disability and kairotic spaces





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sushil k. oswal » ableism » assumptions


In the last section, I showed how providing accessibility is often guided by assumptions regarding disability and ability. Here, I turn to the broader question of how the endless cycle of new, half-cooked digital curios have been promoting and perpetuating ableist assumptions among the general public. In “Accessible Podcasting: College Students on the Margins in the New Media Classroom,” Sean Zdenek (2009) wrote:

Students with disabilities are in danger of being either excluded from the new media revolution or accommodated as after-thoughts of pedagogies that fail to anticipate their needs. Too often, our excitement about new media, even when that excitement is tempered by sober reflection, leaves intact a set of normative assumptions about students’ bodies, minds, and abilities. These assumptions operate behind the scenes. They are activated readily and unconsciously as beliefs about how well or poorly students move, see, hear, think, learn, know, act, and use specific technologies. Normative or so-called “ableist” assumptions about our students – e.g. that they hear, see, and move well enough or in certain anticipated ways to engage directly with course learning tools (on ableism, see Linton 2006) – threaten to undermine our commitments to accessibility and inclusivity.

In the same vein, Mary Lee Vance (2007) asserted that:

Today most people would not dream of opening a new business with a sign posted on the door saying that people of a certain racial background are not welcomed. Yet, we constantly deny access to people with disabilities. We build buildings, hold activities and coordinate events that actively and publicly discriminate against people with disabilities, requiring sign language interpreters, Braille, and other reasonable accommodations in order to operate on a level playing field. (p.14)

I would like to take this comparison a step further since we are a digital generation, and we live in a digital society. For example, we might like to ask: Could anyone in this age and time think of denying able-bodied people access to electronic knowledge databases in universities and public libraries? Would academic leaders ever imagine their students not having access to print and electronic books with a visual interface just because the audio books are cheaper to produce? Could they ever dare to purchase computer technology that could be accessed by able-bodied people of only a certain height?

The answer to all of these will be a resounding NO. And yet, two decades after the signing of the ADA into law, people with visual disabilities have only nominal access to most knowledge databases, and making this limited access work remains the users’ burden. Lack of this access is peculiar since these knowledge bases have been developed in the post-ADA era. Similarly, college disability services across the country are imposing recorded and e-text books on visually impaired users simply because they deem that the access to Braille books has a higher cost. Furthermore, despite warnings from the Department of Justice, college classrooms across the country are purchasing and deploying new digital technologies that were designed with only able-bodied users in mind.

Could we imagine the possibility of a digital world which values and is inclusive of our preferences? What would be the feel of cyberspace to the disabled if its designers valued sound, silence, and touch, with the same gusto as they have treated vision and obsessed over visuals? Since we live in a market economy and if our voices are loud enough to be heard, we have to ask a last question: Do the digerati possess the sense and sensibility to re-invent this cyberscape in a manner that none of us would need to say we are disabled by technological ableisms?