Enculturation

A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Technocapitalist Disability Rhetoric: When Technology is Confused with Social Justice

Bonnie Tucker, University of Michigan

(Published April 26, 2017)

Introduction

Technology functions in at least two distinct, even conflicting ways in the field of disability studies. Technology undoubtedly increases accessibility for disabled people. However, the rhetoric surrounding access, disability, and technology marks disability as something to be fixed, reinforcing ableism; James L. Cherney defines ableism as the prioritization of a mythical ideal body or mind as superior to any other types of bodies or minds. He suggests that ableism is supremely dangerous because it appears to mainstream culture to be self-evident, or to go without saying.    

One aspect of this dual function of technology is what I call technocapitalist disability rhetoric, or rhetoric in popular media and tech research that attributes agency to technology and tech companies and simultaneously revokes it from disabled people. This rhetoric works alongside the accessibility agenda, suggesting that simply developing a technology to make a classroom more accessible or adding ramps to buildings will move forward the Disability Rights Movement. Consider the differences between the questions, “Are your classrooms inaccessible?” and “Do you discriminate against disabled students?” It is much easier for teachers and administrators to answer “yes” to the first question. Such rhetoric mistakes advances in technology for advances in fighting discrimination enacted by non-disabled people against disabled people. Following from media theorist Michael Polanyi’s definition of technology “as a mere extension of bodily skills employed for the satisfaction of bodily appetites” (185), I define “technology” as any tool, either a process or object, which purportedly serves to make life easier for humans (i.e. prosthetic limbs, closed captioning, or email). Whether technology reflects universal design principles, is retrofitted over existing technology for nondisabled users to specifically serve disabled users, or is designed with specific groups of disabled users in mind, it may be part of this technocapitalist rhetoric. This rhetoric promotes ableism as it labels the disabled body as broken, in need of repair, and – perhaps most problematically – as a test site for profitable innovation. Technocapitalist disability rhetoric participates in a more general neoliberal agenda as it reflects the recent shift towards corporate involvement in social rights movements, but it is unique insofar as it demonstrates how tech companies make use of disabled people for their own ends. Within this article, I first outline research that I build from in defining technocapitalist disability rhetoric; then, I complete a rhetorical analysis of two recent Microsoft ads aired during the 2014 and 2015 Super Bowls that serve as examples of technocapitalist disability rhetoric, making the case that these ads participate in a broader trend in the United States towards technocapitalist disability rhetoric in advertising, popular media, and design discussions.

Inclusion of Disabled People in Neoliberal Capitalism

My analysis of disability within a technocapitalist framework builds upon disability studies scholarship that argues that the oppression of disabled people has roots in capitalism. Paul Abberley asserts then when one’s social identity is reduced to one’s labor, unequal social relations between disabled and non-disabled people become inevitable because disabled people participate less or differently in the workforce (16). Similarly, Nirmala Erevelles suggests that within a capitalist framework the category of disability has been defined as “deviant otherness” and then used as an underlying ideology to legitimize inequitable allocations (104). Moreover, Erevelles points out that disabled people often do not have access to technology that would allow them to participate in the workforce (105). Dustin Galer finds that disabled people report that they are not exempt from sociocultural expectations of finding fulfillment through paid work despite “the reality that many people with disabilities are excluded from the world of competitive employment.” Thus, this scholarship suggests that, in a capitalist framework, disabled people are excluded and oppressed because they participate differently or less in the workforce.

Disability studies scholars have also critiqued neoliberal capitalism’s effects on the Disability Rights Movement. Robert McRuer defines neoliberalism as “the dominant economic and cultural system of our time. It is a system that positions the market as the answer to everything.” Most significant for disabled people, neoliberalism shifts the location of social programs and movements from the public sector to the private sector. Recently, research has focused on how neoliberal policy reforms negatively impact disabled people. For example, Randall Owen and Sarah Parker Harris interview disabled citizens in the UK, and they assert that neoliberal welfare reforms operate from the perspective of ‘no rights without responsibilities,’ require labor market participation of disabled people, and conflict with disabled people’s fight for rights. Elisa Kawam interviews young residents of nursing homes in the US, finding that the current “neoliberal context of the Medicaid system” with its coinciding goals of “individualism, privatization, and profit” changes the Medicare budget and program services often to the detriment of vulnerable populations in nursing homes. Thus, these scholars suggest that extreme neoliberal policies inadequately serve and may even exclude disabled people. 

I suggest, however, that disabled people are not always simply excluded within this neoliberal capitalist framework, but instead that tech corporations have recently used disabled people to their own advantage. I focus on neoliberal discourse that is promulgated by tech corporations rather than neoliberal policies. Science and technology scholars Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell assert that the Disability Rights Movement, like many social movements in the current trend of neoliberalism, has shifted away from the state as the center of power to involve corporations and what they call the “business of digital disability.” Goggin and Newell demonstrate that tech companies are increasingly involved in both the work and the framing of discourse around disability rights. Within this corporate neoliberal discourse “one can both do good (through inclusive technology) and make money at the same time” (“Business of” 163). Goggin and Newell protest that this discourse inaccurately assumes that “the makeup of companies is fundamentally shaped by a set of codes, and if one could just ensure accessibility is one of these, corporate culture would be transformed” (162). Thus, this discourse ignores how corporate culture already devalues disabled people. While Goggin and Newell assert that the shift from government to corporate engagement with disability is here to stay, they problematize neoliberal corporate culture and practices as at odds with the Disability Rights Movement. Both McRuer’s “Cripping Queer Politics or the Dangers of Neoliberalism” and David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder’s The Biopolitics of Disability: Neoliberalism, Ablenationalism, and Peripheral Embodiment suggest that within this neoliberal framework the goals of the Disability Rights Movement, like other minority rights movements, are often forced to narrow. McRuer puts it this way: “[t]he desire to be different . . . is sacrificed to the hope for political acceptance and market solutions” and disability rights must be “mainstreamed.”

