I created the term “Disability Dongle” in 2019 to draw attention to the phenomenon of design and engineering students and practitioners who prototype “innovative” disability solutions. The definition satirizes an outcome in which designs or technologies “for” disabled people garner mainstream attention and accolades despite valid concerns disabled people have about them.
Disability Dongle: A well intended elegant, yet useless solution to a problem we never knew we had. Disability Dongles are most often conceived of and created in design schools and at IDEO.
— Witty Ticcy Gay (@elizejackson) March 26, 2019
I proposed the moniker as a joke, in response to a cycle of extraction and abandonment, in which disabled subjects test prototypes that will never make it to market. But its logic immediately became obvious: a dongle is an adaptor and a Disability Dongle is adaptive; both are created to make their subject compatible with a normative system. Though the origins of the term “dongle” are hazy, shrouded in academic urban legends, it’s an undeniably silly word. This makes it the perfect term for a very silly category of object, one which is implicated in a pattern of social extraction, production, and circulation that elicits laughter as a trauma response.
Disability Dongles inherently lack a fluency in the sociotechnical apparatus of disability. The New York Times demonstrated this in 2019, when they tweeted “Remember Google Glass? Stanford University researchers are exploring whether it can help teach autistic children to make eye contact and recognize emotions.”
The tweet linked to an article that describes how bad stuff happens when Autistic children’s communication does not match the parameters enforced by normative society. Rather than locate the problem in the regulatory violence of the normative society, these researchers and the journalist who wrote about it located the problem in children who fail to conform. In doing so, they advanced a solution that would itself inevitably become a problem for Autistic people.
Individuals who have a sociotechnical fluency of disability are not treated by the media as experts, which is why we wind up in comments sections rather than in stories. This is where Laura, an autistic woman asked the New York Times:
Why not focus on getting non-autistic people to accept differences in social communication rather than forcing autistics to conform? Eye contact can be painful and difficult and isn’t a necessity for communication or for recognising emotions.
— Laura (@MissTwinPeaks82) July 18, 2019
The functions of a Disability Dongle operate in tension with one another. To the disabled users they are ostensibly designed for (or “with”) they are at best speculative: promising in concept but in actuality unattainable. At worst, they enact normative or curative harm upon disabled users. At the same time, nondisabled people are not made aware that they have also become “users” through their reading and sharing of easily consumable, feel-good content. The Disability Dongle relies on their lack of fluency, so they don’t recognize that they’re being manipulated.
This emotionally compelling narrative is swiftly transmitted online by content generators that replicate the brand line, rarely conducting their own reporting or interviewing those ostensibly meant to benefit from the designs. At the time of writing, a half dozen publications have written about the recently announced Michael Graves Architecture and Design home health care product collaboration with CVS , while not a single article has interviewed anyone communicating from a disabled perspective.
When a Disability Dongle is presumed to do good, our critiques inherently make us bad. As Sara Ahmed writes in Complaint, “To become a complainer is to become the location of a problem” (2021, 3). In a recent online exchange, poet Elice A. Smith commented on a Tweet featuring AR glasses for “people with hearing loss.”
New glasses powered by augmented reality (AR) allow people with hearing loss to see spoken words converted to written words @rexchapman pic.twitter.com/EyxcZlAcUX
— Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar) March 22, 2022
Quoting her deaf sister, Smith wrote:
Sent this to my deaf sister and asked her opinion.
"Snort. Here's the thing. Captions aren't always correct. It gets fucked up quick. I can't even imagine how this would go on public. Comversatio s flashing as I walk down the street. Also, I wear bifocals."
— Elice A. Smith (Samirhage) (@EliceASmith) March 23, 2022
Jake M Abbott, a communications student, responded to Elice, telling her she was out of line for critiquing the creator’s uninformed, albeit well-meaning intentions:
No offense to you or your sister, but that seems a little cynical to be honest. We should try applaud any attempt to solve communicational problems for those who are impaired in some way, despite any faults we may see.
