Universal Design and Its Discontents

by Rick Godden and Jonathan Hsy


Our online position paper is a two-headed reflection on disability and universalism in the fields of Digital Humanities (DH) and Universal Design (UD). One of the authors, Richard H. Godden, considers how particular experience of disability shapes his use of media and also informs his reactions to prescriptive statements about the use of technology; the other author, Jonathan Hsy, writes as a nondisabled ally who considers some of the discursive and practical complications that arise in efforts to make the web more accessible to people with disabilities. We come from different perspectives, yet both of us ask what it means for any community to establish “best practices” for technology use. Even the most well-intentioned universalist discourses risk effacing crucial particularities of embodied experience.


In my thoughts on Universal Design (UD) as a nondisabled person engaged with disability theory and Deaf culture, I make two counter-intuitive claims: 1. UD is a myth; and 2. Inaccessibility can be socially productive.

Media theorist Jane Bringold observes that UD is not a discrete goal but a “Utopian ideal” (47).[1] No platform will ever be accessible across every language (spoken, written, signed), every medium, and every embodied difference (sensory, motor, cognitive). Joe Clark, a specialist in technologies such as captioning and audio description disabled internet users, maintains UD is a myth.[2] I’d say UD is a motivating fiction or tantalizing impossibility: unicorn, Holy Grail, earthly Paradise, whatever. In its temporal deferral, UD replicates the unrealized futurity of disability itself. As Robert McRuer notes, disability does not designate a subset of humanity but a spectral prospect that haunts everyone: “If we live long enough, disability is the one identity that we all inhabit” (200).[3] In its deferred arrival, UD, like disability, conjures an elusive future.

Deferred futurity is precisely how mainstream social justice discourses of access and inclusion express dreams of shared (cyber)space, even as they acknowledge the vitality of embodied difference. The Accessible Futures workshop series embraces utopian discourse by teaching DH folks to make work accessible to disabled internet users.[4] The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), among others, have sponsored the workshop series assembling academics and designers to address access issues. I attended an iteration of this (along with Jesse Stommel) here in Austin on February 28-March 1, 2014 and find the series (and website) highly productive. The organizers Jennifer Guiliano, George Williams, and Tina Herzberg directed most of our time toward visual impairment and strategies for incorporating captions, alt-tags, and elements of website architecture that can be navigated by people using voiced screen readers.[5] We also held an “audit” of DH projects to consider how well they integrated such accessibility features.

One website under discussion was the Deaf Studies Digital Journal (DSDJ) published by the ASL (American Sign Language) & Deaf Studies Department at Gallaudet University in Washington, DC.[6] This journal’s use non-textual digital media for its linguistic content make it an intriguing case study. DSDJ is the first peer-reviewed academic journal to use ASL for its content (with some material in English).[7] Since ASL is a kinetic language using embodied actions including manual gestures and facial expressions as grammar, Flash Video clips are crucial for content.

Gesturing towards universality, DSDJ seeks to reach non-US Deaf communities. Most contributions include a summary in sign language by the author. Many items have downloadable PDFs presenting equivalent content in English. Some items are in International Sign (IS), a Deaf contact language when signers have mutually unintelligible languages. By incorporating languages beyond ASL, DSDJ is partially accessible to users unfamiliar with ASL or English.[8]

One curious aspect of our DSDJ discussion in 2014 was discomfort with the lack of audio or captions in the video clips, as they made content “inaccessible” by one set of embodied norms (i.e., UD principles requiring embedded features for internet users with visual impairments). As I reflect on that conversation today, I realize that the uneven media functionality of DSDJ presented an awkward social reality for the workshop attendees: much of this Deaf-oriented journal was inaccessible to a hearing majority (i.e., online content was only partially accessible to non-ASL users). As a hearing person who does not know much ASL, I find it intriguing that a commentary section on the topic of audism or “audiocentric privilege” does not provide a link to a PDF that I can read in written English (perhaps one might appear in the future).[9] This current user interface fittingly forces me to confront my own audiocentric (and Anglophone) privilege. I find myself navigating a linguistic environment that is only unevenly or partially configured for my use.


