In this article, I share and reflect on a research-creation video that introduces what I call 'disability as method' to critical disability and media studies. The video draws on a year-long visual ethnography, during which I collaborated with a blind and a physically disabled participant to explore the specificities of their mobility experiences in the city of Montreal. In making this video, I use the affordances of filming and editing in creative ways both to explore what access could mean to differently disabled people in the space of the city and to reimagine new possibilities of media-making informed by blindness gain. To this end, I introduce a new audio description (AD) technique by using stop-time as crip-time, and deploying AD not only as an accessibility feature but also as a blind intervention in the creative process of filmmaking itself.
This article shares a research-creation video, in which I introduce the notion of 'disability as method.' In making this video, I applied disability both as a method of critical theorizing about access and ableism, and as a blind intervention into media-making through the development of a new audio description (AD) technique. In the video, I explore how two differently disabled people, Jérôme, who is blind, and Anna, who has mobility-related disabilities, live in Montreal; navigate through its public places; and experience limits on the city's accessibility in their own ways. I employ disability as method in the sense that I take my collaborators' critical insights and creative workarounds as ways of tracing what otherwise disappears in everydayness, that is, an ableist habitus. But in making this video, I sought not only to expose, what I call, 'the habitus of ableism' but also to intervene in the way it shapes media-making practices. I experiment with AD to make the video accessible to visually disabled audiences and also to make the video a beneficiary and an example of what Hannah Thompson calls, "blindness gain" (Reviewing Blindness 55). 1 My use of AD as a form of blind intervention is based on three principles: stop-time as crip-time, non-segregated viewing, and blindness gain. With this approach to AD, I seek to contribute to the path opened up by other scholars of disability and recent events (such as "Audio Description: The Art of Access" (2016) 2) that invite us to consider accessibility not as a simple add-on but as a creative process; "an aesthetic performance," (Kleege and Wallin), and "an art in itself" (Thompson, "How the Arts").
The article begins with a brief explanation of my fieldwork and my conceptualization of disability as a method of critical theorizing and of blind intervention. It continues with the presentation of the video and ends with a discussion of the habitus of ableism and a reflection on the possibilities that disability as method makes available to both disability scholarship and disability arts.
Visual Ethnographic Research
In 2013 and 2014, I conducted fieldwork in Montreal, Canada, a city that is known to be highly inaccessible because of its harsh winters, uneven geography, and strict architectural codes for historical buildings. 3 Using participatory approaches, I collaborated with three differently disabled individuals living in the greater Montreal area and filmed their everyday practices and mobility experiences over the course of a year. The questions that drove my research were: How do differently disabled people move through the same urban environment and use their bodies and senses to negotiate its material features? What are the particularities of the affordances they bring into life, and what do these particularities mean for questions of access? How can we think of access, not as a monolithic entity but as a multitude of meanings and valances that may not always neatly cohere? In what follows, I reflect on my collaborations with two of these individuals: Jérôme and Anna.
I contacted Jérôme through the association for students with disabilities at a local university. We met as participants of the Megafone.net project at Concordia University. 4 I met Anna during a conference aimed at raising awareness of disability in Montreal, where she was one of the co-organizers. Given our shared commitment to disability and access issues, and the highly personalized nature of the research, we decided not to anonymize their names. At our initial meeting, I explained to Jérôme and Anna the purpose of the project, and in line with participatory methodologies, they chose the time and place of filming. Our meetings depended on which locations, events and time periods of the year or day mattered to Jérôme's and Anna's everyday lives and movements in public places.
Disability as a Method of Critical Theorizing
Sociologist Siegfried Saerberg suggests that a blind person – or, I would add, any disabled person – "is a sophisticated lay scientist whose indigenous practices raise some relevant lessons for ethnographers" who seek to traverse the boundaries of the familiar (12). The media-creation accompaniment to this essay demonstrates how Jérôme and Anna are indeed "sophisticated lay scientist[s]", who use strategies such as "self-observation, self- understanding and self-description" (21) and bring "vigilance and watchfulness into the spatial structure of the environment" (15). For example, Jérôme knows, almost with scientific precision, that snow over five centimeters blocks the reach-touch of his cane. He knows at what point he arrives at the bus stop at the corner near his house by carefully counting his steps and attending to his soundscape because the bus stop itself is just a post with a flag, in Jérôme's words, "an abstract point in the air". He also knows when the train arrives at the underground metro platform even if he is upstairs. Anna, too, is very aware of the materiality of her surroundings and what it does to her sphere of possible actions.
