Assistive Technology and Politics


Poster covering common techniques for making content accessible for people with Visual, Auditory, Ambulatory, and Cognitive characterisitcs

Abilities Affect Digital Access

An article about the response by the real time captioner at the recent Republican debate to the chaos of the debate caught my eye and got me thinking about the potential role of AT in the modern political process.

So much of what passes for presidential campaign politics now is emotional and ideological. Being unable to capture the full real range of the communications in debates, advertisements, interviews, and other real-time communication venues make it more difficult to appreciate the meaning of the campaigns, and the intentions of the candidates. I believe this greater dependence on real-time communication is very different from previous campaigns (my memory of them goes back to the 1956 campaign), back beyond the time when radio was easily available.

Technology has now allowed the “any-time” streaming of such events whenever we wish to review them. But this constant availability of digital versions still doesn’t deal with accommodations that would make the meaning of the events in their visual, auditory, cognitive, and emotional dimensions transparent, permitting us the best possible judgement of political meaning.

Real time captioning is available at the national level for many network political events, but is often not available through local events.Audio description would be a good addition to many events, but is only beginning to spread as a tool of communication. Accessible social networking apps (both text and text to speech) would help to expand ease in the understanding of political communication. But access requires some personal work to create and use these apps in a consistent effective way.

Perhaps the greatest lack in the universe of political communication accommodations is in the area of real-time cognitive accessibility, especially online. Summaries (whether in text or audio), links to further description, reading level assessment and editing, and supplemental information can all make it easier to understand the political and personal meaning of communication, but there is no standard or universal way to assure completeness in the communication of meaning. The reason for the difficulty that we face in cognitively accessible inclusive communication is a combination of deeply set information processing habits that we all have, and the reality that effective cognitive accommodation always requires a degree of individual customization to be effective. For all the talk about “mass customization”, it requires real work to make it happen in our common universe of cognitive diversity.

If this presidential campaign has taught us nothing else, it should point out to us in the starkest possible terms just how important our individual and disability community political engagement is. That engagement hinges on accessibility just as much as it requires any other factor of the political process.


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