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This is the transcript from my 2015 presentation at Computers and Writing:
Oh, yeah. Thank you. Slideshow. From beginning. Awesomeness.
Okay, that’s close enough to the color I was aiming for.
So, you might notice that the language on my slideshow is fairly basic, “Actually including more people using the internet—writing calls so the invited contributors can understand.” That’s because, part of what I’m talking about is trying to include more people, including people whose disabilities are cognitive, whose disabilities affect language use in some way—I’m part of this group.
Sometimes that inclusion can go wrong. We’ve got one case, the Feminist Wire’s forum on disability about two years ago—I was pretty heavily involved in this one, in running into the access barriers, in trying to change them, and in having mixed levels of success changing them.
One of the first things that we saw was “Disability seems to be trending in academia these days.” While that might be true, talking about the fact that it’s trending as part of why you want to talk about it is not really a good way to make the people who’ve been working in the area before it was cool like you and want to contribute. It’s a good way to really piss off the people who live this reality every day. So, that’s problem the first.
Problem the second. The call for submissions—and this is pretty typical of everything that’s academic or academic-ish, not just the Feminist Wire— it had lots and lots of jargon. We run into this problem as academics when we’re reading something from even an adjacent but slightly different discipline. The difference between academia and activism is just as big, if not bigger. The difference between academia and people who have language difficulties can be even wider depending on exactly what our language disabilities are. (Even for those of us who have language disabilities and are academics!)
They say, straight up, that they are asking for disabled people, activists, and writers to contribute, which is great. But when the call for submissions is written such that people with disabilities mostly can’t understand it, that kind of makes them liars. It’s not a nice way of putting it, but it’s accurate.
One disabled activist, Kassiane Sibley—she’s autistic, epileptic, blogs at Radical Neurodivergence Speaking—her statement, “Cognitive inaccessibility—” meaning, writing so that people can’t understand it “—is bad because it’s hard for disabled people to understand, it’s hard for people who couldn’t afford a fancy education—” like most of us here have had, “—to understand. A lot of disabled people, people of color, disabled people of color can’t afford said education, and these problems are part of why disability studies, and why academia in general, is so white and so upper-middle class.” No one else can understand what we’re talking about.
So, we talked to the Feminist Wire. They responded. “Given the sustained exclusion and economic vulnerability of those with disabilities, the academic language of our call was pointed to as yet another method of exclusion. Reduced access to formal higher education works to perpetuate a cycle of ableism.”
What they’re saying is actually a lot like what I just said, but this is still kind of jargon-filled. And when we were talking about cognitive disability, language disability as one of the big main issues, they’re talking about it just as access to higher education.
Since cognitive disabilities—any disability other than physical/mobility/sensory has a tendency to get erased when talking about disability, this is actually a big issue.
When they edited their call for submissions initially, there weren’t really any changes made to the body. We just got five more paragraphs of jargon at the front about why it’s important to revise. That actually makes it harder for us to understand what the call for submissions is, so the first attempt at remedying it actually made it worse.
Then they get asked, because we say, “Hey, it’s still inaccessible.” What do we do? Well, they appreciate our feedback; they appreciate our comments, but they’re not rewriting it again. They didn’t rewrite it the first time, really, but they’re not editing it again. They’re not making another version either.
They invite us to share our own interpretations. This requires that we’re able to make heads or tails of the call. In general, when you’re being asked about access from a disabled person, and you then say, “Why don’t you do it yourself?” you’re asking the person you just excluded to fix the problem you created. That’s victim blaming and it’s not going to work. We’re not going to solve the problem that way.
This is, in fact, doubling down on the barriers, making it harder to get in. Why is academia so able, white, upper-middle class? Because if you can’t get in because of the barriers that they’ve put up, you’re expected to fix it yourself.
So then there’s the question, “Why do those of us who are already here care?” Clearly people with disabilities care. That’s why we’re trying to fix it. But why do the people who are inside care? For one thing, related to philosophy of science and production of knowledge, Helen Longino notes that excluding people from conducting research based on them being part of given social group is actually a cognitive failing in the researchers. It makes research not be as good.
Daniel Hutto, talking about folk psychology, notes that the best explanations for why someone acted the way they did usually comes from the person who just acted1. That is, we’re going to get a better idea of what’s going on in the lives of people with disabilities if we ask them, if we listen to them, if we write our calls of asking people to talk about the issue so that people with disabilities can actually understand what’s going on.
Right now, we’ve got an issue where people who are speaking, effectively, different languages or different dialects, even if they’re still part of the same language officially—things like academic-ese, academic-ese, the words that your plumber knows to describe what he’s doing as they’re fixing your pipes—these are both considered part of English, but they’re different. And going from understanding from one to the other requires, effectively, translation.
