Tag Archives: George H. Williams

Disability and the Digital Humanities

12 Apr

If the disease of modern Humanities studies is Balkanization then the cure is intersectionality.  Of course, I am using the term ‘intersectionality’ in a somewhat atypical fashion here, as I am not specifically referring to lines of connection among different forms of discrimination experienced by multiple disenfranchised groups, but simply identifying the more ideologically neutral phenomenon of the consonance occasionally found between different sub-disciplines within the humanities.  It has been said that one of the measures of a theory or field’s usefulness is the degree folks pursuing wildly (or seemingly) different intellectual objectives find it useful for their work.  I must confess, I was not anticipating any conceptual shocks when I looked into George Williams’s essay “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” (available in the anthology Debates in the Digital Humanities) but I did get a couple, the most noteworthy being the idea that the development of alternative computer interfaces for disabled persons has the potential to reveal the essential contingency of much modern digital technology, and by extension, offer radical re-conceptions of how we engage with it.

George Williams begins his essay with the assertion that disability has the potential to force all of us to reconsider our “embodied relationship to data.”  The storage and manipulation of information through digital technology is something that, like everything else human beings do, occurs through the physical manipulation of objects and the processing of any resultant activity with the five human senses.  But what if the physical body is disabled or any one of the five senses deficient? The oral and aural, as well as the tactile, interfaces utilized by blind people are significantly different, even alien, to sighted people, and the absorption of data patterns constitutes a whole other experience.  

Williams draws attention to these alternative interfaces for the purpose of advocating the principle of “Universal Design” for the digital humanities.  Universal design is a fairly intuitive concept, and simply entails constructing tools and built environments that are accessible to the largest range of individuals possible.  The needs of, the disabled, the elderly, and the low-status are all to be taken into consideration.  Indeed, it is the needs of the otherwise able-bodied that are central to the practice of universal design, as considering such needs has the effect of maximizing accessibility for all.  An example- the sidewalk curb cut.  Although originally conceived as a means to assist the handicapped, any person who needs to haul a large load on wheels down the street will likely find them useful.  The application of this basic principle to digital technology has already occurred to some extent.  Screen-reading software that communicates the content of web pages via audio is commonly used by blind people.  Some of Williams’s suggestions to expand the accessibility of digital technology include the development of open-source accessibility tools for Content Management Systems, such as WordPress or MediaWiki.  Such tools could include features like the one developed by Williams and some other collaborators at the Maryland Institute of Technology, which was an alt attribute imbedded in a transparent GIF only a square pixel wide (and thus invisible to sighted users) that enabled blind people using screen-reading software to skip over any web content they did not need or want to hear once the program “read” it.  Braille translating and subtitling tools could also be developed, and transcription tools could significantly expand the accessibility of certain online projects.  See- Scripto.

The implications of such efforts and what they may entail for the digital Humanities I think was succinctly expressed by Graham Pullin, in a quote helpfully provided in Williams’s essay- “…the prevailing assumption in product design is that new developments in the mainstream slowly ‘trickle-down’ to specialist products for people with disabilities…  However… sometimes the effect works the other way, when the issues around disability catalyze new design thinking and influence a broader design culture in return.”  Technology is intrinsically artificial and of an assistive nature.  It presupposes human limitations, or the basic human inability to single-highhandedly, or single-mindedly, perform any task s/he may wish to perform.  Yet human limitations are diverse and often contingent.  Therefor, exactly how technology is modeled to assist the human is somewhat unstable, and subject to reconsideration.  Who says that the screen will always be the digital world’s primary means of communicating and displaying data?  Would human being in general benefit from interfaces that are more tactile and aural as opposed to visual?  Certainly, from the point of view of somebody with an interest in literature, a more aural interface may well return the experience of texts to a more oral sphere, and the tactile interface may well make a form of textuality previously only available to the blind more widely experienced.  Ultimately, the practical task of making material accessible to the disabled may very well hold the key to radically altering the study of the digital humanities generally.