Available, Accessible, Usable

—Elizabeth Ellcessor

In March 2017, the US Department of Justice ruled that approximately 20,000 video lectures and podcasts that were made publicly available by the University of California, Berkeley, were required to be accessible to users with disabilities. In response, the university has begun to pull its content from public sites such as YouTube.

The move drew several responses: advocates for open education decried the reduced availability of content; disability activists critiqued the decision to remove the content rather than improve accessibility; LBRY.io “irrevocably mirrored” the files in question after they were  “made illegal” (Kauffmann).

At the core, this issue demonstrates the important distinctions between “availability” and “accessibility.” The first involves a making available to a public who may (or may not) choose to take advantage of a good or service. My home cable television service makes hundreds of channels available, even as I only opt to watch roughly a dozen with any regularity. The second, however, indicates set of circumstances that are at once more robust and more fragile than mere availability; as Leah Lievrouw has argued, “access depends on people’s individual capacities to convert availability” into something that can be (and is) used (CITE). Accessibility, then, is the ability to use that which is available to you. It is a term that has special valences when used in relation to disability, as creating accessible spaces, technologies, and content often entails augmenting, altering, or otherwise working around the assumption that all users will have a “normal” able body.

Berkeley’s lectures and podcasts were available, but they were not accessible to a large segment of the population. It could be reasonably assumed that such online educational materials are more valuable to disabled populations than to able-bodied students or lifelong learners; it is cheaper to caption a lecture than to make a physical campus fully accessible, and people with disabilities often face financial and other barriers to higher education.

By choosing to remove this content (citing costs that would be incurred to meet accessibility standards), Berkeley ensures that no one can have access to it. This wealth of educational material is now inaccessible—not available for use—to able-bodied and disabled audiences alike.  Inaccessible, but not gone. Berkeley continues to make some of this material available to students with a university login (who can avail themselves of disability services to increase accessibility), and presumably the rest of the content sits, waiting, for future attention or rerelease.

The mirroring of this content by LBRY (and some other sites) ensures a persistent pseudo-availability, unsanctioned and unbothered by the Department of Justice decision. This likely has little benefit in terms of accessibility for those who can’t use the content in its default format. A Twitter exchange with LBRY CEO Jeremy Kauffman indicates that he plans to use YouTube autocaptioning to prove to Berkeley that accessibility is feasible. Given the copious evidence that autocaptions are insufficient for meaningful use, and that they are particularly ill-suited to specialized content (such as an academic lecture), this may not offer a real improvement.

Finally, this case indicates the falsity of ever thinking that we “have” access to digital media content. Access can be revoked, sites can disappear, technologies can change, and our bodies, needs, and tools cannot always keep up. Accessing media is a process, a matter of complex relationships and actions. Access is always being produced, but certainly not always available.

References:

Kauffman, Jeremy. “20,000 Worldclass University Lectures Made Illegal, So We Irrevocably Mirrored Them,” March 15, 2017.

Lievrouw, Leah. “The Information Environment and Universal Service,” The Information Society 16, no. 2 (2000): 155–159, 157.

Elizabeth Ellcessor is Assistant Professor of cinema and media studies at Indiana University—Bloomington. She is the author of Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation (NYU Press, 2016), contributor to Keywords for Media Studies (NYU Press, 2017), and co-editor (with Bill Kirkpatrick) of the forthcoming Disability Media Studies (NYU Press, October 2017).

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