Dis/Abilities & Cyberspaces

Cyberspaces and digital technologies have been both enabling and disabling for people facing particular physical and cognitive challenges. Thanks to efforts by the disability rights movement, high standards for access to hardware, software and websites exist for folks with visual, aural, cognitive and movement based impairments. As of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, “access” and related issues to facilitate the integration of Persons with Disabilities into all aspects of life moved from the status of “privileges” to legally binding “rights.” But these standards remain only intermittently enforced, as, for example, more than 60% of websites remain inaccessible. Yet, persons with disabilities [PWDs] who do have access spend twice the average user time online; clearly a deep social need is not being met.

As technology for social inclusion expert Mark Warshauer argues, “[People with disabilities] can make especially good use of ICT to help overcome problems caused by lack of mobility, physical limitations, or societal discrimination. Using ICT, a blind person can access documents by downloading them from the Internet and converting text to speech; a quadraplegic can pursue a college degree without leaving home; a child suffering with AIDS can communicate with other children around the world. Sadly, though, [people with disabilities], because of poverty, lack of social support, or other reasons, frequently lack the means to get online.” This lack is a question of basic human rights, especially at a time when access to online economic, political, social and cultural information is growing in centrality as a feature of full citizenship.

Advocates from the disability rights and independent living movements argue that social attitudes and the built environment are the major disabling features that are falsely regarded as intrinsic to the disability. Disability is not a natural fact; it is a socially defined state of being. Most people can’t read with their finger tips. Is that a disability?

It would be if the only books published were in Braille, just as lack of braille or other non-visual modalities is disabling to people with visual impairments. So-called “disabilities” should be seen as naturally occurring and accidental variations in degrees of able-bodiedness that can change over time. Viewed through a disabilities rights perspective, various “disabilities” would be seen as socially imposed limitations created by cultural expectations and built into digital environments. Thus, in regard to cyberspaces the question to be asked is: how are techno-cultural design decisions and practices disabling people from full use of digital resources?

On the more positive side of the ledger, for those people with disabilities who do have access, the Web and other digital culture media have proved extremely and often uniquely enabling. Moreover, new digital technologies have added to the range of abilities of millions facing many types of physical and cognitive limitations. Digital technologies have done amazing things in enabling greater sight and hearing, in facilitating physical rehabilitation, and in extending possibilities for folks with cognitive/social conditions such as autism. At the same time, respecting various disability cultures also includes the rights of people to refuse to use technologies that might otherwise allow them to approximate behaviors and abilities defined as "normal" by dominant, non-disabled communities.

The links below explore the range of issues touched on above, and offer resources for further exploration of the social and technical dimensions of ICT access for people with disabilities, and the techno-cultural issues surrounding ability-extending digital devices and systems.

Some Key ICT and Dis/Ability Resources

  • Able Gamers. Web site for PWDs who play video games.
  • Adaptive Computer Products. Comprehensive list of the various assistive and adaptive digital devices to enhance access and use of technologies for PWDs.
  • Alliance for Technology Access. A network of community-based resources, adaptive technology vendors and more.
  • Assistive Technology Act. Information on federal legislation (rev. 1998) that authorized: 1) State Assistive Technology Grant Programs; 2) Alternative Financing Programs for Assistive Technology; 3) Protection and Advocacy for Assistive Technology programs; and 4) national Technical Assistance programs.
  • Society of Disability Studies. Resource on the social study of disability, including in digital environments.
  • Virtual Ability Rich portal to disability resources in the virtual world of Second Life.
  • Web Accessibility Initiative. By the World Wide Web Consortium (W3); a major statement on creating full, universal access by the group responsible for the web.
  • WebAIM: Web Accessibility in Mind. Rich site introducing a range of issues and projects related to making the web more accessible to PWDs.

Online Articles on Dis/Ability and Digital Communities

Selected Books and Articles

Bowker, Natilene, and Keith Tuffin. "Disability Discourses for Online Identities." Disability and Society 17:327-344. 2002.

Bradley, Natalie, and William Poppen. "Assistive Technology, Computers and Internet May Decrease Sense of Isolation fo Homebound Elderly and Disabled Persons." Technology and Disability 15:19-25. 2003.

Dobransky, Kerry, and Eszter Hargittai. "The disability divide in Internet access and use." Information, Communication & Society 9.3 (2006): 313-334.

Ellis, Katie, and Mike Kent. Disabilitiy and New Media. Routledge, 2010.

Jaeger, Paul T. Disability and the Internet: Confronting the Digital Divide. Boulder, CO: Lyne Rienner, 2010. Comprehensive overview of the less well-known digital divide between persons with disabilities and the more able-bodied.

---. "Disability, Human Rights and Social Justice." First Monday 20.9 September 2015.

Mann, William C., Patricia Belchoir, Machiko R. Tomita, and Bryan J. Kemp. "Computer Use by Middle-Aged and Older Adults with Disabilities." Technology and Disability 17:1-9. 2005.

Moser, Ingunn. "Disability and the promises of technology: Technology, subjectivity and embodiment within an order of the normal." Information, Communication & Society 9.3 (2006): 373-395.

Mullins, Aimee. "My Twelve Pairs of Legs" TED talk by double-amputee athlete, model and advocate for PWDs.

Seymour, Wendy, and Deborah Lupton. "Holding the Line Online: Exploring
Wired Relationships for People with Disabilities." Disability and Society 19:291-
305. 2004.

World Wide Web Consortium. "How People with Disabilities Use the Web." in
W3C Working Draft, 10 December 2004: World Wide Web Consortium. 2004.

General Disability Rights Sites