Here, I build from this important work on the effects of neoliberalism on disability, and further suggest that within a neoliberal framework tech corporations have recently exploited disabled people by representing them as: 1) an impetus that seems more noble than profit to develop new technology, 2) the public relations face that makes a corporation appear socially aware, and 3) test sites for profitable innovations that may be marketed to larger markets of non-disabled users. When the Disability Rights Movement is discursively framed for a popular audience by tech corporations in terms of accessibility only, the work of liberation is contracted out to these same companies that may make technology and spaces more accessible, undermining the imperative of self-determination for disabled people. Such rhetoric reframes a human rights issue—disability rights—as merely a technical problem to be solved through product development. 

By contrast, the Disability Rights Movement in the United States has roots as early as the 1950s, and has been led by disabled activists and advocates. In the 1970s, disability activists marched on Washington and lobbied Congress to include civil rights language for people with disabilities in the 1972 Rehabilitation Act (Vaughn). In 1973, the act was passed and for the first time in US history the civil rights of disabled people were protected by law. More recently, the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) legally protected the equal treatment and access of disabled people to employment opportunities and public accommodations. Disability activists and scholars Brenda Jo Brueggemann, Nicholas Hetrick, Melanie Yergeau and Elizabeth Brewer have described the central principle of the current Disability Rights Movement— “nothing about us without us”—as an important “corrective to a long history of disabled people being spoken about in public discourse by educators, doctors, legislators, and family members, but rarely being authorized to speak for themselves except in private settings and to highly limited audiences” (63). The Disability Rights Movement has sought to replace a historical medical model of disability, which saw disability as an isolated, individual experience and a problem to be fixed or cured, with a social model that sees disability as created by ableist discrimination and inaccessible environments. Disability activists and scholars have noted:

“At the heart of the Disability Rights Movement (DRM), as indicated even by the resonant phrase nothing about us without us, are issues of representation…we might consider representation as a matter of speaking, in the broadest sense of the word…How is disability being represented? Who is doing the representing? And for what purpose?” (Brueggemann et. al 65)[i] 

Through defining technocapitalist disability rhetoric in this paper, I hope to raise these same central questions from the Disability Rights Movement to interrogate the ways that technology serving disabled people is represented and marketed in popular media.

To be clear, my aim is not to deny or diminish the very concrete ways that technology has improved accessibility for disabled people. For example, advances in technology have allowed for accessible architectural designs and buildings, software programs, prosthetic limbs, workspaces, and even classrooms. One such disability studies scholar whose life has been tangibly impacted by technological advancement is Rosemarie Garland-Thomson who notes that, “Fortunately, voice dictation technology came along at just the right time. Intended both as an assistive and universal technology, speech-to-text programs became a reasonable option for accommodation for me once they developed in accuracy and usability” (“The Changing Profession”). As a result, voice dictation technology enabled Garland-Thomson to remain in her profession. I could continue to list innumerable instances of technologies practically enhancing access for disabled people. However, that is undisputed. Accessibility can indeed be one of many human rights issues that the Disability Rights Movement seeks to achieve, and in fact disability studies scholar Aimi Hamraie has argued effectively for a “social justice approach” to design practices. Nevertheless, when discourse on technology and disability is framed by tech companies rather than disabled activists, and when such discourse suggests that well-designed, accessible technologies provided by corporations are the solution to disability, then I call it technocapitalist disability rhetoric and argue that it must be debunked.

The Intersection of STS and Disability Studies

A growing body of scholarship examines not necessarily the rhetoric around disability and technology, but how technology inadequately serves disabled people. Goggin and Newell question the “‘commonsense’ notion of people with disabilities inherently benefiting from new technologies” (xvi). Likewise, Alan Foley and Beth A. Ferri suggest that technology often reinforces ableism by assuming a non-disabled user. They make the important point that while technology increases access, it may also create “unexpected and under-critiqued forms of social exclusion for disabled people” (192). These authors seek to counter these ableist tendencies embedded within technology and believe designs should reflect the broader social and historical context of people’s relationships to technology. Ultimately, Foley and Ferri argue for universal design principles and technologies that do not seek to make disabled people “independent” but instead promote values of interdependency. Sociologists Katie Ellis and Mike Trent’s Disability and New Media is situated at the intersection of new media and disability studies and points out that “Technological advancement does not occur as something separate from ideology and stigma” (2-3).

Several other disability studies scholars have pointed out that a focus in the Disability Rights Movement on technological advances may obscure the fight for civil rights. Alison Sheldon comments that the focus on technology as a solution to accessibility may obscure more important battles against discrimination when complex social issues are often presented as if they have simple technical solutions (47). Likewise, David Hakken makes the point that technology is seen as fixing problems that are not necessarily technical problems (518). Technical fixes can detract attention away from more pertinent issues: “There is the . . . danger . . . that technologies of access will come to be treated as substitutes for rather than supplements to equally important needs in the areas of rights and opportunities” (Hakken 518). Hakken begins to identify the way that not necessarily the technology itself, but rather the rhetoric praising technology reshapes the Disability Rights Movement. Building from Hakken’s point, I focus next not on the tangible benefits or drawbacks of technologies that serve disabled people, but instead on how this rhetoric around technology refocuses the discussion and framing of disability onto access instead of discrimination.

