Giving Voice

From The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning

Giving Voice

Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality

By Meryl Alper

How communication technologies meant to empower people with speech disorders—to give voice to the voiceless—are still subject to disempowering structural inequalities.





How communication technologies meant to empower people with speech disorders—to give voice to the voiceless—are still subject to disempowering structural inequalities.

Mobile technologies are often hailed as a way to “give voice to the voiceless.” Behind the praise, though, are beliefs about technology as a gateway to opportunity and voice as a metaphor for agency and self-representation. In Giving Voice, Meryl Alper explores these assumptions by looking closely at one such case—the use of the Apple iPad and mobile app Proloquo2Go, which converts icons and text into synthetic speech, by children with disabilities (including autism and cerebral palsy) and their families. She finds that despite claims to empowerment, the hardware and software are still subject to disempowering structural inequalities. Views of technology as a great equalizer, she illustrates, rarely account for all the ways that culture, law, policy, and even technology itself can reinforce disparity, particularly for those with disabilities.

Alper explores, among other things, alternative understandings of voice, the surprising sociotechnical importance of the iPad case, and convergences and divergences in the lives of parents across class. She shows that working-class and low-income parents understand the app and other communication technologies differently from upper- and middle-class parents, and that the institutional ecosystem reflects a bias toward those more privileged.

Handing someone a talking tablet computer does not in itself give that person a voice. Alper finds that the ability to mobilize social, economic, and cultural capital shapes the extent to which individuals can not only speak but be heard.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262035583 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4 b&w illus., 7 tables


$30.00 X ISBN: 9780262533973 288 pp. | 6 in x 9 in 4 b&w illus., 7 tables


  • Giving Voice offers a rare view into the lives of families too often overlooked in our research and debates over new mobile and educational technologies. It rests on a subtle analysis of the intersection of disability, privilege, and varied institutional conditions. The book is filled with vivid stories and important reminders of how respectful attention to the marginalized can inspire and expand our perspectives.

    Mizuko Ito

    Professor in Residence, University of California Humanities Research Institute; coauthor of Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out

  • This brilliant and timely book offers a powerful new perspective on technology and how it shapes our worlds. Giving Voice is an outstanding study of a neglected yet central area of media and society—how mobile technologies are designed, shaped, and implemented for people with disabilities. A milestone in digital technology research, it is destined to be a classic text in media research.

    Gerard Goggin

    Professor of Media and Communications, University of Sydney

  • This cogent and compelling account of families with children navigating developmental disabilities breaks new ground and forces us to reconsider some fundamental truths about the power and meaning of voice. This book will quickly become a must-read for every designer, educator, and scholar coming to grips with how an ecosystem of apps and portable devices has evolved into a panacea for the systemic inequalities faced by people with disabilities.

    Mary L. Gray

    Senior Researcher, Microsoft Research; Associate Professor, Indiana University; author of Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America

  • Giving Voice reopens the venerable question of new media's effects on young people in invigorating ways, both through its ethnographic focus on iPad adoption and through its nuanced account of the meaning of voices and voice technologies. I came away from this book impressed at how difficult it is now, as perhaps it has ever been, to distinguish between face-to-face and mediated communication. Alper shows just how complex any interface between people can be!

    John Durham Peters

    Professor of English and Film and Media Studies, Yale University; author of The Marvelous Clouds


  • Winner, 2018 Outstanding Publication in the Sociology of Disability Award given by the American Sociological Association.
  • 2018 PROSE Award Honorable Mention, Media and Cultural Studies