Accessibility: A Meeting of Needs
At the start of her lecture, More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Film, Georgina Kleege, an English and Disability Studies professor at University of California, Berkeley, referred to the audience as "severely visually dependent," to which the PowerPoint is an assistive technology for us sighted majority. While I laughed without much thought then, my time as Lincoln Center's Digital Accessibility Fellow has now helped me tie together the deeper implications behind Kleege's wordplay.
Before this fellowship, I had only a vague understanding of "accessibility" through the physical forms of accessible parking and the digital forms of color contrasts and captions. However, during my Computer Science and Glass education through the Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Dual Degree Program, I've always been interested in how we connect with one another. In our attempts to communicate and understand each other, what limitations do the interfaces, methods of engagement, and our assumptions create? Within my own artistic practice, what began as artistic research on challenging sight's dominance in perceiving our surroundings led me to converse with my RISD professor's brother, who is a blind sailor. This sparked in me a curiosity towards expressing ways of being that are not commonly known or felt. Coming from the Diversity in Arts Leadership internship program, I also began this fellowship with the bubblings of diversity and inclusion as part of my inquiries.
While working as the Digital Accessibility Fellow on captioning and audio description and studying Lincoln Center's online platforms for accessibility, I've realized just how little I knew about how others navigated something so familiar to me as the internet. For users who are blind or have low vision, screen readers narrate the content on a webpage, but only if the underlying code has been structured correctly. Audio description allows these same users to access visual elements within videos through narration, as seen in this "Up and Away" interview from the Big Umbrella Festival. Captioning enables users who are deaf or hard-of-hearing to read dialogue or other sound cues as a video is played. In doing this work, I see how incredibly necessary it is for accessibility to be considered from the very beginning so that it can create a much more integrated and enjoyable experience for all users.
Moreover, in Inclusive Design, disability is reframed as a mismatch between the needs of an individual and the services, products, and environments offered. Because the world has been mostly designed by non-disabled people, many needs are not known or well considered. During the Digital Inclusion + Accessibility Conference Keynote on Global Accessibility Awareness Day, Walei Sabry, digital accessibility coordinator for the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, did a role reversal. He acted as a casting director, asking an audience volunteer to come up and read a script. Once someone did, he handed them a stack of seemingly blank pages. The audience member, quite confused, asked for something in English, to which Walei replied, "It is in English! Can't you read?" When the audience member said they didn't read Braille, Walei told them they should've requested printed copies two weeks beforehand, the common practice for individuals requesting Braille version of printed material or other forms of accommodation.
In her lecture, Kleege brought up the "hypothetical blind man," exposing how even our idea of ignorance is projected onto blindness. Through our everyday use of language, "insane, stupid, lame, crazy," and the way we talk (or don't talk) about disability, these attitudes eventually influence our decisions toward the spaces we create, who is able to enter, and who is able to participate fully within them. As I attended more and more events within the accessibility community, I noticed how even the presentation of information through American Sign Language, real-time captioning, audio descriptions, large print, and accessibility-trained presenters needs to be available for others to fully be in the room. Inclusion alone is not enough if physical and social systems for sharing knowledge are absent or ill considered. Thus, I've realized that digital accessibility is about allowing comparably meaningful access for all to participate in the understanding and exchanging of information, whether online or in the physical space.
In addition, by challenging the idea of accessible accommodations as purely functional and only for those with disabilities, a new realm of expression and perception emerges. It wasn't until Alice Sheppard's DESCENT performance, a powerful duet presented on an architectural ramp by dancers in wheelchairs, that audio description for me ceased to be limited to strict objectivity, but rather a creative text that itself can provide meaning. During the performance, their company-designed app created an interactive and personalized audio track, merging verbal descriptions of dancers' movement with poetry and sound. As Alice Sheppard herself states, "Disability is more than the deficit of diagnosis. It is an aesthetic, a series of intersecting cultures, and a creative force."
Having experienced all of the incredible performances (Piece by Piece by Rebeccah Simone Bogue and choreographed by another Lincoln Center Accessibility Fellow, Mikaila Ware (see Mikaila's article, "Building Accessible Spaces for Creativity"), films in the ReelAbilities Film Festival, and conversations with other digital accessibility coordinators (Walei Sabry, Willa Armstrong, and Claire Kearney-Volpe) during my fellowship, I've recognized that richness comes from not just accepting differences, but celebrating them. Moreover, these creative efforts must also be led by people with disabilities, for their lived experiences are where actuality and innovation intersect. As shouted by Disability Rights Advocates, truly "Nothing About Us Without Us!"
Now that I have first-hand knowledge of equitable and accessible spaces, I am more sensitive to how information is shared during meetings and conferences, and who is included or not through such decisions. I am also more aware of the amount of work necessary to uphold these spaces, and that processes of questioning, learning, and implementing are ongoing. As I reach the end of my fellowship with Lincoln Center, I hope to continue challenging my own learned assumptions around disability and carrying forth the drive for equitable exchanges within all that I do.
Yidan Zeng is the 2018 Digital Accessibility Fellow at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.