Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation

Alternative User Positions - Blind Photographers and "McCain Can't Type"

To discuss the ways in which people with disabilities may create and inhabit alternative user positions, in which bodies, technologies, and cultures are articulated differently, the book uses examples from the Flickr group Blind Photographers and a user-generated video created during the 2008 Presidential election, "McCain Can't Type, but YES WE CAN."

Many assumptions about the preferred user position - including the uses of technologies, the empowering discourses of participation, and the purposes of Web 2.0 - are challenged by the Flickr group Blind Photographers, which dramatically alters their context. The photograph seen here, and posted to the group, is called "Red Riding Hood as Marilyn Monroe," and was taken by Chris Gampat.

In many ways, this picture (and most posted to Blind Photographers) accord with the general tendencies of photo sharing to include artistic images and recordings of special events. Yet, by placing them under the rubric of blindness, the context of interpretation is changed. The group diverse, encompassing individuals with partial blindness, color-blindness, cataracts, and a number of other visual impairments. Yet, the shared identification with blindness suggested a perceived unity among group members. This indicates a social or political perspective on disability, rather than a strict medical or biopolitical categorization. For viewers of the Flickr pool, blindness was not a spectacle or medical diagnosis but provided one discursive limit through which meaning was produced and received. Knowing these images were produced by people who identify with “blindness” opened up reflections on blind identity,
community, and the uses and users of participatory culture.

Furthermore, the apparatus of "photography" is different than might be expected by a preferred user position. In sites beyond Flickr, participants’ discussions of the multiple media and technologies used to take, edit, and share photographs indicated that the medium of “photography” is, in some cases, a hybrid of digital hardware, software, and assistive technology. For instance, many participants used large projection set-ups to view and edit their photographs before sharing them in standard size. This was an invisible part of the final work, as seen on Flickr, but constituted a part of the medium, the use, and the user experience of this photography.

The example of "McCain Can't Type, but YES WE CAN" similarly highlights the ways in which disability requires and fosters alternative user positions, but does so in a more explicitly political way.

This video responded to a particular cultural moment. Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain (R-AZ) had admitted to being “computer illiterate” earlier in 2008. This led to increasing coverage of the senator’s perceived unfamiliarity with e-mail and other digital media technologies. The news cycle culminated in a statement by campaign adviser Karl Rove on Fox News Sunday that McCain avoided using e-mail and other Internet applications because of injuries sustained while a POW in the Vietnam War, which caused him pain when typing. 

The potential effectiveness of this statement relied on audience belief in three premises: that disability is inherently limiting, that technology is unavailable for users with disabilities such as McCain’s, and that he had no choice regarding this inability to use Internet technology. “McCain Can’t Type” rebuts these assumptions while making an argument for Obama as a candidate
deserving the support of those interested in technological progress, disability policy, or both.

The images and juxtapositions used in this brief video emphasize the ways in which people with disabilities are users of computer and Internet technology, even if they use it differently, Here, disability is not represented as a limitation, as suggested by Rove, but as a feature of life that does not define those whom it affects. “McCain Can’t Type” foregrounds the agency of users with disabilities regarding digital media; while McCain may choose not take advantage of available options, many users with disabilities do value computer and Internet technology enough to form alternative user positions and pursue various uses, including the production of a video distributed on YouTube.

In this context, the chant takes on a duality of meaning. On one level, the repetition of “Yes, we can” references and affirms the messages of the Obama candidacy, a political position confirmed by the concluding endorsement. It recalls the “Yes, We Can” videos featuring celebrities that were released by the campaign, lending it a cultural relevance and prompting reflection through the replacement of celebrities with people with disabilities. On a second level, the words of the chant answered the question posed at the start of the video: John McCain can’t use a computer? By extension, and through the rhetoric of Rove’s comments, the implication is that users with disabilities cannot use computers. Through images and the chant, the creators of this video respond, “Yes, we can.”

No longer “them,” or even “you,” this video makes its clams on behalf of the “we.” This may signal the collective authorship of the video, via the images of many different users with many different disabilities engaging in different uses of technology. It may also be understood to address an audience primarily comprising people with disabilities, extending the offer of identification to these viewers. In this way, the preferred user position is not made central— alternative arrangements of bodies and technologies are privileged, and the “we” creates an uneasy position for able-bodied viewers.

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