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

Internet Advertisements and Preferred User Positions

To explain preferred user positions - arrangements of bodies, technologies, and culture that are enforced by hardware and software and may exclude many people - it is particularly instructive to consider two advertisements, from nearly 20 years apart.

The first is one of several advertisements produced by AT&T as part of a series entitled "You Will" in 1993.

This advertisement is notable for the ways in which it promises a future in which technology enables greater achievements, convenience, and happiness. However, these rewards may be distributed unequally; the woman of color featured in the hospital scene is seen in a wheelchair (and appears to be going into labor in a maternity ward). She does not have her medical history in her pocket - rather, her male partner is seen handing it to a male doctor. Signifiers of race, gender, and ability in this ad suggest that there are some white, male, and able-bodied arrangements that will be more empowered by these technologies than will others.

The second advertisement, "It's You," was released by Yahoo! in 2009.

Here, any representation of technology itself is absent; instead, there is a montage of people and activities. While there are numerous signs of racial, geographical, age, and gender diversity, there is no sign of disability in this advertisement. This is different from ads in earlier eras, such as "You Will" and the well-known MCI "Anthem" advertisement.

"Anthem" incorporated disability as one of many forms of embodied difference that would be made irrelevant by technology. Feminist disability scholar Alison Kafer suggests that it is common to imagine utopian futures as devoid of disability, but that such imaginings reinforce ableist ideas about disability as deficiency and foster eliminationist rhetoric. Furthermore, though "Anthem" promises "no infirmities," accompanied by the image of a young person using sign language, it does nothing to suggest how technologies will be made accessible to - usable by - people who do not fit the empowered white, male, Western, able-bodied user hailed by this advertisement and by mainstream technologies themselves.

To return to "It's You," it should be noted that it is very much part of the larger discourse of "you" that permeated the Web 2.0 era, from roughly 2004 onward, as in this famous 2006 TIME magazine cover that declared "You" the Person of the Year. The use of "you" supports empowering ideas about increased participation and opportunities fostered by user-generated-content and social media. However, this chapter argues that people with disabilities are rarely included as part of the "you" - in fact, much media coverage seems to explicitly treat people with disabilities as different from mainstream users, more serious, less creative, and less able to access the benefits of a participatory culture.

This page has paths:

This page references: