Category: Current Affairs

Vic Finkelstein Wikipedia Entry


Yesterday I heard the sad news of the recent death of disability activitst and writer, Vic Finkelstein.   To those who knew him and have been touched by his work, this is a huge loss.  At present, there seem to be few indications that Vic will receive the high-profile national obituary that his reputation demands (although I hope to be proved wrong). [Update 6 Dec 2011: Mike Oliver has indicated that obituaries are planned for the Independent and Guardian]. [Update 19 Dec 2011: The Independent: Vic Finkelstein Obituary, update 22 Dec 2011: The Guardian: Vic Finkelstein Obituary].

In an attempt to make Vic’s huge contribution to disability studies and the disabled people’s movement available to a wider audience I’ve begun a wikipedia page:  Vic was a pioneer and stalwart of the disabled people’s movement, his life story is testament to this. As Colin Barnes has stated – his contribution to disability studies was unprecedented.  This is a very basic page by no means a sufficient reflection of Vic’s life and work.  In this respect, the page would benefit greatly from other people’s contributions. Wikipedia is collaborative, so I hope that you will consider contributing to the Vic Finkelstein wikipedia entry.

You can edit the page yourself directly if you create an account with wikipedia. However, if you are not familiar with wikis, do not wish to register, or find wikipedia inaccessible (notably I had to complete a visual CAPTCHA to publish the initial page), please send text, specific edits and additional references to me directly and I will try to enter them on your behalf.  You can contribute via email to selewthwaite at gmail dot com, or by commenting below.

Who is Researching Disability in Facebook?

This is my first post of 2011, I’d really appreciate your thoughts to develop these arguments. Comments, as ever, are welcome!

At New Year I met some new people and began explaining my PhD research into Disability and Social Networks (no doubt more technically and tediously than my audience had hoped). In the following discussion a ‘disability’ vignette came up. A reveller described how a colleague at work was currently out of the office sporadically, due to anxiety. She was signed off work on grounds of stress. However, word had spread around the office that, despite the leaves of absence being taken, this person had posted several upbeat messages on Facebook over weekends, including photos from parties and other social events. Others in the office were beginning to question the reality of her mental health on this basis.

My own research highlights how the boundaries of disability shift in social networks, as disability and ability are ascribed and mediated by peers, tools and the social context. To me, this vignette highlights the complexity of disability and its representation online, alongside some worrying developments in disability-surveillance.

Research into Facebook highlights powerful social norms that are enacted in social media due to context-collapse. Importantly, Facebook in particular, is an upbeat space where users present their ‘best’ self for scrutiny before a mixed audience of friends, family, associates etc; lots of different contexts are collapsed into one. As a result, many people upload their only best (sometimes airbrushed) photos, comment with only their wittiest witticisms and so on. This instigates a powerful norm of ingratiation. In research interviews, the disabled students I spoke to repeatedly stated that Facebook was not a place to publicly express depression or serious mental illness. Indeed, for some, the only signifier of such disabilities in networked publics was silence, a lack of interaction resulting in greater isolation. Such silences may be noticed by attentive friends, however, as we will see, to insurers and employers, it is noise, not silence, that attracts the most attention.

Somehow, Facebook interactions known to be private and frivolous, have become caught up in a legal and corporate project to define how much disability is required to qualify as disabled. In these terms, Facebook is conveniently identified as the inside track, the Truth of what is going on. Within this, any number of assumptions about what constitutes a disability are enacted. More importantly, an underlying concern can be perceived regarding the force with which the boundaries are decided without reflection. I would argue that these moves ‘discipline’ disabled people. In this way, disabled people must perform a strictly defined role. The abilities of a disabled person are rendered suspect: and, according to this view, there is nothing more offensive than a disabled person who is not disabled, or not disabled enough. Within this dichotomy there is no room for grey areas, i.e. the complexity and diversity of impairments that exist in day to day life. Grey areas are difficult; it is much easier to render these issues in cartoonish black and white.

A recently example comes from the Chicago Tribune (also printed in the LA Times).  The Tibune highlight how insurers are looking to Facebook for evidence to challenge claims.

If someone receiving disability benefits for a bad back brags on Facebook or Twitter about finishing a marathon, chances are their insurance company will find out and stop the cheques.

