investigatingnormal-crop-b2ac91b5b013c91afebfb1664c746d9eca7a0181620c13ccd62630c19df4ed1c.jpg Two people stand in body socks—informal prosthetics and performative wearables— in a public plaza. From Sara Hendren's project, Unknown Armature.

Two people stand in body socks—informal prosthetics and performative wearables— in a public plaza. From Sara Hendren’s project, Unknown Armature.

Investigating Normal

Fall 2016

Investigating Normal is a critical disability studies seminar housed in a design-build studio. First created at Rhode Island School of Design in 2013, the course is for engineers and designers to solve problems, when they’re presented as such, and to ask questions—about normalcy, ability, cultural ideas of the body, and more. Fall 2016 at Olin College marks its fourth session.

    Syllabus, Fall 2016

    ENGR 3299 — Investigating Normal: Adaptive and Assistive Technologies

    Olin College of Engineering
    Mondays and Thursdays, 10:50-12:30, AC 213
    Instructors: Sara Hendren and Zhenya Zastavker

    Course Overview

    Assistive technologies usually refer to prosthetics and medical aids: tools, devices, and other gear that either restore or augment the functioning of body parts. Historically, these have been designed for people with diagnosable disabilities. In this course, we look at medical as well as cultural tools that investigate the “normal” body and mind, and we design our own devices—high-tech, low-tech, digital or analog—with these ideas in mind. Through readings, site visits, guest speakers, and projects, we investigate both traditional and unusual prosthetics and assistive technologies, broadly defined. We talk to end-users, to engineers and industrial designers, to artists, and to others whose technologies assist with visible and invisible needs, externalize hidden dynamics, and create capacities far beyond or outside ordinary functionality.

    Key to our discussions will be the implicit and explicit narratives that get created by and with prosthetic technologies. We’ll look at popular prosthetic tools and examine how their users “perform” them, keeping economic and socio-political factors in mind. We’ll also investigate the ways these narratives get lumped together or distinguished from the available and popular cultural narratives about the cyborg self, about human-machine interfaces in general. With this analysis in mind, I’ll ask you to consider new possibilities for manufacturable prosthetic and medical technologies in the interest of better treatment, especially if that’s where your personal interest lies. But I’ll also ask you to engage in what’s been called interrogative design, or critical design, or resonant design: that is, problem finding as well as problem solving; suspending questions by pressing together, in one artifact or set of artifacts, seemingly disparate or opposing ideas; thinking about what Anthony Dunne calls “para-functionality”: design that lives among recognizable realms of utility, but expands, as he says, beyond conventional definitions of functionalism to include the poetic, or activist, or socio-political.

    The class themes are heterogeneous in the first half of the course—on purpose. With visitors and projects and readings, we’ll jump quickly between and among high-tech, low-tech, practical and impractical tools and wearables. The idea is to have you exposed to as many dispositions for making your projects as possible. This “field” is very wide indeed, and its generativity is still under-recognized. Be ready for some zigs and zags along the way, but the goal is to help you elicit your own questions as potential engineers in this broad research space.

    It’s worth mentioning right up front that you should divest yourself of the common and well-intended but utterly misguided earnestness that drives many designers’ assumptions about “assistive technology.” It may be tempting to find some technical novelty or functional gadget and then, only afterward, look for an application “for the disabled.” I’ve seen too many projects in this vein lately.

    Be aware, first, that a central tenet of this class is that all technology is assistive technology: No matter what kind of body you inhabit, you are getting assistance from your devices and extensions and proxies every single day. And second, gird yourself with a proper humility: Ask lots of questions, do the research on precedent tools, and respect the stunning sensory organism that is the living, breathing, adaptive human body. White canes, ankle braces, and assistance animals, after all, are extraordinarily sophisticated prostheses. Digital tools offer unique capabilities, yes—but they’re not inherently “smart” because of their digital nature. The point here is to see ability and disability as an exciting, expansive lens with which to think about many bodies and many kinds of needs.

    Finally: This video with Judith Butler and Sunaura Taylor is a kind of manifesto, a solid frame from which the ethos of the course proceeds. Please watch early and often:


    Please let me know in advance if you absolutely must be absent, either day or night. Missing more than one class will significantly affect your evaluation.

