Imagine Otherwise: Elizabeth Ellcessor on Disability Media Accessibility

Imagine Otherwise: Elizabeth Ellcessor on Disability Media Accessibility

April 20, 2016
Elizabeth Ellcessor wearing a navy shirt and clear glasses, in front of a stone wall

How can media producers address the varied ways people with diverse disabilities use media and technology?

In episode 8 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews disability media scholar Elizabeth Ellcessor on why media accessibility is a social justice issue, how disability activists have harnessed technology in unexpected ways, and how producers can create media for the widest range of audiences.

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Guest: Elizabeth Ellcessor

Elizabeth Ellcessor is an assistant professor of cinema and media studies in the Media School at Indiana University-Bloomington. She is the author of the book Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation (which Ideas on Fire indexed!), which investigates digital media accessibility, or the processes by which media is made usable by people with disabilities.

In the book, she argues for the necessity of conceptualizing “access” in a way that will enable greater participation by diverse individuals in all forms of mediated culture.

Elizabeth is also co-editing, with Bill Kirkpatrick, a forthcoming collection of essays on disability and popular culture called Disability Media Studies.

"A disability studies perspective helps us see that our ideas about what disability is and isn't shape the cultural meaning of all kinds of technologies and interfaces in ways that are not always obvious" Quote from Elizabeth Ellcessor on Imagine Otherwise

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Accessibility as a broad social and political mandate

Accessibility isn’t only about disability it’s about a larger service to communities as a whole [and] that doesn’t fit easily with legal definitions in any way.

The complexity of media use an access

Media access is variable and can’t be taken for granted.

Disability as a critical optic

Disability provides a lens for looking at the rest of the world more critically.

Progressive technology production

Technology can and should do more than replicate existing power structures.

Universal design

By increasing accessibility for people with the greatest needs, we actually make everything better for everyone.

People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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    Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.

    Welcome to episode eight of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is Elizabeth Ellcessor, who’s Assistant Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the Media School at Indiana University Bloomington.

    [00:35] She’s the author of the book Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation, which investigates digital media accessibility or process by which media is made usable by people with disabilities. In the book, she argues for the necessity of conceptualizing access in a way that will enable greater participation by diverse individuals in all forms of mediated culture. Elizabeth is also co-editing with Bill Kirkpatrick a forthcoming collection of essays on disability and popular culture called Disability Media Studies. Elizabeth is here today to talk about disability media activism, accessibility as an ongoing political project and how to build and use media in ways that expand what we think of as possible.

    [To Elizabeth] Thanks so much for being on the Imagine Otherwise podcast, Liz.

    Elizabeth Ellcessor [01:25]: Well, thanks so much for having me.

    Cathy [01:28]: You’re the author of fantastic book called Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation. What’s that book about?

    Elizabeth [01:37]: This is a book about primarily digital media accessibility or the ways that digital media is made usable for people with a wide range of disabilities, from deafness, and blindness to various mobility impairments, cognitive impairments and so on. One of the things that really drives the book is thinking about how we hear all kinds of rhetoric about the way that digital media or social media are going to open things up and increase participation, and be democratizing, and be a force for sort of equalizing social relations in various ways. But, I really felt like that’s a potential that depends on people being able to access these technologies. And if people can’t access them, then they’re not getting any of those benefits. Not only are the people who are excluded from access missing out, the rest of us are, too. There are perspectives, and forms of knowledge, and experience that don’t get to be part of participatory media because it’s in some cases so difficult for people to take on that participation or to find access, or to afford the tools they need.

    [03:05]: The book really looks at web accessibility and digital media accessibility more broadly. There’s some sections on video games, and Facebook, and things. But, I wanted it to also make kind of a broader argument of the importance of thinking about media access as something that is variable and can’t be taken for granted, that the experience of actually gaining access to media use and actually seeing something, or using something, or making something is really highly variable and dependent on a lot of contextual factors, many of which are ranged around sort of an ideal, able-bodied user who can just pick up a laptop and use it exactly as designed. I wanted to think about the ways in which that idea of access is really limiting and really limits the way in which media scholarship, which is my primary field, it really limits the way media scholarship looks at all kinds of typical questions about viewership, and representation, and production, and so on. The first step in any of those is actually access.

