Presenter Spotlight: Meryl Alper

Meryl Alper (twitter) (University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism) is currently working on a larger project focusing on the role of media and technology in the lives of families that include youth with disabilities. She will be presenting part of this research at the upcoming ICA Mobile Pre-conference in a paper titled, Augmentative, alternative, and assistive: Reconsidering mobile communication and disability.

We caught up with Meryl to discuss the research she will be presenting at the Mobile Preconference as well as her thoughts on the future of mobile research.

Can you summarize what your research is about and specifically what you’ll be presenting at the ICA Mobile Preconference?

My dissertation centers specifically on the parents of children ages 3-13 with developmental disabilities (e.g. autism, cerebral palsy) who are unable to or have significant difficulty speaking.  Their children use iPads equipped with a special app called Proloquo2Go to produce speech.  Sometimes these devices are purchased by families directly, and sometimes they are provided through school districts and outside grants.  Interestingly, some (but not all) parents refer to the child’s iPad as the child’s “voice” or “talker.”

Used in this manner, the iPad joins a long history of other personal computers and mobile technologies used to aid in speech production known as high-tech “augmentative and alternative communication” (AAC) devices – or “speech generating devices” (SGDs) and “voice output communication aids” (VOCAs).  Perhaps the most famous user of high-tech AAC is physicist Stephen Hawking.

Overall, my dissertation asks, “How do parents make sense of the iPad, used in this manner by their child, amongst all the other media and technology in families’ lives today?”  Since October 2012, I have been conducting participant observation and qualitative depth interviews with approximately 20 families.  My presentation for the ICA mobile pre-conference centers on one of my dissertation chapters: on how high-tech AAC is intertwined with the history of mobile communication and computing, and in turn, how the study of iPads as AAC devices can help us better theorize about mobiles more generally.

What drew you to this topic, exploring technology use in families that have children with disabilities?

The seed for my dissertation was planted as an undergraduate at Northwestern University.  The School of Communication at NU includes both the Communication Studies and the Communication Sciences departments (along with Theater, Radio/TV/Film, Dance, and Performance Studies.)  Back then, I didn’t understand how Communication Sciences fit in amongst those other majors (then again, I never got around to taking any CS classes either with my double History major).  In some way, this dissertation is a way for me to better reconcile a personally unresolved question.  Also, starting my Ph.D. in 2010 right after the iPad came out and as someone working in the kids, media, and technology space, I had a feeling that the iPad would grow in significance among US families over the course of my doctoral studies.

 What do you think the future of your own work will be? What about mobile communication research in general?

There’s so much more captured in my fieldwork than can fit into a single dissertation or book, so my future research beyond 2015 will still involve working with my data and conducting follow-up research.  I do hope to get my findings out as quick as possible though because I think they have a number of significant, real world applications. Whenever asked a question about the future of anything, my gut instinct is to always take a good hard look at the past.  So much of communication technology’s past is unexplored and unexamined, yet influences the present in subtle and little understood ways.  I hope the future of mobile research embraces the non-linearity of the technological imagination.

 What is it about the ICA Mobile Preconference that you are most looking forward to?

I’m very keen to learn from researchers across divisions – a unique opportunity that a pre-conference allows.  Glancing at the program, I’m heartened to see a mix of good friends and research collaborators, as well as names that are new to me.  I’m looking forward to spending a generous amount of time with this group concentrating on issues in mobile communication, while also learning more about how the study of “mobile” spreads across diverse conceptual frameworks, theoretical approaches, and methodologies.

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