Web accessibility standards and disability: developing critical perspectives on accessibility

My new paper ‘Web accessibility standards and disability: developing critical perspectives on accessibility’ is now available as an ‘early online’ publication via the Journal of Disability and Rehabilitation. If you would like to read the article, but do not have access to the journal please get in touch with me directly, via selewthwaite [at] gmail .com, as I have 15 eprints to give away.

The paper will be published as part of a forthcoming Disability and Rehabilitation special issue focussed on universalism in design, edited by Rob Imrie. I will post the full details of the Special Issue when they become available. If you are interested this area, be sure to check out the Universalising Design project website, for events, research and news convened by Prof. Imrie and his team.

Abstract: Web accessibility standards and disability: developing critical perspectives on accessibility.

Purpose: Currently, dominant web accessibility standards do not respect disability as a complex and culturally contingent interaction; recognizing that disability is a variable, contrary and political power relation, rather than a biological limit. Against this background there is clear scope to broaden the ways in which accessibility standards are understood, developed and applied.
Methods: Commentary.
Results: The values that shape and are shaped by legislation promote universal, statistical and automated approaches to web accessibility. This results in web accessibility standards conveying powerful norms fixing the relationship between technology and disability, irrespective of geographical, social, technological or cultural diversity.
Conclusions: Web accessibility standards are designed to enact universal principles; however, they express partial and biopolitical understandings of the relation between disability and technology. These values can be limiting, and potentially counter-productive, for example, for the majority of disabled people in the “Global South” where different contexts constitute different disabilities and different experiences of web access. To create more robust, accessible outcomes for disabled people, research and standards practice should diversify to embrace more interactional accounts of disability in different settings.

Implications for Rehabilitation

  • Creating accessible experiences is an essential aspect of rehabilitation.
  • Web standards promote universal accessibility as a property of an online resource or service. This undervalues the importance of the user’s intentions, expertize, their context, and the complex social and cultural nature of disability.
  • Standardized, universal approaches to web accessibility may lead to counterproductive outcomes for disabled people whose impairments and circumstances do not meet Western disability and accessibility norms.
  • Accessible experiences for rehabilitation can be enhanced through an additional focus on holistic approaches to accessibility blending digital and physical solutions, the use of BS 8878 and mixed-method approaches to accessibility benchmarking.
  • Web standards and accessibility conformance should be considered together with user input and the recognition and development of local accessibility and rehabilitation expertize.

Keywords: accessibility, cultural norms, disability theory, WCAG, web standards.

Current Issues: New article on DSAs in Disability and Society

I have a new ‘Current Issues’ paper on cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances, published this week (4th July 2014) by the Journal of Disability and Society.

Reference: Lewthwaite, Sarah (2014) ‘Current issues: Government cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances must be resisted‘ Disability and Society. 4th July 2014.

The paper highlights issues around proposed cuts to Disabled Students’ Allowances and places them within a conceptual frame, focussing particularly on the relationship between Disabled Students’ Allowances, disclosure and how disability is defined in UK higher education. The article identifies how disabled peoples’ access to higher education will be endangered by cuts. In addition, research suggests that if DSAs are cut, the impetus to disclose disability will be reduced; as a result many disabled students within higher education could become invisible within academic statistics, damaging the validity of equality statistics. The article then draws on evidence to discuss the knock-on implications for the allocation of resources and satisfaction metrics. Finally, the article focusses on the ways in which DSAs shape how disability is defined (that is: who is consider disabled and who is considered non-disabled) in English higher education, and how government cuts will result in a redefinition that compromises both social and medical models of disability. Conceptually, cuts are observed to express Government’s regulation of disabled students as an enaction of biopower. I conclude that there is a risk with the proposed cuts, some disabled students will themselves be cut; excluded from higher education or rendered invisible within it.

The journal of Disability and Society is not an open-access journal. However, as the author, I have a limited number of copies (50) of the article that I can allocate freely. If you are working in this area, or involved in advocacy or consultation on cuts to DSAs, and cannot access the journal, please get in touch for your copy and I will be please to supply a copy. I will give preference to advocates and non-academic readers, so please let me know if you fall into either (or both) of these categories.

Finally; I’d like to highlight the value of ‘Current Issues’ and similar sections in academic journals for academics and researchers working in ‘live’ subject areas, particularly via open access journals. For my purposes, I pitched the paper to Disability and Society as the journal is a central to Disability Studies in the UK (and elsewhere). Disability and Society have a fast-track review process that means a ‘current issues’ article can be submitted, reviewed, amended and put through final copy process within 6-8 weeks for online publication. Full guidance on writing for this section is available on the journal website. My paper is short by journal standards (around 2,000 words) but much longer than many news or blog articles. As an academic publication, more conceptual and theoretical angles can be brought to bear upon the subject than other venues might allow. Many other journals have similar ‘current issues’ sections, and if you are wanting to disseminate your work or analysis these definitely bear consideration.

