disability and kairotic spaces






being at the table

A staircase leading up to a tiled glass window (shades of blue and green).
sushil k. oswal » ableism


A cartoon drawing of Sushil Oswal, by Franny HowesSushil K. Oswal
University of Washington

In this section, I explore the ways in which multimodal digital environments and their underlying ableist assumptions affect disabled people in general and blind faculty and students in particular. I discuss how adaptive approaches—retrofits or fixes to these new media technologies for disabled people raise new barriers against inclusion and integration. I ground my discussion within the context of the last four decades of legal reform for integrating the disabled into the U.S. higher education and the contemporary disability rights movements. These remarks are arranged under the rubrics of the ableist assumptions about the capabilities of technology, multimodal technologies and digital studies work, and the question of technological mainstreaming of the blind.

Greg Smith (2001) described ableism as “the devaluation and disregard of people with disabilities” (p. 162). While explicating Smith’s notion of “devaluation,” Thomas Hehir (2002) wrote,

From an ableist perspective, the devaluation of disability results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids, etc. (p. 3).

Elsewhere Hehir (2005) defined this idea from a different angle in order to point out the undergirding connections between the concepts of ableism and normalcy. As he wrote: "Ableism is a form of discrimination based on the perception that being able-bodied is the normal human condition and is superior to being disabled," adding that “ableism stems from deeply held, negative societal attitudes towards disability (p. 10).

When Elizabeth Brewer elsewhere in this webtext discusses the type of safer spaces certain online sites offer for people with psychiatric disabilities, she acknowledges how ableism manifests through labels, naming, and the overall discourse of psychiatric disability as disease or illness. Similarly, Melanie Yergeau’s discussion about the power dynamics of asking for access beckons toward everyday ableism.

Among state-sponsored or subscribed policies, the United Nations’ (n.d.) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities probably comes closest to acknowledging the existence of such an ableist bias in society throughout human history. Navanethem Pillay (2010), United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, summarized this convention’s position in a foreword to the convention document:

[The] Convention views disability as a ‘pathology of society,’ that is, as the result of the failure of societies to be inclusive and to accommodate individual differences. Societies need to change, not the individual, and the Convention provides a road map for such change. (p. 5)

Further on, the text of this convention, specifically Section (v) (United Nations, n.d.), asked for “recognizing the importance of accessibility to the physical, social, economic and cultural environment, to health and education and to information and communication, in enabling persons with disabilities to fully enjoy all human rights and fundamental freedoms." This comprehensive definition of access appropriately reflects the reality of disabled people’s lives on this planet at this time. Even in highly industrialized countries such as Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, many disabled people live below the poverty level, lack equal access to education, have limited technological reach, and suffer from woefully steep unemployment rates. 

From a digital technology viewpoint, ableist assumptions are inherent in all the producer-based accessibility standards, such as Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (WCAG 1.0) This link goes to an external page, Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG 2.0) This link goes to an external page and Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) Guidelines This link goes to an external page. Designers of products based on these standards try to come up with a set of generalized specifications and meet the needs of the largest number of users while placing them in some generic categories—visually impaired, physically impaired, and so on. The problem with this approach is that these specifications generalize individual needs, place users in generic categories, and try to implement features without really knowing or understanding their users’ needs.

Some researchers, particularly in the European Union, are pursuing approaches which aim at personalizing this design process by working with disabled users as intermediaries for developing standards for individual products. M. Cooper and A. Heath (2009) call this approach standardised intermediate representation, in which they build on approaches implemented for able-bodied users in such digital systems as learning management systems (LMS), cell phones, and tablets. For instance, users can presently individualize the look and feel of their screens, display or hide select objects, and subscribe to select services in Blackboard, Canvas, or Moodle. Some of the Google and Apple products now available have built-in screen readers and any consumer has the option to put them to use.

While the producers of these digital technologies presently offer only a nominal autonomy to their users, Cooper and Heath (2009) envision a new paradigm for accessibility and a notion of standards which would be up front, driven by disabled users, and eliminate the need for retrofitting adaptive technologies. The advantages listed for such a design paradigm include:

• suppliers have something concrete and explicit to aim for

• individuals have a kind of representation to the system

• content and interface can be personalised to meet the requirements of the individual profile … [and] separate the requirement from any notion of disability, effectively extending its use to all persons. (p. 1140)

Jason Palmeri (2006) and Michael Salvo (2001) exactly ask for these types of approaches in their work when they questioned the designers and developers of digital media in their attitudes toward the needs of the disabled. The participatory model suggested here moves beyond the charity model of digital design and rightly recognizes disabled users as active participants rather than as passive victims.