4, Tuesday 9/15: high tech-low tech, past projects, and more on documentation

Cardboard/low tech adaptations due.

Take a look at high tech projects like exoskeletons, and  low tech projects like the GRIT wheelchair, the Jaipur Foot group, and DIYAbility.

Read “Fashion Meets Discretion” and “Simple Meets Universal” from Pullin, Design Meets Disability. PDF on public drive.

Session with socket team from last year on co-design and best practices for documentation.

Class 5, Friday 9/18: Mel Chua

Mel Chua is the first of our class collaborators to visit.

Watch this film about Christine Sun Kim, and look at at least three videos from the “first time hearing” genre on Youtube. Read all about DeafSpace. See this video of Helen Keller with choreographer Martha Graham, this conversation in ASL for deafblind speakers, and an article on inventing signs for emergent slang.

Other material from Mel’s writing:

Being deaf is unlearning “paper face.”

Being deaf is: holding a hidden uncollapsed wave function on your side of a conversation.

How to Succeed in Engineering as a Disabled Person.

Class 6, Tuesday 9/22

Long debrief on visitors, readings, and questions about projects.

Watch: “The Long Wait.” Jason DaSilva and AXS.

Read: John Hockenberry, The Next Brainiacs, and Eric Moskowitz, “Her Decision, Their Life,”and “Adaptive Hacks: A Cane Meets a Bike.” Listen to: Henry and Jane. Watch: Deep Sea Diving… in a Wheelchair.

Class 7, Friday 9/25: Carmen Papalia, part 1

Artist Carmen Papalia starts his off his “micro-residency” at Olin with a conversation about his work as an artist and his navigation of the world as a blind person; he’s also the second of our collaborators. Read/watch about him here, here, and here, and come prepared with questions to ask. We’ll have a long afternoon on this day and more events over the weekend.

Readings: “The White Cane as Technology” and listen, on Invisibilia: How To Become Batman. Other readings and media TBA.

Class 8, Tuesday 9/29: Carmen Papalia, part 2

In this class, we’ll brainstorm with Carmen about his particular project idea, especially in the context of his other work. We’ll get into teams and sketch model some ideas to try to set up the eventual team with a bunch of possibilities.

Class 9, Friday 10/2: Lacy Gillotti of NEADS

Lacy Gillotti of NEADS will be the third of our visitor-collaborators.

Readings: Creature Comforts, and studies on service dogs for PTSD. Take a look at the Service Dog Project, also in the Globe.

First journaling paragraph due, see assignment.

Class 10, Tuesday 10/6: Alex Geller of Fathom Info

We’ll talk to Alex of Fathom Info about data visualization and information design, and then we’ll talk together about the project we’ll be working on with her: the school-to-prison pipeline and disability.

What is the school-to-prison pipeline? ACLU

Colorlines: Race, Disability, and the School-to-Prison pipeline

Excerpt from and link to the National Council on Disability’s 2015 recommendations to break the pipeline

Class 11, Friday 10/9: decisions

Survey results in. Self-organize teams and research strategies. Contact project partners, set up initial visit. Make sketches, collect precedents (Pinterest or other), understand the research space.

Over the weekend, I’d like each of you individually to create a 100-idea list for the problem space of your team: both functional and/or critical/speculative. Remember that a functional solution to your problem set might be a product, a system, a wearable, a web site, a curriculum, an event, or something else altogether. Imagine materials you’ve never tried; imagine magical circumstances unconstrained by current technologies, and imagine *no intervention* or *less intervention* as a solution. You’ll have to dig online for related research to make it to 100. Who else is doing what you’re doing? What are current one-off solutions that you could replicate, change, scale? Who’s making artwork, buildings, policies that connect to this space?

Try one or more of these creativity apps when you start to run dry.

Will we be basing our design work on the user experiences of our partners? Yes. Certainly. But let’s think with things and go big and divergent, bigger than is even comfortable, right here at the beginning. This list can be a kind of backdrop for your much more linear and iterative process.

Self-organize teams and research strategies, design your basic overall process with your other deadlines and travel in mind. Come on Thursday with some initial contacts made, a general overall arc of what you imagine to be your process (knowing there will be surprises), and other strategic moves mapped out.

Class 12, Tuesday 10/13: 100 ideas + studio

Report back to the group with strategy for proceeding: 100-idea list experience (see above), visits with partners, scope of work, week by week goals and more.

