Disability Studies · Media

Disability and New Media

To follow-up Goggin & Newell, the next installment of annotated bib posts is Disability and New Media. For a useful review, check out this piece by Laura Howard for Disability Studies Quarterly.


Cover of Disability & New Media
Disability and New Media by Katie Ellis & Mike Kent

This book offers a crucial cultural exploration of how disability (and disability studies) informs and is complicated by web 2.0 environments—a markedly different contribution than a technical approach to web accessibility that other new media and disability texts have offered. Building from Digital Disability, Ellis and Kent take as their exigence Berners-Lee’s call for accessibility, which they argue has been cast aside with rapid increases in complicated graphics and texts and the sheer volume of user-generated content that does not account for web standards (2).

At the heart of this book is a familiar concern for those in internet/new media studies: the reproduction of social inequity within the digital realm. The authors fear that the historical prejudices and exclusions of the disabled are reproduced by our digital technologies. Ellis and Kent take up social theory of disability in order to identify ableist practices and technologies and, more importantly, to offer possibilities for how we can productively eliminate ableist technologies (4). Broken into three parts, the book explores Universal Design (UD), the history of communication technologies and social networks, and how accessibility can be at the forefront of future digital design. Ultimately, “This book questions the rhetoric that digital technologies are an automatic source of liberation and inclusion of people with disability, and demonstrates that disability is socially created and reproduced in digital technologies” (7).

Part Two, “How Did We Get Here?” is the most useful for considering how our technologies and our perceptions and prejudices of disability have developed over time. In exploring the history of web accessibility, the authors argue, “Even in cultural and media studies of the digital divide, disability is rarely foregrounded as a case study” (77). That is, even though folks have explored how particular groups have gained (or been denied) material access to the web, accessibility has largely been overlooked. The authors also note that the rhetoric of Web 2.0 suggests a space that is open to everyone, which will make it even more collaborative; however, this is something that can’t happen if we don’t address accessibility issues or, more largely, recognize disability as socially constructed (77).

Ellis and Kent echo this when they argue that assistive technologies are stigmatized and that the disabled are seen as dependent on and helpless without those technologies in ways that able-bodied technology users are not (81). Assistive technologies are situated within a technological deterministic framework that positions disability as a deficit that a particular technology can help fix or cure, framing disability within a medical model of individual deficit (82). More specifically, “The deficit model of disability sees adaptive technologies as part of a rehabilitative discourse that assumes the relationship between the individual and user is one of dependence whereby experts without personal experience of disability dictate technological forms of cure and care” (84). The alternative that Ellis and Kent posit is not a retrofit that makes accommodations for particular users—which can exclude other users and position these accommodations as “special”—but to create accessible digital spaces from the start, folding in elements of UD into our web design.

Although other disability studies and rhetoric and composition scholars have problematized UD as a neoliberal fix, Ellis and Kent push UD not to emphasize it as a sweeping solution but as a means to begin creating more accessible technologies and digital spaces. The authors highlight closed captioning as a prime example of accessible technology that was not widespread until it became regulated by law, contrasting this with the inaccessibility of Netflix. Because Netflix is not legally required to provide closed captions, it has been a slow and difficult process—studded with user petitions—to make it an accessible service. Here, we can see the value of UD as a set of principles that could have made Netflix accessible from the beginning rather than necessitating a time-intensive retrofit, the fruits of which we can now access through the Netflix mobile app.

This flexible, mobile access is—as the authors argue—what will ultimately help create more accessible technologies because mobile access emphasizes accessibility as a universal goal for all technology users, not only for the disabled (146).


Ellis, Katie, and Mike Kent. Disability and New Media. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

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