The ‘compensation model’ of games and disability research

As part of preparing for work on the AHRC funded Alternative Futures development project, I’ve been wondering about ways to approach the topic …

I am finding it difficult to frame the research in a way that does not collapse into a ‘compensation model’ (e.g the idea that Technology X compensates for Impairment Y).  I am concerned that the compensation model is a bit like the early ‘games and gender’ lit that married an essentialist approach to gender, with an essentializing research design. Which is useful to think about, I guess, as it suggests the need for a similar approach. (Garland Thomson uses the term ‘compensation model’ when discussing disability and middle class benevolence in 19th Century US literature – see R Garland Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies, Columbia U Press 1997)

‘Helpful’ would be recognition of the opportunities for social, political, expressive, playful and pleasurable participation on offer in MMORPGs, online communities, virtual worlds, etc., while ‘not helpful’ would be conceptualizing impairment as a deficiency that motivates, ‘explains’, determines or characterizes participation.


This is a muddle because I’m still thinking about it – so this is a list of possible ingredients.

I am thinking about combining (1) the notion of ‘reading formations’ (Bennett and Woollacott) with (2) the cultural model of disability (Snyder and Mitchell, 2005) to think about (3) disabled audiences as ‘expert readers’ in relation to (4) popular depictions of cyborgs (broadly defined) especially in digital games and gaming culture.

Expertise: I’m thinking about personal and politicized accounts of institutionalization, including all those accounts of unwise prosthetics and the pressure to perform impairment in a manner that ‘fits’ with institutional policy, technology, etc. (as shared in the disability studies literature).

Expert readers: where this ‘expertise’ might manifest as the capacity to situate myself in a viable way, in the face of authoritative practice (‘viable’ according to self-description). Disenfranchisement, then, would involve the sense of annihilation that is experienced when/if I have been positioned in a way that runs counter to my sense of self, when a legitimate refusal feels absolutely necessary and yet at the same time completely impossible.

Resistance,  resiliance, community: having the power to access the discursive resources that would give me a legitimate place to speak from (or, to ‘speak back’ from – ref. bell hooks). Which suggests that one of the points of a ‘community’ could be to act as a ‘discourse bank’: a sharing and pooling of discursive resources that make it possible to counter the individualizing of the clinic, a vocabulary that makes it possible to ‘talk back’/‘look back’ at the clinic, and unveil its supposed neutrality.

So…I’m thinking about science fictions (texts and their disabled audiences as ‘expert readers’) as a discourse bank for oppositional readings on body/technology relations, with a particular focus on the figure of the cyborg…and the implications for evolving discourses on technology and the body, and the foregrounding of the expertise of disabled subjects in this domain (as expert readers of the relationships between new technologies, power, policy, practice and the body).

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