— Jacob M. Abbott (SplinterSloth) 🦥 (@jakemabbott) March 23, 2022
Sara Ahmed also explains how “In complaining about what is happening, you become equipped to explain what is happening” (2021, 19). So allow us to explain: Disability Dongles are contemporary fairy tales that appeal to the abled imagination by presenting a heroic designer-protagonist whose prototype provides a techno-utopian (re)solution to the design problem. Disability Dongle rhetoric instills in students the value of a quick fix over structural change, thus preventing them from seeking out, participating in, and contributing to existing inquiry. By labeling these material-discursive phenomena—the designed artifacts and the discourse through which their meaning is constituted—we work to shift the focus from their misguided concern about our bodies to their under-analyzed intentions and ambitions.
In early 2011, a Hewlett-Packard Labs researcher named Anirudh Sharma attended an MIT Design and Innovation workshop in the Indian city of Pune. Through this program, Sharma began engineering a haptic shoe prototype that ultimately grew into Lechal, a “smart footwear company” that “seeks to create an intuitive and user-friendly wearable technology for visually-impaired people”.
Sharma claims that Lechal is the “first haptic footwear” and touts his company, Duchere, of which Lechal was the first product, as “the first wearable tech start-up in India.” The design problem Lechal was created to solve was, apparently, the white cane that has been used as a wayfinding device by blind and low-vision people for more than a century. More specifically, Sharma located its problem in the device’s longevity; according to Lechal’s original website:
the most commonly-used assistive device by the visually impaired, has changed little in more than 100 years even as technology has leap-frogged centuries. Our challenge was to find a simple solution to a problem few had thought to tackle and our answer lay in haptics or the technology of touch.”
Lechal’s marketing narrative ignores the possibility that “few had thought to tackle this problem” because it is not, in fact, a problem. Blind and low-vision people have been using white canes for such a long time because they’re reliable, reasonably cost-effective tools that meet their needs. As blind technologist, Alex Lee, wrote “scientists and researchers have tried to re-engineer the cane, attempting to make it better with the use of technology like ultrasonic alerts, vibrations and GPS. But in some ways the humble white cane has proved to be unimprovable” . In constructing this narrative, Lechal dismisses the possibility that white cane users may have knowledge that its designer doesn’t. This devaluation of existing disabled users is essential to creating a Disability Dongle: it can’t solve a problem disabled people never knew they had by listening to them.
A few months after the launch of Lechal, a group of University of Texas students was featured on ABC News for inventing a haptic shoe that would “eliminate the need for the blind to use canes”. This is another characteristic of the Disability Dongle: a cycle of repetition and replication that traps our collective imagination in a designerly Groundhog Day, as the same thing is invented for the first time over and over again. Lechal had already been the subject of dozens of media stories when that ABC News headline proclaimed “Students Invent Vibrating Shoe For the Blind.” While it is possible to claim these devices were invented independently, there is an established pattern in which design and engineering students take up existing concepts that have received widespread media coverage, and reiterate them as their own innovations. This happened during the initial days of COVID-19 when over two dozen individuals, mostly students, were credited with inventing clear face masks, despite the fact clear face masks have been in development since at least 2002 and commercially available since at least 2018  .
This cycle suggests that the primary function of a Disability Dongle is not as a device used, or even usable, by disabled people. Rather, it operates as a spectacle and as a sign. The innovator becomes a showman, producing and hypervisibilizing a stylized image of disability normalized by technology. The showman attains prestige and the spectacle they produce signifies the eugenic promise of a techno-utopian future in which design solves the problem of disability once and for all.
The Disability Dongle also operates as a simulacrum by repeatedly creating its own user. In 2017, three elementary school students won first place in a Cal Ripken Sr. STEM Challenge that tasked competitors with “helping a blind student navigate the classroom”. The blind student, in this case, was a hypothetical user that was imagined by the design challenge; news coverage of the competition featured photographs of one student wearing a blindfold to demonstrate her team’s winning creation. Potential blind users were pushed further to the margins when the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation failed to incorporate alt-text in its winner’s announcement on Twitter  .