As a disabled academic reflecting on the intersections between Universal Design and Digital Humanities, I make two claims: 1. Universal Design and the resistance to digital tools both posit a universal subject; and 2. DH needs to balance its embrace of UD with further attention to the particulars of embodied experience.

George Williams, in his “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities,” advocates that the field of Digital Humanities adopts the principles of Universal Design.[10] Ron Mace, working in architecture, developed “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.”[11] I very much agree with Williams. The goals of Universal Design stand in direct contrast to the often nostalgic (and ultimately hierarchical) expression of normativity we see in the repeated calls to re-embrace physical books, pens, and paper. For such positions, one need only look to the oft-cited (and oft-shared on social media) study on the efficacy of hand-written versus digital note-taking.[12] However, I want to suggest that both positions engender a sense of “best practice” that could obscure the specific sociopolitical and embodied orientation of an individual user.

In his critique of UD, Rob Imrie interrogates the limitations of the universal subject that UD posits, noting that “UD rejects design that fails to respond to, and interact with, everyone irrespective of their socio-cultural status and bodily capabilities and capacities.”[13] While maximum accessibility is a laudable goal, in practice UD often fails to attend to the particular as it espouses the universal. Dominika Bednarska, for instance, examines how voice recognition software for the visually impaired could be seen to eliminate the need for assistants and note-takers.[14] This is, in fact, one of the great benefits of assistive technology and UD – by building environments, physical and digital, that provide barrier-free access, then People with Disabilities can function more independently, and with less reliance on other people. As someone with a disability, I feel deeply and urgently the need to be less reliant on other people, but sometimes existing technology can be inadequate—it can break down, be unreliable, or may just be a poor substitution for human help (even if I don’t want that help). Bednarska relates how, at her own institution, the University of California at Berkeley, funding for disabled students to have assistants became more restricted and limited because of the promise of available technologies. So, a student who did in fact work best with someone providing note-taking services would need to first demonstrate that available technologies were inadequate. This can provide an unnecessarily difficult bar to clear for some.

As a medievalist also working in the field of Disability Studies, I have been trained to look for the particular and the local, the anomalous and the perplexing. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson describes the “extraordinary bodies” of the disabled,”[15] and in my own field of medieval literature, Christopher Baswell has referred to nonstandard bodies as “eccentric.”[16] Eccentric and extraordinary bodies have the potential to puncture the illusion of the universal that UD champions, disorienting and, more importantly, reorienting how we conceive of access and equality. Williams himself cites the work of Garland-Thomson in his work on UD, and I do think that his analysis attends to the particular in better ways than the more architecture-based UD that Imrie critiques. For example, Williams encourages a reciprocity between user and designer, arguing that “by working to meet the needs of disabled people—and by working with disabled people through usability testing—the digital humanities community will also benefit significantly as it rethinks its assumptions about how digital devices could and should work with and for people.”[17] I would suggest that the goals that animate UD should be and will continue to be a powerful principle in DH, but such a design principle needs to accompany, not supplant, the attention to the particular. Recriprocity could mean mutual care, of and for each other, but it should not need to flatten us out into a universal subject in the process.


In our critical evaluations of UD, we share several conclusions and concerns with the contributors to the webtext Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces.[18] In their opening “Access Statement,” Yergeau et al. acknowledge that “Universal design is a process, a means rather than an end. There’s no such thing as a universally designed text. There’s no such thing as a text that meets everyone’s needs. That our webtext falls short is inevitable.” They caution that the inevitable failure of UD “is not a justification for failing to consider what audiences are invited into and imagined as part of a text.” Rather, the recognition of failure at the heart of Universalist paradigms can enable us to attend more closely to the particular embodied orientation of users and stakeholders. We would embrace this emphasis on process over product, on becoming and emergent technologies over closed-systems of top-down provisions for accommodation. While we agree UD is an unachievable goal, we would argue that the goal itself is problematic and ultimately inadequate to the continuously evolving situation of not only the inclusion of more and more disabled/extraordinary/eccentric bodies into “normal” society but also the ever-shifting ableness of any body as it moves toward inevitable failure.