As ever, any comments are very welcome.

Funding cuts to disabled students will hit some universities hard

Today the Guardian published my article on the institutional implications of changes to Disabled Students Allowances. This piece identifies how cuts will have repercussions for the higher education sector as whole, not just students.

Image of Guardian article on institutional impact of cuts to DSAs
Image of Guardian article on institutional impact of cuts to DSAs

Tomorrow (Wednesday 2nd July) changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances will be debated in the House of Commons in ‘Westminster Hall’ debate from 2.30pm – 4.30pm.  Many MPs have expressed their concern about cuts to DSAs through parliamentary questions and by signing Early Day Motion (EDM) 48 (which has 95 signatories at time of writing). If you want to protect DSAs, the National Union of Students and other organisations are calling upon all students and supporters to lobby their MPs to attend the debate:

To ensure there are as many MPs as possible taking part, do get in touch with your MP to ask them to attend and speak at the debate. We have created a template letter which you can use.

And keep using the #degreesofdiscrimination hashtag on twitter and tweeting at your MPs too!

If you want to attend the debate, there is no system of tickets or advanced booking. Places are limited and visitors are admitted on a first come, first served basis. More information and details are available on the Westminster Hall pages of the UK parliament website.

Cuts to grant funding for disabled students will put their studies at risk

Today the Guardian published my evidenced-based take on proposed cuts to Disabled Students Allowances. 

Image of article on cuts to disability grants on Guardian website
Image of article on cuts to disability grants on Guardian website

On April 6th 2014, the minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, announced sweeping cuts and changes to Disabled Students’ Allowances in England. These cuts threaten disabled and dyslexic students’ studies.

I strongly advise all UK readers to petition these cuts and contact you MPs to ensure a parliamentary debate and Equality Impact Assessment before any changes to DSAs are made.

Edge 3 Accessibility Panel Video (Subtitled)

Following on from my last post on the availability of video from the EdgeConf London Accessibility panel earlier this month, I’m pleased to report that captioned and edited versions of all sessions are now online.  The newly subtitled Accessibility panel is embedded and linked below. The full playlist is available from the Google Chrome Developers YouTube account. Importantly, with all sessions now transcribed, you can search session transcripts via the EdgeConf site to discover relevant content more quickly.

Edge 3 Accessibility Panel Video

Yesterday the third Edge Conference was held in London. Footage from the afternoon’s Accessibility panel is now available via Google’s Web Developer account on YouTube (embedded below). From left to right, the panellists are Derek Featherstone (Simply Accessible) who also gives the opening address, myself (King’s College London), Chris Heilmann (Mozilla, our moderator), Alice Boxhall (Google), Andrew Ronksley (RNIB) and Matthew Tyler Atkinson (Paciello Group). If you’re listening to the video without visual cues, listen out for our (helpful!) accents. Derek is Canadian, Chris is German, myself, Andrew and Matthew are the Brits and Alice has the Aussie accent. As ever, comments are welcome! More reflections on the panel and conference as a whole to follow soon.

Edge 3 Conference: Accessibility Panel Broadcast

Edge London Logo
Edge London logo

It’s a big week in accessibility. CSUN 2014 (the 29th Annual International Technologies and Persons with Disabilities Conference) is now in full swing over in San Diego, California. Be sure to follow #CSUN14 on twitter to get your distance fix of accessibility tech news.

In addition, the third Edge conference is nearly upon us, taking place on Friday March 21st, 2014 here in London.  In the conveners’ own words:

Edge is a new kind of non-profit one-day conference on advanced web technologies for developers and browser vendors, raising funds for CodeClub.

As previously mentioned, the conference is hosted by FT Labs, Microsoft and Google in a collaborative spirit and intended for an expert audience. The event is now sold out. However, if you are interested following the conference online, all sessions will be broadcast live on YouTube and through the Edge website.  The Accessibility panel is due to start at 16.30 GMT. I’m in distinguished company; others on the panel include Chris Heilmann (Mozilla), Derek Featherstone (Simply Accessible), Alice Boxhall (Google), Andrew Ronksley (RNIB) and Matthew Tyler Atkinson (Paciello Group). It’s worth noting too that there are accessibility Big Guns slated to speak during other sessions.   Patrick Lauke (Paciello Group) is taking part in the Pointers and Interactions panel (beginning at 15.15 GMT), and Jeni Tennison (W3C) is delivering the opening talk on Future Web (17.30 GMT). In this respect our panel is by no means an accessibility ghetto; I’d be surprised if discussion of accessibility issues are limited to our afternoon slot.

If you’re reading this post in retrospect, or from the shameless luxury of the Grand Hyatt in sunny San Diego (*waves*) you can still access recordings of the day after the event. All panels, questions, discussions and so forth will be made publicly available. I’ll post links here when I get them. In the meantime, follow @EdgeConf on Twitter if you want a more immanent update.

