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

The Net Experience: Intersectional Identities and Cultural Accessibility

This chapter draws heavily on ethnographic research in a disability blogosphere (a network of interlinked blogs and social media sites) conducted during 2011-2012. Here, I consider how the experiences of using inaccessible digital media, creating awareness of disability and accessibility, and innovation play out among a variety of digital media users (most, but not all, people with disabilities).

The chapter opens with an example, a YouTube video by Tommy Edison about using Instagram (a mobile-based social network that emphasizes taking, editing, and sharing photographs). Edison demonstrates how his experience, as a blind man, is similar to and different from what we might think of typical or indicative of a preferred user position (mainstream use). Tommy Edison's video explains how superficial similarities may hide important experiential differences.

Though he holds a smartphone horizontally in front of his eyes, enacting the normative physicality of photography, he cannot see through the phone’s viewfinder. After taking a photo—in this case, a picture of the crew that is filming him—Edison browses photo filters on Instagram, his phone reading their names aloud, then selects one and posts to the social networking site. Though superficially similar to how a sighted user might use Instagram, this experience has different meanings. Edison admits to having little creative investment in his photographs. Instead, he enjoys the subsequent social experience, when his Instagram followers tell him what the picture looks like or otherwise comment on it. He is interested in the sharing and social components of this experience, not the artistic expression of self.

Studying experience is crucial to understanding accessibility (and access), because it is only through experiences that access is achieved. As interviewees reminded me, accessibility is not stagnant, but is highly contextual - social, material, cultural, and embodied circumstances may foster or inhibit access for many people with disabilities (and others). This chapter highlights the experiences of bloggers and other users with disabilities. Centering these often-marginalized experiences of digital media enables them to contribute to a more truthful understanding of the relationships of access between bodies, technologies, and culture.

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