A group of Virginia Tech faculty who represent a variety of disciplines is bringing the principles of disability justice to Appalachia through educational workshops, cultural events, and technology research. 

The team received a $502,000 grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation to create local and regional programming for disability-led arts, culture, reflection, and technology guidance. The foundation is a nonprofit organization that funds arts and humanities work nationwide.

With the three-year project, called “Just Dis Tech,” the Virginia Tech researchers plan to launch an education and arts outreach residency program with artists focused on disability justice. They also will cultivate the emerging inclusive gaming community and establish a Disability Community Technology Center. 

Ashley Shew, associate professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Science, Technology, and Society and the project’s leader, said she believes the support from the foundation will be “truly revolutionary” for the region in terms of building momentum about disability justice, community building work, and learning centered on disability history and culture.

It will also impact the ways people think about developing disability-related technology, she said, noting that researchers often conduct disability-themed projects without a thorough understanding of disability community values and desires. Shew hopes the project showcases the importance of humanistic engagement on technology topics.

“We are guided by a desire for epistemic justice, but also want to have a lot of fun enjoying and sharing disability-led arts and culture,” Shew said.

The team consists of Shew, Kereshmeh Afsari, assistant professor of construction engineering at Virginia Tech, and Elizabeth McLain, musicology instructor and interim co-director of the university’s disability studies minor. Tyechia Thompson, assistant professor of English, and Alice Rogers, University Libraries' Media Design Studio manager, are involved as project personnel. Faculty at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte also are collaborating on the project. 

One of the main goals of “Just Dis Tech” is to promote the value of disabled expertise in research for and about the disability community. Shew and her team will develop a network of disabled community members in southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina. They will learn together and be available as paid consultants for disability-themed research projects.

A major component will be the launch of an educational and arts outreach program where the community can learn about disability justice from artists who will share their time between Virginia Tech, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and other area partners.

Disability justice emerged from LGBTQ+ disabled activists of color in the early 21st century. From the beginning, this intersectional movement has been tied to arts and mutual aid organizations, and the ways the transformative principles of disability justice are put into practice. 

The research also includes a “radically inclusive gaming” community component — a topic for which McLain is passionate. This part of the project is related to existing accessible gaming work already in process with both McLain and Rogers.

“If we want true inclusion at Virginia Tech, in academia, in our region, in society, in our technology and architecture and every aspect of our lives, we can't keep waiting for lawsuit after lawsuit to force compliance with decades-old laws,” said McLain. “We need cultural change. Bringing disability justice to Appalachia will be a massive step forward.”

The Disability Community Technology Center would be a place for disability community building, consulting, and advising, with the goal of honoring the ways disabled expertise improves science and engineering and the ways disabled people create. The center will offer opportunities for disabilty arts, literature, culture, history, and community to provide better context and guidance about disability-oriented science and technology.

The group also hopes to publish work about disabled perspectives on technology research, co-authored by trainees and Ph.D. students, and plans to publish open-access materials for inclusive gaming and disability arts education.

Afsari, one of the project’s co-investigators, plans to incorporate robotics in the project’s educational outreach as a way to develop a better understanding of disabled-led technology.

"The disabled-centered technologies can improve human experiences, and that can be useful for researchers, educators and artists," Afsari said. "That's my greatest hope for the project."

Shew said the grant is an opportunity for scientists and engineers to “learn from disabled people about what it is we want,” and an opportunity to enjoy performances and cutting-edge programming.

Written by Kelsey Bartlett