Becoming an operating system

Disability, difference, and the ethics of communication in the United States

by DANILYN RUTHERFORD

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A remarkable experiment in assistive technology, known as PODD, draws on and challenges mainstream understandings of communication in the US. To engage disabled people in conversation, caregivers turn to PODD books, which are binders of laminated sheets that display icons. As caregivers use these books, they act as “operating systems,” listing directions as they navigate from page to page, then animating the selected utterance in an enthusiastic tone. PODD plays on the language ideology that underlies most communication systems, which are designed to liberate speaking subjects trapped by the limitations of their bodies and minds. But PODD also confronts its users with aspects of communication that set aside the question of meaning. Drawing on interviews and participant observation in trainings with my nonverbal daughter, I show how caregivers struggle to inhabit a community of sign use in which referential meaning is both longed for and beside the point. [disability, communication, language ideology, personhood, ethics, affect, United States]