[1] Bringold, Jane. “Universal Design: Is It Accessible?” Multi: The RIT Journal Of Plurality & Diversity In Design 1.2 (2008): 45-52.

[2] Clark, John. “Universal design is a myth.” October 15, 2009. http://blog.fawny.org/2009/10/15/universal-design-myth/.

[3] McRuer, Robert. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability (New York: New York University Press, 2006).

[4] According to the Accessible Future website: “Building an Accessible Future for the Humanities Project is organizing four 2-day workshops during which participants will learn about technologies, design standards, and accessibility issues associated with the use of digital environments.” http://www.accessiblefuture.org

[5] For an excellent overview of the Austin workshop, see this blog posting by Susan Floyd (who is also on twitter as @Texarchivist). http://texarchivist.com/2014/03/14/thinking-about-accessibility-accessiblefu-2014-utaustin-2/

[6] Deaf Studies Digital Journal (DSDJ): http://dsdj.gallaudet.edu

[7] For more about DSDJ and what the academic and social functions it serves, see Charles Ainsworth’s interview with one of its co-managing editors Lauren Benedict (December 2, 2013): http://www.thebuffandblue.net/?p=12662

[8] Peter C. Hauser’s article “Deaf Eyes: Visual Learning and Deaf Gain” is presented by the author in ASL as well as IS. DSDJ 2 (Fall 2010). As of December 30, 2015 (the date upon which all these DSDJ links in this essay were accessed), the PDF of an English language equivalent of this particular piece is forthcoming. http://dsdj.gallaudet.edu/index.php?view=entry&issue=3&entry_id=81

[9] Amy June Rowley and Richard Eckert, “Audism: A Theory and Practice of Audiocentric Privilege.” DSDJ 4 (Spring 2014). http://dsdj.gallaudet.edu/index.php?issue=5&section_id=3&entry_id=250

[10]George Williams, “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities,” in Debates in the Digital Humanities (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012). http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/44

[11] This is Ron Mace’s definition as provided by the Center for Universal Design at North Carolina State Uniersity: http://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/about_us/usronmace.htm

[12] Pam A. Mueller and Daniel M. Oppenheimer, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking,” Psychological Science 25, no. 6 (2014): 1159–68.

[13] Rob Imrie, “Universalism, Universal Design and Equitable Access to the Built Environment,” Disability & Rehabilitation 34, no. 10 (2012): 879.

[14] Dominika Bednarska, “Rethinking Access: Why Technology Isn’t the Only Answer,” in The Culture of Efficiency: Technology in Everyday Life, ed. Sharon Kleinman, Digital Formations, v. 55 (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 160.

[15] Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

[16] Baswell uses this term in a series of talks. Christopher Baswell, “The Felicity Riddy Lecture: Kings and Cripples: Royal and Eccentric Bodies in Thirteenth-Century England” (University of York, November 25, 2010).

[17] Williams, “Disability, Universal Design, and the Digital Humanities.”

[18] Melanie Yergeau et al., “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces,” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 18, no. 1 (2013). http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/18.1/coverweb/yergeau-et-al/pages/access.html

Rick Godden is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Tulane University. His current work focuses on the intersections between the political theology of the neighbor, temporality, and disability studies in medieval romance.

Jonathan Hsy is Associate Professor of English at George Washington University, where he is also founding co-director of the GW Digital Humanities Institute. He specializes in medieval literature and culture with interests in translation theory, digital media, and disability studies. He is the author of Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Ohio State University Press, 2013), and his current project explores life writing by medieval authors who identify as blind or deaf. He co-directs the Global Chaucers project with Candace Barrington and is a regular contributor to In The Middle, a group medieval studies blog.

[Image “aLL_sTRenGTh…LOsS” by flickr user Sippanont Samchai]

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