Disability, Access, and Technology

Proposal Title: 
Disability, Access, and Technology
Abstract: 

In C&W scholarship, accessibility is often referenced as a problem in need of fixing. Some of our dearest theories, among them the possibilities of multimodal design, work in service of a norm (Kress, 2000). We can see this norm percolating in our many professional spaces, from the webtext without ALT tags to our conference gatherings, which assume able, conversant, socially assured scholar-attendees. The makers in our field have become well-versed in creating retrofits, or design add-ons meant to wedge disabled people into spaces, conversations, and interfaces that were never intended for them. At all ends, it is clear to us, as disabled people, that disability is not valued as a “critical insight or modality” when it comes to multimodal scholarship and design (Brueggemann et al., 2001).

The exclusions — and the retrofits — in the discipline are many. But more than a series of disability band-aids and after-the-fact design patches, we need capacious and cripped theories of design, of which disability and disabled people need to remain a vital part. For our part, we propose a panel that examines the generative possibilities of accessibility, especially in relation to communication, sociality, and mental disability. Our primary intervention, as it were, is to suggest accessibility as an inventive framework, one that foregrounds community engagement and participatory design. The speakers on our panel include academics, activists, and non-profit representatives, each of whom speak to the ways in which access might be put into practice across discipline and community domain. The idea, then, is not merely to get disabled people in the door (or in the interface, or in the conference). Rather, we propose that access, at root, involves transforming practices instead of products, involves dismantling oppression instead of rehabilitating disabled people.

Proposal: 

In C&W scholarship, accessibility is often referenced as a problem in need of fixing. Some of our dearest theories, among them the possibilities of multimodal design, work in service of a norm (Kress, 2000). We can see this norm percolating in our many professional spaces, from the webtext without ALT tags to our conference gatherings, which assume able, conversant, socially assured scholar-attendees. The makers in our field have become well-versed in creating retrofits, or design add-ons meant to wedge disabled people into spaces, conversations, and interfaces that were never intended for them. At all ends, it is clear to us, as disabled people, that disability is not valued as a “critical insight or modality” when it comes to multimodal scholarship and design (Brueggemann et al., 2001).

The exclusions — and the retrofits — in the discipline are many. But more than a series of disability band-aids and after-the-fact design patches, we need capacious and cripped theories of design, of which disability and disabled people need to remain a vital part. For our part, we propose a panel that examines the generative possibilities of accessibility, especially in relation to communication, sociality, and mental disability. Our primary intervention, as it were, is to suggest accessibility as an inventive framework, one that foregrounds community engagement and participatory design. The speakers on our panel include academics, activists, and non-profit representatives, each of whom speak to the ways in which access might be put into practice across discipline and community domain. The idea, then, is not merely to get disabled people in the door (or in the interface, or in the conference). Rather, we propose that access, at root, involves transforming practices instead of products, involves dismantling oppression instead of rehabilitating disabled people.

Speaker #1: Reframing Interventions: Moving from Accommodation to Inclusion

Building upon the work of technical communication scholars that interrogate traditional notions of power and privileging of the “expert” within the areas of disability studies (Wilson & Lewiecki-Wilson, 2001; Palmeri, 2006; and Walters, 2001), rhetorics of accommodation (Jung, 2007; Titchkosky, 2011), and regulatory rhetorics (Williams, 2009), this presentation argues for pedagogical strategies informed by a feminist disability studies framework to extend concepts of accessibility. In particular, this framework emphasizes a cultural shift within the discipline of technical communication from a focus on universal design discussions that privilege only physical access to a space or text to also include discussions about social forms of access. Through an analysis of a university disability concerns office web site and the required American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA) accommodation statement on course syllabi, this presentation identifies the impacts of  rhetorical language used to: 1: identify which technologies are employed to further accessibility and inclusion (physically) in ways that often become more stigmatizing through the addition of labels like “assistive,” and 2) define what is perceived of as being “reasonable” and “necessary for accessibility” in a more reactive manner. Ultimately,  speaker #1 calls for the framing of technological interventions that further accessibility without excluding certain individuals who are marked by disability.

Speaker #2: Opening the Conversation: Letting the Internet do Its Job

In our current 21st-century moment, far more people (theoretically) have access to academic conversations. Calls for submissions can be found by non-academics on multiple web fora, and in some cases, the calls claim to specifically invite contributions from people with lived experience, regardless of academic status. However, these invitations and the resulting works are often impossible for many to understand: people whose expertise is lived or applied rather than academic are still excluded, people with cognitive disabilities are still excluded, and people whose academic focus is in a different area may still be excluded.

In this presentation, I examine cognitively accessible and inaccessible CFPs. In particular, I argue that calls should make use of plain language as well as take advantage of digital affordances to make such calls more broadly accessible. If open calls for submissions were written so that more people could understand them, this would make it easier for the groups we study to participate in the study of their own experiences. It would also allow contributions from typically oppressed and excluded people who could then understand what the conversation is about. This change would make interdisciplinary collaboration easier, as the jargon used in different academic disciplines can vary hugely, even between closely related areas of study.

Speaker #3: Apps and Reclaiming Assistive Technology

We are in a time period where technology is expanding, quite rapidly in a number of areas, and yet there are gaps when it comes to assistive technology. For example, while everyone agrees that tech and support for children are needed, very little consideration goes into making devices suitable for adults. As with most disability enterprises, assistive technology and app development still tends to focus on children to the exclusion of adults, especially when designed for people with cognitive disabilities (Stevenson et al., 2011). Many devices, including apps and augmented communication devices, when usability tested to for persons across lifetime development are found not capable of supporting an individuals’ independent and mature needs (Becker, Corina. “Autism, Apps, and Adults.” The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. 2010. Online. ). What then happens is that disabled people either use these insufficient devices (see Autistic Adult App Project), or start adapting technology not necessarily meant to be accessible tech to be accessible tech, as well as developing and building our own tech (see, for example, Flaredown, Miracle Modus app, S’up Spoon).  However, building our own supportive technologies presents financial and labor challenges, as well as issues of accessibility to production technology and to usability testing with members of the target audience.

Respondent: The respondent will speak for five minutes in response to the first three speaker's presentations as a means to identify common threads and jumpstart larger group discussion.

 

Context: 
We consider our panel as a kind of intervention within accessibility studies, especially as concerns technology use and design. Our panelists variously focus on ADA limitations around social access and digital spaces, the proliferation of inaccessible web-based CFPs, and the often child-centric focus of social-communication apps within assistive technology design. At root, we make the argument that disability studies and activism have much to offer those who work within C&W.
Proposal Type: 
panel