Feminist, critical race, disability and queer theory scholars have long questioned the unmarked subject position that patriarchy, racism, colonialism, sexism and ableism have created. What I propose by 'disability as method' 5 draws on these cultural studies traditions that critically examine what, in Robert McRuer's words, constitutes "the order of things, considering how and why it is constructed and naturalized" (2). This framing of disability takes its lead from what many other disability scholars have already pointed out: the epistemic possibilities that emerge from embodiments of disability (Siebers; Titchkosky and Michalko; Hamraie). If the normate, or the "preferred social body," to use Tobin Siebers's phrasing, remains "presupposed but invisible – until a nonstandard body makes an appearance" (85), then adopting disability as method entails tracing those appearances so as to mark what otherwise goes unmarked in everydayness. This allows us to expose the possibilities that a seemingly neutral world of supports affords the normate body, while putting other bodies out of place. This ignorant occupation of space is what I refer to as 'the habitus of ableism.'
"The field of positive action, of what this or that body does do," Sara Ahmed writes "also defines a field of inaction, of actions that are possible but that are not taken up, or even actions that are not possible because of what has been taken up" (58). It defines also, the labor of having to continuously make up for what the environment does not readily provide, that is, the need to develop a series of creative workarounds that I have elsewhere defined as "micro-activist affordances" (Dokumaci, "Vital Affordances" 404). The notion of the habitus of ableism thus refers to how certain action possibilities are rendered unreachable, improbable, or simply unthinkable because of what has already been actualized, materialized and concretized. By exploring how inaccessible affordances are encountered and how otherwise improbable and unthinkable affordances are searched for and brought into life, we may begin to expose what has made them unreachable and improbable in the first place. This is what I mean by applying disability as a method of critical theorizing. In tracing how disabled people have to make up affordances of their own, we may draw the contours of the "field of positive action" that I call the habitus of ableism.
Disability as a Method of Creative Practice
Given my focus on the habitus of ableism, I employ visual ethnography and creative media practice as tactical elements in my deployment of disability as method.
As I have argued elsewhere, disability is "very much about what gets buried in the banal minutiae of everyday life, be it a vanishing gesture, a detail of architecture, an unnoticed feature of an object or an unusual choreography of an ordinary action" (Dokumaci, "In Conversation"). These often unnoticed details are where the habitus of ableism manifests itself. The habitus of ableism is what gets erased in the ordinariness of the everyday, in the ephemerality of doing. Visual ethnography is a tactical part of my method because it allows me to capture precisely these details; to seize what otherwise disappears in the ephemerality of performance. What the habitus of ableism renders too familiar and hence unnoticeable, visual media can help make noticeable. This is where creative aspects of media practice come in. Video editing offers a range of technical possibilities, such as zooming in on details and manipulating time through edits. In my media practice, I take up these medium-specific affordances both as a counter-action to what the habitus of ableism does – erasing and forgetting – and as a way to highlight how disabled individuals come up with otherwise unimaginable affordances in the most mundane and most micro of their performances.
"On some level all movies are about seeing," Georgina Kleege writes. According to her, "the filmmaker shows [us] what to see and teaches [us] how to understand it" (58). Taking Kleege's point into account, I note that there is a medium-specificity to this article's application of disability as method. The affordances of video editing allow me to guide the audience's attention towards the habitus of ableism and enable the audience to behold things they may otherwise miss. Editing is a core component of my research-creation in that it lets me invite the audience to notice what the habitus of ableism erases and effaces.
Audio description as Blind Intervention
Using visual media for research concerned with blindness may at first appear contradictory. But this contradiction, does not inhere in visual media itself but in normalized viewing practices that privilege sightedness. I propose that we locate affordances not in the properties of media themselves (as has often been done in media studies) but in the mutuality of body-environment relations as originally proposed by James Gibson (127). Situating affordances in this reciprocity will, I argue, prevent us from limiting the affordances of media to a set of functions, and allow us instead to consider media, with John Peters, as "environments, containers of possibility" (2). Disability as a method of creative media practice entails considering media precisely as "containers of possibility", and seeking ways of making them afford possibilities that go beyond what is ossified in ocularcentric and ableist uses. To put this claim into practice, I apply AD as a form of blind intervention into the moving image by freezing frames and cripping the sighted time of visual media.
