In Disability and New Media, Katie Ellis and Mike Kent address the growing significance of new media in daily life, and how new media impacts and is impacted by disability. In their words, "This book seeks to explore accessibility and usability in the context of web 2.0 platforms and connections, and to question the ways disability is reproduced and created in them" (14). They effectively critique many existing technologies for their inaccessibility, and argue for universal web design that is more accessible to disabled and able-bodied users alike. A welcome addition both to disability studies and internet studies, this book tackles such topics as technological determinism, representations of the body in online spaces, and the future of digital disability. Most importantly, Disability and New Media opens doors for more in-depth studies of disability and new media.

Ellis and Kent's work is situated in disability, media, and internet studies. They position their book as an extension of Goggin and Newell's Digital Disability, while acknowledging an overall lack of scholarship in new media and disability. Indeed, discussions of disability in media studies and internet studies are few and far between; this is especially troubling considering new media's significant role in civic life and education. Ellis and Kent's work gives serious academic consideration to this gap in the scholarship, offering critique and hope for more accessible design in the future.

The book's eight chapters are divided into three sections that range from discussions of accessibility and usability, to exploring disability as social repression, to future opportunities for accessibility in a digital world. Ellis and Kent base their arguments on the premise that web 2.0 and user-generated content demand the participation of all users to be successful. Arguing for a social model of disability, Ellis and Kent celebrate the possibility of a future in which internet technologies are clearly aligned with World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee's belief that "the power of the Web is in its universality. Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect" (1).

The first section of the book focuses on defining universal design, outlining some of the challenges faced by disabled users of new media, and tracing major developments from web 2.0 to social networking and user-generated content. This includes an enlightening discussion of what has been termed "accessibility 2.0," which Ellis and Kent use to refer to "the capacity to access information in the format of choice when working within the largely unstructured environment of user-generated content" (25). Here, the authors cite case studies revealing some key accessibility concerns and introduce the technology they will critique throughout the book, including applications like iTunes, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as hardware such as monitors, keyboards, and iPads. Ellis and Kent do a commendable job framing and supporting their argument in this section, and raise many thought-provoking questions about the ways disability has been largely ignored as daily life has become increasingly digital. However, I noticed that many cited case studies, especially those in the first chapter, focus on people with visual impairments; perhaps discussion of some other accessibility issues, like hearing loss or the inability to use one's hands, would be more comprehensive. Other types of disabilities are discussed to a greater degree in the last section; however, readers may appreciate a discussion of a wider range of disabilities in the initial chapters. Additionally, learning disabilities and psychological disabilities should be covered in more depth; I think these are important topics to cover in a discussion of disability and new media, especially since they are frequently overlooked.

The second section historicizes the issues of disability and digital disability, pointing to their social construction. I found chapter five to be the most useful and important chapter of the book; readers who cannot cover all the material will have an overall sense of the book's primary arguments from reading this chapter. In this chapter, Ellis and Kent cover Alan Roulstoneís three frameworks for understanding the intersection of technology and disability. Here, those unfamiliar with disability studies will gain insight into the fieldís major tenets, and readers unfamiliar with internet and media studies will learn about the Digital Divide, web 2.0, and the intent of the webís creators regarding accessibility.

Overall, section two is important because it culturally and critically theorizes disability and new media simultaneously, while tracing the evolution of the web through events like "browser wars" and "the dot-com bubble." A real strength throughout this section is the way the text separately addresses and bridges disability studies and new media studies without seeming too elementary or too esoteric: readers will take away foundational understandings of concepts from both fields. Additionally, Ellis and Kent raise many important questions about disability and new media, like why internet technologies mirror social problems, and how the design of these technologies perpetuates ableist oppression. Ellis and Kent believe the web must be retrofitted to realize an accessible digital environment, and they make this point through an in-depth look at the journey from Vannevar Bush's predictions about the web before it was created, to the reality of web 2.0 as characterized by sites like Facebook.

Comparatively, section three is on the shorter side, which may cause some readers to feel that the book stops short. This section is crucial, however, as it reminds readers that the virtual world does not erase the body, despite user-choice: "[T]he link between a person's physical body and the construction of their online representation can be a complex negotiation, particularly when it relates to disability and identity" (129). The final chapter calls for raising the issue of disability within the field of internet studies, where it is "conspicuously absent," and Ellis and Kent conclude by underscoring the absolute necessity of universal design and and state that they look toward the future "with more hope than trepidation" (145). The conclusion exemplifies the overall tone of the book, which is informative, critical, and optimistic. The book serves as a rousing call to governments, designers, and corporations to work toward universal design to improve user experience for all, regardless of ability.

Ellis and Kent offer a solid argument for the virtual world as a contested space where a shift away from ableist practices and toward universal design will make the web the universally accessible place it has the potential to be.

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Copyright (c) 2011 Laura Howard

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

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ISSN: 2159-8371