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

Content Warnings: Struggles over Meaning, Rights, and Equality

This chapter uses case studies from the web, social media, television and online closed captioning, and video games to investigate how content is imagined, produced, and received in relation to disability and technology. First, I explore how the tendency to prioritize information over entertainment is informed by cultural understandings of disability as disadvantage or deficit and reproduces social inequalities by extending access only to “valuable” content. Secondly, I consider how the means of accessing content may or may not be understood as changing that content; this raises questions about free speech, copyright, and similarity that are not easily resolved. Analysis of the site of content makes the myriad and contentious relationships between access, equity, and culture available for dissection.

The first argument is explored using videogames, which have routinely been dismissed as "fun" (unimportant) forms of media content, with the result that most games are not accessible. Additionally, few games offer representations of disability that are resonant. Katawa Shoujo, a collaboratively developed videogame in the style of a Japanese dating simulation, offers an interesting case study for its explicit representations of disability as the protagonist comes to terms with his own heart defect and learns to interact with others (who have a range of impairments and attitudes). Importantly, not only does this game link disability politics and game play, it also incorporates sexuality as a routine part of life for people with disabilities.

The second argument is focused on the interactions of form and content, which result in accessible versions of media potentially eliminating or changing meaningful components of the original. It is difficult, if not impossible, to create fully equivalent experiences of content (though this is the goal of much accessibility work), with implications for free speech, copyright, and the equal access that is suggested by civil rights arguments for accessibility. This is illustrated using screenshots of from 1996 and 2014. While it may have been feasible to create a text-only version of the first page--unfortunately, its few small images are lost to time--creating a text-only equivalent of the latter is impossible given its dynamic content. As a result, web accessibility practices have attempted to keep up by introducing techniques such as WAI-ARIA, enabling material to be conveyed and accessed from the modern digital environment. 

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