Defining Technocapitalist Disability Rhetoric

Here I offer a detailed analysis using examples from the media, and illustrate how technocapitalist disability rhetoric diminishes the agency of disabled people and attributes it instead to technology or the tech and engineering companies that create technology. My choice to focus on two Microsoft Super Bowl ads from 2015 and 2014 is deliberate, as I hope to add nuanced in-depth analysis to scholarship that has focused on broader trends. Scholars have already identified a recent corporate or neoliberal treatment of disability (Goggin and Newell; McRuer; Snyder & Mitchell) but I build from this work to illustrate how a particular thread of this trend functions rhetorically. Previous scholarship has already analyzed the frequency of TV ads that depict disabled people, demonstrating an increase in the percentage of ads depicting disabled people from .5% in 1999 to 1.7% in 2012 (Farnall and Lyons). Furthermore, an analysis of overarching themes in ads featuring disability found that improvements had occurred, with messages of empowerment and inclusion becoming more common as opposed to stigmatization (Haller). Thus, my work also problematizes recent ads that focus on empowerment, as I suggest that they may be empowering for tech companies rather than disabled people. Here, empowerment may be defined as conveying power or authority to someone or something—I leave this purposely open-ended as I suggest technocapitalist disability rhetoric empowers the same corporations that promulgate this rhetoric instead of disabled people. My analysis also builds upon Garland-Thomson’s taxonomy of visual representations of disability in which she identifies “the wondrous, the sentimental, the exotic, and the realistic. This template of visual rhetorics complicates the restrictive notion of images as being either positive or negative, as communicating either the truth of disability or perpetuating some oppressive stereotype” (58). Thus, Garland-Thomson’s classification tropes allow me to analyze Microsoft ads beyond simply suggesting they remove agency from disabled people and convey it upon technology. I describe these four tropes in greater detail within my analysis.

Considering the general public’s lack of understanding regarding the Disability Rights Movement, these high-profile Microsoft depictions of disability take on added importance. Judy Rohrer points out that although the majority of Americans are at least familiar with the terms racism and sexism, this is not the case with ableism. On the other hand, 114.4 million people in the United States viewed the 2015 Super Bowl, and on YouTube the 2015 and 2014 Microsoft ads have over 6 and 4 million views respectively. Like Cherney, I believe that both visual and verbal “rhetoric can shape the way disability is understood.” Garland-Thomson has made the important point that unfortunately “the history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased” (56), and I argue that these ads seem at least in part to represent a continuation of this trend. Thus, technocapitalist disability rhetoric at this high-profile level—in Super Bowl ads for Microsoft viewed by over 100 million Americans—has the power to influence the public’s basic understanding of disability and the Disability Rights Movement. 

Technocapitalist disability rhetoric casts Microsoft as the hero in an ableist narrative of overcoming disability in their 2014 Super Bowl ad (Microsoft, “Empowering”). Below is a brief overview of the dense one-minute ad:

Narration Heard

            Speaker

            Image Depicted

Music (and playing in background throughout)

 

The text “Steve Gleason On Technology” is imposed over Gleason’s face as he uses “eye-gaze technology,” or computer assistance, to speak

“What is technology?”

Gleason via computer assistance

The text “What is technology” is shown from Gleason’s computer, followed by rapidly shifting images of technology: a girl with a paper toy windmill, code being typed on a computer, a touchscreen, a medical professional sifting through images of the human brain, and a robot

“What can it [technology] do?”

Gleason via computer assistance

A boy with prosthetic limbs running a race and hitting a ball

“When I lost my eyesight, I thought that my painting days were over”

Elderly man with impaired vision

An elderly man’s face with a computer screen allowing him to paint a tree on a screen

“How far can we go?”

Gleason via computer assistance

Picture of outer space, which shrinks into a picture of space on a screen and a young boy watching amazed; a picture of cells in a dish

“By using your hands, you can actually control your x-ray”

Anonymous medical professional

Again, a medical professional sifting through images of a human brain and skull on a screen by moving his hand

Screaming in excitement.

Group of students

Presumably American students standing in front of a TV skyping with a classroom of Asian students

“Technology has the power to unite us.”

Gleason via computer assistance

Picture of Gleason’s face and his use of eye-gaze technology to choose these words on the keyboard

Man: “ Hang on honey hang on”

 Woman: “There he is. See him?”

Man:  “I can see him.”

 

Baby crying.

Parents and baby

Presumably American soldier skyping into his child’s birth; a young Asian girl jumping up in excitement, presumably about to communicate with her father via Skype on a TV screen

“It [technology] inspires us.”

Gleason via computer assistance

Massive group of people holding a huge sign that reads “We are shaping human history” with their hands raised; a boy walking on balance beam with prosthetic legs; someone using a touchscreen on a laptop;

Man waving hello with a prosthetic arm

“Technology has taken us places we only dreamed.”

Gleason via computer assistance

Picture of a rocket going into space; an image of a lunar satellite touching moon; man jumping up in excitement

 

“Now I can do whatever I want.”

Elderly man with impaired vision

Smiling face of elderly man with impaired vision

“It [technology] gives hope to the hopeless.”

Gleason via computer assistance

A young child riding on dialysis machine in hospital with a sign that says “hope;”

A sign that says “We can” with finger pointing to it

“So your device is on, can you hear me talking?”

Woman crying.

Presumably medical professional and then woman answering

Young woman wearing a device sitting beside a computer and other technology crying and nodding yes

“It [technology] has given voice to the voiceless.”

