disability and kairotic spaces

over there

a kairotic moment

the essays

rethinking normal

Photo of Margaret's hands pointing toward a pink store sign that reads RETROFIT
cynthia l. selfe & franny howes » over there » the essays

The essays

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In Space/Presence, Margaret Price reminds us that attention to issues of access in education too seldom result in efforts to re-design learning spaces and practices that are amenable to people with a broad range of abilities and too frequently encourages a list of problems attributed to “those people over there.”  Such activities separate individuals with disabilities even further from those spaces—classrooms, among them—that are designed around normate bodies, behaviors, and concerns. Price argues for a “more complex notion of telepresence” designed to help us trouble “which bodies are marked ‘present’ and ‘absent’” in such spaces.


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In Modality, Stephanie Kerschbaum teaches us why we should attend to both the way texts are designed, and to the ways in which those same texts could be modified by users in order to make “digital texts more—not less—flexible…to allow customization and manipulation of these texts by readers.”  “Multimodal texts,” Kerschbaum notes, can miss their rhetorical mark when they don’t “offer primary information through more than one mode” and when they are not “flexible enough” for users as well as authors to modify and alter them.


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Elizabeth Brewer, in Community, demonstrates how online communities designed for “psychiatrically disabled people” can enable institutions—which, as Brewer observes are “usually not designed for differently functioning minds and bodies”—to become more accessible to a wider range of students and individuals with differently abled bodies. More than providing fora for communication, these online communities promote representations of psychiatric disability that are counter to dominant, negative stereotypes.


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Melanie Yergeau, in Reason, argues against the band-aid approach to access that reasonable accommodations often suggest. Instead, she advocates a “disability-inflected reconception" of participatory design, a reconception that is activist in nature, that allows for the "collective advocacy of selves." Such a reconception, she argues, goes beyond the limitations imposed by able-bodied understandings of "reasonableness" and focuses on “self-determination and knowing how one best learns, communicates, interacts, moves, works, lives.”


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Finally, in Ableism, Sushil Oswal explores the underlying ableist assumptions of multimodal digital spaces and explains “how the adaptive approach, or the retrofits or fixes to these new media technologies for the disabled raise new barriers against inclusion and integration.” In particular, he examines the ways in which everyday web spaces exclude individuals who use screenreading software. “Separate is not equal,” Oswal writes, and disabled users deserve access that is built into technologies, not added on:

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, it’s okay for the disabled to wait a bit longer. It says that it’s alright if they get a little less.