Chicago Tribune

The newspaper leads with an extreme example, the ‘person with a bad back’ signed off work, who then posts to Facebook that they have completed a marathon.  This vignette is offered as the quintessential disability con.  Underneath this headline, however, any number of more complex cases cascade; including the mundane case of the person experiencing anxiety attacks, signed sporadically on and off work and but maintaining a social life. Expressing such a life in Facebook is important – to challenge stigma and resist isolation. However, whilst employers and insurers stalk the network, I’m concerned that users will be forced to choose between performing Normal according to non-disabled network norms OR performing the externally defined role of the Disabled Person. Increasingly, physical or cognitive impairment has nothing to do with it.

Digital Election Special

Yesterday Alex Watson (@Sifter) published Use the Internet to Decide How to Vote on bit-tech. The article identifies various resources, from checking your voter status at to researching your current MP at They Work For You.

With less than 24 hours till polling, this post is a little late, but I’d like to highlight a couple of excellent resources the have emerging from digital accessibility communities via Twitter.

First up, consider the excellent work by Elena Newly (via Twitter @AutismWales) who has worked to provide Easy-Read summaries of all the political Parties’ manifestos. These Easy-Read documents are designed for learning disabled adults and those involved with the LD community. She has also created an Easy-Read Summary of the second TV Leaders’ Debate.

Secondly, consider the election resources available from the British Sign Language Broadcasting Trust . This has included a schedule of signed programmes and two key Election broadcasts available online:

The first election special deals with the voting process.

The second election special ‘Your Country Needs You’ focuses on making an informed decision.

If you know of other digital resources I’ve missed, please add a comment below.

iPhone 3Gs Accessibility results

Images of iphone with alternative high contrast text on screen
Images of iphone with alternative high contrast text on screen

Yesterday Apple announced the next iteration of the iPhone, the 3Gs. The good news is it’s more accessible. Tim O’Brien offers a promising and comprehensive analysis of Apple’s recent developments in his article  New iPhone 3G S, More Accessibility.  This comes highly recommended.

Digital Rights and Wrongs

With the European Elections fast approaching, the Open Rights Group have asked UK candidates what they think about key digital rights issues such as online privacy, surveillance state, open internet and copyright reform.  To view responses, visit the Open Rights Group EU Election pages.

The Open Rights Group is a grassroots technology organisation which exists to protect civil liberties wherever they are threatened by the poor implementation and regulation of digital technology.  This is an important area for advocacy and got me thinking. When we consider digital rights – particularly Internet access as a human right – government action to ensure equitable internet access and close digital divides appears straightforward.  However, the intersection between the internet and disabled people as users is not the sum, total interface between digital infrastructure and disability.

Last year at the biennial Disability Studies Association conference in Lancaster (UK), Australian academic Dr Helen Meekosha presented the keynote Contextualizing disability: developing southern/global theory. This paper advocated global perspectives on disability, challenging gaps in western/northern disability discourse.   Meekosha observes that global levels of disability are not a given, they are dependent on factors such as war, disaster, economics and climate change.  In view of this, the decisions made by elected governments on defence, trade, international aid and the environment have repercussions for levels of disability around the world.  I would argue that digital legislation is bound into this policy ecology.  For example, in environmental terms… (I’m thinking of Nicolas Carr’s assertion that the average Second Life avatar consumes as much energy as the average Brazillian and the revelations that the CO2 emissions of the ICT industry outstrip aviation) …green computing could be concieved as a human rights and disability issue.

However, Meekosha identifies more direct causal effects relating technology and disability, specifically through outsourcing to ‘eSweatshops’.  She also observes:

Disability scholars rarely venture into this territory – leaving these issues to scholars in feminism and international development.

Citing the excellent article ‘A New Front in the Sweatshop Wars?‘ by Farrell & Olsen, (2001) Meekosha highlights the emergence of eSweatshops, dedicated to data processing, as a physically damaging, disabling environments.  Farrell and Olsen scope high-profile academic digitisation projects that have been sub-contracted to countries such as Barbados, India, Mexico and Cambodia whilst observing the lack of any regulation.  In one instance they describe disabled people targeted for employment by a Harvard sub-contractor.  This is a complex area of competing interests, deftly handled by Farrell and Olsen. More recent literature from organisations such as Cafod focuses on manufacturing sweatshops, for ICTs and software. It’s a reminder that digital resources, tools and structures can infringe rights and create impairment, outside traditional views of inaccessible systems and accessibility discourse.