Gleason via computer assistance

Demonstration of use of eye-gaze technology to choose words on the keyboard;

A picture of Gleason with his son sitting on his lap and the text “Steve Gleason, Former NFL Player” then “Dad” then “Living with ALS” appear; the text “Empowering us all,” the text “Microsoft,” and the Microsoft logo appear

Narrated by former NFL player Steve Gleason, who has the motor neuron disorder Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), the ad begins “What is technology? What can it do?” Thus, from the very start of the ad, technology is foregrounded as enacting or doing things, rather than the people who use it. The ad begins with Gleason using what is called “eye-gaze technology” to choose words on a screen that are then spoken by a computer-generated voice. In its depiction of Gleason as an extraordinary former NFL player, the ad invokes what Garland-Thomson refers to as the “wondrous;” she describes how “the stereotype of the supercrip . . . amazes and inspires the viewer by performing feats that the nondisabled viewer cannot imagine doing” (69-61). Gleason's depiction fits the “supercrip” stereotype as a former NFL player living with ALS who is able to speak using “eye-gaze technology.” As disability studies scholar Joseph Shapiro has pointed out about the supercrip narrative: “To be lauded for superachievement is to suggest that a disabled person can turn pity into respect only at the point of having accomplished some extraordinary feat” (60). Likewise, this trope works to distance the viewer from the disabled person—it becomes easier for the Super Bowl viewer to see Gleason as alien or “other” precisely because he is extraordinary. Amanda Booher points out that the supercrip narrative “reifies a particular conception of a normal body, creating an expectation that all disabled bodies should achieve. It limits what is seen as acceptable” and in this sense reinforces ableism (56). Thus, Gleason is acceptable, and even inspirational, to the viewing audience precisely because technology enables him to speak.

Whereas Gleason’s role in the ad seems to cast disability as extraordinary, the ad also clearly focuses on the ways technology may assist disabled people who do not happen to be former pro-athletes: as Gleason speaks, the ad displays a young boy crossing a finish line with prosthetic legs and playing baseball, as well as an older man who says he thought he would never be able to paint again when his eyesight started to go (although in the background is a computer that allows him to create pictures). Here we see what Garland-Thomson references, where “Sentimentality makes of disabled people occasions for the viewers’ own narratives of progress, improvement, or heroic deliverance” (63). As the summary of the ad suggests, the images shift incredibly rapidly, and beyond their disabilities, nothing else is revealed about the identities of the anonymous disabled people featured in the ad; instead, they serve as second-long shifting examples of this narrative of progress. By extension, Microsoft’s ad uniquely uses the trope of sentimentality to cast disabled people as the noble reason for the company’s technological innovation.  

However, the ad does positively depict disabled people's technology use as similar to non-disabled people's technology use, and thereby depicts disabled people in some sense as ordinary. Gleason narrates in the ad: “Technology has the power to unite us. It inspires. Technology has taken us places we have never dreamed.” As Gleason’s computer-assisted voice sends this message, a variety of images flash across the screen, including what appears to be an American soldier Skyping in to see his son’s birth, an American classroom of young students Skyping with a classroom of young students in Asia; the viewer also sees a man with a prosthetic arm, a young woman who presumably had impaired hearing listening to a woman’s voice and crying, and finally Steve Gleason himself holding his son and using technology to speak. Here the ad shifts, and rather than the trope of the wondrous supercrip, the ad seems to rely on both the “sentimental” and what Garland-Thomson has called the “realistic” trope, which she points out “domesticates disability” by normalizing it (69). The use of technology by non-disabled people is interspersed in the series of images with the use of technology by disabled people, which seems to normalize technology use for disabled users.  Furthermore, Gleason holds his son at the end and the script superimposed on the screen describes him first as “NFL player” then as “Dad” and finally as “Living with ALS,” suggesting that he is not solely defined by his disability and that he is a Dad, presumably like many of the viewers in the audience. However, the problem remains that ultimately throughout the ad technology still seems to be emphasized over the people using it; after all, it is technology that Gleason is praising throughout the ad, not disabled people. Furthermore, as I already mentioned, the fast-paced ad reveals very little about the identities of the disabled people depicted apart from their disabilities.

Gleason’s narration goes on to attribute power to technology and simultaneously to cast disabled people as in need of fixing by tech products—they are described as the “hopeless” and the “voiceless” (Microsoft). The description of disabled people as the “hopeless” and “voiceless” is clearly meant to garner sentimental pity on the part of the viewer. This ad simultaneously combines Garland-Thomson’s wondrous, realistic, and sentimental tropes in its various depictions of disability. The final message of the ad again seems focused on technology’s potential rather than the potential of disability.  Gleason’s mechanical-sounding speech is obviously computer-generated, and finally the scripted narration gives the appearance that the technology is almost speaking for itself. According to the rhetoric of this ad, the viewing audience can thank technology created by Microsoft for the advances made recently for disabled people—all of which seem to involve fixing the disabled body. The ad ends with the line “Empowering us all” after which the Microsoft logo appears. The implication in this narrative is that Microsoft is empowering disabled people and all of society through technological advancement—disabled people then serve as the problems that Microsoft technology heroically solves. 

The ad not only constructs ableist imagery but also depicts empowerment for disabled people as a political or massive rights movement. In addition to the images of the people with disabilities “accomplishing” things like painting or running a race, the ad includes interspersed images of large groups of people at a rally holding their hands up in the air with a banner stating, “We are shaping human history.” Next, a single person holding a sign saying, “We can,” and finally a young boy in a hospital gown riding on a dialysis machine with a sign saying “Hope.” Thus, the ad not only foregrounds disability but also references a sort of political movement for “empowerment” through the depiction of the protest sign and the rally. But here, rather than signs being used as they usually are in political movements to protest the status quo or other existing problems, the signs contain imminently positive messages about what “we” are already accomplishing with the new technology developed by Microsoft. Microsoft’s ad insinuates that this is a movement that we already have won by developing assistive technologies, and it thus serves as an example of how disabled people become useful to tech corporations within a capitalist framework. Gleason’s voiceover and the reference to a rights movement reshapes disability discourse into a sentimental drama designed to garner sympathy from consumers and support for Microsoft as an empowering company. Again, Garland-Thomson has pointed out how the use of sentimentality with regard to disability “has migrated from charity to retail in late capitalism’s scramble to capture markets” (64). In this ad, Microsoft relies on this sentimental drama to both draw in consumers and (ironically) suggest that they are not simply concerned with profit in their drive to create new technology products. 

Arguably, Microsoft’s 2014 Super Bowl ad depicting Gleason might be read as providing high-profile positive exposure for disabled people—the signs and rally might even be seen as a gesture towards disability as a part of a social rights movement. One may wonder, however, how to reconcile the overwhelming optimism of this Microsoft ad foregrounding disability with the disproportionate number of disabled people living in poverty (National Council on Disability). As a wealthy former NFL player, Gleason is the exception, not the rule. Gleason’s depiction seems to align with what Snyder and Mitchell have called “able-disabled” in describing media depictions of disabled celebrity athletes such as Oscar Pistorius or Aimee Mullins: “the hyperprostheticized bodies of Pistorius and Mullins are placed fully on display; the engineering feat of machinic supplementation becomes the primary object of fascination, and the viewer is left with fetishization of the technological compensation itself” (57). As Mitchell and Snyder suggest, the technology is emphasized over the identity of the disabled person while “the lavish level of compensation for characters like Aimee Mullins and Oscar Pistorius occurs in the abstracted space of celebrity, a form of body augmentation that is completely divorced from the majority of disabled citizens' lives” (57). Simply because, as the Microsoft ad states, “We can,” does not mean our culture does prioritize technical accessibility or social justice for disabled people. Furthermore, this reframing of disability suggests that technological advancements are similar or equal to advancements in achieving rights for disabled people through the ad’s depictions of signs and rallies. The optimistic message of the ad implies that we have already achieved this success, as the protest signs contain imminently positive messages, glossing over the civil rights achievements and continued efforts of the Disability Rights Movement. 

The more recent 2015 Microsoft Super Bowl ad highlights Braylon O’Neill, a 6-year-old boy born without his tibia and fibula bones in his legs and with syndactilism. Here is a brief overview of the contents of the ad:

Narration Heard

            Speaker

            Image Depicted

Music (and playing in background throughout)

 

The text “What can we do?” in black and white

“The real question that needs to be asked”

Common

A picture of a house, Braylon’s presumably; a picture of Braylon as an infant being held by his mother

“As well as answered”

Common

A picture of Braylon as a toddler walking with a walker in a street; Braylon walking with a prosthetic leg in his house; Braylon being hugged by both his parents with both his prosthetic legs visible outside his house

“Is what is it that we can do”

Common

Braylon walking on the beach, his prosthetics are not visible because of his pants

“That is unique”

Common

A framed photo of Braylon running on a track with blade runner; Braylon’s face smiling between his parents again in front of his house

“That is impactful”

Common

Braylon sitting in a medical office presumably smiling while someone adjusts his prosthetic legs

“When Bray was 11 months old he was fitted for his first pair of prostheses”

Braylon’s Mom

Braylon is smiling while wearing his prosthetic limbs outside and holding a parent’s hand to play mini-golf; Braylon high-fiving an older man in the medical office; Braylon running a race

“We are going to empower every individual and every organization”

Common

Braylon dancing wihile dressed as an orange ninja; Braylon walking in a gym with blade runners; a tight shot of the prosthetic limbs while Braylon walks on a balance beam

“To do more and achieve more”

Common

Braylon’s face as he walks on the beam holding the hand of a medical professional; a man photographing Braylon as he walks with his prosthetics; Braylon playing tennis

“We use Microsoft technology to analyze Braylon’s gait mechanics”

Anonymous medical provider

A laptop displaying Braylon’s prosthetics and an angle measuring the distance between them and the floor; A picture of Braylon running with a middle-aged man also in prosthetics

“It’s this process of continuous renewal”

Common

The picture of Braylon running with another man shrinks into a little box along with other boxes of other uses of technology that are also shrinking

“Of showing courage in the face of reality”

Common

All of the boxes shrink slowly and turn into the Microsoft logo

“I think that technology has changed Braylon’s life by opening up the world for him.”

Braylon’s Mom

The Microsoft logo flips and turns into another picture of Braylon switching out one of his prosthetic legs for a blade runner; Braylon hitting a home run at a batting cage and running as his parents yell in encouragement

“Showing that courage in the face of opportunity.”

Common

Braylon high-fives his Dad after the home run; a close up of Braylon smiling, a black screen with white text reading “Empowering us all;” the words are quickly replaced by the word “Microsoft,” the Microsoft logo, and “#empowering”

The ad begins with the following text on the screen: “What can you do?” and at the same time the rapper Common reads actual passages from speeches by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella.  Common’s voice begins speaking: “The real question that needs to be asked, as well as answered.” At the same time the ad depicts images of Braylon as a baby and toddler—at first his disability is not visible; the ad employs what Garland-Thomson describes as the realistic trope which “minimizes distance and difference by establishing a relation of contiguity between viewer and viewed” (69). The ad encourages the viewer to see Braylon as a “normal” baby full of opportunity, and the initial question “what can you do?” might refer to his potential in life.  Then, the ad shifts its relationship to the viewer as Common’s voiceover continues, “The real question that needs to be asked, as well as answered is what is it we can do . . . that is unique, that is impactful.” Braylon is shown using a walker as a toddler and then using prosthetic legs. Common’s voiceover stating, “The real question that needs to be asked, as well as answered” coincides with the images of Braylon as a toddler using a walker, thus suggesting he is a question to be answered or problem to be solved because of his disability. Repeated twice, the question “what can you do?” implicitly seems to ask what can we—perhaps Microsoft, the viewer, or society—do to solve the problem of Braylon’s disability? Braylon then becomes the problem or conflict within this narrative for Microsoft to solve. 

The ad goes on to conflate the identity of Braylon as the underdog or sentimental “supercrip” overcoming disability with the identity of Microsoft as an innovative corporation redefining presumed barriers of science and technology. Indeed, the question “What can we do?” not only refers to what Braylon can “do” or achieve with prosthetic limbs as he is depicted running and playing sports, but also what Microsoft can “do” or achieve as a company creating technology. So also, Common’s vague use of the pronoun “we” conflates Braylon’s uniqueness as a disabled boy with Microsoft’s uniqueness as an “impactful” and caring company developing technology for disabled people. It is important to note that the use of “we” in the ad could be read as suggesting a collective community, thereby positively implying that disability is not an isolated individual impairment. However, the fact that the text Common reads comes from a speech by Microsoft’s CEO seems to confound this reading, indicating that “we” refers to Microsoft as a corporation.

After Common, the next voice heard in the ad is Braylon’s mother: “When Bray was 11 months old he was fitted for his first pair of prostheses.” During this narration, the ad shows Braylon wearing his prosthetic legs, winning a race as onlookers cheer, walking on a balancing beam, and playing tennis. The camera scans, but it is often focused on Braylon’s prosthetic limbs, thereby highlighting the technology. Common’s voice then returns: “We are going to empower every individual and every organization to do more and achieve more.” Here the ad explicitly connects Braylon’s individual empowerment through prosthetic limbs with the empowerment of Microsoft in creating technology for “every organization to do more.” Like Microsoft’s ad with Gleason, the sentimental trope is also visible in this ad, used to make of Braylon’s disability an “occasion” or “a project that morally enables a nondisabled rescuer” (Garland-Thomson 63); in this narrative, Microsoft gets to play the role of both heroic innovator and social activist by helping a disabled boy via their technology development.

The ad goes on to reinforce what I described earlier as an outdated medical model for defining disability. After Common, another voice is heard, presumably a physician or scientist, who states, “We use Microsoft technology to analyze Braylon’s gait mechanics.” During this narration, a physical or occupational therapist is shown walking next to Braylon as he uses his prosthetic legs; then, a laptop is shown displaying Braylon’s prosthetic limbs moving while numbers are shown that seem to indicate the size of the angle between Braylon’s prosthetic limb and the floor. In some ways, the ad humanizes Braylon through the images of him growing up; however, it also definitively suggests that disability is an individual impairment to be analyzed by medical experts and, in this case, fixed through prosthetic limbs.

Common’s voice concludes the ad by stating, “It is this process of continuous renewal, of showing courage in the face of reality.” This message has a double-meaning, referencing Braylon’s new prosthetic limbs as a renewal but also the “continuous renewal” of Microsoft in creating new technologies. Simultaneously, the screen breaks into a large number of small boxes all filled with people using technology and organizations, who, the audience can assume, have been empowered by technology created by Microsoft. Braylon’s story and his use of technology is linked, as with the 2014 ad, with a larger social movement for empowerment and organizations that work for social justice. Again, while this reference to a larger social movement might be seen as a positive nod to the Disability Rights Movement, right afterwards the boxes on the screen shrink and turn into solid colors that become the Microsoft logo. Microsoft again, according to the ad, becomes the savior in this sentimental narrative of empowerment. Braylon’s Mom finally states, “I think the technology has changed Braylon’s life by opening up the world for him,” after which an image is shown of Braylon putting on his prosthetic leg and then hitting a home run. Thus, it is technology that has opened up Braylon’s world rather than his own actions. Common concludes by stating, “Showing that courage in the face of opportunity,” after which we see a single image of Braylon’s face smiling, then a blank screen that holds the text “Empowering us all,” followed by a screen showing the text “Microsoft” with the Microsoft logo and “#empowering.” At times, it seems like Common’s voice-over narration is referring to Braylon “showing courage in the face of reality.” However, keep in mind that Common is reading a speech about Microsoft by a Microsoft CEO in an ad created by Microsoft, implying that Microsoft is actually the one “showing courage in the face of reality” by developing exciting and empowering new technology. The speech about Microsoft as a company is conflated throughout the ad with the images of Braylon running races and playing sports—not only is Microsoft “empowering,” but the ad depicts the company as the noble yet determined underdog like Braylon. Quite problematically, Braylon’s voice is never once heard in the ad; instead, his mother explains how technology, developed of course by Microsoft, opened his world and changed his life dramatically. Thus, the Disability Rights Movement’s imperative of self-determination for disabled people—nothing about us without us—is undermined through the course of this message.

I would argue that these two examples from Microsoft are not unique in their use of exploitative technocapitalist disability rhetoric, but rather exemplify a current trend in rhetoric on technology and disability propogated by tech corporations in the US. It is also exemplified through Toyota’s 2015 Super Bowl ad for “The Bold New Camry,” which features disabled snowboarder, actress, and model Amy Purdy. The ad compares Purdy’s amazing actions as dancer and snowboarder with prosthetic legs to the “bold” Toyota Camry’s actions as images of the Camry on the road are juxtaposed with images of Purdy dancing and snowboarding (Toyota). Thus, Toyota both makes use of Purdy in an ableist narrative of overcoming, implicitly compares her to technology, and in the process suggests that Toyota is a socially aware and likeable underdog. A 2014 Duracell ad featuring Dallas Seahawks player Derrick Coleman and the slogan “Trust the power within” refers doubly to Coleman’s power in “overcoming” his disability and his Duracell-powered hearing aid (Duracell). A 1995 Apple ad features deaf Academy Award Winning actress Marlee Matlin signing as her words are translated via a computer screen: “What is power? Power is communication . . . power is no limits . . . power is control and independence . . . power is Macintosh” (Apple). I could go on, but throughout these examples, tech companies bolster their own public images, suggesting that it is Duracell or Apple who have agency, not disabled people. Ultimately, the rhetoric makes use of and objectifies disabled people as technologies, while at the same time reinforcing ableist narratives of overcoming the “problem” of disability through developing technology that allows disabled people to “pass” as non-disabled. 

Not limited to ads, this rhetoric is also visible in corporate discourse in the media on disability and technology. A 2013 article on Comcast’s corporate website is entitled “Using technology to empower people with disabilities.” A 2011 article entitled “7 Tech breakthroughs that empower people with disabilities” on Mashable.com, the popular digital media website, also illustrates this trend (Shaver). Similarly, the 2015 Connect Ability Challenge celebrates the 25th anniversary of the ADA act, and the competition challenges developers to design software, wearables, or any technology “aimed at enhancing the lives of people with disabilities.” The competition is sponsored by AT&T, NYU’s “ABILITY” lab, and the Rehabilitation Engineering and Assistive Technology Society of North America (RESNA). Although it has a positive goal, the headline reads: “New York University and AT&T Launch Tech Challenge to Empower People Living with Disabilities.” Although empowerment is a common theme across these examples from the media, there is no reference to the self-empowerment and self-determination that are central tenets of the Disability Rights Movement. 

In broader market contexts, by celebrating themselves with these messages, tech companies become both all-powerful as creators of assistive technology and also recast their images as socially transformative by supposedly promoting rights for people with disabilities. Here, we should not forget Curtis Chong’s reminder that “well over 80 percent of Microsoft products remain inaccessible to nonvisual users.” Thus, a suprising number of Microsoft’s products actually fail to serve certain groups of disabled users. Furthermore, a more nuanced message aligned with the Disability Rights Movement is missing from these high-profile ads and news articles highlighting disability. For example, these messages fail to educate the public about how they might support the Disability Rights Movement in their everyday lives by avoiding discriminating against or infantilizing disabled people. These messages fail to demonstrate how different environments produce disability status or to make a tangible commitment to serve specific disabled users through resources and technology. Ultimately, of course, tech corporations’ purpose in creating these ads is to sell products, and one might suggest that to hold these tech companies accountable for a rights movement they do not have an investment in or care about is unfair.  Nevertheless, my point in identifying technocapitalist disability rhetoric is to point out that tech corporations are in fact suggesting to the public that they do care about disability rights, while at the same time profiting from disabled people and giving currency to rhetoric that devalues disabled people’s differences.

Disabled People as Profit-Generators

While technocapitalist disability rhetoric then lauds technology, and the companies that make it, for “fixing” disability and thus “empowering” disabled people, tech and marketing researchers often align with this rhetoric by suggesting disabled people are valuable because of the special knowledge they possess. This seems then to be the rhetorical inverse of the ads and news media articles that capitalize on disability. That is to say, whereas tech companies use disabled people to appear socially aware rather than merely interested in profit, researchers instrumentalize disabled people by suggesting they are worthy of research because their unique insights may prove profitable in the research and innovation process. 

This tendency to instrumentalize disability is exemplified through the establishment in 2008 of the corporate advertising research firm Return on Disability, which specializes in branding for “disabled markets.” This firm’s self-defined mission is to be recognized globally as a subject matter expert “on the convergence of disability and corporate profitability” (ROD 2014). The firm’s website suggests that they enable companies to “reach a large and influential new customer segment” by tapping into “a new base of employees [disabled people] who bring unique and diverse insights across all facets of the business.” Thus, the justification for including disabled people in corporate discourse is only because they may serve as potential consumers or as employees because of their special knowledge.

Tech researcher and disabled activist Anthony Tusler’s How to Create Disability Access to Technology also instrumentalizes disabled people in his descriptions. Tusler, in association with the World Institute on Disability (WID), seeks to help corporations profit from and serve the growing disability market. Tusler argues that the “challenge of being successful has led many people with disabilities to be skilled problem solvers and consumers—making them valuable assets for companies that wish to be successful” (11). Although the incorporation of disabled people in developing technology that serves them well is highly desirable and Tusler’s intentions are admirable, this rhetoric implies that disabled people are not valuable as human beings in and of themselves, but are rather useful as a means to accomplishing success for profit-driven companies. 

Perhaps even more overtly, in Design Meets Disability Graham Pullin argues that technical innovation for diverse groups of disabled people may lead to innovations within the mainstream design community. Pullin has been praised for advocating a shift in the technical design community from the medical to the social definition of disability. Nevertheless, Pullin justifies the development of disability-related technologies by suggesting that these new modes of design may lead to new markets for companies and to new mainstream designs. Pullin writes that these niche markets of disability may create exciting opportunities for designers: “Focusing on particular cultures is a goal in itself to produce appropriate designs, but it can also be a means to an end: initially designing for narrower subcultures might catalyze radical new approaches—approaches that might subsequently have more widespread applications” (109). Thus, Pullin believes that designing with certain disabilities in mind may foster innovation that will be marketable to the non-disabled population. The implicit assumption in Pullin’s claim is that expansion to mainstream markets justifies designing for niche disability markets. In this sense, the disabled person becomes a test site to spark the creation of innovative technology. Pullin develops the concept of resonance—certain niche markets for disabled people that overlap with markets for non-disabled people. These niche markets seem to align with what disability studies scholar Jay Dolmage has called interest convergence, a concept from Critical Race Theory that points out “that conditions change for minorities only when the changes can be seen (and promoted) as positive for the majority group as well.” However, as I have illustrated via Pullin, the fight for rights is recast as expanding disability markets, and disabled people are simultaneously depicted as useful to non-disabled markets; Pullin sees them as becoming “a means to an end” (109). Again, as we saw with the Microsoft ads, such rhetoric places a large amount of faith in market capitalism to resolve issues faced by disabled people. 

