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PWR 91LF: The Art of Access - Disability, Creativity, Communication

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Dr. Lindsey Felt discusses her course PWR91LF.

Have you ever watched a subtitled TikTok video or Instagram story on mute? Captions and speech recognition — which originated as assistive technologies for deaf and blind people — undeniably shape the way creators and audiences produce and consume digital media. So why are the communication technologies we use to read, write, and create inaccessible to a statistically significant percentage of audiences? According to the CDC, 1 in 4 people identify as disabled. The ADA’s legal protections for Americans with disabilities is rarely enforced in digital domains, and WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) compliance is estimated to be less than 3% among top web sites in 2022.

But what if we thought about access as a tool for creativity and engagement? Recently, artists like Christine Sun Kim have experimented with closed-captions for the Deaf and hard-of-hearing by reimagining subtitles as poetry rather than as a transcription of spoken word. In this course, you will have a unique opportunity to collaborate with a group of renowned disabled media artists who are reimagining what art can be when access is integrated into its aesthetics—from an accessible digital video game character creator for non-visual gamers, to a digital media instrument that can be played by individuals who are bed-bound.

Through readings drawn from disability activists, scholars, curators and artist-designers (Amanda Cachia, Alice Sheppard, Sins Invalid, and others), we will investigate what constitutes “creative access” in the arts and in media. Guest talks, artist-led workshops and case studies will guide you through a self-designed project, such as a work of accessible media art, a curatorial proposal for an exhibition, or a set of accessible materials for a digital research publication. This class provides a rare inside look into professional artist-designers’ practice and research, equipping students to critically engage in disability justice-centered communication, storytelling, and collaboration. No previous artistic experience or expertise is required.

Major Assignments

Community Discussions & Collaboration 

Students will collaborate in pairs to introduce and lead a discussion of one of our readings. Students will also have several opportunities to collaborate and provide feedback on each other’s proposals and projects, as well as to lead brief responses to guest speakers' presentations.

Design Case Study Analysis (2,000-2,500 words and 5 minute oral presentation)

You will identify and analyze an example of a work of art or media that illuminates an example of “creative access.” In this analysis, you’ll consider ways that this case study enables or inhibits access/accessibility for different audiences. For example, you might investigate an example of audio description of a live dance performance, or study the use of plain-text summaries for a podcast, or an interactive installation that invites visitors to experience the work haptically. You will share this case study with the class through a brief oral presentation.

Creative Access Project

This project will be developed over three stages: a proposal, a complete project, and an artist statement/reflection.

  1. Proposal (800-1200 words): You will identify a target audience or community of your choice alongside your artist-collaborator, and develop a 800-1200 word proposal for extending creative access in a digital platform or technologically mediated space. You will consider how your own access choices align with this medium, genre and audience, as well as who will participate in and co-produce this work of access labor; you’ll also reflect on potential “access fails,” conflicts, or obstacles you might encounter through the technical or social infrastructure of this platform.
  2. Project: In this final project, you will develop a set of tools, access materials (such as, but not limited to: audio description of a short film, plain text, alt-text for a series of visual images, or wayfinding documentation for a virtual or in-person exhibition), or even a proof-of-concept for a work of media art in collaboration with one of our disabled media artists. These materials may become part of the final artist exhibition, or documentation archive, or even be included in a special issue of Leonardo journal.
  3. Reflection (500-750 words): You will compose a final reflection that will function like an extended artist statement that explains the issues and questions of access/accessibility, what techniques, tools and methodologies you drew on, your process of collaboration, and what your overall purpose and intended impact was.

Prerequisite: WR-1 requirement or the permission of instructor

Grade option: Letter (ABCD/NP)

Course Feature: Cultural Rhetorics track. This course does not fulfill the WR-1 or WR-2 Requirement