The same thing happened when one of the University of Texas students demonstrated her haptic shoe while blindfolded. As she told ABC News: “if someone were to wear these shoes besides me, that would be great.” Given the hypothetical nature of the disabled user, it should come as no surprise that when a Disability Dongle actually does become commercially available, it doesn’t stay that way for long.
Lechal’s listings on Amazon and Best Buy are now defunct. Reviews on the Amazon listing offer a glimpse of customer motivations for purchasing the product and their experiences of using it. Seven of the product’s reviews were unverified. Six of these came from accounts that have only ever reviewed Lechal. The seventh comes from an account that has reviewed one other item. However, this review claims to have been using Lechal for “about a year” as of November 23, 2016, despite the fact that the product was not available for immediate purchase, only for pre-order, as late as February 2016.
After eliminating nine unverified ratings and reviews, the product received an average score of 2.5 out of 5 stars. Most of these reviews note serious problems with the product’s ease of use and functionality, particularly with regard to the navigation feature, which one reviewer noted was still in beta at the time. A reviewer named Phoenix stated that, “no matter what we did or how many times we recalibrated the inserts we could not get them to navigate for us.” Another reviewer, paradonym, commented that, “the concept is nice and has nearly no competitors – but the device has a long journey in front of it until it can be used – especially by visually impaired people Ducere (or Lechal [sic] wants them to use…”
A number of reviewers praised the potential of the product, while others expressed hope that it would work better for them at some point in the future. Collectively, these reviews suggest that Lechal continued to function much like a prototype long after its commercial release.
Each iteration of a Disability Dongle ultimately leaves behind a trail of decaying websites and media stories. The tags on the ABC News story read “video platform,” “video management,” “video solutions,” and “video player,” but only a grainy still image exists where the video player would be. The Press page on the Lechal website offers a collection of mostly nonfunctional links .
Reflecting on the cultural imprint of abandoned technologies, theorist Mark Fisher argues:
“what haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-first century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate…, the disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live.” (2012, 16)
The artifactuality of a Disability Dongle is fundamentally spectral. As a prototype, it materializes pure (imaginary) potential. As an assemblage of digital traces, it materializes the abandonment and deterioration of that potential. And as a cycle of repetition and replication, it enacts a state of virtuality, of being “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract” (Proust cited in Deleuze 1966, 96)
Deleuze asserts that virtual entities, “encircling the actual, perpetually renew themselves by emitting yet others, with which they are in turn surrounded and which go on in turn to react upon the actual……every virtual particle surrounds itself with a virtual cosmos and each in its turn does likewise infinitely” (2002, pg. 148). They do this because, being fictive versions of the actuality that they represent, the only way they themselves can become actualized is through the re-production of their difference, which ultimately creates a simulacrum, a system whose essential characteristic is that they have, “no prior identity, no internal resemblance” (1994, 299).
In plain terms, the design process of creating a Disability Dongle isn’t actually about producing an assistive device, shitty or not, it’s about producing an idea of what disability is. It’s not a failure that they don’t create a useful assistive device because that’s not what Disability Dongles are actually about. The technology, media, and cultural artifacts that reproduce disability as pitiable and technology as savior are the entire point.
This is perhaps why the reinvention of the haptic shoe and its disabled user continues, despite Lechal’s commercial failure. Two new haptic shoe technologies emerged over the course of 2021, and both are trying to bring their iterations to market. In the spring, Austrian startup Tec-Innovation received substantial coverage for their product Innomake, a €3,200 system that uses ultrasonic sensors installed on the user’s shoes to detect obstacles, providing feedback through haptic and/or acoustic signals. In June, Honda announced the establishment of Ashirase, Inc., the first venture to emerge from its new startup incubator, IGNITION . At the time of the announcement, Ashirase, Inc. was in the process of developing “an in-shoe navigation system” that will provide vibrational feedback to a user based on their pre-entry of a particular route into the system’s app.