Indeed, Pullin’s entire project casts design and engineering methods as crucial to the Disability Rights Movement, rather than necessarily social justice (although there may be overlaps between the two). In short, Pullin’s work frames the Disability Rights Movement as a fight for accessibility wherein a wider variety of options in terms of technology are equated with more rights for disabled people. However, overlooked is the fact that a disproportionate percentage of people in the US with disabilities live below the poverty line and thus most likely would not even have access to such design products. The “niche markets” Pullin refers to are exactly that. Technocapitalist disability rhetoric then, including Pullin’s work, uniquely instrumentalizes disabled people in the service of profitable design methods.

Conclusion

As I have argued throughout, technocapitalist disability rhetoric in both popular media and tech research tends toward the exploitative. Within this technocapitalist disability rhetoric, disability serves as a prosthesis to bolster the public image of corporations, but at the same time disabled people are negatively depicted as in need of assistive technology or “fixing.” Mitchell and Snyder—who originally coined the term “narrative prosthesis”—point out the frequent use of disabled people in narrative to incite conflict and move plotlines forward. However, this use of disabled people, as I have suggested with the ads analyzed, also reveals a social judgement of them as aberrant and the ableist drive “to restore a disabled body to some semblance of an originary wholeness” (Mitchell & Snyder 6). In the case of the ads I analyze, the use of disabled bodies as narrative prostheses enables Microsoft as a corporation to market itself as “empowering” with the not so subtle implication that it has an integral role in the Disability Rights Movement. Nevertheless, in the ads, technology—whether prosthetic limbs or eye-gaze technology—crucially returns the disabled bodies depicted to at the least “an acceptable degree of difference,” reinforcing ableism for the viewing audience (Mitchell & Snyder 7). At the same time, the focus on recent advances in technology suggests that the Disability Rights Movement has already achieved complete success. Thus, a human rights issue—social justice for disabled people—is dangerously reframed as an issue of high-quality technical product development. Not only do disabled people transform a company’s public image, tech researchers instrumentalize disabled people by suggesting they are valuable as test sites for technology or because of their special insights. My purpose in defining this technocapitalist disability rhetoric is, of course, to debunk it. 

However, as I acknowledged at the start of this piece, technology at its best can and already does serve disabled people in a myriad of important ways. It would be useless to suggest that the Disability Rights Movement circumvents the framework of late neoliberal capitalism that it operates within. Even further, some tech companies are crafting ad messages that in fact highlight the central message of the Disability Rights Movement. For example, Samsung Turkey’s 2015 ad entitled “Hearing Hands” features the message that disabilities are created through inaccessible environments, while also underscoring the company’s real commitment to serving disabled people. The ad features a day in the life of Muharram—a deaf man in Turkey—and Samsung trains a group of people in sign language so that every single person Muharram happens to interact with that day speaks sign language. Finally, he is told the reason for this at the end of the day when a televised screen describes Samsung’s newly established customer service calling centers for deaf Samsung users. The ad ends with the message “Because a world without barriers is everyone’s dream” (Samsung Turkey). Of course, Samsung’s ad is still meant to sell a product, and thereby mystifies or exoticizes Muharran’s experiences as a disabled person. However, this ad is distinct from Microsoft and Toyota’s ads because it is not focused on technology per se, but instead the life experiences of a disabled person. Most importantly, Muharran communicates for himself in the ad using sign language, and there are captions throughout without spoken words. Finally, the message depicted is that disability discrimination is created within our world through inaccessible environments and barriers for disabled people created by other people’s lack of knowledge (in this case knowing or not knowing sign language) and by other’s attitudes. Samsung’s website pledges the company's commitment to accessibility for all and to working with disabled employees to create technology for disabled users. Samsung’s ad serves as an example then of how a corporation might transform technocapitalist disability rhetoric to align more concretely with the goals of the Disability Rights Movement. Rather than simply using disabled people to promote their own public images, corporations might prioritize inclusion of disabled employees in the development of technology to serve disabled people and actively spread the tenets of the Disability Rights Movement through their marketing. Unfortunately, Samsung Turkey’s ad appears to be an outlier in its progressive message. 

Ultimately, technocapitalist disability rhetoric demonstrates the problems that arise when tech and engineering corporations powerfully and overwhelmingly frame discourse on technology and disability for the broader American public. Although technologies enhance accessibility for disabled people, developing technology for disabled people must not be confused with fighting discrimination against disabled people. In fact, technocapitalist disability rhetoric promotes ableism in its prioritization of technologies that return disabled bodies to at least an “acceptable” degree of difference. Technocapitalist disability rhetoric at its most extreme makes invisible the difficult and ongoing goals of the Disability Rights Movement—to fight against discrimination, promote self-determination for disabled people, and to end ableism. This social justice movement has been, and continues to be, led by disabled activists themselves rather than by tech corporations.


[i] Emphasis in original. 

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