Joshua Miele: “Accessibility from First Principles”

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 While Joshua Miele’s 20 October lecture, “Digital Accessibility and the Making of the Meta Maker Movement,” centered on his efforts to teach physical computing and open-source hardware (Arduino) to non-sighted children, it was most compelling when challenged us to reframe our own approaches to accessibility itself. Our current digital culture, Miele argued, attempts to answer the question of “how to provide” accessibility. For example, in the United States, we often think of accessibility in terms of the broad mandate of section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which Congress amended in 1998, “to require Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities” (United States Access Board). From this mandate came standards, such as “color coding shall not be used as the only means of conveying information” and “a text equivalent for every non-text element shall be provided,” that still encourage organizations and individuals in the technology industry to approach accessibility as a “how to provide” question (United States Access Board). See the long lists of tools and guidelines from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) or International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF) for examples of this approach. In other words, section 508 promotes a checklist way of thinking: we develop software or produce digital media and then comply with the accepted rules for making such software or digital media accessible.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Miele had no problem with section 508 standards but he challenged those in the audience to approach accessibility differently. In this more holistic approach, which he deemed “accessibility from first principles,” our current digital culture would attempt to answer the question of “why do people need access to technologies, materials, and spaces” in the first place. Or, put another way, Miele argued that we should think about accessibility as creating inclusive spaces that benefit all and not as an inconvenience on the road towards compliance. By emphasizing “why” instead of “how,” we might realize that, for example, non-sighted people should be involved, from the outset, in the creation of software, hardware, and makerspaces as developers, product managers, or designers. In fact, Miele suggested that “accessibility from first principles” draws much from user-centered design, which values identifying and collaborating with the users of the product during its creation. This argument seemed most striking when Miele told us of how the non-sighted children who participate in his Blind Arduino project express enthusiasm for physical computing but do not participate alongside their sighted peers in school robotics club. Accessibility from first principles would, in this case, ask how we could make such robotics clubs, and the physical computing they do, more inclusive to all.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Thinking about this reframing of accessibility alongside the digital humanities and the production of digital scholarship ultimately highlights how we often privilege the visual (what Miele, at one point, called the “lookative”). One audience member, for example, asked how she, as someone interested in data visualization, could best consider accessibility during of her projects. Miele responded by claiming that we should try to abandon the term “data visualization” and use “spatial information” instead. After all, data visualizations are just spatial representations of information. With this in mind, we could consider producing a 3D print with peaks and valleys, instead of a d3 bubble chart, to represent different quantities of data. Similarly, we could also explore sonifications alongside visualizations (sonifications should not necessarily replace visualizations, as that could, in turn, exclude deaf people). Valuing tactile and aural representations of spatial information, in other words, might be a good first step to thinking about how digital media and digital scholarship can achieve a more holistic accessibility. And it seems worthwhile to at least consider this as we produce our own work.

Works Cited

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Miele, Joshua. “Digital Accessibility and the Making of the Meta Maker Movement,” GC Digital Initiatives, 20 October 2016, City University of New York Graduate Center. Lecture.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 United States Access Board. “About the Section 508 Standards,”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 ———. “Section 508 Standards for Electronic and Information Technology,"

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  1. Posted October 24, 2016 at 2:02 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing Tom. I was really interested in going, but couldn’t so it is good to get a feel of what transpired.

    I like the idea of being excited about making things accessible to all, rather than seeking to be in compliance. I know I struggle with it though. I have a color-blind colleague who always complains about Excel’s default chart colors, which I am often guilty of using.

    I am intrigued by the idea of augmenting visualization with physical or aural representations. I think the challenge posed is rewarding, not limiting, and pushes us to be more thoughtful about what we do with our materials.

  2. Posted October 24, 2016 at 2:30 am | Permalink

    It was a great lecture (and our seminar was pretty well represented there).

    I too am guilty of not giving enough attention to “accessibility from first principles” and focusing on compliance (alt text, avoiding red/green coloring). Miele challenged me to think of ways to go deeper.

  3. Posted October 26, 2016 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    This is a great summation of Joshua Miele’s talk, Tom!

    Miele’s discussion of a rethinking of the meaning of accessibility was particularly strong and convincing. Before I studied English, I spent a semester as an architecture student. A small but significant part of what drove me away was the unwelcome, sort of patronizing culture in the wood shop (where we had to build our models)! Sure people of all genders were welcome to the facilities, but it was well known that women who asked for adjustments (all users of the machines had to ask shop workers to change settings on machines) were subject to a level of flexing and condescension as opposed to discussions about their actual projects our male counterparts seemed to receive. I wonder how different it would be if there was just one woman working in the shop.

    That being said, as Miele mentioned, (gender, ethnic, class, etc.) diversity and accessibility are distinct issues that require different strategies to address. In my academic and professional experience, there has been very little talk and consideration about accessibility. His call for a “top-down” approach, placing people of different abilities in positions of power, as his work demonstrates, is far more effective than perfunctory 508 standards.

    I was definitely moved by the talk to be involved in improving accessibility issues and am looking forward to contributing to YouDescribe

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