Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality is the latest book from Dr. Meryl Alper. For those of you who are long-time readers of the iQ Journals, Alper’s name might be familiar to you; I interviewed her for this blog several years ago. In this new book, she explores the assumption that mobile technology “gives voice to the voiceless” as so many have purported. While this is a scholarly book (published by the MIT press), I found the language in it to be accessible to a wide audience. This book is primarily about AAC (augmentative and alternative communication), and it takes a ethnographic/ sociological perspective that includes race, class, and gender; I was excited to dig in.
Alper bases her book on a series of interviews she conducted with twenty different families in the Los Angeles area, all of whom had an iPad loaded with Proloquo2Go (one of the most popular AAC apps) to help their child communicate. Children in these families were between the ages of three and thirteen at the start of the study, and they all had some form of developmental disability, such as autism or cerebral palsy. Using demographics from all her subjects, she was able to place families into two groups to allow for a comparison: Less Privileged Families and More Privileged Families. (Group determination was based on the mother’s education level, household income, English-language fluency, and ownership of the iPad that the child used for AAC.)
I was impressed with Alper’s deep dive of investigating AAC in homes. So much research out there about AAC is conducted at schools, and almost none of them take an ethnographic approach. Alper discusses everything from how the iPad was obtained (private purchase, through the school system, as a loan, or as a charitable donation), to what kind of apps are on the iPad. There is even a whole chapter devoted to just determining the right case for an iPad! I appreciate the anecdotes and quotes directly from parents.
While there are many interesting insights that come from this book, I want to highlight these messages that really hit home for me. The following issues made me think differently about how iPads are used for communication.
Alper’s investigation is solely about one AAC app – Proloquo2go – even though there are literally hundreds available at this point. Proloquo2go has an advantage, however, in that it was one of the first AAC apps available for the iPad – so it’s one of the most widely used AAC apps. Alper takes some time to cover the voice offerings that Assistiveware, the app company that makes Proloquo2go. Below is a list of the pre-installed voices in American English. (Taken from a screenshot from their website, which Alper also publishes in her book.)
Of the 24 American-English options above, Alper points out, only 9 are female voices, compared to the 16 male voice options. Furthermore, she notes that one of the male voices – “Will” – gets more expressive options, such as “from afar,” “up close,” “happy,” or “sad”. What’s even more fascinating is that only three of the above voices suggest a non-white speaker. “Saul” is particularly interesting, as they use the term “Hip Hop male adult” to describe him. This seems to be coding for a black male voice, but in such a strange way – through a cultural connection to rap music. I honestly had never put much thought into the voice options on AAC apps before. But as Alper points out, it’s a big deal to have a voice represent you. Most of these apps are probably created by older white, straight men. There is most definitely an inequality in voice output based on the options available.
Asset Model of Children’s Media Use
My favorite part of Alper’s book was the chapter about media use of those kids who have AAC on an iPad. She has several anecdotes from parents describing their child’s use of popular culture (television shows, video games, movies) as a kind of communication. That is, more than once, she heard from parents who see their child communicate beyond the AAC app itself, but by using the iPad for recreation.
In disability studies, the concept of the deficit model is often discussed. The deficit model is an ideology that sees the individual with a disability as “broken” and needing repairs. This concept is particularly true among the autism community in America, where teachers, therapists and even parents speak in terms of what that individual lacks. Alper does an interesting thing here – she connects the deficit model to children’s media, in addition to disability. Popular culture is often seen as distracting and not “educational” or beneficial. Watching a TV show, playing a video game is considered to lack wholesome nourishment; it’s the junk food of culture. She sees a connection here: parents who disregard the deficit model of their child’s disability also appear to reject the deficit model of children’s popular culture. In other words, these parents construct an asset model for both.
Instead of thinking of those with disabilities and children’s pop culture as deficits, Alper urges us to embrace the asset model, as these parents do. As she says, “recreational media and technology use can help nonspeaking children reveal a side of themselves that the scientific, medical, and educational communities either do not or choose not to acknowledge. The asset model proposed here of disabled children’s engagement with media rejects both a deficit model of disability and deficit model of children’s popular culture” (p. 121).
This part of the book particularly touched me. As I’ve tried to explore throughout this blog, I, too, see children’s popular culture as being thoroughly important to Quentin’s sense of self. He has taught himself to read through corporate logos, movie credits, and television news scrolls. He has learned about emotions from watching Blue’s Clues or Ni Hao Kai Lan or a variety of other shows. He has used apps in unusual ways to explore his world – from Google Maps to closed captioning on videos. I, too, see both my autistic child and children’s media as an asset. I’m glad to finally put a term to my thinking!