    Cathy [04:33]: Can you give some examples of that? You have a lot of them in the book, and they work really well to illustrate this idea that not everybody can just pick up an individual digital technology or engage immediately right off the bat. Can you talk us through some of the examples that you illustrate in the book?

    Elizabeth [04:52]: Yeah. I’m trying to figure out maybe what’s my favorite one to talk about.

    Cathy [04:58]: There are a lot of them, and they all work very well.

    Elizabeth [05:01]: One of my favorites, actually, is Tumblr, because Tumblr is hugely popular, obviously, and it has really robust social justice communities. But Tumblr as a technology platform is a terribly inaccessible site. Nothing works the way that it should for assistive technologies, like screen readers. The support community is really bad when approached about these issues. At the same time, there’s a huge population of people with various disabilities using Tumblr. One of the things that they use it for is to share tips with one another about how to make Tumblr work in the ways that they need it to and how to then, once they have access to Tumblr, they chronicle other kinds of…

    [06:05] My favorite site is called Accessibility Fails, so pictures of say a building with a handicapped sign at the door, but the door is up a flight of 14 stairs. There’s a combination of sort of these practices that involve sharing knowledge and gaining access, and then also engaging in cultural critique and the formation of specific disability cultural spaces, which is really fascinating.

    Cathy [06:44]: One of the things that you emphasize throughout this book, and really throughout all of your work, is that accessibility needs to be brought in beyond the ways that it has been used in the past, right? You talk a lot about how accessibility is a constant, ongoing, never-ending project. It’s not as if there’s a master checklist somewhere, and if you hit all the things you’ve magically created a universally accessible tool or universally accessible technology. If only it were that easy, but bodies don’t work like that. People don’t work like that, right? So you emphasize this kind of ongoing, never-ending project that requires people working in often radically different fields, right?

    [07:24]: You talk about web designers and web developers, legislators, and people working in policy, policy walks, industry regulators and people who draft into and change industry practices. Obviously scholars and people interested in cultural criticism, but also people interested in media production, so people who, users, who actually create media forms, whether those are YouTube video, or mass market popular films, kind of running the gamut, right?

    Elizabeth [07:52]: Yeah.

    Cathy [07:52]: How do those people work together? Even if they’re not necessarily actively in collaboration with one another, kind of consciously working together on the same thing, they seem to be contributing to a whole in some way, right? Can you talk a little bit about how those collaborations, either intentional or unintentional, play out?

    Elizabeth [08:12]: I think I can say that in an ideal world all of these stakeholders and accessibility would be aware of and in conversation with one another. Because what comes out of a lot of the book, which is based on interview research, is that web designers think very differently about accessibility than policy people do, who think very differently than the government does, who think very differently from how bloggers themselves think about access. The way that they define accessibility is really different. The needs that they’re identifying are really different.

    [08:53] Web designers and some of the policy people, particularly at the World Wide Web Consortium, tend to think in terms of technological specifications, and that makes sense for them. Government regulators think in terms of enforceability. How is this going to be actively enforced? How is this going to become something that can be taking through court system? That makes sense for them, right? Users think about the processes that they need for access and the things that make them feel comfortable and included as being just as important as the technical or the legal, if not more so.

    [09:32] In an ideal world, all of this people could be sharing perspectives and learning from one another about how to broaden their idea of what access entails and how to create more flexibility, because flexibility often increases the degree of accessibility for technology. That’s one of the goals of the book, is actually to sort of force that conversation to happen, because I have talked to all of these stakeholders. I can’t say that that will be read or take off from there, but I think it’s really interesting to think about the ways in which accessibility circulates in these different spheres and overlapping but contradictory ways.

    Cathy [10:29]: You yourself have worked in a number of these fields, right? You have a long history in web development and building websites and dealing with it on the kind of maker side of things. Of course, you’re also a disability studies and media studies scholar. Do you think that that experience on the production side of things shapes the way that you approach it in your scholarly work and maybe vice versa?

