Legibility, visibility: Who gets access, online and off?

Part 1 of 3

When you think of “disability,” what image comes to mind? A wheelchair user? A person using a white cane to support a visual impairment? Most of us think of individuals exhibiting difference that we can immediately perceive with our five senses. This is not an accident. Our modern architectural and sociological systems have conditioned us to associate disability with “legible” devices like wheelchairs or canes that (crucially) facilitate access to buildings and streets, asserts disability scholar Aimi Hamraie. This is most evident in the the International Symbol of Access (ISA), which was adopted in the 1970s.

To be clear, this legibility in our built spaces has been hard-won through work by disability activists. But the work is not over.

Physical devices like wheelchairs have only made some people with disabilities “legible.” They exclude individuals with “illegible” disabilities that are not easily supported by an assistive device. They also excuse us from reckoning with the full complexity and humanity of disability, because device-based approaches tell us little about the real needs or experiences of the people who use them.

I believe that our current mode of operating as a society makes it more challenging for people with illegible disabilities to win the accommodations they need, assert their identities and take up space in the movement and society at large. I also believe that this system of legibility and illegibility as reproduced through assistive devices is happening in web accessibility--once again, our online and offline built environments directly inform each other.

In this first post, I’m going to address a few important background ideas about legibility/illegibility and knowing. In post two, I want to speak to my own experience of navigating the legible/illegible line. In post three, I will talk about how this concept is playing out on the web, and the ramifications it has for online access.

Before we go any further, I want to give special thanks to Hamraie and their book “Building Access: Universal Design and the Politics of Disability” for informing my thinking on this topic.

When we think about legibility and illegibility, it’s important to remember that disability is a “construct and a social identity, not a pathology” (Hamraie). As the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, an early disability rights group in the UK, wrote in their founding statement: “What we are interested in, are ways of changing our conditions of life, and thus overcoming the disabilities which are imposed on top our physical impairments by the way this society is organised to exclude us” (emphasis mine).The physical and cognitive challenges are real, but disability itself relies on built environments, which were constructed to exclude.

Over time, disability activists have won inclusion in built environments online and off, and centered the power and expertise of people with disabilities. I’ll be weaving stories and examples of this activist history into this blog--especially because I think we need to see more of this activism online.

However, we’re also stuck in a “discourse” in which “disability is a knowable, obvious and unchanging category,” even as this is “repeatedly disproved” by reality, according to scholar Ellen Samuels. This puts individuals with “illegible” disabilities in a difficult position--how to claim space, assert our needs and embody our identities in a world that desires legibility?

Next time, I use my own experiences as a frame for exploring those questions. Come back in two weeks to read. Or better yet, sign up for my newsletter on the right-hand side of this page to get new dispatches delivered straight to your inbox.