First Monday

Blurred lines: Accessibility, disability, and definitional limitations by Elizabeth Ellcessor

Using the example of recent access problems caused by Apple’s iOS7 operating system for the iPhone, this paper interrogates the history and utility of the concept of “accessibility.” The term’s reliance on definitions of disability, particularly in the U.S. legal context, and the blurring nature of information technologies have made it increasingly difficult to differentiate between accessibility for people with disabilities and usability concerns for the general public. The author uses disability theory to argue that access is a complicated phenomenon, and that even given the difficulties in establishing definitions of “accessibility,” the concept is worthwhile because it carries with it reminders of the politics of difference, the difficulties of access, the history of disability rights, and the relationship of media to civil rights and public participation.


Delineating accessibility & disability
Convergent media technologies
Accessibility without disability?
Conclusion: The utility of accessibility




I swipe my finger to the right, and a dozen rounded squares rush toward the center of a screen, forming a grid. Behind them, bubbles of various sizes appear to float on a blue field. If I tilt my phone slightly, I seem to be able to see more of the bubbles, peering around the grid of icons to see in three dimensions, to the world below. It is September 2013, and my iPhone, running the newly released iOS7 operating system, is unlocked and ready. I check my e-mail, tapping on a blue and white icon and launching an apparent zoom as the e-mail interface expands from the initial location of the icon to fill the screen. A press of the “home” button, and the email interface zooms out, shrinking and vanishing as the icon gird reappears, sitting atop the lazily dancing bubbles. Each app produces similar effects, in and out, big and small, back and forth, zoom and retract. Later, I receive several text messages in a row, swipe again to unlock, and launch the native Messages app; words are surrounded by cartoon-style speech bubbles, and the bubbles appear to stretch and contract as I scroll through them before finally bouncing into their final alignment. After a few hours of what seemed to me to be normal usage — a Tweet here, a check of the weather there, opening Facebook, playing a game, texting a friend — I had a mild headache. After a few weeks of this, I discovered the “Reduce Motion” setting and took advantage of it. Icons no longer floated unmoored to the moving background. My headaches stopped [1].

Not everyone was so lucky. For some users, the parallax effects, zoom animations, and bouncing messages caused dizziness, motion sickness, and similar symptoms. The shifting background, zooming apps, and bouncing messages used layered animations in combination with other tricks to produce dynamic aesthetics that emphasized user control. Chief among these was a trendy parallax effect, which created the sense of depth in which icons appeared to “float” over a background. Parallax, or our sense of depth and motion, is created through the combination of two slightly different visual perspectives (one from each eye). It can be manipulated through use of size, directionality, and implied distance. Such manipulations, and the techniques associated with the zooms and bouncing messages, resulted in conflicting input to the visual and vestibular systems, causing symptoms in some users.

The vestibular system, based in the inner ear, regulates humans’ sense of motion. When the vestibular system conflicts with input from our visual or other sensory perceptions, dizziness, nausea, loss of balance, and related symptoms can emerge (as in the case of motion sickness). Often, the vestibular system is upset by combinations of sensory systems, but it can be triggered by visual stimuli alone. Recent studies suggest that some form of vestibular dysfunction is experienced by over a third of adults aged 40 or older in the United States (Vestibular Disorders Association, 2014). Many people experiencing symptoms as a result of their iOS7 usage turned on the option to “Reduce Motion,” as I did. However, this accessibility feature initially did nothing to address the zoom animations and still does not affect the gentle bouncing of Messages (Hood, 2013; Skoda, 2013). These features, though perhaps less commonly disorienting than the parallax effects, were repeatedly identified as causes of motion sickness. On social media, in newspaper articles, and in e-mail messages to Apple, people begged for the option to turn off these “features” in order to have more comfortable, functional relationships with their devices.

Accessibility is foundational to any discussion of the Internet, digital media technologies, and disability. In order to use computer technologies, including hardware, software, and Web-based content, many people with disabilities require assistive technologies (screen readers, alternate input devices), customizable interfaces (enlarged type, adjustable color contrast), or some combination of the two. The case of iOS7 indicates the difficulties of defining both accessibility and disability in the contemporary moment. Increasingly, the lines between accessibility and usability, disability and difference, accommodation and preference are blurring [2]. In this paper, I use this example as a starting point for an investigation of these terms, their histories, and their possible relevance in the future. Using policy documents, popular press coverage, and interviews with Web accessibility professionals conducted over the past five years, I demonstrate that definitions of “accessibility” and “disability” have been used to “draw a line” around this form of technological development, cordoning off its practices and audiences from the mainstream. I argue that these definitional lines were necessary to enforcing laws, guiding professional practice, and limiting the scope of regulatory efforts. Yet now, in an environment of media convergence, they appear increasingly inchoate and difficult to apply due to the blurring of these definitions, as well as the blurring of uses and types of digital media. In the absence of these definitions, I ask, can accessibility be preserved?



Delineating accessibility & disability

“Accessibility” — though used colloquially to refer to low-cost, user-friendly, or easily-found resources — is used within Web and software development to refer specifically to the principles and processes by which digital media have been made to support devices, customizations, and options and thus to meet the needs of people with a range of disabilities. In the absence of accessible features, the Internet and related technologies can be profoundly inaccessible and thus create or perpetuate exclusions based upon embodied forms of ability or difference (Goggin and Newell, 2003). Like the informal definition above, many definitions of technical accessibility are deeply dependent upon conceptual definitions of disability. Governmental and industry forces underwent a first round of accessibility standardization at the turn of the century. Both the Web Content Accessibility Guidlines 1.0 (World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 1999) and the Section 508 standards (enforced beginning in 2001) — a kind of “first round” of accessibility policy — were developed as highly technical documents aimed at Web developers and policymakers. As a result, they both adopted practical — and nearly tautological — means of defining accessibility for people with disabilities.