    Elizabeth [10:54]: Definitely. I think it’s actually in some ways the core of this project. That’s why I went back to grad school in the first place. I was working as a web developer for a feminist nonprofit organization, so I was already within a kind of activist sphere. We made things accessible for disability because it was in line with our mission as a feminist organization, and I was located in [Washington] DC where people do a lot of accessibility work because the government requires it. There came a moment in my professional life where I realized that that was not typical and that this kind of default incorporation of accessibility practices was actually not something that major retail sites do. It was not something that major entertainment sites were doing. It was not something that was included in terms of closed captioning on early streaming services.

    [11:54] When I went back to grad school, I think I had this in the back of my mind. From there, I realized that because I had the professional background it meant that I could read the trade literature. I could read the technical documents. I could read and understand the policies more easily than if I didn’t. That in turn made it a lot easier to talk to policy makers and industry professionals because I knew the language they were speaking in terms of production and backend stuff.

    [12:40] I think it also still informs a lot of my teaching from the production side. I make an effort to show captioned videos when possible in class. Showing videos in class is foundational to so much film and media scholarship and the practices of our pedagogy, but it’s a really inaccessible thing to do for a number of students with a number of conditions. I’ve used a variety of software to make my own captioning. I’ve sent things out for captioning. That in turn has given me more awareness of the production side and more contact on the production side because I’ve been trying to put the research into practice when I can.

    Cathy [13:32]: That’s fantastic. It’s certainly something that I think a lot of professors want more training in, right? Certainly kind of want to know how to create captions for videos, want to know how to engage in best practices, how to engage their students in an active, kind of reflexive discussion about the classes’ current accessibility policies or future ones, right? But a lot of folks don’t know how to begin that, right?

    Elizabeth [14:04]: Yeah.

    Cathy [14:04]: You know, many of the campus-based disability offices are certainly strapped for cash, are certainly overworked. They’re certainly underfunded and would love to provide all that training. Many provide really great training, but just not enough, right?

    Elizabeth [14:21]: Yeah. Well, and it’s hard because generating captions for my own clip of a 1973 episode of Mod is a lot of work. There aren’t a lot of shortcuts. It takes time to do. It’s totally understandable if people want to have disability services on campus do it or sent it off to a third-party captioner. There are a number of those who do academic captioning. But, I’ve also found that I end up doing a lot of it myself because I’m often attempting to follow a sort of universal design for learning approach in which something like captions are provided for everyone as a matter of course rather than only for the students who explained to me why they need them and so on.

    [15:13]: That approach is not always the same as what the university structure would prefer. I found that there’s often reluctance to generate accessibility materials that aren’t specifically for a student with a documented need. I’ve also found that some captioning offices on campuses will only caption material that is then available streaming outside of the classroom environment for specific students to log into, and after the end of the course, they will destroy those captions rather than risk copyright violation.

    Cathy [15:54]: Oh my goodness.

    Elizabeth [15:55]: So I just make my own and keep them.

    Cathy [15:59]: Well, I mean, I think this illustrates a lot of things, right? A lot of kind of structural problems with the way that disability is defined legally, the way it’s defined on college campuses, and the kind of incredibly paltry ways that those definitions get made, right?

    Elizabeth [15:59]: Yeah.

    Cathy [16:16]: And that kind of extremely limited forms of embodiment and forms of life that then encompass, right? When embodiment is such a much broader category than the laws can conceptualize or really want to conceptualize, right?

    Elizabeth [16:32]: Yeah, definitely. It’s one of the foundational arguments for universal design or universal design for learning is that by increasing accessibility for people with the greatest needs we actually make everything better for other people as well by providing more options, by providing multimodal information, by proving things like curb cuts, right? That are designed for wheelchairs and mobility aids, but are useful if you have roller skates. That argument is really an interesting way of trying to separate out accessibility from being only about disability and making it about a larger service to communities as a whole. That’s not something that fits easily with legal definitions in any way.

    Cathy [17:36]: This is certainly, in many ways, the goal of disability studies as a scholarly field, right? And as a scholarly field that’s deeply tied to, intrinsically tied to, disability activism, this idea that ability and disability and really embodiment, broadly, is not the study of this special select group of people, right? Any more than gender studies is the study of a select group of people or African American studies is just the study of the specific group of people called African Americans, right?

    Elizabeth [17:36]: Right.

    Cathy [18:08]: These are lenses onto the world that show you the world in different ways and that let you understand, and pick apart, and perhaps change the kind of structures that shape that world and that make certain worlds possible or impossible, right?

