The bracelet looks unassuming, just like any other smart technology worn around the wrist. But rather than counting steps or heartbeats, it vibrates an alarm when it tracks the user subconsciously begin to pull out strands of hair. For those with trichotillomania, instead of following the compulsion to yank out their hair, the wireless device helps them notice the gestures and change their behavior.

This tool, along with other technologies for the disability community, has long intrigued Ashley Shew, an assistant professor in the Virginia Tech Department of Science, Technology, and Society. And now, with a prestigious National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award, she’ll be able to investigate the personal accounts of people with disabilities, as well as their opinions of the technologies designed for them.

“I’m interested in the storylines that disabled people tell about their bodies and how their relationships with technology differ from popular and dominant narratives we have in our society,” says Shew, who identifies herself as disabled.

Her research focuses on discrepancies between how scientists and engineers understand and explain their work related to disability and the actual needs and wants of people with disabilities. Shew believes there is a disconnect between media-based depictions and reality within the realm of science education and technology design.

“This means people aren’t always designing with real users in mind, but with ideas about what users want based on the entertainment media,” she says. “This is problematic because nondisabled people create and depict disabled people. There is little authentic disability representation in the media, so all these
media-driven narratives about technology get fed into engineering.”

Shew cites several misleading, media-supported tropes. Negative stereotypes encourage the public to view disabled people with pity, as sinners or fakers, or as resource burdens. And often, unlike the trichotillomania bracelet, whose subtlety allows the user privacy, many technologies, such as wheelchairs or exoskeletons, are highly visible. Some people who could benefit from viable supportive devices might shy away from them to avoid public skepticism or castigation.

And the reverse depictions are just as misrepresentative.

“There are also tropes about inspiration and courage,” Shew says. “The one people lean on involves a focus on inspiration and courage, along the lines of, ‘You’re such an inspiration because you’re disabled in public.’ If you’re not inspiring, you’re courageous to overcome what you’re overcoming. If we believe you’re truly disabled, then if you’re out having a regular life, you’re considered heroic in ways that don’t map onto real life at all.”