This edited collection of sixteen essays grows out of a 2015 Harvard conference on "legal questions at the intersection of human-computer interaction and disability rights law in the United States" (4). Conference scholars in computer science, human rights and government policy initially covered topics that "have not been clearly decided by legal statutes or case law", including "standards for web design and web authoring," "captioning and legal ownership, accessible instructional materials in higher education, technology access for people with cognitive impairments, e-book access for people with print disabilities, and access to courtroom documents and technology" (4).

As the list suggests, the focus of the conference appears to have been US-centric, but the book's Foreword, written by H. E. Ambassador Luis Gallegos (Ecuador), shifts the focus to the Global South, as he argues the need "to ensure equal access to ICTs [information and communication technology] among the one billion persons living with disabilities around the world" (ix).

Does the book answer to this need? Most chapters repeat the focus on US laws, but Chapters 14, 15, and 16 do turn their analyses to policies and designs for accessibility in states such as Kenya, Mozambique, and India.

Chapters 1 and 2 cover important elements of accessibility, but with a US focus: Chapter 1—the process of web accessibility standards formulation from design stages onward, and Chapter 2––barriers to political rights arising from technological obstacles and shortcomings.

Chapter 3 covers the important, and often neglected, topic of web accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities, concluding that "many presupposed barriers to web equality not only are surmountable but also are capable of resolution for individuals with diverse intellectual and developmental impairments" (48). While removing or mitigating barriers to accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities is an admirable goal, cultural attitudes toward the cognitively disabled also form a huge barrier to accessibility in diverse cultures around the world––a topic only discussed near the end of the book in Chapter 15, "The Accessibility Infrastructure and the Global South," to which we will return.

Chapter 4 reaffirms the importance of access to information, and the importance of libraries in being fully accessible to persons with disabilities. The authors argue that "information and the Internet can now be seen as being central to human rights—the ability to obtain, communicate, and disseminate information is necessary for many human rights to be possible" (60). The framework of "human rights" stems from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), adopted in 2006, ratified by the European Union but which the United States failed to ratify. In the US, the ADA and its related laws establish policies and incentives for accessibility. As noted in Chapter 5, manufacturers and disability users need governments "to incentivize …sell[ers to produce] accessible products to buyers with disabilities" (74). Chapter 6 examines Canadian laws, which vary from province to province, but have been influenced by the ADA. Canada ratified the UN Conventions of Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and the authors note that case law affirms that Canadian laws "broadly should respect the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities" (99). The course of Canadian disability rights has been secured mostly through court cases, and the authors contrast the "regulatory approach" which can be "captured by corporate interests" vs. litigation that focuses on substantive effects of laws (103), emphasizing the creative use of Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in Jodhan v. Canada.

With a focus on emerging digital technologies in court hearings, Chapter 7 argues for the importance of access to all information by persons with disabilities, including online transcripts and actual physical access to the court's space for lawyers with disabilities. Chapter 8 focuses on the open government movement around the world and stresses the importance of digital accessibility of information for disabled users (136).

Chapter 9 reviews the history of making print materials, as well as their newer counterparts, such as e-books, e-readers, and digital textbooks, accessible for the blind. Some of the problems are that platforms not only are inconsistent or incommensurable, but the translation of print to electronic text may infringe on copyright laws in many countries until the Marrakesh Treaty is widely implemented. The Marrakesh Treaty requires the contracting countries to provide in their national copyright laws for a limitation or exception that allows for the reproduction of works by an authorized entity for the purposes of converting them into accessible formats exclusively for the use of print disabled readers. The countries implementing this treaty can also exchange such accessible works with other countries who have ratified this treaty (World Intellectual Property Organization, 2013).

Chapter 10 extends this discussion to accessibility in online learning—a topic that has turned out, with the current pandemic, to be centrally important to all educators. The authors recommend that educators explicitly teach accessibility as a skill (172). Accessibility is a shared responsibility, they conclude: "Responsibility across stakeholder groups hinges on a unified commitment to, and practice of, accessibility" (177).

A major element of accessibility is captioning, a topic often discussed in disability groups. Chapter 11 reviews the early history of and some of the conflicts in captioning: who is responsible for captions, and who owns copyright of them and of the original material.

Chapter 12 takes up information privacy and security in the CRPD framework of human rights, for example, the pitfalls of technology for a blind person using adaptive technology to do banking. Chapter 13 addresses gaming and argues that "as a core part of social interaction," gaming should be accessible (213).

