wheelchair with exoskeleton arms

Disability Dongle

Disability Dongle
A well intended and elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had. Disability Dongles are most frequently conceived of and created in design schools and at IDEO.

Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability – YouTube

Disability Dongles are contemporary fairy tales that appeal to the abled imagination by presenting a heroic designer-protagonist whose prototype provides a techno-utopian (re)solution to the design problem. Disability Dongle rhetoric instills in students the value of a quick fix over structural change, thus preventing them from seeking out, participating in, and contributing to existing inquiry. By labeling these material-discursive phenomena—the designed artifacts and the discourse through which their meaning is constituted—we work to shift the focus from their misguided concern about our bodies to their under-analyzed intentions and ambitions.

Disability Dongle | Platypus

“I feel like solutions to inaccessibility are often rooted in whiteness, because anyone who doesn’t think about it would think it’s cool but the reality is that they’ve created accessibility for the individual, not the collective and reinforces the class hierarchy because the wealthy would be the only ones with complete accessibility.

Imani Barbarin on Twitter

This feels like an important aspect of what Liz Jackson calls a “Disability Dongle”. Disability dongles are addressed to the individual, not the collective.

I created the term “Disability Dongle” in 2019 to draw attention to the phenomenon of design and engineering students and practitioners who prototype “innovative” disability solutions. The definition satirizes an outcome in which designs or technologies “for” disabled people garner mainstream attention and accolades despite valid concerns disabled people have about them. 

I proposed the moniker as a joke, in response to a cycle of extraction and abandonment, in which disabled subjects test prototypes that will never make it to market. But its logic immediately became obvious: a dongle is an adaptor and a Disability Dongle is adaptive; both are created to make their subject compatible with a normative system. Though the origins of the term “dongle” are hazy, shrouded in academic urban legends, it’s an undeniably silly word. This makes it the perfect term for a very silly category of object, one which is implicated in a pattern of social extraction, production, and circulation that elicits laughter as a trauma response.

Disability Dongles inherently lack a fluency in the sociotechnical apparatus of disability.

Disability Dongle | Platypus

Disability studies, particularly as offered by disabled Black women like Imani Barbarin, re-roots us out exclusive accessibility for the most privileged and into pluralistic accessibility for all, accessibility informed by “the sociotechnical apparatus of disability”. “Disability studies prevents disability dongles.”

This is why it’s absolutely essential to insert disability studies curriculum into design school.

Accessibility is only one part of disability. It’s the how.

Disability studies is the who. It’s the what. It’s the when, the where, and the why.

To be short, disability studies prevents disability dongles.

Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability – YouTube

Our appeals to design for the edges have been translated into disability dongles and inspiration exploitation.

The functions of a Disability Dongle operate in tension with one another. To the disabled users they are ostensibly designed for (or “with”) they are at best speculative: promising in concept but in actuality unattainable. At worst, they enact normative or curative harm upon disabled users. At the same time, nondisabled people are not made aware that they have also become “users” through their reading and sharing of easily consumable, feel-good content. The Disability Dongle relies on their lack of fluency, so they don’t recognize that they’re being manipulated.

Disability Dongle | Platypus

Framing accessibility as an edgy marketing slogan without centering disabled people is problematic.

In disability-centric designs, there’s a very specific way that internal grassroots efforts are sold to the powers that be. Executives are pitched on the mass appeal of accessibility, on the basis that by designing for a disabled person, everyone benefits. This highly simplistic view has become one of the core tenets of so-called inclusive design. And while there is a traceable history of this phenomenon, when pursued as a corporate strategy, it risks causing more harm than the design solves. This harm happens through a four-part process:

Why won’t Nike use the word disabled to promote the Go FlyEase shoe?

Those four parts are:

  • Inspiration Exploitation tropes
  • Disability euphemisms
  • Disability erasure
  • Product inaccessibility (often financial)

Affordability is a part of accessibility.

Joanna No Banana on Twitter

Design is tested at the edges. We believe and advocate that. Thus, it is supremely deflating to have it reduced from an acknowledgement and confrontation of structural realities to a four-part gloss that erases and excludes the edges.

For FlyEase to have a future, it needs to honor its history by finding a way to appeal to disabled consumers beyond tokenistic representation or inspiration. It would require a campaign that demonstrates a commitment to learning about what disability is, rather than merely promoting accessibility to reach mass audiences. And if we’ve learned one thing as disabled design critics, it is that stories inform the way we design. Disabled people are the original FlyEase consumer. It’s about time Nike stops erasing us.

Why won’t Nike use the word disabled to promote the Go FlyEase shoe?

We have dyspraxic community members who have used FlyEase for years. They are a good design and not a disability dongle, but the marketing not only fails to center the right people, it erases them.

There is no path to inclusive design that does not involve direct confrontation with injustice. Who do your product and your marketing center, and do they confront injustice? Are you informed by The Who, When, Where, and Why of Disability Studies? That is necessary to avoid making dongles.

Design is art. Right? It’s art with rules and if accessibility is the rules, where is the art?

This is actually where I come in. Right? Because the art is in the disability culture.

It’s in the history. It’s in the theory. It’s in the knowledge.

People don’t realize that disability is something a person can feel passion for and endeavor in.

Disability can be a practice. A creative practice. But design schools aren’t fostering relationships with people who engage in disability
as a creative practice. And so, a culture is being created where students don’t think that they need to build real relationships with actual disabled people.

They think that they just need to feel empathy for us.

While it’s not their fault, it does need to be said that this empathy leads to the creation of what I like to call “disability dongles”.

So what is a disability dongle?

“A well intended and elegant yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had. Disability dongles are most frequently conceived of and created in design schools and at IDEO.”

Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability
Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability

They still don’t realize that inviting some disabled creatives to their office for some networking cocktails might do a whole hell of a lot more than some grand gesture of a website. And the reason they don’t realize it is because we’re disabled. And so therefore we are users and testers instead of designers and decision makers.

We don’t get to pick the imagery. We are the imagery— for their website, for the brochures, for their fundraising materials.

It’s funny, like, even if we did get invited to their office for cocktails, they’d probably just take pictures of us.

Liz Jackson | Honoring the Friction of Disability

In plain terms, the design process of creating a Disability Dongle isn’t actually about producing an assistive device, shitty or not, it’s about producing an idea of what disability is. It’s not a failure that they don’t create a useful assistive device because that’s not what Disability Dongles are actually about. The technology, media, and cultural artifacts that reproduce disability as pitiable and technology as savior are the entire point.

This devaluation of existing disabled users is essential to creating a Disability Dongle: it can’t solve a problem disabled people never knew they had by listening to them.

Disability Dongle | Platypus

They like us best with bionic arms and legs. They like us deaf with hearing aids, though they prefer cochlear implants. It would be an affront to ask the hearing to learn sign language. Instead they wish for us to lose our language, abandon our culture and consider ourselves cured. They like exoskeletons, which none of us use. They would never consider cyborg those of us with pacemakers or on dialysis, those of us kept alive by machines or made ambulatory by wheelchairs, those of us on biologics or anti-depressants. They want us shiny and metallic and in their image.

Common Cyborg | Jillian Weise | Granta

…the focus is always on what the Tryborgs want instead of what Cyborgs want.

Improving Disability Representation in Star Wars | One Scene for Joy – YouTube

I asked them to invent things for us, the cyborgs who are already here, already alive.

Common Cyborg | Jillian Weise | Granta

Further reading,