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.

At the more mundane level, one has bad retrofitting. For example, Rhett and Link’s “caption fail” videos critique YouTube’s laughably imprecise caption feature. Simply put, the afterthought or addition of making media more accessible doesn’t always function well. It is better than nothing, but still problematic.

But I think other issues may be harder to spot and deal with, especially when it comes to information. As Paul Dourish and Melissa Mazmanian argue, information has a materiality. It has a presence, a culture, a set of transformative potentials and consequences. Information’s materiality–how it is accessed, displayed, created, and understood–alter our epistemology and ontological outlooks and practices. For example, the nonlinear nature of the database, as Manovich and others point out, reflects certain values and allow certain actions. They also construct new problems, like how to organize this potentially sprawling set of information.

Taken in terms of disability, then, we must consider how this materiality is reflecting the needs and experience of people with disabilities and others who may be absent from the “everybody” implied by the designer. Particularly as academics and educators, co-constructors and presenters of knowledge, we need to be concerned, as Tarez Samra Graban, Alexis Ramsey-Tobienne and Whitney Myers argue in “What Digitization (Dis)Allows.”

Many potential approaches exist, but most importantly, I think we should consider the construction of digital space to be as democratic as its use. In other words, in the co-creative space of much digital architecture, we should recognize and include as many demographics, people, and experiences as we can, at all stages of the process. Though at this point in time–and perpetually, perhaps–this is more an ideal than a practical reality, it presents an important and I would argue necessary awareness.

[Image via Richie Diesterheft]

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