UK Digital Economy Research Hubs

April 29th saw the launch of three ‘digital economy hubs’.  Three new centres based in Nottingham, Newcastle and Aberdeen will ‘develop digital technology to transform the lives of older people, people with disabilities, and people in rural communities’. This is inclusion ‘through the digital economy’. The Nottingham hub will focus on ‘always on, always with you’ technology. Aberbeen will focus on how technologies can benefit rural communities.  Newcastle’s remit covers ‘new technology for social inclusion’. According to the blurb this concerns:

Making sure everyone – young, older and disabled – is included in our digital future. By 2050 more people will be over 65 years of age than under 16 in the UK. Newcastle will work with older people to design simple, intuitive interfaces tailored to their needs.

The Newcastle Hub is the first to launch a website and can be found at:

National Digital Inclusion Conference

A 'select-all' key. A suitable metaphor for digital inclusion?

Earlier this week  (the 27th-28th of this month), the UK’s National Digital Inclusion Conference ’empowerment through technology;’ took place in Westminster, London.  Following on from their live feeds, 16 presentations including the keynote speakers are now available online. Speakers are largely governmental,  including Paul Murphy MP, Minister for Digital Inclusion, Sion Simon MP, Minister for Further Education and Lord Carter, Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting, alongside representatives from the BBC, Wired and elsewhere.  I’m hoping to comb the video materials and cross reference them with AbilityNet‘s thoughts on Twitter for some steer on where to look.  I hope to post a digested read here reflecting any comment on Disability, Digital Divides and Higher Education in the next week or so.

Technology Enhanced Learning: Digital Inclusion Forum

Technology Enhanced Learning Logo
Technology Enhanced Learning

Yesterday saw the launch of the newly formed Digital Inclusion Forum set up by the Technology Enhanced Learning Programme, which is funded by the ESRC and EPSRC and directed by Richard Noss here in the UK.

In 2008 BECTA‘s Disadvantaged Learners Report observed that the lack of a single voice in UK policy championing disadvantaged learners has led to unhelpful fragmentation – particularly in addressing digital disadvantage across education.  Hopefully this Forum will help to draw together disparate resources and streams of research and practice to give more cohesion to those seeking to mitigate exclusion within technology enhanced learning.

The Digital Inclusion Forum has two key purposes:

  • To identify key inclusion-related questions and issues for research into digital inclusion issues in education
  • To discuss and evaluate the contribution that the TEL research programme can make to the digital inclusion research agenda.

According to Jane Seale, the group convener, there will be two main phases of activity:

  • The first phase (May-November 2009) will be the development of an online space for sharing digital inclusion related resources, discussing inclusion-related issues and scoping priorities for digital inclusion research. It is hoped the online space will be a platform for the collaborative writing of a web-based document that starts to draw together what the key issues are in relation to digital inclusion research.
  • The second phase (December 2009-September 2010) will involve the setting up of a commentary group who, drawing on the web-based document will co-author a TEL branded publication which offers a commentary on digital inclusion research and highlights the contributions of the TEL projects to the field.

The forum welcomes input, with invitations being issues specifically around contributions to an emergent Digital Inclusion Reference Library and posts to the new discussion forum.

To add any digital inclusion references that you think are relevant and make a significant contribution to the field visit:

To add to a conversation thread or post a response on the Discussion Forum visit:

The forum also notably draws on blogs and other resources tagged with ‘digitalinclusion’. This marriage of expertise and materials will hopefully accrue into a valuable resource for everyone working to achieve access and equity in technology enhanced learning.

Society Guardian

On Friday I discovered that a letter I sent to the Society Guardian online has been published.  I was responding to an article by Stuart Dakers: "My dislike for this woman goes beyond her disability" March 26, 2008.  My response, along with others can be found on the Letters extra page of the Society Guardian for Wednesday April 2nd at

Interestingly, the Society Guardian editor Patrick Butler has also waded in:  Personally, I don’t feel this editorial response actually answers the concerns I, and some others, raise.   

Dr Peter Norvig Interview

My interview with Dr Peter Norvig, head of research at Google, is now live at:

The interview covers Google’s current research, their plans for the future, and Norvig’s thoughts on Google’s relationship with hardware, accessibility and education.

*update* (10/10/2009) Custom PC have recently moved to As a result the above article has moved. I’ll re-link when I’ve solved the mystry of its new location.