    Course Components

    Short experiments: We’ll work together in teams—once or twice in class, and once or twice on your own—on some short exercises to jumpstart the making process.

    Weekly readings/viewings: See each week’s required and suggested readings.

    Final projects: At the beginning of October, all students will self-assess both skills and interests, and we’ll line up teams to match with client collaborators accordingly.

    Experimental context: The class has an ambitious scope in this first few iterations at Olin; that’s because we’re trying out several possible partnerships for the long term of the class and the adaptation + ability group. Be flexible! Some readings may change; some class time arrangements may change. I’m interested in being responsive to the particular direction of this group.

    Inclusion Statement

    It is Olin College’s policy to comply fully with all state and federal disability laws. Olin does not discriminate against applicants or students with disabilities, and will consider modification to academic programs where necessary to ensure that our requirements are not discriminatory, as long as the modifications do not fundamentally alter the nature of our programs. The Office of Student Life coordinates services for students with learning disabilities, sensory impairments, psychological disabilities and medical conditions. Students are responsible for identifying themselves to the Assistant Dean of Student Life for Advising and providing appropriate documentation of their disability and need for accommodation in a timely manner. Students requesting accommodation should contact the Assistant Dean of Student Life for Advising as soon as possible after matriculation.

    Services for students with learning disabilities may include, but are not limited to, academic accommodations, coaching on organizational and time management skills, faculty notification and academic advising. Services for students with physical, sensory, or psychological impairments as well as medical conditions may include, but are not limited to, academic accommodations, assistance with adaptive technology, accessibility accommodations and academic advising. Any specific modifications granted will be based on detailed discussions with each student about their particular situation, and on information from a medical care provider concerning the student’s disability and related needs.

    We assume that all of us learn in different ways, and that the organization of any course will accommodate each student differently. Please talk to us as soon as you can about your individual learning needs and how this course can best accommodate them. Even if you do not have a documented disability, remember that other support services are available to all students.


    Class 1, Thursday 9/8: Overview

    Course overview. Introductions, themes of course and broad introduction to key concepts, plus lots of projects. Dispositions for the designer and disability. The relationship of the class to the larger lab and a broad net for possible collaborations and research. Narratives of disability.

    Class 2 and 3, Monday 9/12 and Thursday 9/15: Artist and micro-resident Laura Swanson

    Laura joins us to talk about her practice as an artist and her project prompt. We’ll each prototype some ideas to jumpstart that collaboration between Monday and Thursday. For Monday’s lecture in the library with Laura, prepare by researching her web site and reviews of her work and with the following media. Please make some notes as you read and watch; come with questions for Laura!

    Read: All Technology is Assistive.

    Watch: “Examined Life,” above, plus / ”My Vagina Ain’t Handicap” / ”Song of the Machine” / Guinness Wheelchair Basketball commercial /

    Assemble into teams and prototype water feature component as described, for discussion Thursday.

    Buy a dedicated NOTEBOOK by next Thursday, Sept 22.

    Class 4, Friday, Sept 16:

    Debrief from Laura’s visit, discuss readings and videos, and a short reflection. “Disability Is” and performance/prosthetics.

    Class 5, Monday, September 19

    Adaptive Design Association and cardboard tutorial with NINJAs Sue Grimshaw and Meghan Tighe.

    Look at the gallery of objects and short videos on the ADA web site. Watch Among the Giants and this PBS coverage of the organization. Read about them in the New York Times.

    Consider your own environments for adaptations. If you like, take a look at this Pinterest collection of cardboard furniture—it’s everywhere! We’ll discuss some images _Thoughtless Acts? _by Jane Fulton Suri.

    Also read prior to class:

    1) Graham Pullin’s introduction and the sections on “Exploring Meets Solving” and “Provocative Meets Sensitive” from Design Meets Disability. PDFs are in the public drive.

    2) Watch The Crash Reel.

    Class 6, Thursday, Sept 22:

    Take in media together. Reflection exercise. Revisit Newman Elementary project.

    Class 7, Monday, Sept 26:

    Reflection exercise due.

