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

Interrogating and Integrating Access

While digital media can offer many opportunities for civic and cultural participation, this technology is not equally easy for everyone to use. Hardware, software, and cultural expectations combine to make some technologies an easier fit for some bodies than for others. A YouTube video without closed captions or a social network site that is incompatible with a screen reader can restrict the access of users who are hard of hearing or visually impaired. Often, people with disabilities require accommodation, assistive technologies, or other forms of aid to make digital media accessible—useable—for them.

Restricted Access investigates digital media accessibility—the processes by which media is made usable by people with particular needs—and argues for the necessity of conceptualizing access in a way that will enable greater participation in all forms of mediated culture. If digital media open up opportunities for individuals to create and participate, but that technology only facilitates the participation of those who are already privileged, then its progressive potential remains unrealized

The study of media access is a complex phenomenon, stretching from digital divides literatures to work on public broadcasting, user-generated-content, community television, media literacy, and policy literatures. This book proposes and enacts a five-part approach to studying access. It is a kind of "access kit," with parts that may be used separately or in concert with one another. Each category is loosely defined by a set of research questions, found in the text of the full book, and is each of the book's chapters is focused on one of these categories.


Questions about regulation center on how a medium is regulated and how it, in turn, exerts discursive authority to regulate particular cultural dynamics. This includes legal strictures, international agreements, and other forms of official policy and regulation as well as informal, private, and community-based forms of regulation. 


Many technologies contain expectations about their intended uses and users, and these expectations (and their clashes with reality) are explored through questions related to use.


Questions about form are tied to the material, encoded, and interface elements of media experiences. They are particularly important in the study of accessibility, which often involves transforming the form of media in order to make content available to users with specific disabilities.


Questions about content relate to the specific messages, representations, and interactions that are part of a media experience. They are, of course, closely connected to use and form.


The category of experience is intended to incorporate phenomenological and identity-based elements of people’s encounters
with media, drawing upon feminist theories of intersectionality.


The conclusion extends these discussions and crystallizes the importance of what I term "cultural accessibility," in which digital media accessibility moves beyond technical and legal dimensions to foster inclusion.


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