    Elizabeth [18:22]: Yeah.

    Cathy [18:23]: Disability studies has an interesting, certainly kinship with these other kind of progressive interdisciplinary fields that themselves come out of social and political movements, right? That the goal isn’t to learn more about this specific, identifiable, unchanging essential group of people, but instead thinking about how does this lens on the world show us the world in a different way?

    Elizabeth [18:51]: Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Although, of course, there is plenty of disability history yet to be written about individuals and communities, people with disabilities over the years. That work is still in progress as well.

    Cathy [19:07]: Absolutely.

    Elizabeth [19:08]: I’d say that you’re absolutely right in terms of the way that disability provides a lens on looking at the rest of the world more critically. Thinking in terms of disability and accessibility makes me relate to my everyday technologies very differently. For one thing, I actually employ a variety of small assistive technologies all the time now because I know they exist. These are things that I might not have ever looked for or found otherwise, but now I know that I can change the color scheme on many web pages through my own CSS pages, and I do that because I prefer it. It’s easier on my eyes. It also lets you think about the way in which some things are classified as assistive technologies and some things are classified as time savers or productivity measures, so something like dictation software. I use that periodically. That’s something that the business world likes to present as, “It’s your personal secretary who will take down your words as you say them.” Yet, when someone with some sort of dexterity impairment is using dictation software, suddenly it becomes an assistive technology and not just a time saver. That is an interesting dimension where a disability studies perspective helps you to see that our ideas about what disability is and isn’t shape the cultural meaning of all kinds of technologies and interfaces in ways that are not always obvious.

    Cathy [21:12]: I’m curious how you see your work combining academia, arts, or maybe media, or digital technologies and activism in the service of social justice.

    Elizabeth [21:25]: Yeah. I think my work is obviously based in academia. I’m an assistant professor. This is what I do. But, I also see it as having sort of distinct activist impulses in terms of overall arguments regarding access and these sorts of things. But, I think when we get into sort of the art or media component, or whatever we want to call it, what’s really interesting there for me is something that doesn’t crop up as much in the book as in some of my other work, but it’s the spaces in which people with disabilities are using digital media to create their own representational art or media.

    [22:25] I’ve written a bit about web series, like My Gimpy Life and Criptiques, which are deliberately speaking to disability experiences using the genre of the web series as an accessible way to get into media production, because media production is hugely underrepresented in terms of disability at all levels and in all jobs. These are so fascinating because they often build in both representation politics and access politics. They actually give their captioner an onscreen credit, for instance, which never happens, and they produce things with captions immediately, even as they’re producing sort of really interesting and novel representations of disability in a familiar sort of media format.

    Cathy [23:27]: That sounds great. I’ll include links to those in the show notes so listeners can check those out.

    Elizabeth [23:33]: Yeah. Great.

    Cathy [23:36]: We’re getting to my favorite question that I get to ask people, which is at the kind of heart of this podcast. Obviously, this podcast is called Imagine Otherwise. Really, the reason I started it is because I wanted to talk to really fascinating people about their version of a better world, that world that they’re working towards when they teach their classes, when they publish their books, when they do their research, when they create their art, when they create their media, however it is that they make things in the world. I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What do you want?

    Elizabeth [24:12]: It’s such a great question, and it’s such a hard question.

    Cathy [24:15]: It is. It’s big.

    Elizabeth [24:16]: Yeah, it’s big, and that’s the point. I think my answer to that is that what I’m working towards in my academic work, and in teaching, and throughout is making an argument that technology can and should do more than replicate existing power structures, that it’s incumbent upon us to think about the ways in which technology reflects problems within society and reflects hierarchies, and reflects power structures, and then to think about how it could be done differently.

    I think for me that involves thinking about disability and access. For other people, that might involve thinking through other dynamics, gender dynamics, sexual dynamics.

    Obviously race, and class, and geography are huge questions in terms of unequal structures of technology and manufacturing, and so on. But for me, that’s sort of the core, is making sure that that argument comes through my work, and my teaching, and other sorts of projects is arguing that it’s not enough to identify problems in the way that technology is replicating power structures and so on, but that we also have to be prepared to suggest how it could work differently or what the process are by which we could think differently and push in different directions.

