Disability and Accessibility to New Media

Posted on January 10, 2012 by

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In today’s class discussion we grazed over the subject of access to alternative forms of media and digital media (social media, blogs, indie media etc). However, since we only addressed the term from an economic lens, I thought it would be valuable to bring up the topic of disability in order to think about access more literally. According to the US Department of Labor’s website, about 49.7 million Americans have a disability and two-thirds of these individuals have a severe disability.  Therefore, as new media becomes the dominant form of media, people with physical or mental disabilities have the potential of becoming increasingly socially disabled if they are unable to interact with certain interfaces. Currently, there are many issues in web design that are limiting access to millions. Most notably, Adobe Flash and PDF’s are not readable by blind, low-vision, or mentally disabled users who need screen readers. Newer versions have been released in the past three years that are more accessible to assistive technologies, however, since many PDF’s aren’t updated with the latest software, changes are occurring slowly and have yet to be perfected. Facebook, until recently, was also not accessible to screen readers. Although they have made improvements by creating an entire department dedicated to accessibility, many features like chat or games like Farmville (which utilize Flash) are not readable by screen readers. (Here is one user’s personal experience documented on youtube – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3HJIoBGOIos).

Moreover, Goggin and Newell state in “Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media”, that disability may prevent “cultural citizenship” in an increasingly digital future (104). In other words, as media consumption and production, sociality, education, occupations, and entertainment get more entangled in the digital sphere, one’s inability to use technology in its fullest capacity will undoubtedly exclude them from these various aspects of life. This inaccessibility, therefore, may not only affect a disabled user’s ability to be socially or economically independent, but also to emotionally feel like an integrated member of society. Feeling like a ‘cultural citizen’ is especially important when thinking about disabled users, moreover, because they already reside in a marginalized social category and lack media representation. Since many impairments have the possibility of being accommodated through universal design in the digital realm, creating fully accessible digital media may allow a way to eradicate many of the stigmas associated with the social category of disability. This can be achieved not only by allowing the disabled to actively participate in culture from the comfort of their home, but also by creating avenues for disability to be discussed and advocated through non-traditional forms like blogging, Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.

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