In its traditional use, AD is often squeezed into dialogue gaps and forced to fit into sighted time. This shows how blindness time is made to become, as Rod Michalko writes, "a time for something other than itself," obliged "to re-set its time to the 'sighted watch'." By adopting disability as method, I seek to reverse this order and let AD be a time for itself. I practice AD as a form of blind intervention in the following ways:
- I freeze the first frame of each new shot, as well other frames within the same shot as visually significant changes occur.
- I insert audio descriptions within the freeze-frames, thus giving them the time they need instead of the time of "audio gaps."
- Once the description is finished, I let the moving image 'move' until the next moment when description becomes necessary.
- I describe the events right at the point they occur. If less important changes are going to take place, I add their descriptions to the prior stop-frame.
- I add close-captions for the entire video, including the audio descriptions themselves so as to multiply blindness gain by "Deaf Gain" (Bauman and Murray).
While freeze-framing is a known AD practice, my deployment differs from existing uses in that I recast it as a form of blind intervention into media, following three principles. First, I do not deploy freeze-framing as just another way of describing, as it has often been the case, especially when dialogue gaps are short. Instead, I use stop-time as the rule of description, rather than the exception to it. In so doing, I apply it as form of a blind intervention into the medium of film itself – one that performs crip-time and lets the description take the time it takes. 6 Second, since they are integral to the timeline of the film, my audio descriptions cannot be turned off. All audience members, blind or not, have to access the video the same way. Here, I take my inspiration from the Blind Creations conference, during which the organizers decided to screen a documentary with its audio description track on, "so that non-blind viewers could experience this 'blind' kind of cinemagoing" (Thompson, "How the Arts"). Third, in my use of freeze-framing I seek to foreground "blindness gain" (Thompson, Reviewing Blindness 55). In their call to use AD as a pedagogical tool, Georgina Kleege and Scott Wallin emphasize that asking sighted students to audio describe images "can help all students think critically about the visual media" and prompt them to critically examine what they may otherwise take for granted. Building on Kleege and Wallin's work, I use freeze-framing as a pedagogical tool that can direct sighted viewers' attention to details that they may not otherwise notice in the everyday. In this sense, my consideration of audio description as a form of blind intervention connects with my application of disability as a method of theorizing critically. The details of the everyday that freeze-framing helps to capture add another layer of blindness gain to my project, whose aim is to expose the habitus of ableism that resides in otherwise unnoticed details of the everyday.
I caution the reader that the AD of the video, being a sighted viewer's first attempt, may involve issues that have already been raised in the literature on audio description, such as the dependency of blind viewers on a sighted describer's choices (Thompson, "How the Arts"), the power dynamic that emerge from this perceived reliance, and the tensions between poetic and functional language (Fryer). My hope is that future media practices will further this description technique by offering multi-sensory and collaborative forms of descriptions that involve multiple viewpoints, in the way Louise Fryer suggests.
A New Disability Studies Concept: The Habitus of Ableism
Disability activism and scholarship, has long argued that people are disabled not by their bodies, but by built and social environments that act as a materialized form of exclusion and discrimination. It is true that metro stations without lifts or buses without audio cues are inherently disabling. But what are we to make of the bodily behaviors of busy commuters in the Metro who block Jérôme's path, ignore or trip over his cane and leave almost no room for him. How are we to interpret the crowds surrounding Anna that might, at any moment, cause her to lose her balance? Are "attitudinal barriers" adequate to explain what is happening in these instances? If deliberate discriminatory attitudes were to blame, then the same commuters, as Jérôme attentively observes, would not be hostile obstacles in one situation and attentive and even helpful guides in another. Attitudes and prejudices know no rush hours. But the fact that fellow travellers can be facilitators to access in one situation, and become barriers to it in another, like the fact that they can be civilized when it is quiet but uncivilised as soon as there is a fight for space or a race against time, tell us that there is something more insidious, something beyond the reach of consciousness, something that is in fact deeply ingrained in the reflexes of the body, which I call the habitus of ableism.
Existing definitions refer to ableism as behaviours, beliefs, attitudes and practices 7 but not as a form of habitus. In defining ableism as a habitus, that is, "embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history" (Bourdieu 56), I seek to foreground precisely how entrenched this history is within a very "bodily hexis" (69). With the notion of the habitus of ableism, I am not only referring to beliefs, practices and perceptions but also to the very history that animates and is at the same time animated by them. The habitus of ableism as an incorporated and hence forgotten history puts the affordances of the world within easy reach of some bodies while making them simply beyond reach, inaccessible or even unimaginable for others.
