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Rebecca Sutton Koeser

Lead Developer, The Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton University

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Notes from Elizabeth Guffey’s closing keynote on at DH2017 on August 11, 2017.

The Upside-Down Politics of Access in the Digital Age

Elizabeth Guffey

PDF of the lecture provided ahead of time to allow people with hearing impairments to follow along.

Guffey starts with a story (and a striking photograph) of a man who created a DIY wheelchair elevator on the outside of his apartment building in Russia after waiting over five years for the government to install one.

Creative inventiveness of disabled people who have to make their own way of access.

We’re sensitized to problems of access in the physical world - but not so much in the digital world.

Guffey offers a “fairytale” from Vic Finkeltsein as provocation:

“What if we designed an upside-down world created for wheelchair users?”

Everything could be lowered — doors, ceilings, pay telephones.

What would happen to able-bodied people who might choose to live in this village too?

Non-disabled users would be the misfits. They would run into doors, get bruises, need special aids (helmets and braces) to access this world. —But perhaps these disabilities could disappear with societal changes.

We force disabled people to adapt themselves to our world rather than accommodating them.

What is access for disabled people in the digital realm?

We tend to think of technology as overcoming disability: exoskeletons to help paraplegics walk, tablets to help autistics communicate, tools to convert text to braille.

We tend to regard the digital as automatically accessible.

The digital realm doesn’t enable everybody equally. Abilities affect digital access: visual, auditory, ambulatory, cognitive. Making accommodations for them isn’t really that complicated, there are tools available.

Simple things, almost just a matter of awareness: check and edit closed captions on your videos; enable and test screen readers for PDFs.

Most developers, designers, and academic researchers aren’t aware of this. It isn’t part of our discourse.

Why is this so little known?

We don’t have a robust understanding of access. Deeper understanding of access coming out of disability studies. Access is tied to social participation and belonging.

For some, access is having full signal strength on your phone or being able to stream a movie without any hiccups.

The familiar wheelchair sign is actually the international symbol of access. So powerful, allows disabled people to live a normal life. It was recently changed in New York and Connecticut, as part of the new Accessible Icon Project — it’s dynamic, it looks like a wheelchair athlete pushing forward.

The environments we make can empower or disempower people. In the material world, we all know a ramp failure when we see it. (There’s a Twitter hashtag #rampfail full of ramp failure pictures.)

The digital realm has no equivalent of wheelchair ramps. We don’t recognize those “ramp failures”.

Can this change?

Most designers and developers don’t even discuss this problem, and are surprised at how easy it is.

We need to start establishing models of best practices.

Engineering at Home: amazing story about a disabled woman who didn’t like the prosthesis she was given and came up with her own accommodations and tools (but also a well-made website that passes accessibility tests).

The international access symbol serves two functions: it serves as a label, but it’s also educational, a reminder and announcement of accommodation. In the digital realm we don’t have any symbols or indications equivalent to this, to indicate and remind about access.

We need to teach all forms of access and think about it as a foundational content, not something we slap on at the end.


  • Security used to be a big problem. Manufacturers now provide devices with passwords and security turned on by default. Is there any way to do that with accessibility?
    • Guffey: Tech companies are looking to us. Their solution is to add knowledge of accessibility as a requirement for new hires. They assume this means academics will make changes in coursework to prepare students for jobs, but of course that’s not how this works.
  • Digital editions in relation to translations theory. Exact translations are dead on arrive, so how do you start with accessibility in mind from the start?
    • Guffey: Design thinking: iterative, generative process, come up with working models. Need to have a group of stakeholders, work with people first. (Tendency to work in the lab on tools or solutions and then bring in disabled people and teach them how to use the tools — but that’s backwards!)
  • How can we use technology to encourage students to think about disability and create new tools to help address disability?
    • Guffey: Even virtual reality doesn’t have to be purely visual.