The Austrian technology Innomake was motivated by co-founder Kevin Pajestka’s neighbor, who had Parkinson’s and for whom “small steps and curbs were enough to cause a fall”  . Pajestka eventually partnered with Markus Raffer, who was interested in the concept because of his own experiences with visual impairment. Promotional materials for the system emphasize the involvement of disabled people “in all stages of development”  .
Former Honda engineer Wataru Chino became interested in “embedding braille information in footwear” when he learned about the prevalence of sidewalk obstacles encountered by blind pedestrians in urban environments . He founded Ashirase, Inc., after the death of his grandmother-in-law, who drowned after slipping and falling into a river. Honda’s announcement mentions “discovery sessions” that the Ashirase, Inc. team conducted with blind and low-vision people.
Both of these haptic shoes seem to have learned something important from their predecessors. By working with actual disabled people, Innomake and Ashirase appear to break from the Disability Dongle cycle. But their shift from ‘designing for’ to ‘designing with’ constrains the disabled user as a rhetorical device to validate the hypothetical one. As Deleuze notes, virtual images engage in an exchange with their actual referents; the virtual self-actualizes by “engulf[ing the actual] and leav[ing it] as just a virtuality” (2002, pg. 150). Within the Disability Dongle cycle, the designer selects actual disabled people to draw into a pre-imagined use case. The designer determines what questions to ask and which insights are relevant. In presenting those relevant insights, the Disability Dongle validates itself. At the same time, it casts the disabled knowledge it cites into question. How has this knowledge been shaped by pre-established recruitment channels, by pre-determined project scope, by pre-imagined users embedded in research questions and conclusions? In processing actual disabled experiences through a virtual filter, the Dongle renders those experiences virtual themselves.
In a recent article outlining a new, complicated model of disability, Alex Haagaard proposes that disability is “a state of ontological negation that society enacts against those whose existence is characterized as detrimental to society” (2022, n.p). There are numerous modes of negation, including normalization, invisibilization, and annihilation. There are also numerous strategies through which these negations can be enacted, including through Disability Dongles. By continually reiterating a spectral technology for a virtual or hypothetical user, a Disability Dongle continually re-produces the virtual user as an idea that is consumed and shared by nondisabled audiences online. It is through this repetition that the idea is reinforced and ‘made-real,’ enacting a precession of simulacra that destabilizes the distinction between reality and imitation, destroying both. Reality is superseded by hyperreality, a condition in which our ways of knowing and experiencing are constituted entirely by fictions (Baudrillard 1994, 1-7).
How does something that negates the disabled person win so many awards? In 2021, Unilever announced “Degree Inclusive,” “the world’s first adaptive deodorant built with a diverse disability community”   . Degree Inclusive won the Innovation Grand Prix at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity , even though it still isn’t commercially available. IKEA’s ThisAbles won the 2019 Grand Prix for Health and Wellness . However, within the company’s marketing campaign, Eldar Yusupov, the disabled copywriter for McCann Tel Aviv who conceptualized and “fought for” the project was relegated to the role of user . Then there is Purdue University, which has given a Mallot Innovation Award to a Disability Dongle every year for at least the last six years .
Given that a Disability Dongle is award bait, it was not remotely surprising that Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Wilson didn’t just share his article on the Michael Graves Architecture and Design collaboration with CVS, he also shortlisted it:
This is currently top on my shortlist for product(s) of the year – essential work by @CVSHealth and @MGravesDesign https://t.co/qpYIBagCMc
— Mark Wilson (@ctrlzee) February 18, 2022
But, as Haagaard wrote:
none of the objects in the header image are actually usable lolhttps://t.co/xHJZHyP0dQ
— Alex Haagaard (they/them) (@alexhaagaard) February 20, 2022
Interestingly, while Disability Dongles are still getting awarded, they don’t seem to be going viral like they used to. Haagaard’s thread has had more engagement than every tweet linking to the other six articles about this collaboration, combined.
