disability and kairotic spaces





being at the table

A bright yellow BLIND DRIVEWAY sign
sushil k. oswal » ableism » mainstreaming


An important question of interest to us in the context of disability studies should be how U.S. research universities, wittingly or unwittingly, play an institutional role in advancing the assumptions of ableism. The popular cliché that “technology is contested terrain” pushes the inconvenient truth under the rug. It fails to state that in such a contest the powerful have their say and the weak are silenced or simply not heard. It steps aside from stating the fact that technology reflects the needs and interests of the powerful. Whatever claims people make about the power of the market, the market’s intrinsic thrust toward developing certain kinds of environments for the reception of new technologies rarely reflects the needs and interests of less-powerful people.

Questioning the use of retrofits in the academy to accommodate different bodies, Stephanie Kerschbaum argues in this webtext for an ethical infrastructure based on a participatory design, an infrastructure that is conceived with disabled people among its primary target users and a design which includes disabled people as co-designers from the outset. I would like to dwell upon this discussion of ethical infrastructure a bit longer and take it beyond the walls of the ivory tower. My reasons for indulging in this discourse are two-fold:

  1. because the digital economy is now totally ingrained in the texture of the university infrastructure and
  2. because we, the American professoriate, are as much the creators of this digital economy as we are its consumers.

The example I offer here comes from the digital marketplace which, as this moment, exerts more power over what happens in our lives on this planet than any other factor. So hither goes my digital odyssey: In 2008, I acquired a Nokia N82 cellular phone as part of a retrofit package marketed as the KNFB Reader Mobile This link goes to an external page. The package consisted of a 2'' x 4.5'' x ¾'' N82 phone fitted with a 1.5'' x 2'' screen and a 5 megapixel camera. The outstanding feature of the package, not of the Nokia phone, was the KNFB Reader software which could convert this camera into a reading machine for the blind by putting the high quality camera to work for scanning print and utilizing the phone’s large memory capacity. Although the screen of N82 was considered fairly large for browsing the Internet at that time, a blind person could not use it because the only available interface to read the screen was 100% visual. Even worse, none of the phone features were accessible to the blind because it lacked a built-in speech interface. So, the retrofit package provider had installed a second software package, Mobile Speak, on this set that made all the Internet, phone, and personal data assistant features accessible through a screen reader.

This commercial project was a collaboration between the National Federation of the Blind This link goes to an external page and the technology entrepreneur, Raymond Kurzweil. The outcome of their venture was that blind consumers, for the first time, had a fully accessible, state-of-the-art cellular phone with the added function of a reading machine. As a consumer I was for the first time enjoying all the features of a commercial unit without help from others. No doubt, as an academic I had many uses for the highly portable reading machine in the classroom to read my students’ project drafts and homework right in front of them like their sighted professors. The fact that this equipment was a retrofit never stood out in my students and friends’ remarks when they admired its miraculous powers. Some even confused this retrofitted access with technological mainstreaming of the blind.  On the other hand, the venture had also proved to the cellular industry that a fully accessible product for the blind was possible.

Of course, an audio-visual interface could be built into the mass production of any digital phone to achieve true mainstreaming. If the concept of free market pricing also applies to inclusive technologies designed for all and if the public remains keyed to audio-visual device features as they have done in many other cases recently, the cost of such accessibility features could be easily brought down to a reasonable level through mass production.

My romance with the accessible N82, however, came to a sudden halt a few days before I was due to fly out to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to present a version of this webtext (as a conference paper) at the 2011 Computers and Writing Conference This link goes to an external page. For no rhyme or reason, the N82 stopped talking to me. With sighted help, I found out that the Mobile Speak screen reader software was missing from the unit. Most likely, the software was accidentally deleted. Since it was a smartphone, the Mobile Speak software could also have been wiped from the phone's memory during an automatic Nokia software upgrade. As I got ready to leave for the airport, I found out that I could not download a new copy of Mobile Speak on my N82 because I could not connect it to the Mobile Speak website on my own, or with the assistance of the available sighted help.

Very suddenly, I was doubly disabled by my erstwhile, retrofit, very accessible N82. Because I could access all of its features on my own, I had become dependent on the phone for all its capabilities. I couldn’t take my spouse’s phone with me because it was just as inaccessible to the blind as my off-the-shelf N82 was before it was retrofitted with the screen reader. Moreover, all the personal information I needed during the trip was stored away on the disabled N82.

Colin Barnes (1991) stated that “Impairment is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory impairment” (p. 2). The retrofit screen reader on the N82 had somehow bridged the gap created by my impairment, but then its loss had doubly reminded me that what society had in the first place should not have been taken away from me—the right and opportunity to enjoy the same goods and services as other sighted users. Barnes expressed my thinking better when he pointed out that “Disability is the loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers” (p. 2).

Back in May 2011, I stared at the silent N82 screen, the $600 wonder that was never designed to talk to me because Nokia engineers could not conceive of the idea that among their millions of customers, some might be blind. The only reason why it came into my hand was because someone else had seen the opportunity to shell another $300 from the blind and retrofit it with a screen reader to make it talk.