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Enacting Empowerment and the Possible Roles of Technology in it

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Christopher Frauenberger

University of Vienna, Austria

The ideal of empowering people was one of the driving forces in developing the concept of Participatory Design and remains a part of the DNA of many efforts in the field. What such empowerment means exactly, however, is often poorly understood. In this talk I start with the notion that (dis)empowerment is an effect that is enacted through a complex interplay between human and non-human actors as parts of deeply interwoven networks. I will use this perspective of a relational ontology, as a theoretical lens to discuss how to conceptualise disabled experiences of disempowerment and exclusion. Grounded in examples from my own work, co-designing technology with autistic children, I aim to show how the relations between people, the material world and other actors such as knowledge or social norms are constituent parts in the enactment of agency and consequently in the ordering of disability. In particular, I will look at the roles of technology in this ordering as an increasingly pervasive and powerful actor in today's world. While I believe that such a relational perspective affords great explanatory power, valuable in its own right, I argue that we also need to develop ways in which we can orient these concepts towards constructively shaping alternative futures. To this end, I will discuss possible pathways for Participatory Design to interpret this line of thinking.