Digital Humanities
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“Digital Accessibility and the Making of a Meta Maker Movement” A Talk by Dr. Joshua Miele hosted by GC Digital Initiatives at The Graduate Center, CUNY on Thursday, October 20, 2016

Dr. Joshua Miele, of the the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, giving a talk at the Graduate Center, CUNY (October 20, 2016)

Dr. Joshua Miele, of the the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute, giving a talk at the Graduate Center, CUNY (October 20, 2016)

Dr. Joshua Miele gave a talk, as part of the inauguration of the new GC Digital Initiatives makerspace, on “Digital Accessibility and the Making of a Meta Maker Movement”. Dr. Miele is the Associate Director of Technology Research and Development, Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Low Vision and Blindness at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. His talk explored the fundamental understanding of accessibility for blind makers and the role it plays in the maker movement.

In order to conceptualize the importance of digital accessibility overall, but namely in the maker movement, Dr. Miele introduced some of us to two of his current projects. I found this approach to be helpful in understanding how he viewed true digital accessibility and the significance of meta making both individually and in relation to one another.

The first project, the Blind Arduino Project, is a collaboration between LightHouse Labs and The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute. It collects tools and techniques for blind makers using Arduino, an open-source microprocessor platform. Dr. Miele delved into the importance of the project by providing us with three layers, as he called it. First, not only is it possible for blind people to work with Arduino, but they should be. The project provides resources on how they can engage with Arduino. The second, which was one of my biggest takeaways from the talk, is accessibility “from first principles” through collaboration. It is not enough to understand how to provide accessibility. One must gain a fundamental understanding of why access to materials, spaces, and programs is important. And according to Dr. Miele, this can only be truly done through the blind and sighted collaboration. Throughout the talk, emphasis was put on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and the importance of opportunity beyond clubs in schools. There is not only low expectation of performance in blind children, but also there is a lack of initiative from all parties involved (teachers, parents, and the children themselves). I appreciated Dr. Miele’s matter of fact tone throughout the talk, especially when it came to speaking of the potential and how capable blind people are.

Accessibility through collaboration is vital in creating an inclusive environment for people with disabilities. Dr. Miele explored this more when he reached the third layer, the concept of meta making. Before a blind maker can engage in making, they must engage in an initial making, so to speak, in order to develop and establish tools, techniques, and systems that they will need. Dr. Miele referred to this as “self-actualization self-advocacy through making the tools they need.” Again, the purpose of this talk was to help inaugurate the new GC Digital Initiatives makerspace and Dr. Miele seamlessly brought up a key factor for creating an accessible makerspace: user-centered design. With an initiative like the Blind Arduino Project, blind makers are able to take control in creating the tools they need, which should extend to to the environment where these tools are created. When designing makerspaces (project or product), it is important to bring your intended users into the design process throughout. People with disabilities should not only be part of the design team, but they should be part of the management of the makerspace (project or product). Dr. Miele made a great point that “anybody who is anybody should be involved in the designing of things intended for them.”

The second project, YouDescribe is a free accessibility tool used for adding audio description to YouTube videos. This project is by the Smith-Kettlewell Video Description Research and Development Center. Crowdsourcing is key to this project. Dr. Miele described broadcast video description for television as an “unscalable model” for videos produced for the web (Facebook, YouTube, Vine, etc.). Essentially, it is possible for anyone to participate in providing accessibility online. In this case, the purpose of the project was to not only design a  tool, but also the foundation for what video description could look like in the future. Dr. Miele emphasized that YouDescribe is a description authoring tool that is entirely browser based. YouTube videos are not copied or re-streamed, and the videos are stored on YouDescribe’s servers. As far as copyright laws go, Dr. Miele stated that this was fair use. However, he refuses to accept denied access to “the most important genre of communication” for those in need of it and I agree.

Although this talk was focused on why it is vital that we consider accessibility throughout the designing process as part of the maker environment, I am sure the same principles can be applied to Digital Humanities. A recurring theme throughout Dr. Miele’s talk, which resonated with me, was the idea of a holistic approach to accessibility. He emphasized that blind makers, and anyone else in need of accessibility tools, should have an active role in the designing and management of said tools and overall environment. Many current DH projects are failing users with disabilities(1). In order to achieve accessibility holistically, an inclusive environment must be created from the conception of the project.  Reframing DH pedagogy to provide peer-to-peer teaching and learning between both, for example, blind and sighted students reinforces Dr. Miele’s idea of accessibility from first principles. Sighted DH students and professors alike, will stand to understand accessibility at its core through working with their blind peers. DH practitioners often create and disseminate their work  with a set group of users in mind already, but they do not always have control of who is actually engaging with their project. This should be considered throughout the process. When looked at through the projects introduced by Dr. Miele, collaboration is key. Re-examining accessibility, or lack thereof, in DH will allow people with disabilities to fully participate and contribute within the field.

The Blind Arduino Project and YouDescribe are both significant for identifying fundamental principles for providing accessibility. Dr. Miele did an exceptional job with providing a no-nonsense framework of maker accessibility. To be honest, I have never truly considered accessibility beyond standard practices. I appreciated Dr. Miele emphasizing that people with disabilities are working and producing, and in turn, we should be working and producing along side them. He stated that it is essential for people with disabilities to work with digital tools in order “to explore all sorts of humanities and questions about the way we interact with and discuss the world, and our academic interests,” which is, essentially, DH. The very nature of DH is to engage and expand traditional humanities scholarship through digitally innovative tools and resources. However, can this be true innovation when an entire population is virtually excluded?

Notes

(1) George H. Williams suggests in “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities” that universal designing in digital humanities will provide the inclusiveness currently liking in Digital Humanities work. He provides examples of projects that would engage people disabilities within the field. Williams believes that it would be significantly beneficial for people with disabilities to be provided with the opportunity to engage in Digital Humanities, but current practitioners must be willing to provide access through collaboration and crowdsourcing, and re-examining current digital tools and materials.