The burden of conducting these translations—of crossing these cultural and linguistic divides—tends to go on the person whose version of language is considered less than. Post-modern academics are fairly high up on the totem pole. Disabled activists are fairly low. Therefore, it’s our problem, except it can’t and shouldn’t be our problem, at least not just our problem. That’s part of how we get into trouble.
So. Why is it hard to fix? Well, this involves changing the entire of culture of academia. That’s no small order. Like most cultures, there’s a good bit of investment in keeping things the way things are.
So, many of us remain unsure of how to practically create accessible texts. We don’t know how to write understandably, never mind disrupt pedagogical infrastructures or cultivate radically inclusive conferences, whatever that means when we translate out of academic-ese. We also don’t know how to change the structure of teaching. We don’t know how to make conferences that actually include people with disabilities and other typically excluded groups, as speakers, or even sometimes as attendees. That’s from Melanie over there, our moderator. She talked about this in the call for submissions for Cripping the Computer, where I’m writing about this problem at much greater length.
And, there’s stereotypes. When we think of people with disabilities or any other minority group as being disconnected, it can discourage content producer, or people calling for submissions, from reaching out to members of these groups to ask for contributions. We get a bit of a vicious cycle there.
And then, of course, within academia, we tend to want to position ourselves as experts, and in many cases, we really are. But nobody’s an expert at everything. When we don’t know something, it’s hard for us to ask for help. And that means that, when we don’t know how to do it, we’re probably going to continue not knowing. We may even try to push it off as something that isn’t important—that doesn’t matter.
Now how do we fix this? There’s writing in plain language or plainer language. This involves knowing what plainer language even means. The thing about language is that, once you’re used to a bunch of words—once you’re used to a certain way of writing or speaking—it looks natural to you; it feels natural. We can get used to writing in a given way. We may not realize all of the terms that we use that actually are jargon. When this happens, well, knowing what plainer language even is or how to write in it becomes tricky for academics.
We could use activist language. Most of the disabled people who aren’t part of academia who are trying to contribute probably have some familiarity with activist groups and the ways that activists talk about things. This requires that the people who write in the calls are familiar with the terms that activists use.
Sometimes those are the same as what academics use; sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes we’ve got words that academics don’t have; sometimes they’ve got words we don’t have; sometimes both.
We’ve got versioning. We’re concerned about here, do we have somebody who can actually write in more than one of these dialects? This has been done to good effect. In a call for submissions for Accessing the Future fiction, they had a plain language version and a version that was more academic. There’s another conference, currently open call for submissions in the UK, where they have an academic call and an activist call because of these differences. What you need is someone who can translate for you. This might be multiple people. You might need multiple translators if there’s more than one version.
Between different disciplines, you’ll have different kinds of jargon. And of course, there remains the issue of, what happens if one of these versions—perhaps an inaccessible one—becomes the default version, and the plainer language version that’s easier for people with disabilities to understand is thought of as secondary.
This has happened, and it does mean that people with disabilities, or people who need a plainer language version for any reason, don’t necessarily see it. They might only ever find out about the inaccessible version, because sometimes, even though both versions exist, the more accessible version links back to the original main, default, hard to read one, but not the other way around. Then we’re stuck.
There’s also the possibility that we, as academics, can ask for help. We can recognize these other ways of knowing as real, as important, as useful, lived experiences, other formats. This is, perhaps, the biggest cultural change of all, which means it’s probably the one that’s hardest to affect, but it’s important because, when academics continue trying to read, write, talk about any given minority group without looking to members of those groups for help on making it so that we can join the conversations about ourselves—when they expect that academics talking about any given issue are either not part of the group we’re talking about, or are expected to distance ourselves from our lived experiences as members of that group—this is making our research less good.
We should recognize these other ways of knowing as real. We should be able to ask for help. I don’t know how much we’re there yet. These are kind of the ways that we can work on trying to fix this problem. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take concerted effort by a lot of people working to change how we ourselves act, not just pointing out how other people act. That’s why I put simpler words, mostly, on my time—on this. That’s why I’m recording. I’m putting this up for people who can’t be here today for any reasons.
1His book, Folk Psychological Narratives, does propose some alternative ideas to inherent theory of mind stuff. However, his application of his basic ideas to autism is … not good. If you want to apply his broader ideas to autism specifically, do it yourself while listening to what autistic adults have to say about our own experiences and reasons for acting (like his broader ideas would totally suggest you should.)