Chapters 14, 15, and 16 turn to the Global South. Chapter 14 argues that strategic investment flowing from "from policy entrepreneurs within international development organizations" to "national interest organizations in the Global South could support institutional change by participating in the design of an organizational policy that requires all technology-based funding be subject to an accessibility review" (343). Chapter 15, which seems to us most rooted in disability scholarship, emphasizes the importance of a "disability infrastructure— a more nuanced view of interdependencies" (246)— rather than seeing solutions as simply adding discreet technologies. With colleagues, the author conducted research in Malawi, Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Jordan, Mexico, Peru, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Venezuela, and presents a helpful table of findings in terms of comparative mobile access, Internet access, and the country's status on ratifying UNCRPD (249). Cultural models of charity toward the disabled, limitations to education, transportation, and difficulty accessing the Internet in rural areas all create barriers to access for people with disabilities. Chapter 16 examines India's paradox as an increasingly important science and technology center, while devoting shockingly little of the national budget of India to disability: only "0.0009 percent of the national budget [is] directly spent by India on the disability sector" (264).

Reading as disability studies scholars with backgrounds in rhetoric and accessible design, we notice several gaps in this collection that suggest the authors could have gone farther to root their discussion in human rights and disability law. Most chapters touch on human rights but not all engage published literature from this field. Most chapters also refer to one or more articles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), but curiously enough, none of the authors points out that the United States has not ratified this convention. We might also stress that CRPD is a broad human rights convention and many of its articles go beyond what is promised in the ADA. Its ratification by the United States could bestow additional disability rights on US citizens by making it adjudicable in the US judicial system. In the next section, we offer more specific comments on some of the chapters.

To start, Chapter 1 leaves out a discussion of the role disabled experts and users play, or might play, in the revision of Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines (ATAG) 2.0 so that disabled professionals could also acquire employment in web design and development without confronting accessibility barriers with the necessary work tools. The chapter also does not directly question the underlying assumption of the WCAG 2.1 standards that the guidance is for most developers to retrofit accessibility, rather than changing the direction of the development of the World Wide Web so that a participatory design model could be employed to build fully accessible websites in the first place (Oswal, 2014).

Chapter 4 paints a far too rosy picture of access in the U.S. libraries, primarily leaning on one survey completed by library staff and overlooking the literature critical of the state of access (Liu, Bielefield, & McKay, 2019; Schmetzke, 2015).

Chapter 5 oversimplifies by stating that "The Americans with Disabilities Act, which covers many different aspects of how private and public entities operate, requires that private commercial websites be accessible" (74). This act makes no reference to the World Wide Web because the web did not exist in 1990. Although the ADA does not deal directly with website accessibility, courts have ruled that sections of the ADA may apply to website accessibility but also have delivered several decisions on the same that contradict one another (Palmer & Palmer, 2018).

Chapter 14 on the global south assumes that all the flow of technology and capital is unidirectional, thus perpetuating the colonial model of development. The concept of "accessibility infrastructure" discussed in Chapter 15 is as much applicable to the global north as it is in the global south, and the author overlooks the digital divide experienced by the unemployed disabled citizens living even in the most industrialized places on this earth.

From the perspective of disability studies and accessible design, we glean these takeaways from this collection:

  • Persons with disabilities must participate in design and review of accessibility in information and communication technology in public life—such as voting. They must meet regularly to review implementation of accessibility standards, as well as any locally conceptualized Disability Action Plans.
  • The typical accessible digital content alone may not deliver web equality to all because many disabled users—for example people with some cognitive and intellectual disabilities—might also require structured technology training and customization of information to take advantage of its affordances.
  • Activists and nongovernmental organizations working in the global south idealize the accessibility infrastructure in the global north and seem to be unaware of the perpetual digital divide between disabled and nondisabled users.
  • Disabled citizens from countries without basic accessibility infrastructure and disability laws must work together with allies to change not only laws about accessibility but cultural attitudes and stereotypes. Active, local disability movements may pressure governments to implement the articles of CRPD so that the structural barriers to information and communication technology access are removed.

Overall, the book is searchable and easy to read in digital format with a screen reader.

References

  • Liu, Y. Q., Bielefield, A., & McKay, P. (2019). Are urban public libraries websites accessible to Americans with Disabilities?. Universal Access in the Information Society, 18(1), 191-206. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10209-017-0571-7
  • Oswal, S. K. (2014). Participatory design: Barriers and possibilities. Communication Design Quarterly Review, 2(3), 14-19. https://doi.org/10.1145/2644448.2644452
  • Palmer, Z. B., & Palmer, R. H. (2018). Legal and Ethical Implications of Website Accessibility. Business and Professional Communication Quarterly, 81(4), 399-420. https://doi.org/10.1177/2329490618802418
  • Schmetzke, A. (2015). Collection development, e-resources, and barrier-free access. In B. Wentz, P. T. Jaeger, & J. C. Bertot (Eds.), Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities and the Inclusive Future of Libraries (Vol. 40, Advances in librarianship). (pp. 111-142), Bingley, UK: Emerald Publishing Limited. https://doi.org/10.1108/S0065-283020150000040015
  • World Intellectual Property Organization [WIPO], Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works by Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired, or Otherwise Print Disabled, June 27, 2013, https://wipolex.wipo.int/en/text/301019 Accessed August 30, 2020.
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Copyright (c) 2021 Sushil K. Oswal, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson

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