Call for Papers: Disability, Technology and the Global South

Call for Papers: Disability and the Global South

An International Journal

Special Issue: Disability, Technology and the Global South.

Editors: Sarah Lewthwaite (King’s College London) and Anupama Roy (State University New York at Oswego)

Disability and the Global South is the first peer reviewed international journal committed to publishing high quality work focused exclusively on all aspects of the disability experience in the global South. It provides an interdisciplinary platform prioritising material that is critical, challenging, and engaging from a range of epistemological perspectives and disciplines. Disability and the Global South is an open access journal.

In this special edition we call for papers addressing the areas of disability, technology and the global South. Contributions will voice a range of global perspectives, recognising diversity rather than a ‘globalist account of a unified technology-driven world order’ (Selwyn, 2013). This special issue will examine the relations between technology, disability and impairment at the levels of design, development, resourcing, manufacture, distribution, governance and use in and across diverse locations. At present, notions of enabling and assistive technologies, their function and use, are mostly assumed by the global North. There is a scarcity of literature documenting technology initiatives that are rooted in the global South or expressing Southern, non-Western perspectives. This special issue seeks to voice research and critical positions on areas currently missing from global debate over the relations between technology and disability, and highlight overarching global issues that are currently silenced in technicist geo-politics.

We encourage contributions exploring a range of themes, including (not exclusively):

  • The intersection of disability and the resourcing, development, production of technology and its supply chain
  • Disability rights, technology governance and development policy
  • Universal Design
  • Web accessibility and web standards
  • Assistive technologies
  • ‘Digital Divides’
  • Disability and gaming
  • Data-farming, eSweat-shops
  • Learning Technologies, e-Learning, Disability and Education
  • Disability perspectives on global technology initiatives such as One Laptop Per Child
  • Disability perspectives on emerging development and technology disciplines such as ICT4D (Information and Communications for Development), M4D (Mobiles for Development).

The editors also welcome abstracts on any related areas and are happy to discuss potential submissions by email. We invite researchers and scholars from social science and technology disciplines such as disability studies, science and technology studies, development studies, communication and media studies, HCI, accessibility and Web Science, alongside activists and practitioners to submit papers and engage in debate around all aspects of disability and technology, prioritising viewpoints, experiences and knowledge from those in the global South.


First complete drafts of full papers due by: Monday 30th June 2014

Following peer review, comments returned to authors by: Monday 1st September 2014

Final revised copy to be submitted by authors: Monday 1st Dec 2014

Likely publication: Feb/March 2015

We welcome informal inquiries. Abstracts and inquiries should be submitted by email addressed to:  Sarah Lewthwaite (King’s College London): sarah.lewthwaite@kcl.ac.uk and Anupama Roy (State University New York at Oswego): onupama@gmail.com.

Review: Disability and New Media

Disability and Society have just published their latest edition; Journal issue 1, volume 29, featuring my review of Ellis and Kent’s 2011 book Disability and New Media, which was released in paperback last year. This book is recommended reading. My review concludes as follows:

In summary Disability and New Media presents an essential new history of digital media. Ellis and Kent offer a meticulous account of the structural enaction of disability in the design and delivery of new media. The book focuses mainly on the socio-technical properties of these technologies rather than the person-to-person experiences of prejudice and exclusion that may be perpetuated across a network. However, this account testifies to disabled people’s digital rights, tenacity and the importance of accessible digital media for all. The authors highlight valuable concepts, hidden histories and developments that inform all our lives. As such, this book makes useful reading for computer scientists and disability scholars alike, highlighting the need to develop this field. Disability and New Media does not represent a definitive guide to social media, new technologies and disability. Such an omniscient review is not possible when the very newness of the technologies in question resist definition and when the authors have at one point lost some critical focus. Nonetheless, this book represents a significant inquiry, offering a gateway for scholars and activists investigating the affordances of media that increasingly shape our understanding of our world and ourselves.

The full review can be found at:

Sarah Lewthwaite (2014): Review: Disability and new media,
Disability & Society, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2013.864864

You can buy Disability and New Media on the Routledge website. The authors, Katie Ellis (@KkatieEllis) and Mike Kent (@cultware) can also be found on Twitter.

Universalising Design @ Open University

On February 21st 2014 I’ll be presenting and the third in a series of ESRC seminars considering “Designing inclusive environments: shaping transitions from theory into practice” at the Open University in Milton Keynes. This ESRC seminar focusses on deepening understandings of Universal Design, as part of the European “Universalism: Universal design and equitable access to the built environment” project, convened and led by Rob Imrie at Goldsmiths College, London, and Rachel Luck at the OU. This seminar focuses on “Translational practices and the operationality of universal design”.

My presentation will focus putting practice into theory, with a focus on hierarchies of impairment and the application of web accessibility standards in practice in UK higher education. Other presenters include Bill Gaver, Mark Rouncefiled, Simon Holland, Guy Dewsberry, Dean Cowan and Jamie Brooker. The full schedule is available on the Universalising Design website.