This new definition of ableism takes our focus from early formulations of access to what Aimi Hamraie calls, "critical access studies" (13), and asks us to focus not only on access per se but also on how access is perceived, made sense of, denied, and continually negotiated. In this regard, thinking about ableism as habitus can help us better understand why access remains the exception rather than a default condition. How come its occasional, partial and limited provision can be, as Tanya Titchkosky asks, "taken as normal, sort of expected" rather than causing frustration and "wonder" (64)? It also can prevent us from taking access as a "self-evident good" (13) and rethink it, with Hamraie, as an historically entrenched knowing-making process, a set of habits and practices, and a "regime of legibility and illegibility" (14). Further, with the notion of the habitus of ableism, we can give an explicit name to what erases the support work that currently utilized affordances do for non-disabled bodies, while also turning the affordances that would sustain the daily living done by disabled bodies into access "issues," "special" needs and "assistive" devices, as if the world that sustains able-bodied living was not "assistive" or a means of "access." With this concept we can go beyond the social model and rights-based approaches, and address situations where no degree of amendment to legislation or architectural codes can turn misfitting – that is, what Jérôme experiences in the metro during rush hour – into fitting. Allow me to further elaborate on this final point.
Whiteness, Ahmed writes, can be described as "a bad habit: as a series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others" (129). The same can be said of ableism. It is a bad habit that puts certain affordances within easy reach of some bodies at the expense of their availability to others. As a habitus, ableism – to quote Pierre Bourdieu's definition of habitus – "ensures the active presence of past experiences, which, deposited in each organism in the form of schemes of perception, thought and action, tend to guarantee the 'correctness' of practices and their constancy over time, more reliably than all formal rules and explicit norms" (54). So, when the body takes up affordances of the world to the degree of making them simply unthinkable to others, it does so, not by way of following any explicit rule, but by way of the most spontaneous of gestures and the most neutralized of its perceptual schemes. As a form of habitus, ableism sizzles in the muscles, tendons and reflexes of the flesh; runs through its sensory schemes; and animates the way the body comes to perceive its world and make sense of things. This is how ableism becomes effective, elusive and difficult to notice. And it is exactly here that the potential of disability as method can be realized. If the habitus of ableism is a set of dispositions, in and through which space for action is ignorantly taken up and occupied, then in mapping the action possibilities that remain beyond that occupied space, we may begin to expose ableism for the habitus that it is.
Exposing the Habitus of Ableism
It is because the habitus of ableism puts the environment's affordances within easy reach of some bodies that others have to make up for whatever is not readily given to them through creative workarounds that I call micro-activist affordances. But forging affordances is no easy task. As Ahmed states, "[F]or bodies to inhabit spaces that do not extend their shapes" entails "hard work" (62). This hard work of having to come up with affordances of one's own – because the environment does not readily provide them – is what we observe throughout Jérôme's and Anna's daily engagements with their environments. It is because the Metro has no lifts that Anna has to choreograph a particular way of descending stairs by turning her body towards the rails and going down step by step – an affordance which reduces the risk of losing her balance. It is because buses have no audio cues that Jérôme has to come up with a complex mixture of affordances to locate his bus stop. 8 It is because crowds quickly occupy space that Jérôme and Anna have to develop, what Derald Wing Sue calls, "functional survival skills" in order to avoid people's "micro-aggressions" (47). That is why, when she is with a friend, Anna asks if she can hold their hand or hold onto them for support. That is why Jérôme knows very well when the crowd becomes hostile. In brief, it is because the habitus of ableism occupies the niches of the world that Jérôme and Anna (and many other disabled people) have to find ways of getting around barriers, and come up with their own affordance-creations. Disability as method means that we trace these affordance negations, negotiations and improvisations in order to expose what has made access out of reach in the first place. To apply disability as method is to recognize the hard labor that disabled people do every day in order to create their own space for action in competition with an ableist habitus that constantly exhausts that space.
A "Politics of Incoherency" and Inconvenience
Jérôme's and Anna's testimonies show us that different disabilities may have different and at times even conflicting claims to the same environment. Disability as method asks us not to gloss over these particularities, and not to reduce disability to a monolithic entity that is "known too well" and "with certainty" (Titchkosky 16–17). Disability as method begins from what Snyder and Mitchell call a "commitment to a politics of incoherency" (27). It takes the material particularities of misfitting as its basis to reimagine how to share an environment without exhausting the possibilities of action it offers to others. In adopting disability as method, we can show, for instance, that Metro transportation needs elevators to the same degree that it needs audio announcements of stops. Disability as method calls our attention to the heterogeneity of affordances that would support our bodily singularities, reciprocate our needs, and make us feel at home. It offers a way to rethink disability politics from a place of multiplicity and incoherency, not from a presumed sameness and consistency.
