disability and kairotic spaces






A very bright hotel hallway with an exposed wall that overlooks a number of floors
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Toward an ethical infrastructure

Despite its history of thoughtful and rhetorical approaches to technologies, computers and writing as a field still relies on an unexamined use of particular technologies—and by extension, an unexamined definition of presence—to achieve high-stakes professional exchanges such as job interviews or conference presentations. Airplanes, taxicabs, and telephones are notoriously inaccessible, the source of common jokes within the disabled community; yet these are three of the technologies most commonly used to achieve a romanticized version of “presence” in kairotic space. To put this point in the form of two questions: When was the last time you offered a job candidate (or were offered, as a job candidate) a choice of conference call or group IM chat for a preliminary interview? If the candidate chose a group IM chat, what would that changed form of telepresence bring to—or take away from—the necessary features of the interview? (See also Dadas, 2013.)

By asking these questions, I’m not trying to suggest that interviews (or conference presentations, or any other event in kairotic space) should take place via instant message. Rather, I want to be part of a discussion that addresses why they’re not. My point is simply that access to high-stakes professional spaces remains romantically entwined with an imagined presence, signaled by the demand for a live voice on the phone, a live face in the Skype window, or a flesh-and-blood person in front of us in the cavernous job barn at the MLA convention center. If that’s the way we want it, we should be straightforward about that—and we should be able to explain why.

A sign mounted on the wall that reads IN CASE OF FIRE, DO NOT USE ELEVATORS. USE STAIRS.This webtext argues overall for a more complex notion of telepresence—one that goes beyond imagining the normate body projected into various digital realms, and instead brings the disabled and re/mediated body together. For although we do not share Turkle’s disapproval of telepresence, we agree with one aspect of her point: Telepresence calls into question the very meaning of presence and absence, and in particular calls into question which bodies are marked (or forced to be) present and absent in given contexts.

If an infrastructure is established in such a way that the modes of delivery assume an audience of normate bodyminds, the creators of that infrastructure therefore declare certain other bodyminds (e.g., disabled ones) not present—even if such bodies are physically present. For example, if a town hall meeting assumes all audience members will listen to the speakers orally/aurally, that infrastructure effectively makes deaf bodies absent, even if deaf people have attended the meeting in hopes of taking part. A deaf person in such a setting may sit there, trying to pick up as much as possible through slides, facial cues, or comments from those sitting near her, but she will not be present as an audience member in the same way that those around her, hearing the speech audiologically, are.

Absence is cumulative. If infrastructures continue to be designed for normate bodyminds, non-normate bodyminds (those that are gendered, class, raced, disabled in particular ways) will A red t-shirt that says NORMAL IS OVERRATEDdisappear as well. Why does computers and writing as a field lack diversity? We argue that part of the reason is that it uses infrastructures—even if unintentionally—to mark certain bodies absent, and so those bodies quickly become absent materially as well as ontologically.

We emphasize, again, that we are not talking about retrofitting. We are talking about participatory design and interdependence. We are talking about including disabled people and all non-normate designers in co-production from the outset. We do not need help participating. We need ethical infrastructures.