Accessible Materiality

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.” –Sushil K. Oswal, “Multimodality in Motion.

Continuing the topic of space from my last post, I was considering the role that the “material” or “materiality” more generally factors into the construction and engagement of digital space. In particular, I’ve been increasingly thinking about how disability gets constructed by the material, embodied, and social.

As I increasingly look at the assumptions implied in the material, I consider how the material constitutes certain practices and ways of being. For example, I think of Selfe and Selfe’s 2004 piece about the “politics of the interface” or Oudshoorn et al.’s case studies in “Configuring the Everybody” in which design goals, design teams, and assumptions–whether innovation or male experience–exclude people from the “everybody.”

The design of a digital space–how its constructed and organized–inform the how and the who of use. And though space gets encountered at an individual level, I argue that space can also order the larger systems and societies that engage these spaces. The same is true of technology and the other materials. As Arnold Pacey argues, for example, “technology-practice” involves “the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines” (6; emphasis in original). These “ordered systems” are not just algorithms and circuitry, but social practice and potential practice are closely bound up in the possibility space of the material.

This connection can have important impacts for people with disabilities in our generally nondisabled society.

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The Specter of Disability

A horror movie is on in the other room. I’m not quite sure what it’s about, but from the audio, I think it has something to do with infanticide and the remorse the parents in that horror-movie like way  of audio-induced jump scares and eerie figures at the periphery of slowly panning cameras.

In some ways, I’ve encountered eugenics in a similar way: as the ghostly hauntings of a “never again, but let’s not talk about it.” Likewise for the lobotomy craze of Walter Freeman. Or Rivera’s exposé of Willowbrook. Or the other patchy histories that lurk in the haunted confines of our American psyche.

Talking to my dad, a psychologist, about this haunting memory, he too related some difficult stories of when he was a student. Like the time when he fainted after holding down a patient for electroshock therapy, or the time when a particularly difficult patient received a lobotomy, or when a deaf patient, failing IQ evaluations, got wrongfully shuffled off to Willowbrook. Or, most hauntingly, when he recalled how one of his friends went to Germany to study psychiatric disabilities, only to realize that generations had been wiped out by Nazi genocides.

Buildings, too, evoke a similarly haunting presence. In parts of New Jersey and Long Island, the urban myth of “Cropsy” arose around the ruins of abandoned asylums. Like a Boogie Man used to scare kids into good behavior, Cropsy represented the former patients who huddle back around the desolate ruins. “Stay away from those ruins,” warned some parents, “or Cropsy might get you.”

While not necessarily remaining loyal to Derrida’s original meaning of “hauntology,” I think that that disability, for some time, and even today, retains a certain ambiguity of being. A certain haunting presence that lurks in the periphery in the ableist normality of many of our discourses, something ugly that the normative does not want to discuss or address openly.

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Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

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