This, of course, is not an easy task. What supports the action possibilities of one kind of body might get in the way of another. Passengers might have to wait longer if the bus was to be "kneeled" at each bus stop to reduce step height. Audio description by freeze-framing might take more of our viewing time. Translating the "spoken" language of a film into subtitles requires translating what is "seen" in those subtitles into what is "heard" in its audio descriptions. But, to borrow a phrase from performance studies scholar Shannon Jackson, "such inconvenience is the price for being supported" while remaining a part of a community (42). Otherwise, different disability categories and groups could do to each other what the habitus of ableism has done to them, and take up space in ways that leave no room for other ways of moving, sensing, and being in the world. As Snyder and Mitchell argue "the competing claims of various identities parading beneath a 'unifying' identity rubric…[are] necessary to the vitality of disability collectivities" (26). In this regard, disability as method closely resembles Jackson's description of a "performance experimentation" (42). The experimentation involves, "the management of competing claims of inconvenience" brought by people who happen to occupy the same space, and it "commits to being inconvenienced by the claims that they bring" (42). It requires being open to contingency, experiment, incoherency, and inconvenience. It involves recognizing, learning from, making space for and dwelling within each other's micro-activist affordances.
My practice of audio description as blind intervention in the video I share here is one such micro-activist affordance. The freeze-frames, with which I crip time-based media and let the description take the time it takes, are means of inconveniencing sighted time so as to introduce a new viewing practice in and of itself – a viewing practice that supports all kinds of bodies, and goes beyond the limits of sightedness. What, then, is the cost of this support? A form of blindness gain where, I would argue, sighted viewers are given access to a more enriched viewing experience than they would otherwise have.
I would like to thank my participants Jérôme Plante and Anna January for their time, insights, and the incredible generosity with which they shared their experiences with me. I would also like to thank the co-editors of this issue for providing me with great insights and thoughtful commentary, and for helping me take this article to its final stage. This article draws on the materials of my postdoctoral research that I undertook at Concordia University's Mobile Media Lab, through funding from the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas and GRAND Networks of Centres of Excellence Program. The writing of this article was supported by a European Research Council Grant (ERC-2014-STG-639275, The Vitality of Disease - Quality of Life in the Making).
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I use "blindness gain" in reference to Hannah Thompson's work, where she proposes the notion as a way to understand how blind people's non-ocularcentric experiencing of the world can also prompt sighted people to relate to their environments in new ways (Reviewing Blindness 55). I also draw from Georgina Kleege's work, where she criticizes how "[p]eople speak of losing sight, never of gaining blindness" ("Blind Faith" 61). Blindness can be gained because it is, Kleege writes, "an array of nonvisual perception and other forms of acquired knowledge that when used in combination provide me with more reliable information than my eyes ever do" (61). In the areas of disability studies and Deaf studies, "gain" goes back to H-Dirksen Bauman and Joseph Murray's work where they, taking inspiration from artist Aaron Williamson's reflections, propose the term "Deaf Gain" (xv). The notion has then been expanded by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson in the idea of "disability gain".
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For further details on the event, please visit artofaccessconference.wordpress.com/
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For further projects on inaccessibility in Montreal, please consult m.i.a. collective (2013) mia.mobilities.ca/posters/index3.html
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Megafone is a project initiated by media artist Antoni Abad. For further details, please visit megafone.net/site/index
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For my earlier discussions of the notion, please refer to Dokumaci "Misfires", "Micro-activist", where I presented the notions of "disability as methodology" and "critical disability as method." In "Enabling Whom?", Julie Avril Minich defines "critical disability studies" itself as methodology in order to foreground what counts as disability and its study cannot be limited to an area of study itself.
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Here, I refer to Alison Kafer's definition of crip-time as "a reorientation to time". "Rather than bend disabled bodies and minds to meet the clock," Kafer writes, "crip time bends the clock to meet disabled bodies and minds" (27). This definition is especially relevant for how I conceptualize AD as a form of blind intervention into time-based media in the sense that it is the normative pacing of media (not the time of AD) that is being bent.
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For example, Fiona Kumari Campbell's oft-cited definition reads as follows: ableism is "a network of beliefs, processes and practices that produces a particular kind of self and body (the corporeal standard) that is projected as the perfect, species-typical and therefore essential and fully human" (44).
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At the time of my research (2014), bus transportation in the greater Montreal area provided no audio cues.
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