SIGCIS 2011 Workshop: Dissertations in Progress: Questions of Identity and Embodiment in Computing Communities

Name: Elizabeth Ellcessor

Institutional Affiliation: University of Wisconsin-Madison

Email Address:

Paper Type: Dissertation in Progress

Paper Title: Disability Online: Policies, Practices, and Representations of the Embodied Use of New Media



Paper Abstract: My dissertation examines the relationship between online media, its policy context, and users’ bodily experiences of those technologies. In this work, I focus on disability as a means of viewing the challenges posed by non-normative bodies to default technological, political, and cultural structures. This dissertation combines a critical history of the internet, through the lens of accessibility for people with disabilities, with analyses of cultural discourses and trends that have shaped that history. I would like the chance to discuss this work with an audience whose expertise lies in the social history of computing technologies, as part of a dissertation research panel at the SIGCIS workshop. I am submitting excerpts from my most recent chapter in lieu of a proposal, as I am fairly advanced in this project.

Web accessibility—the ability of people with disabilities to effectively use web sites and services—poses a challenge to the potential of the internet to foster a participatory culture as well as to existing models of access and digital inclusion, which often focus on cost, geography, or demographic characteristics other than disability. Accessibility is connected to larger debates about access, social inclusion, civil rights, and ideal directions for technological innovation, but it is rarely incorporated into those debates as a central topic of discussion or illustration of larger problems or solutions. Thus, my study of accessibility history has implications for these larger debates, in addition to highlighting a largely unknown portion of computing and internet history.

Methodologically, I adopt an interdisciplinary approach based in cultural studies, incorporating media historiography, discursive analysis, and ethnographic work. I draw on media historiography and software studies in looking to archival sources, older web technologies, and conducting interviews with those involved in policy processes. Secondly, I conduct discursive analysis on a range of popular and professional artifacts in order to investigate how the broader American culture understood the relationship between internet technology and disability. This follows many scholars who examine the imaginative components of internet history by linking popular texts to the expectations and capacities of emerging online activities. The third prong of my methodology is ethnographic research on a disability blogosphere. I use participant observation and interviews to better understand the experiences of people with disabilities using online services and the ways in which these experiences rely upon, challenge, and extend web accessibility.