disability and kairotic spaces

ableism

technologies

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sushil k. oswal » ableism » technologies

Technologies

Despite and in spite of the claims advanced about the Section 508 and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) mandated projects about the accessibility of digital spaces for the visually impaired, the fact of the matter is that most academic, social, and economic multimodal spaces remain off limits to screen reader users. If you are somewhat sighted and can somehow squint at a thousand-times-magnified web page, you might hesitatingly accept that the mighty technology establishment has provided you this great gift of accessibility to this wonderful virtual world. For those visually impaired who land in the category of stone blind, the screen readers offer no such consolation. Screen readers either read what they can see on the screen if it’s presented in a readable format, or they are silent. Even worse, if users confront the screen reader version of the monster—an unscripted version of a Java patch or a fancy Flash gig—the screen reader simply freezes the PC, requiring a hard reboot. No one can deny that fixes exist.

Digital fixes or retrofits for the blind are a well-established industry. The problem with these fixes is that they are often partial solutions, they always lag a year or two behind current technology, and they require that the blind user work three times harder to get the same results that a typical sighted user might. (And this isn’t even accounting for the fact that some of these retrofits cost more than the original technology they make accessible.) Worst of all, retrofits themselves are based on certain assumptions about disabled people drawn from the popular deficit model of disability. This model of disability assumes the deficit of blindness, deafness, or attention without ever considering the possibility of a deficit in the technology design.

To illustrate these issues, consider the sample scenario in the comic and/or textual description below, in which a group of writing faculty, including one blind faculty member, considers the adoption of a new online textbook.

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The problem in the situation above is not that the blind instructor lacks the functional ability to use a computer; it is the barriers created by the environment, that is, the new courseware from this publisher which does not include blind students and faculty among its target user audiences. This distinction between functional ability and the constraints imposed by the environment has been defined cogently by the European Union in the context of its disability policies. The Commission of the European Communities (2000) policy stated that “environmental barriers are a greater impediment to participation in society than functional limitations” (p. 3). For this reason, the Commission views “Barrier removal through legislation, provision of accommodation, universal design and other means…as the key to equal opportunities for people with disabilities” (p. 3).

In like fashion, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act promises removal of such barriers for greater integration of the disabled in society; however, the implementation of this legislation has remained nominal at best, particularly in the institutions of higher education as places of work for the disabled.

While wheelchair ramps and Braille signage are visible emblems of barrier-removal, exclusionary practices at various institutional and interpersonal levels continue to flourish even at colleges where significant resources have been invested in developing disability-related administrative policies and guides. How often do faculty using wheelchairs need to remind their colleagues that a meeting in a less distant part of the campus would enable them to participate without losing precious time maneuvering through circuitous paths and barely accessible buildings? How many times do visually impaired faculty members have to hear that the presenter forgot to email them the handouts in advance, but that they will make sure to email them as soon as possible? How often does it occur to the presenter that a disabled faculty member cannot fully participate in the meeting without the resources everyone else can readily access in real time?

Communications theorist Iris Marion Young (1990) argued that “the conscious actions of many individuals daily contribute to maintaining and reproducing oppression, but those people are usually simply doing their jobs or living their lives and do not understand themselves as agents of oppression” (pp. 41-42). Seen from the angle of the ableist perspective Young described, the decision of this faculty group to adopt inaccessible online courseware was a routine step in conducting the business of the committee.

However, when considered from the standpoint of the blind faculty member, important questions arise. How will the inaccessibility of this courseware place her on a different footing with students, administration and with the powers-that-be who will evaluate her promotion and tenure file along the line? Will these evaluating colleagues and bosses see her as innovative and adapting in pedagogy? Will she come through to them as smart at employing new teaching technologies? Will they write that she is good at experimenting with different teaching tools and techniques? Will they perceive this faculty member as productive as her able-bodied peers?

Let’s assume that this courseware is eventually made functionally accessible by the publisher and this blind instructor gets to adopt it for her classes a year or two after her colleagues. At this point, when this courseware is already a stale fare as far as other instructors are concerned and they are out to experiment with the next virtual tool in writing pedagogy, will anyone even notice the struggle she went through to reach this technological milestone in integrating this tool in her classes? Forget about the million-dollar workplace question: Will she receive any academic credit from her peer evaluators and administrators for having invested her expertise and dozens of hours of her personal time to educate the publisher’s software engineer about the accessibility issues, working with this software engineer (who was responsible for the problem in the first place) on the issues identified in the software, and then testing this courseware as it transformed, from her perspective, away from a useless string of programming code towards functional screen-reader-accessible courseware?

I would like to assert that while the question of screen reader access came up because of the instructor’s impaired body, the lack of accessibility to the textbook literally disabled her in that institutional teaching context. Had the university faculty kept up with the laws of the land and formulated policies restricting the adoption of inaccessible pedagogical tools and technologies to serve everyone in the academic community on an equal basis, the question of adopting an inaccessible digital product or environment would not even have come up. The policy itself would have been a concrete, institutional commitment to social and academic inclusion of this disability group. The institutional problem in this context resided in the lack of a communal dialogue about access having taken place at any time in its history. The organization had limited its disability discourse to the office of disability support services for students; the faculty (because of its ableist assumptions) perceived accessibility issues to be that office’s territory.

One of the key terms my co-authors employ in this webtext to describe and discuss dynamic situations is the concept of kairotic space. Kairotic space is useful in analyzing the discussion about the online writing text. The moment at which a faculty member says, "is it okay if the department adopts this text despite your inability to access it?" and the blind colleague says, "Certainly!" is a kairotic one: Does the blind faculty member go the route of championing access and inclusivity for those with sight impairments, perhaps by reminding others of the laws that govern these academic spaces? Or does she work behind the scenes, invisibly, unacknowledged, to build access only for that work to be ignored or invisible to those who, as Margaret Price put it, move so easily within those spaces? Of course, we can never forget Melanie Yergeau’s call for more role models in such spaces to enable genuine conversations about accessibility, conversations in which disability has the same legitimacy that nondisability does.

There are fleeting, yet significant moments of potential engagement within the academic community that may be missed because environments are poorly designed to broadly incorporate various ways of moving, and that responsibility is almost always put on the person with a disability to figure out a way to access those kairotic spaces, not for others to do the work of considering that their spaces might be inaccessible. Disrupting the flow of a kairotic space is incredibly risky and dangerous for a junior member of the department in as elite an institution as the American university. More ominous is the outcome that once this junior faculty member has moved out of others’ way at the cost of no access to an institutionally adopted text, this omission does not have to be recorded in the committee’s minutes and no one else but the blind faculty member needs to track the progress that a publisher may or may not make towards producing an accessible version of their text.

To provide a closure to this section, I would like to reiterate what I mean by accessibility in the context of disability and digitality. Accessibility can be defined as the ability to use, enjoy, perform, work on, avail of, and participate in a resource, technology, activity, opportunity, or product at an equal or comparable level with others. Separate is not equal and before or after the fact is also not equal. In the context of technology and systems, accessibility at the interface level, not as a retrofit or add-on, is true accessibility; all other options are fixes and are intrinsically inferior to the primary access available to the able-bodied because such an access sets the disabled apart in a separate category. It says to the world that it’s okay for the disabled to wait a bit longer. It says that it’s all right if they get a little less. And, it proclaims in Miltonian terms [1] that it’s only natural that they will get their turn after others are served.


1. The 17th century English poet, John Milton, ends his sonnet, “On His Blindness," with the words: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”