“The Sound of Light”: Composing Access, Composing Justice


The Conference on College Composition and Communication recognizes that disabled people “have been oppressed and continue to be relegated to the margins.” As part of its Policy on Disability, Cs affirms that it strives to go “beyond the minimum standards” to “acknowledge the right of full inclusion for all members of society.” But even so, access can be complicated and full inclusion, elusive.

The disability and rhetoric listserv was abuzz in March when scholars attending Cs discovered that CART, the service they depend on for access to the conference, would be changing from previous years. CART (which stands for Communication Access Realtime Translation) is an umbrella term that describes a suite of technologies and transcription labor that works to translate Hearing environments for Deaf audiences.

CART is used just about everywhere—conferences, university classrooms and department meetings, other workplaces, public events—and is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act as a technological way of ensuring “effective communication” for people with “communication disabilities.” In educational settings like universities, CART is managed through an Office of Disability Services, such as with the University of Washington where this informational video for their CART technology was made:

These technologies also create access for other people, too. CART as it had been offered at Cs prior to 2016, for example, also created access for both disabled and nondisabled scholars, as both could view the transcripts that were projected at conference sessions. In 2016, however, this changed when Cs opted to provide individualized computer transcripts to conference-goers as opposed to projecting the transcript onto a screen for all session participants to see. This seemingly small change in the delivery of CART access has wide-reaching impact, and thinking about CART as a cripping technology can help us see why.

As someone who identifies as nondisabled, I’m often uncomfortable using the term crip because I acknowledge that my use of it can weaken its impact from those who have worked to reclaim it. I think this discomfort is important, enough so to mention it here in more detail, because it gets at the heart of what makes technology crip. Neil Simpkins has called us in this Blog Carnival to examine technologies as they crip when subverting able-bodiedness (McRuer), decentering the able bodymind (Price), or turning normative assumptions of spacetime on their head (Kafer). Additionally, I want to think of technologies as cripping when they disable spaces for nondisabled people. Technologies that crip make nondisabled people uncomfortable because they remind us that nondisabled spaces are ableist spaces. Technologies that crip make nondisabled people uncomfortable because they enact and represent disability justice.

In my research, I’m interested in exploring the way CART gets represented by the companies that provide the service in juxtaposition with how that service is deployed. I study the composition processes of CART transcribers to better understand how sound looks to those who are trained to make it accessible, those who turn sound into light. Scholars who study sound and the translation of sound into words have described the rhetorical nature of such work. In his interview with This Rhetorical Life, Sean Zdenek reminds us that “we tend to assume that captioning is objective. It’s just copying down. We tend to privilege speech in sounds, and there’s just something about speech that sort of makes it seem easier to transcribe. It’s straightforward and objective, but it’s so much more complex than that.” As Zdenek points out, how do you capture differences in someone’s “manner” of speaking? How do you translate non-human/non-speech sounds that do not directly translate into words?

Brenda Brueggemann, who by the way gets all the credit for the title of this blog post, has traced histories and prehistories of technologies like CART that “mediate between space for deaf people,” which she also conceptualizes as betweenity. Betweenity itself is Brueggemann’s way of focusing attention on transcription as rhetorical act: one that must acknowledge the “contexts, subjects, and objects of their use,” one that exists as both an artform and a skill: “a skill that we can apply our creative liberty to.” Brueggemann’s work on betweenity highlights the way that technologies that crip also draw attention and value the creative labor involved in crafting access.

These scholars, as well as others, and my work with CART transcribers continually frame CART as a rhetorical site for invention, where transcribers use technologies to craft artistic and skilled instructional content commingling human and nonhuman sound in order to work toward specific ends for specific audiences. Their embodied presence and labor, in other words, matters in the access-making process, a process that Tanya Titchkosky calls “an interpretive relationship between bodies” (3, emphasis mine). But this is often in contrast with how these technologies are represented by their institutions. Let’s revisit UW’s video, noticing the ways that it describes CART within the first minute of the video.

To me, phrases that describe CART as “accurate,” “word-for-word,” “enhance[ing]students’ ability,” and “realtime” all stand out as pushing against the framework that transcription is rhetorical, crafted, mediated, cripping able-bodied spaces in crip time. Why do CART companies frame the technology as an objective tool for translation as opposed to how transcribers, scholars, and disabled people view it as a form of access and form of disability justice? Though the answer to that question is undoubtedly complex, I am finding that one possible answer is that institutions place an increasing amount of pressure upon transcribers to provide an imagined, objective, legally-measurable form of access with their technologies, a form that above all others assumes the smallest chance of being sued. Cripping technologies, it would seem, is not within an institution’s best interest.

One of the effects of the change at Cs to make CART accessible to individuals as opposed to groups is that disabled people still have access to inaccessible content, but nondisabled people don’t witness it. As a result, CART at Cs doesn’t really crip in the same way it used to. Nondisabled people don’t experience the disconnect between spoken word and sounds projected in light.They aren’t confronted with what Margaret Price calls crip space or what Allison Kafer calls crip time. Able-bodiedness remains the compulsory center. Normative spacetime ticks on. It just doesn’t have the same flair of disability justice. It’s accommodation but not justice, and the difference between the two is made to seem invisible.


About Author

Chad Iwertz

I'm a PhD student in rhetoric and composition at Ohio State University, where I study the intersections of composition, disability, and digital media. I enjoy happy hour, Deaf slam poetry, and -- on Fridays -- can usually be found playing the ukulele.

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