D5: Disability and Universal Access



Steven Hammer, St. Josephs University
Samuel Harvey, St. Cloud State University
Liberty Kohn, Winona State University


This panel began with Steven Hammer of Saint Joseph’s University presenting on “The Sounds of Access: Disability, Art, and Open Source DIT (do-it-together) Interventions.” Hammer’s presentation is concerned with Western art history and multimedia writing’s tendency to ignore the perspectives and contributions of disabled people, and with the tendency towards a deficit model. He notes that after a diagnosis, there is a prognosis, which rather than simply describing what life will or could be like, it uses a presumed (and now unavailable) norm as a basis and describes how life will be different from that norm due to the diagnosis. In doing so, we use the normate body and life path as a measuring stick for people who are clearly going to have a different path (not a slowed or shortened journey on the same path,) measuring disability, impairment, and prognosis by how closely people imitate (or how broadly we fail to imitate) the normative path.

In addition to his questioning of the normative path, which only some people fail to achieve, or which people may fall off eventually as bodies fail, he questions whether anyone is truly on that path. He suggests, rather than asking about how only certain people with certain diagnoses have bodies which are failing or considering how all bodies will eventually fail, asking “how are you failing right now?” He proposes that we consider the medicines we are taking to keep our bodies running every day, as a sort of glitch theory. There is, of course, the risk that in answering this question, people will presume their experiences of bodily failure are equivalent to that of people with disabilities, who face oppression and marginalization based on their abilities in addition to the primarily practical concerns of keeping their bodyminds running. Hammer does draw attention to this concern, as it is important to note the social factors of disability as well as the embodied and practical notions. (It is not sufficient to consider either part alone.)

Hammer then spoke about projects done together which use open source and glitch-theory methods to increase the accessibility of artistic production. One such project was his work on instruments for Arduino, creating open source digital instruments which anyone can download, modify, and use.

Hammer also drew a connection between Alexei Kruchenykh’s idea of developing a language with no fixed meanings and his communication with his son, where the sounds are not words and the meanings might change from day to day. I, then, connect these ideas with Dave Hingsburger’s idea that some non-normative communicators, including disabled people with no standard communication system (like Hammer’s son) could be seen as the sole fluent speaker of their own individual language.

After Hammer’s talk, Samuel Harvey from Saint Cloud State University spoke on “Autism, Neurodiversity, and Identity Formation Through the Internet.” Harvey’s talk covered the history of work on identity formation and on theory of mind, including the relations of these issues to autistic people. Noting that work on identity formation presumes that identity formation rests upon social interaction and the ability to understand what others are thinking (Theory of Mind,) and that autism comes with difficulties in social interaction, he asks what this would mean for identity formation in autistic people.

From there, he continues on to enthymemic dehumanization of people, particularly autistic people, where statements about identity formation, humanity, and theory of mind are made which logically lead to (never explicitly stated) denial of identity or humanity to marginalized people. The two primary examples Harvey notes are: 1) If identity formation depends on an understanding of what others think, or a theory of mind, and autistic people lack a theory of mind, then autistic people would be unable to develop an identity, and 2) If theory of mind is innate to humans, and certain groups are found not to have a theory of mind, that members of those groups are not human.

Harvey also notes issues with the current methods of testing theory of mind, primarily the Sally-Anne test, in that passing these tests depends on linguistic ability and upon cultural factors. He finds that rather than being innate to humans, theory of mind is innate to dominant groups, who use it as a tool of oppression to rob people of identity, agency, and personhood.

Liberty Kohn of Winona State University spoke third, on “Sound Pedagogy: Sound Art as Rhetoric, Poetic, and a Voice in the Composition Classroom.” He explored audio assignments, noting that while it is common to assign students to read multiple kinds of media, if students are not also writing multiple kinds of media they are not participating in a fully multimedia experience. He spoke about meta-language, and having students make versions of audio both including and excluding the meta-language in their assignments, and of the rhetoric of these choices.In addition, he covered the idea of teaching non-musicians to produce audio in the classroom, as audio assignments are currently primarily the domain of people whose areas of study relate directly to audio.

Tweets made about this panel are collected here, and the panel was part of a wider conversation on disability and access, with relevant tweets (including those made about this panel) available here.

About Author

Alyssa Hillary

Alyssa Hillary is an Autistic activist, scholar, writer, and artist. Sie studies/d Mechanical Engineering, Mathematics, and Mandarin Chinese at the University of Rhode Island, and works in the field of Disability Studies, focusing on neurodiversity related issues. Sier research interests include different approaches to technology, design, and disability.

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