    That’s one of the reasons that I really love talking both with users and producers of technology because their perspectives can be so different. But, one of the things that was so striking is how often people who worked on website accessibility as designers, and consultants, and policy makers saw themselves as activists and as sometimes, the word is evangelists. They had a mission, and they were motivated by a sense that they were doing something worthwhile, which I found really interesting and admirable, and indicative of the ways that culture of technology don’t have to be cultures that replicate all of our broader problems.

    [26:59] Along with that, I feel like this work is very much in keeping with cultural studies, which is where my background is in that it’s looking to gaps and marginalized spaces, not just to find something new to talk about, but to find value there and find new ways of thinking and new ways of knowing that can really inform broader academic and mainstream understandings of how the world works. Disability knowledge is marginalized, but it’s definitely valuable and it informs, at least the way that I and the way that I hope to help others understand things more broadly.

    Cathy [27:51  That sounds fantastic.

    Elizabeth [27:54]: I’m sorry. I just got an email in the middle of that.

    Cathy [27:57]: Speaking of technology. So, I mean, you talked a little bit about this, but I’d like to kind of circle back to this question of collaboration because it’s certainly at the core of your research methodology, the way that you talked about kind of interviewing all of these different stakeholders and engaging with them, but also seems like at the core of your argument in the book and in your work more broadly that collaboration amongst producers, marketers, users, communities, activist, artist, all of these different kinds of people, scholars, collaboration seems both vital to create technologies, as you put it, that don’t replicate existing power structures, but that actually create different kinds of worlds, different kinds of relationships, so collaboration both being vital and necessary but also something that people struggle with, right?

    Elizabeth [28:59]: Yeah. Collaboration is super hard. It’s hard because, as I’ve mentioned, people have different interest that makes sense to their experiences and locations, and it can be hard to speak across those differences. But collaboration’s also just hard interpersonally. I mean, I’m an academic because I like reading. I do interview and ethnographic work, but I find it really…It takes a lot out of me. I find that that is…It’s worth it, but it’s something that I build into my research and my time is…You know, I can only do one interview a day and I’m wiped. The interpersonal work and understanding that goes into trying to talk across these differences and trying to build something new is hard. It doesn’t always work out well.

    Particularly for me at the research level, I feel a lot of responsibility to the people that I’ve worked with on this book and other projects, the people who were bloggers, the people who I interviewed. I feel like it’s important to me to make sure that their voices are heard and that my voice doesn’t overpower them. It’s important to me to make sure that in as much as I can, that I make arguments from my own position that I’m not…I don’t identify as a person with a disability. I need to recognize those limits as well. There’s some degree of personal experience that I don’t have, and thus I’m really dependent on what people will share with me, and what people tell me, and representing that accurately because, I mean, I consider myself an ally. I wear really thick glasses, but I don’t have the lived experience of social oppression or ostracism that is sometimes associated with being easily visible as a person with a disability.

    [31:21]: Collaboration is so important and so hard. I think it’s not just a matter of get everybody in a room and they’ll figure it out. It’s a matter of relationships, and time, and energy, and accountability, which is…You know, it’s all amazing when it works, and that’s why I do it, but it’s so challenging as an ongoing process and an ongoing awareness that both or all participants are coming to this with specific interests, and you want to make sure that everyone is coming away from it feeling heard, and represented, and good about the exchange.

    Cathy [32:16]: Has some interesting parallels to how you conceptualize access as well, right? This kind of ongoing process that is wonderful when pieces of it work, that is incredibly difficult, that requires speaking across all kinds of differences that don’t magically go away because you would like them to, and that involves trying to communicate across those differences, with those differences. Indeed, the reason you’re communicating is because of those differences, and yet also produce something that’s hopefully all, or at least a lot of people, can benefit from.

    Elizabeth [32:53]: Yeah.

    Cathy [32:55]: Well, thank you so much for being on this podcast and telling us about your wonderful new book.

    Elizabeth [33:02]: Well, thank you. It was fun to talk about. That’s why I wrote it. I think it’s fun to talk about.

    Cathy [33:07]: That’s the best reason to write a book!

    Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Leonard. Be sure to check out our website at to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books, and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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