How aware are we? How aware can we be?

Central to this week’s readings is a discussion of usability, accessibility, and awareness, or consciousness of technology, and its impact on our decisions as users, teachers and students, and even education institutions.This week’s readings include:

  • Jay Domage’s “Disability Studies Pedagogy, Usability and Universal Design”
  • George Williams’ Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” and “‘Accessibility Ready’ WordPress Themes”
  • Melanie Yergeau et al’s Multimodality in Motion
  • Tara Wood and Shannon Madden’s “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements”
  • Jonathan Hsy’s “Signs Taken as Wonders: Žižek and the Apparent Interpreter”
  • Marshal McCluhan’s “The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis”

These texts define and explore some essential terminology and ideas including: Universal Design, usability, accessibility, disability and multimodality.  The authors of “Multimodality in Motion” argue that we are reactionary in how we consider how those with disabilities will use and experience our learning environments, texts, etc.; it is only after it is brought to the attention of the institution that change is made. Whereas universities that are not willing to “accommodate” until made to do so is problematic, I also can see how, on a much smaller scale, this lack of consideration inadvertently can come from a teacher’s inexperience.

I think back to five or so years ago when I had a student who was legally blind, blind to the point of almost no recognition or ability to see beyond five inches from her face. At first I was really nervous about having this student in my classroom, but then I became more and more intrigued about how my teaching was very visual-dependent. On a daily basis, teaching this student revealed how much I relied on my students to see. Not only with the instructional tools I used—such as the whiteboard, projector, and paper—but also the language I was using. I was continuously made aware of how the language I was using was coming from what Sushil K. Oswal calls “ableism”. Oswal cites Greg Smith’s description of ableism as, “the devaluation and disregard of people with disabilities.” At times I would say, “As you can see here…” and “Look here.” Clearly, this displays a partiality of the sense of sight. I wasn’t aware of this until she showed up in my class one August. Reflecting on this and all of the accommodations I, and the school made for her, and I wonder how many were retrofits?

Some interesting points I was drawn to from the readings:

Before reading Multimodality in Motion, I was thinking that multimodality may just speak to users with varied abilities, but Kerschbaum in “Modality” states:

“Multimodality almost universally celebrates using multiple modes without considering what happens if a user cannot access one or more of them.”

Meaning, that while texts can benefit users with disabilities, accessing them in the first place becomes an additional, even more substantial, problem. In “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities”, George Williams cites Ronald Mace of North Carolina University’s College of Design by defining Universal Design as:

“The concept of designing all products and the built environment to be aesthetic and usable to the greatest extent possible by everyone, regardless of their age, ability, or status in life”

He further distinguishes the difference between the guiding principles behind universality and accessibility:

“To embrace accessibility is to focus design efforts on people who are disabled, ensuring all barriers have been removed. To embrace universal design, by contrast, is to focus ‘not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people.’”

While reading these texts, I kept thinking how immense of a task, and restructuring (not retrofitting) is needed for Universal Design. (Same feeling I had while reading NLG’s Multiliteracies.) However, Michael Salvo’s “Over Here” in Multimodality in Motion brings us back to reality:

“There is…no way to reach universal design. But there is value in the attempt and in the goal.”

Considering students and users with disabilities, and how they experience technology, forces us to be aware of what we have assumed thus far, and have taken for granted with regard to accessibility. Marshall McCluhan’s “The Gadget Lover” makes me question how aware can we be with regard to technology’s impact on our worlds? McCluhan explores a connection between the myth of Narcissus and man’s connection to technology by articulating that Narcissus did not fall in love with himself, but an extension of himself, of which he was not aware. McCluhan, using the myth of Narcissus, argues that new invention causes a stimulus that leads to stress, which causes the body to “autoamputate” to protect the central nervous system. This new stress then creates acceleration; and the speed causes further stress, which requires the body to start the process of autoamputation all over again. In his text, McCluhan states:

“As counter-irritant, the image [Narcissus’s reflection] produces a generalized numbness or shock that declines recognition. Self-amputation forbids self-recognition.”

What this seems to suggest is that inventions and innovations of technology are part of a never-ending cycle of amputation (or “numbness”) that takes man to the point of unconsciousness or unawareness of its effect on ourselves. Like Narcissus, because our bodies have severed this extension, we are not aware of it. Does this mean that we will never be aware of “it”? How able are we really to be aware of the effect technology is having on us—how we use and experience it, how we assume others use and experience it—if we are making ourselves numb to it? Is there, like Salvo offers, value in the attempt, in trying?

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3 thoughts on “How aware are we? How aware can we be?

  1. Reading your story about working with the legally blind student made me think back to a previous, very visual, learning experience of my own — learning to drive. When my dad would tell me to turn “this way” or “that way,” I remember getting frustrated, because my limited vision with glasses made it impossible to tell what he meant by “this” and “that.” I remember asking if he could use “left” or “right” or something more concrete, because my peripheral vision was limited with the size of my glasses at the time. In terms of the classroom, I’ve also had this issue. While I’m not legally blind, but I do have very low vision without my glasses, so certain visual tasks often present a challenge. Teachers often rely on things like powerpoints, and other visuals, and I wonder how we can restructure these to assist those who have vision issues. Likewise, how can we restructure lectures and discussions for those who have trouble hearing? Round table discussions are my favorite, perhaps because I can listen, rather than look at the things (though I am a very visual learner), but I wonder how, other than hearing aids, we can make these more accessible to those with hearing issues. In undergrad, I had a friend who has terrible hearing issues. Without her hearing aids, she could barely make out the class lectures, and I remember how frustrated she would get on days where she forgot her aids, or the battery died. I’m curious as to how we can assist these learning gaps.

  2. I really like what you wrote about feeling “overwhelmed” by issues of accessibility and universal design, similar to the overwhelming effect of reading Multiliteracies. I share this reaction, and I wonder if there’s any way to make it more productive. Perhaps just being *open* about our immediate, problematic responses to a new concept can make for more fruitful conversations? I know that I felt better about my reaction after reading yours.

  3. Your story has me thinking back a little to Zach’s post for this week an his thoughts on failure. I have yet to have a similar experience in my classroom, (though it has happened to me in the writing center), and it makes me think of the limitations of my own thoughts. It really is overwhelming to consider everything. The reading is helpful in ways to consider thinking about these issues but when I think about how my class works and what I would have to change or do differently, in addition, it really does create a feeling of reflection.

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