    Class collaborator Alice Sheppard comes to introduce her project.

    Read: “Introduction: Imagined Futures,” in Alison Kafer, Feminist, Queer, Crip [PDF, in the public drive], plus Person First Language, “I’m not a Person with a Disability; I’m Disabled.” And watch: “I’m Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much.

    Class 8, Thursday, Sept 29:

    Debrief from Alice’s visit, discuss readings and media. Revisit Butler/Kafer connections. Reflection exercise.


    Class 8, Monday, Oct 3: Talk about team choices.

    Read “Fashion Meets Discretion” and “Simple Meets Universal” from Pullin, Design Meets Disability. PDF on public drive.

    Read Alice Dreger, When Medicine Goes Too Far in the Pursuit of Normality, and “Ending Forced Genital-Normalizing Surgeries.”

    Tuesday, Oct 4

    Required attendance at Alice Dreger campus lecture, 6:45-8:30 pm, in the library.

    Class 9, Thursday, Oct 6: Guest Speaker Eric Gunther.

    Read: “Feel Me: What the Science of Touch Says About Ourselves.” Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, May 16, 2016.

    Read: “The White Cane as Technology.” Interview with Georgina Kleege, The Atlantic Tech.

    Assemble teams.

    Class 10, Thursday, Oct 13:

    Teams fully settled by this date. Self-assemble team roles, establish internal deadlines.

    Take a look at high tech projects like exoskeletons, and  low tech projects like the GRIT wheelchair, the Jaipur Foot group, and DIYAbility.

    Class 11, Monday, Oct 17:


    Sign up for library times with Emily Ferrier, TBD.

    Class 12, Thursday, Oct 20:


    Class 13, Monday, Oct 24:

    Readings and projects on the contested nature of autism: spectrum conditions, sensory processing disorder, and pressure technologies. Research the “informal” prosthetics of body socks, weighted blankets, and more. The Vayu Vest. Dana Gordon’s Undercover. Jin Jung, “Take My Weight Off Your Shoulders.” Wendy Jacob, Squeeze Chair and Explorers Club. Plus a critical look at the common medicalizing language of “high functioning” vs “low functioning.”

    Murray, “Autism Functions/The Functions of Autism.” Disability Studies Quarterly. Listen to Steve Silberman on his new book, Neurotribes. Also, choose ONE of the following two articles: Picard, “Future Affective Technology for Autism and Emotion Communication.” PDF Herbert, M. “Treatment Guided Research: Helping People Now with Humility, Respect, and Boldness.” PDF

    Assignments given for Self-Portrait/Anti-Self-Portrait. Take a look at portrait photographers like these listed below.

    Pieter Hugo, Anthony Aziz and Sammy Cucher, Cindy Sherman, Lucas Samaras, Diane Arbus, Loretta Lux, Richard Avedon, Vik Muniz, Carrie Mae Weems, Tina Barney, Mary Ellen Mark, Sally Mann, Gilbert and George

    Class 14, Thursday, Oct 27:


    Class 15, Monday, Oct 31:


    Class 16, Thursday, Nov 3:

    Guest speaker Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. Read in advance of her visit: “Becoming Disabled,” the first in an ongoing series of op-eds in the New York Times on disability, and “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory,” in the Disability Studies Reader. There are two copies of the Reader on the class reserve shelf; electronic copy also in the public drive folder.

    Class 17, Monday, Nov 7:

    Self-Portrait/Anti-Self Portraits due. Present to class.

    Class 18, Thursday, Nov 10:

    Guest Bruce Howell, Carroll Center for the Blind

    Class 19, Monday, Nov 14:


    Class 20, Thursday, Nov 17:


    Week of Nov 21-25: No classes, Thanksgiving holiday

    Class 21, Monday, Nov 28:


    Read for class: From Lennard Davis, Ed., The Disability Studies Reader: “Introduction: Disability, Normality, and Power.” (L. Davis) “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History.” (Baynton)

    Class 22, Thursday, Dec 1:


    Class 23, Monday, Dec 5:


    Class 24, Thursday, Dec 8:

    STUDIO, presentations of projects before finals week event

    Final Presentations, Dec 15