The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


DPU PhD student successfully defends thesis on Assistive Technology and Disability Justice

27 March 2023

Congratulations to DPU PhD candidate, Vicki Austin, who has successfully defended her thesis that Assistive Technology should be viewed as a transitional demand of Disability Justice.

group photo

Her thesis addresses the central question of the role of Assistive Technology (AT) – like wheelchairs, hearing aids, eyeglasses or digital devices - in mediating recourse to disability justice, centring the experiences of disabled slum dwellers in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Taking evidence from six datasets collected across four years, the study maps the local experience to the national and global picture offering a strategic reflection on the current state of work in the sector. 

Building on the work of the AT2030 project (led by GDI Hub and DPU) her thesis reveals that quality AT is missing for almost all poor, disabled people in Freetown. Interestingly, her work reveals that a lack of AT is most apparent for those who live in mainstream mixed urban settlements where disability identity is stigmatised and often hidden. In contrast, disabled people living together in an autonomously-organised settlement did – mostly - have AT, indicating further investigation into the role of collective action and autonomous organisation would be fruitful. 

Picking up themes emerging from the Freetown evidence, the study reveals that, globally, the AT interventions of core actors do not align with a single common operational framework. Borrowing from Amartya Sen’s seminal provocation Equality of What? (Sen, 1980), ‘AT for what?’ becomes a pertinent question in the face of this dissensus. Her research finds that the provision of AT within an operational framework of Disability Justice would better ensure the needs and aspirations of poor disabled people were prioritised in investment and priority setting. The thesis proposes, and tests, the potential configuration of a Disability Justice framework, as a basis future work can build from. 

Taken as a whole, the evidence presented in her study suggests that the claims for Disability Justice (including access to AT) of urban poor disabled people are often subjugated to background conditions, relegated behind the life-and-death claims for the basic need of life for the whole community (water, shelter, food). Therefore, any framework for Disability Justice must itself be linked to a broader push for justice for all poor people to be meaningful and impactful. Similarly, any broad social justice movement should place Disability Justice at its heart if it intends to drive for progressive change that benefits all. Her research concludes that AT is more than a commonplace element of the struggle for justice due to its fundamental necessity as an enabler of participation. 

Acknowledgements: the DPU AT2030 project was led by Professor Julian Walker and Ignacia Ossull, and the fees for this PhD were kindly also supported by UK Aid.

Photo (Credit, Angus Stewart) is of Esther the female chair of the HEPPO settlement in central Freetown, an autonomously organised settlement of disabled people and their families, where they had phenomenally better access to AT than in mainstream settlements.