On March 16th, I was reminded how the #DisabilityDongle hashtag can play a role in amplifying disabled technology critics over the din of #DisabilityDongle praise. I surfaced a two-month-old Tweet of a stair-climbing wheelchair that had no previous critical engagement , and when I woke up the next morning, it had been quote-tweeted well over a thousand times, with many comments, such as this Meme created by writer Ani Kayode Somtochukwu, pointing out the ramp next to the stairs:
— Comrade Kay ☭☭☭☭ (@Kayode_ani) March 18, 2022
By redirecting the social virality of #DisabilityDongle objects, claims, and media, we can shift the way design relates to disability projects.
Comments sections rarely garner a response from Disability Dongle creators. When they do, we are often told “Thank you for your feedback.” Thank you for your feedback is a signal that we have no control over how our knowledge will be used; by reframing disabled expertise and critique as “feedback,” this phrase, like IKEA’s ThisAbles campaign, relegates disabled people to the role of user and subordinates disabled knowledge to the (professional) designerly imagination. It’s a disingenuous phrase, in which “thank you” is uttered to remind us that it is actually us who should be grateful.
I have learned to respond to student advisory requests by explicitly stating that I will not share any personal disability experiences. This boundary feels unnatural to me, as it conflicts with my autoethnographic commitments. But I do it to combat a dynamic where I get told I am valued as an expert, only to later discover that I have again been bucketed as a user. To that end, “Thank you for your feedback” has become a litmus test for me, clarifying power imbalances that institutionally affiliated folks don’t want to acknowledge. Hyphens do the same thing.
In 1964, the NCAA developed a special ‘student-athlete’ designation to exempt college athletes from employment provisions, including workers’ compensation. As someone who has spent years analyzing disability, not only through the lens of design but also through the lens of sport, the hyphen caught my attention. Working in a field that often cites user-experts, co-creators, and co-designers, I realized the logic of the NCAA applies to claims of designing ‘with’. Whatever falls after the hyphen is systemically uncompensated.
People relegated to hyphen status have no decision-making power, as they tend to remain external to the system and the process that they have been brought into. Hyphen-status and “Thank you for your feedback” reflect steep power imbalances within inclusive design, in which users get used and whatever follows co- really just means opted. This is yet another reason why a Disability Dongle’s claims of proximity to disability don’t mean what non-fluent audiences think they do.
In late 2021, an HCI Lab at Cornell published a research paper in connection with the ACM ASSETS conference that mentioned something called an “Accessibility Dongle.” I had never heard of such a thing before, but soon discovered that they referred to it as a Disability Dongle in a table summarizing their findings. I was not mentioned, I was not cited, and I was livid. This was a paper that was funded by Microsoft, a corporation that has yet to do so much as thank me for my feedback, despite benefitting from my ongoing criticality of their practices.
Although they’re a frequent subject of my Disability Dongle critiques, Microsoft managed to align itself with Disability Dongle in a way that evades accountability, in what could be considered an instance of political recuperation (Downing et al., 2001). After I raised my concerns about this citational injustice on Twitter, two of the paper’s authors contacted me with a direct message that said, “we are sorry we did not have the opportunity to quote your work this time.” I responded with a series of messages explaining the harm that was done and asking for specific details about how this had happened—details I needed in order to determine how this harm could be rectified for me, and how it could be prevented in the future. Once it became clear to me that I was not going to receive any further response from them, I sent an email to the conference organizers demanding a retraction, which prompted an email from the conference sponsor’s CEO, asking me what I wanted. It was a pointless question because a few days later, she informed me there would be no public apology. I also never got to approve the revised paper, because someone involved confirmed I was happy with it, despite never having shared it with me.
The entire situation would have derailed me were it not for Rua Williams’s gutsy open letter calling for citational justice  . That letter, and the way they used their institutional power to support me and Alex, is what prompted this paper. Because Alex and I are not institutionally affiliated, we would have had no other recourse were it not for Rua.
