disability and kairotic spaces





being at the table

A white sign in the woods reads DANGER - DEEP HOLES.
sushil k. oswal » ableism » being at the table

Being at the table

At this, my thoughts wander to Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell’s book, Digital Disability (2003), which opens with a reverie on the accessibility of laptops to the disabled. I want to echo what they have to say about laptops to a slightly different end, while at the same time I’d like to expand upon the topic of retrofits and fixes.

The multinational, mass media industry constantly reminds us of the virtues of free markets, of the rewards of unshackled Darwinian economic competition, and the progress reaped from the hands-off industrial policies of our elected governments. In recent decades, we have also been told that this new digital media is going to free us from our so-called defective bodies. The gullible public takes these new media business values for granted and believes that we have been taken care of by this benevolent digital revolution. Whereas these Masonic voices are broadcast through myriad channels loud and clear on behalf of humanity worldwide, the voices of the disabled are rarely represented in these messages. Goggin and Newell (2003) expressed these sentiments in these words:

Disability is more than deviant bodies, challenging minds, or pitiful individuals with special needs. Societies build disability into those physical and social structures we take for granted, especially where those with power have excluded the knowledge and life-experience of those who live with disability. (p. 31)

Going back to my disabled retrofit N82, we might ask: Where is the benefit of a large Internet screen on a fancy cellular phone for a blind user, when visual interface is the only medium of output? Where is the freedom of the World Wide Web and its multimodality for the persons who cannot read the print screen or hear a sound? Why do we so willingly accept that with all these networked technologies available in the market, the lives of the disabled would be so much better? Why could this digital regime not muster the courage to implement Cooper and Heath’s (2009) standardised intermediate representation on every device and application so that their capabilities would serve a variety of abilities and users?

The silent face of my Nokia N82 phone becomes emblematic of our ill-situated disability in a socio-temporal moment where we are no longer shunned enough to be put away in asylums and poor houses, but we are also not significant enough, or respectable enough, to warrant a full place at the table in this new media feast. As we look harder and deeper in the reality of our precarious social standing in this digital dominion, we can easily sense something in our relationship with this new media that can only be defined paradoxically in a clichéd love-hate relationship. We want to believe that this digital divinity could possibly assist us in pulling down the existing social barriers that have kept us in the margins so long, but the same invisible, social forces appear to be intent upon rendering our digital path impassible. At times, the indifference of these forces towards disability and disabled people seems so monumental that one deems that no strictness of laws or standards could ever unseat this current regime of inaccessibility.

Speaking out to the developers and purveyors of digital technologies, we must reject the deficit model of disabled access and instead challenge the digital marketplace’s own iniquities in delivering the promised democratized web spaces for all. Instead of making tall claims about its reach to the stars, it ought to examine the deficit in its conceptual thinking at the point of interface. Instead of promoting fixes for providing disabled access, it ought to scrap its ableist design model from the ground to free itself of its intrinsic thinking about disability and disabled people in terms of deficit.

It is time for the digital giants to gather courage to conceptualize digital spaces as an all-inclusive commonwealth, rather than as an ableistic monopoly. After all, it’s the deficit in the thinking of these digital powers that is responsible for the problems of accessibility for disabled people.