Class 13, Friday 10/16: field trip to Spaulding Rehab Hospital

Readings and projects on the contested nature of autism: spectrum conditions, sensory processing disorder, and pressure technologies. Research the “informal” prosthetics of body socks, weighted blankets, and more. The Vayu Vest. Dana Gordon’s Undercover. Jin Jung, “Take My Weight Off Your Shoulders.” Wendy Jacob, Squeeze Chair and Explorers Club. PTSD and sensory anxiety. Plus a critical look at the common medicalizing language of “high functioning” vs “low functioning.”

Murray, “Autism Functions/The Functions of Autism.Disability Studies Quarterly. Listen to Steve Silberman on his new book, Neurotribes.

Also, choose ONE of the following two articles:

Picard, “Future Affective Technology for Autism and Emotion Communication.” PDF

Herbert, M. “Treatment Guided Research: Helping People Now with Humility, Respect, and Boldness.” PDF

Class 14, Tuesday 10/20: studio + autism politics

Revisit your previously-stated documentation goals one-on-one with Sara. Are your goals incorporated into your schedule? Can you see how they’ll play out in the execution of the project?

Class 15, Friday 10/23: stacy scibelli

Fantastic visitor Stacy Scibelli joins us to talk about clothing as prosthetics and interactive wearables. Look over Stacy’s work and related work of Studio OrtaLygia Clark, Azra Aksamija, Jennifer Crupi, and the projects on Fashioning Technology.

Class 16, Tuesday 10/27: studio

Deliver the “story” of your work so far in a presentation for the whole class. Use rich media documentation of your work so far and share with us the research space you’re in and experiments you’re running, paths you’re pursuing, your likely area of focus. The point here is to have an early check-in for substantive feedback on your overall direction. Follow writing/presentation prompts to come from Zhenya.

Plan for an 8 minute presentation from each team, followed by 20 minutes of q and a.

Class 17, Friday 10/30: studio

Media this week: Performing disability, performing gender. Take a look at Viktoria Modesta’s Prototype video, and peruse the TV series Push Girls. See the discourses of gender performance, cyborg futurism, and racial politics in Janelle Monae’s Q.U.E.E.N. video, and affective machines in Bjork’s All is Full of Love.

Class 18, Tuesday 11/3: studio

Class 19, 11/:6 studio

Class 20, 11/10: studio

Class 21, 11/13: studio

Class 22, 11/17: studio

DESIGN REVIEW of PROTOTYPES. You’ll each have roughly 10 minutes to use slides and prototypes to talk about the work of your project, after which will be 15-20 minutes of feedback. I’m expecting, based on our ongoing conversations, that your work has more shape and focus, and that you can present us with a set of ideas to respond to in anticipation of your final effort.

Consider, as you plan your presentation:

—Where have you been, and where are you headed?

—What are the mechanics you need to figure out to finish?

—Who is your story for?

Class 23, 11/20: studio

Class 24, 12/1: studio

Class 25, 12/4: studio

Class 26, 12/8: last class

Students present prototypes to the entire class for feedback.

Final Review, 12/18, 12-3 pm in AC 213.

Guests will include Larry Goldberg of Yahoo, Tim Maly of RISD, Chris Hinojosa of Emulate Bio, and possibly others.

Final written reflection prompt:

The medical and social models of disability may be understood as “sites” where disability originates or is manifest. In the medical model, disability appears to be located in an individual body: brokenness or deviation from the norm that requires assistive technologies and other supports to restore its functionality. In the social model, disability is born and lives in the environment and in social structures: architecture, educational systems, economies, transportation, and more. These two models shouldn’t be seen as clear and clean opposites; they are really quite complex. Consider where and how disability lives in and among these models in one of two ways:
—in your project, including your engagement with users, your design decisions, and the anticipated outcome/deliverables, or
—in your own experience or that of a close loved one: where do you recognize these factors at play, influencing daily decisions and life choices?
Defend your perspectives with evidence from your work or your reflections. Some questions you might engage are: How does your work interrupt the current paradigms of medical and social disability? What are your personal interpretations of these two paradigms that may have shifted as a result of your involvement in the course? Looking forward, how does your involvement with this work allow you to engage with field of disabilities? Where would this work be positioned vis-à-vis the two paradigms?

6 thoughts on “investigating normal.

  1. Pingback: investigating normal, week 1: thoughtless acts | Abler.

  2. Pingback: the school for poetic computation: assistive tech, fall 2014 | Abler.

  3. Pingback: guiding principles for an adaptive technology working group | Abler.

  4. Pingback: carmen papalia at olin, 9/25-29, and more collaborations | Abler.

  5. Pingback: Investigating Normal: Adaptive and Assi | Adaptive Assistive: Investigating Normal

  6. Pingback: Critical Disability Studies | Inclusive Design

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