Response 1 – Sounds of Silence

by Amanda K. Booher

Sensorial Norming and Accessibility

Creating something meant to provide a likeness of experience — what are sometimes called “simulation exercises” — is a risky move, particularly when considering bodily differences. This practice calls to mind well-intentioned (but ill-conceived) college programs like “disabled for a day” (wherein able-bodied people are blindfolded or given wheelchairs with the notion that this temporary experience will give great insight and empathy into the lives of the disabled), or the “blue eyes/brown eyes” racism experience (where children are segregated by their eye color and one group is treated “better than” the other, with the notion that this temporary experience will give great insight and empathy into the experience of racism). Critiques for these programs are multiple, but include that 1) one day (or a few hours) of “experience” does not replicate the life of another person; 2) these programs imply individual choices and actions are the root of discrimination, not social/cultural constructions and ideologies; and 3) these programs often violate the principle of “nothing about us without us” — that disabled people must be included in policies and activities about disabled people.

It is here where I see Ms. Ashey’s project intercede. I love this project. (And I do not say such things lightly.) Ms. Ashey integrates message and media(tion), creating an experiential production modeling her particular hearing abilities.

The project begins with a sense of disorientation. Loud background noise — sounds of a cafeteria, as the author explains — play for a short while, before a muffled voice says, “Not just planning ahead, but taking account of what’s already been said and what’s currently happening.” At first listen, this feels like bad production. The listener must strain a bit to make out these context-less sentences. Next, in a different voice, but also unclearly, we hear a slowly paced list of random words.

Less than a minute in, the listener can’t easily grasp what’s happening, how to listen to this, how to make meaning.

Only gradually does the disorientation emerge as purposeful, as we hear a definition/diagnosis for a particular grade of hearing loss, accompanied by potential experiences and treatments for someone with that grade.

Of course, the description of the project might have already clued the listener in to this experience. But even knowing that, the listener may not be greeted with their expectations; and knowing that, the listener can greater appreciate the sense of disorientation, the struggle Ms. Ashey narrates and mediates.

That this is her experience makes a significant difference to me. She does not represent this as universal, nor as pablum for the “abled” to sympathetically learn about another’s “challenges” (in the rhetoric of ableism often employed in “simulation exercises” and related activities). She also avoids the version of personal narrative that runs towards cloying. Ms. Ashey instead offers her audience a few moments of definition(s), explication, demonstration, narrative, and reflection. The layering of elements, the interruptions and conflations of sound, keep the listener engaged and active — another mimetic aspect of the purpose of the project.

Another element adding vitality to this piece is its place within discussions of accessibility. Often — usually — when we (as teachers and/or creators) address accessibility of digital work, it is with assumptive abled bodies. In other words, we often assume that all creators’ sensory abilities fall within a normal range, and that the abled must adapt their work for the disabled: we/they must grant them/us access to our/their work. This fails to account for the bevy of digital work created by people withdisabilities, and the different emphases and affordances those/these creators bring to creating. This does a disservice to us all.

Digital rhetoric offers powerful opportunities for delivery by non-standard, even unexpected rhetors – those whose voices are often silenced, culturally/socially, if not literally. And, as tends to happen, this silencing results not only in disregard for these rhetors’ ideas, but disregard of them as people – as thoughtful, engaged, engage-able, whole human beings.

I am particularly drawn, then, to digital productions where the “othering” is flipped, where the “abled” are drawn out of norms, are considered as secondary audiences, are granted access by “disabled” creators. A few notable (and older) examples include the work of Amanda Baggs, particularly the video “In My Language;” the Visual Music Project’s “We Love Music Too” campaign; and work by the Deaf Professional Arts Network.1

While Ms. Ashey’s project isn’t flipping the script on othering to quite the same degree of those examples, it is still a vital contribution to TheJUMP, further diversifying the kinds of projects we publish. And perhaps even more importantly, Ms. Ashey’s work should remind us as teachers to encourage experimentation and representations of experiences and individuals outside of the “norm,” and encourage us to question our own assumptions when we address accessibility. This assumes that we’re already addressing accessibility — which we should be doing — but, when left as something to add to a completed project, this can easily fall by the wayside (especially given the constraints of time and resources in teaching multimedia). When access, sensorial experiences, norms, and dis/ability are considered integral to the life of any project (and classroom — and student — and teacher), we all benefit.

1 See also work on accessibility by rhetoric and disability studies scholars like Sean ZdenekLisa Meloncon, and the 4Cs Standing Group in Disability Studies.