Once again, I must remind my fellow academics that if your power analysis stops at "student" you have been on campus too long. Do we have power over students? Yes. Are the students the most vulnerable in our work? No. Do the students have power over (some of) us? Yes, actually.
— Rua M. Williams (@FractalEcho) April 12, 2022
Interestingly, before Rua had the chance to formally extend their offer, another academic reached out after signing Rua’s open letter, asking if I would like to write a Disability Dongle piece for her upcoming anthology on disability and design, because “so many essays here cite it.” I asked her for assurance that power differentials present in the anthology would not be used to undermine me. After a brief back and forth, she retracted her offer:
You have such a wonderful way of expressing yourself and can be such a powerful writer. Academic prose will just suck the life out of it–and I’d hate to see that happen with this important topic.
How has the term Disability Dongle become so popular among academics if its tone is antithetical to academic prose? The only thing sucking the life out of me is that my analysis of how Disability Dongles extract knowledge from outsiders is now being extracted by academics. Once this paper is published, I plan to update a hastily written Medium post I threw together about Disability Dongles a few years ago . It’s the post that the anthology author and those Cornell students, along with the faculty who failed them, ultimately insisted on citing as they discarded my valid questions. The limited text on the updated post will hyperlink directly back to this paper so that their citations of me will also detail their citational injustices.
Lived experience is not enough. Having an experience is not the same thing as understanding that experience. My understanding of my own experiences would not be possible without Alex Haagaard and Rua Williams. I agreed to write this paper because I wanted to learn more from them. That is why this paper has three authors, even though it is written from the first-person point of view.
What is an editor when it is their authorship that makes your argument articulable? It’s easy to say, “Yes, that is what I meant” when they come up with the apt framework, phrasing, or theory. Having experienced citational injustices, I now work very hard to clearly state, “Yes, that’s it, you nailed it!” And in this paper, they absolutely nailed it. To that end, writer and editor Nicole Miller declined to be named an author on this paper, even though she absolutely nailed her contributions to it. In this paper, we practice citational justice by centering the perspectives of disabled thinkers, whether or not they are legitimized by the academy, and by using citations to hold academics and developers accountable for the consequences of their creations.
To those who have benefited from the concept of the Disability Dongle in the past, you may use the intensity of any feelings of delight or defensiveness as a barometer for your own citational justice practices.
 https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/YY5pjBEAACYANLfm; https://web.archive.org/web/20220413145558/https://abcnews.go.com/blogs/technology/2011/09/students-invent-vibrating-shoe-for-the-blind
Sara Ahmed. (2021). Complaint. Duke University Press. https://doi.org/10.1215/9781478022336
Baudrillard, Jean. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. (S.F. Glaser, Trans.) University of Michigan Press. (Original work published 1981).
Deleuze, Gilles. 1991. Bergsonism. (H. Tomlinson & B. Habberjam, Trans.) Zone. (Original work published 1966).
Deleuze, Gilles. 1994. Difference and Repetition. (P. Patton, Trans.) Columbia University Press. (Original work published 1968).
Deleuze, Gilles. 2002. “The Actual and the Virtual.” (E.A. Ross, Trans.). In G. Deleuze & C. Parnet, Dialogues II (pp. 148-159). Continuum. (Previously published as Dialogues. Athlone Press, 1987.)
Downing, J. D. 2000. Radical media: Rebellious communication and social movements. Sage.
Fisher, Mark. 2012. What Is Hauntology? Film Quarterly. 66(1): 16-24.
Alex Haagaard. (2022). Complicating Disability: On the Invisibilization of Chronic Illness throughout History. CASTAC Platypus Blog. https://blog.castac.org/2022/02/complicating-disability-on-the-invisibilization-of-chronic-illness-throughout-history/
This has been an excellent and eye-opening read. Thank you so very, very much for your work.
Thank you for this great article!!! I, too, am seriously annoyed by these devices. They always come with seriously hefty price tags that put them way out of reach of someone living on disability.