Posted on Mon 1 Mar 2021
Article by Rowan James - Part One
The purpose of this article is to offer my perspective on an article which was published by Watershed, that article sought to celebrate the work of disabled people at the Pervasive Media Studio.
“Whilst at face value we have travelled far, in reality disabled people are being left behind in society, their life chances remain very poor, and public attitudes have changed very little.”
The above quote is from David Isaac, Chair of the Commission, commenting on The Equality and Human Rights Commission 2017 report ‘Being disabled in Britain: A Journey Less Equal.
The purpose of this article is to offer my perspective on an article which was published by Watershed, that article sought to celebrate the work of disabled people at the Pervasive Media Studio and to highlight the inclusive nature of the Studio. There are many issues with that article and I fought hard to highlight its problematic nature and to widen its perspective as I felt the whole concept of the piece misjudged.
At first there seemed to be little understanding that this is both a contentious term when applied by others and a guarded part of what it means to be me. Disability to me governs everything I am. It's what I see when I look in the mirror. I see an able man with a lot of stigma attached to just being me. We all are governed by our experiences and I place a focus on discrimination as this is my experience.
For me, like many other disabled people, it's not the medical disadvantages that I might experience that cause me the most hardship in my life. It's awkward and aggressive social situations from police brutality to people thinking I'm stupid or drunk (or both). It's being assaulted by staff when ordering a drink. It’s being denied entry to my flight because of prejudice. It's people talking to my friend like they're my carer. It's people laughing at me, seemingly with impunity. It's being called a freak or trying to enter a venue where I'm performing and security ejecting me.
Talking about disabled people working in the tech sector feels very speculative when the Watershed CEO, in her post on unlimited.org.uk, stated that there is no accurate data around disabled professionals working in tech. This very lack of information itself might have been the place to begin the article.
Without this information it is impossible to identify change in a meaningful way. Here lies the key to where the article could have been more proactive: it states that things are changing without saying how or giving any useful insight into how this change might be made more effective.
In the context of this lack of information it seemed an inappropriate article for the Watershed to have published. Although the article has good intentions, to encourage disabled people in the tech sector, it was still deeply problematic. It was very brief and did not explore the wider issues of inequality and disabled people accessing the sector. Writing an article celebrating the work of disabled people is problematic when there is still so much disablism within society, the tech sector and at times still unresolved issues within the Pervasive Media Studio itself.
I love the Pervasive Media Studio, and am more grateful than I can express for the impact it has had in my personal and professional life. But it is so hard to deal with when even this institution acts through unacknowledged disablism. It's because I care so much and believe in it as a force for change and good, that I feel frustrated when writing this article. As a resident of the Studio since early 2018, I have seen a shift in willingness to examine the norms and cultural attitude toward the understanding of disability. However the progress that has been made feels messy and intangible, with backwards steps along the way and still often an unsophisticated and binary view of disability.
At the studio there have been simple access needs that have taken a long time to be met. These are often not big things but little robust strategies that need to be adapted and acted upon quickly. Instead I had repeated discussions about making changes to Studio policies or being allowed to take simple actions to help myself.
When I first came to the Studio, there was a prevalence of creative technologists talking about how their intended work was geared around using tech for accessibility. These projects were often informed either by the medical model of disability or by an absence of any real understanding of disabled people’s experience or in depth medical knowledge. I feel strongly that knowledge of disability should be of equal importance to the knowledge around tech, when focusing on accessibility and being funded to make work for specific conditions.
This is especially true where there is a huge onus on tech for inclusion that is not matched by the knowledge of and expertise from the individuals that the work is designed to “help". This means that people working on inclusive or access focused tech need to do more research into what disability means to the people they are trying to help, and what their experiences are, in order to see them in a more fully human context and not simply as the source of a problem to be fixed.
Traditional design courses have structured assignments in such ways: designing exercise equipment for an amputee for example. As a Disabled identifying creative technologist this is uncomfortable and overwhelming. Developing an understanding of disabled people as a group that faces extreme discrimination, by reading more widely around the reports into disability hate crime, is one example where practices could be improved. Without further research into the experience of disability in the tech sector we can’t begin to have an informed discussion.
The published article offered little critique of the experience of disabled people accessing the studio. I believe the article to have been limited in insights around the subject matter and was largely composed of bios taken from practitioners' websites within the studio community with very little original content or commentary.
The experience of disabled people in tech deserves a much more thorough investigation. The article in its misconceptions failed to such an extent that reading it as a disabled person made me realise how little the Studio understood about disability. I suspect many young disabled people who have faced barriers and discrimination reading this article would see in it evidence that the studio did not have a robust approach and instead demonstrated a kind of apathy by skipping to a celebratory tone without examining the subject matter.
Written by Rowan James.
This article is Part 1 of 2.
The second in which Rowan explores the competing models and definitions of disability can be found here: