Module 2: Introduction to Digital Methods for Disability Studies

2.9 Digital Accessibility and Techno Ableism

Affordances and constraints are not universal. Think about the text we read to begin this module about Ms. Donna Jodhan, linked here again:

The Court found she had been discriminated against because important information on a government website was not made accessible using a screen reader. By posting important information in a digital medium, the government of Canada presumably hoped to take advantage of the offered by their own web-based platforms; however, Ms. Donna Jodhan, who is blind, encountered a because the website had not been made accessible to screen readers.

The normative presumptions about ability that guide the design and implementation of technology, which includes digital platforms and media, are referred to as technoableism. The term was coined by Dr. Ashley Shew (2020) to describe,

“a rhetoric of disability that at once talks about empowering disabled people through technologies while at the same time reinforcing ableist tropes about what body-minds are good to have and who counts as worthy.”
(p. 43)

The concept of technoableism invites us to ask how accessibility is being determined and who it is being determined by.

When non-disabled researchers and experts are given the power to design and develop technology for disabled people, they bring to the design and development process their own assumptions about what is desirable and undesirable about disability.

For instance, non-disabled researchers often assume there is something inherently undesirable about navigating the world in a wheelchair. Ashley Shew (2020, p. 46) points us to consultations with disabled people who feel a great appreciation for their wheelchairs, and are frustrated not by the technology itself but by the lack of curb cuts, ramps, and door openers that make navigating the world in a wheelchair difficult, if not impossible.

When disabled people are integrated into the design and development of technology, the priorities guiding this process of innovation are likely to change. Shew summarizes this point by resurfacing an important question already raised by the blogger Shane Clifton,

“Why can’t a tech designer create a workable device to help with bowel and bladder control or nerve pain? These are a much bigger problem for many wheelchair users than the chair itself.”
(Shew, 2020, p. 46)

Consider this all again in the context of digital methods. Digital methods are plural: there are lots of different ways of doing digital research and they allow us to hear lots of different voices. But, digital methods make use of technology that will not be experienced by everyone in the same way; the affordances and constraints that each digital method offers are determined by the abilities and conditions of the person engaging with them.


Looking ahead

Let’s think again about some of the examples discussed in this module, such as the disability-led Inclusive Campus Map (Hamraie, 2018) and the barriers faced by Ms. Donna Jodham in accessing online government resources. A major difference in the digital methods and resulting accessibility of these examples is the involvement of disabled people in their design. Therefore, to develop an understanding of how to use digital methods in an accessible manner that includes and welcomes disabled people’s participation, we must incorporate disabled voices into our understanding of digital methods themselves. And, we will highlight the plural, complex and shifting ways we can engage with digital methods and disability throughout this Pressbook.


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Digital Methods for Disability Studies Copyright © 2022 by Esther Ignagni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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