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Disabled People and Communication Systems in the Twenty-First Century

Dr Alison Sheldon

This project was funded by a joint studentship award from the Economic and Social Research Council and British Telecom.


This thesis is first and foremost about oppression - the oppression experienced in our society by those with particular impairments. It is also about technology - the new information and communication systems which have increasing primacy in today's world. Specifically, it is about the ways in which the communication systems of a disablist society hold both opportunities and threats for disabled people and their organisations in the twenty-first century, perhaps changing the boundaries of the disabled category.

In drawing on literature from both the sociology of technology and disability studies, it contributes to two bodies of academic work. It is intended as a welcome palliative to the growing tendency towards speculative futurology that characterises both disciplines since it places an empirical study at centre stage. It is unusual in that its main emphasis is on domestic usage of communication systems, not on their use in employment. The research participants were largely unwaged people, many of them in older age groups. The study gave participants the opportunity to describe their experiences and opinions of technological developments in the last throws of the twentieth century.

Access to communications systems emerged as a major issue, with disabled people facing a variety of barriers to their beneficial use of technology. Concerns were voiced however about the provision of such systems constituting little more than a 'technical fix', cutting welfare costs, enforcing further segregation and distracting attention from the real source of disabled people's oppression. These findings highlight the increasing importance of more radical social transformation.

The opportunities and threats presented by the utilisation of communication systems are examined through an analysis of their use-value - how they allow or disallow the satisfaction of basic unmet needs. In conclusion, various recommendations are proposed which will go some way towards making technology more accessible and appropriate for disabled people. It is however acknowledged that this will merely treat a symptom of their oppression, not eradicate the cause.


The study is published in full as a University of Leeds PhD thesis