In the United States, accessibility regulation began with the commissioning of the World Wide Web Consortium’s (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative in 1997. In 1999, the group released the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 1.0, which had a fairly limited scope. It offered recommendations to increase the accessibility of HTML-based Web pages, and recommended against the use of technologies such as Adobe Flash, which were not necessarily developed in accordance with the World Wide Web Consortium’s recommendations. Other committees worked on similar guidelines for authoring tools (software used to make Web content) and for user agents (browsers and other software used to access Web content). WCAG, therefore, attempted to target the elements of accessibility that could be addressed by site developers. This was understood to make “content” accessible, preserving meaningful elements with the implication that the code and related recommendations were mechanical elements that could be adjusted.

Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was added in 1988, and amended in 1998 to require that federal agencies procuring or using “electronic and information technology” do so in ways that would allow federal employees and members of the public with disabilities “to have access to and use of information and data that is comparable to the access to and use of the information and data” as amended by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 [3]. The definition of accessibility here was based around equivalency; where WCAG 1.0 defined it in terms of the possibility of use, Section 508 demanded that use be both possible and similar to the uses available to non-disabled people. This reflects the reliance of Section 508 on civil rights laws surrounding disability. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first U.S. law to assert the civil rights of people with disabilities, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability. Then, in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) crafted the following legal definition of disability: “with respect to an individual,” disability is “(A) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; (B) a record of such an impairment; or (C) being regarded as having such an impairment” [4]. This definition emphasizes a social model of disability, in which disability is understood not as an individual medical deficiency, but as a socially produced negative consequence associated with a physical impairment. For instance, while blindness may be an impairment — a medical, personal condition — it is only a disability when social structures exclude those who cannot use visual input.

In the glossary that accompanies WCAG 1.0, “accessible” is defined as follows: “content is accessible when it may be used by someone with a disability” (World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 1999). Nowhere does the document define “disability,” though it references “physical, sensory, and cognitive” disabilities as well as deafness throughout [5]. The “disability” of WCAG 1.0 was essentially a visual impairment, in practice. Although the guidelines also addressed hearing impairments (recommending captions) and motion impairments (recommending compatibility with input devices other than a mouse), the robustness of existing research and practical development around screen readers for blind and visually impaired users resulted in guidelines that were perhaps over-focused on blindness. Other disabilities received scant attention, particularly cognitive disabilities, which carried with them a wide range of possible user needs that resisted easy classification and amelioration.

Section 508, developed after WCAG 1.0 and with the involvement of many of the same experts, drew upon these guidelines, but attempted to remove subjective criteria. Doug Wakefield, a federal employee who oversaw the development of the Section 508 standards gave an interview with Equal Access to Software and Information (EASI) in which he explained that “508 really is much broader” [6]. Legally enforcing accessible Web content meant having standards that could be used to measure compliance, that were “testable.”

Accessibility advocate Matt May (2013) argues that these legal imperatives mean that laws have to be several “levels of abstraction” removed from the core principles of accessibility. Given the diversity of disability, the variance of needs, and the multiple ways in which accessibility can be promoted, such narrowly defined standards may leave out or even work against accessibility for some people with disabilities. For instance, legal standards and definitions have had particular difficulty in regulating accessibility for people with cognitive disabilities, as the needs are so diverse as to make any straightforward technical standards impossible.

In conversations with Web accessibility professionals, many of whom have been involved in the development of W3C and U.S. government accessibility policies, these hamstrung definitional contexts appear to have left a significant legacy. Asked to define accessibility, several people gave replies reminiscent of the WCAG 1.0 definition or tied to legalities. For instance, one individual explained “When we talk about accessibility, we typically mean that it meets an accessible standard.” Another stated that accessibility meant conformance to legal standards, and then acknowledged that this statement dodged the larger questions surrounding the meaning and import of accessibility.

To the degree, then, that accessibility was given definitional fixity through this first era, it arose from the connection to disability. Accessibility meant that Web content conformed with rules designed to make it usable by people with disabilities. The notion of “disability,” though, was equally unstable. Many government officials stuck to the ADA definitions, while other accessibility professionals framed it in terms of physical, mental, or other characteristics that result in an inability to use particular normative technological structures. The social model was foundational to many descriptions of disability, in which it was defined in terms of the “challenges,” “effects,” “limitations” or “changes” brought to one’s life by a physical condition and its interactions with technology.

Despite the best intentions — and many positive outcomes — of early accessibility regulations, attempts to codify accessibility for people with disabilities often resulted in circular logics. What was accessible was what was usable by someone with a disability; a disability was an experience of being unable to use something. Other difficulties in using technology — poverty, literacy — were not part of accessibility, and personal experiences and needs — preferences, mild physical conditions such as eye strain — were not understood as related to disability. These gaps were the result of attempts to delimit the scope of accessibility, but while this made for more enforceable policies, it may also have created unsustainable bifurcations of ability and disability, mainstream and accessible technologies.



Convergent media technologies

Under the definitions established in the first phase of accessibility in the U.S., the case of iOS7, a nausea inducing, commercially produced operating system for a mobile phone, would not appear to be relevant. WCAG 1.0 explicitly addressed Web content, and Section 508 applied only to governmental uses of technology. Furthermore, the lack of clarity regarding disability in WCAG 1.0 and the legal language of Section 508 and its related laws would seem to indicate that the experiences of dizziness and so on would not be disabilities unless associated with a particular condition. If these symptoms do not rise to the level of disability, they are not an accessibility problem. As Andrew Kirkpatrick, Group Product Manager for Accessibility at Adobe, has stated, there is no law against designing badly for mainstream users.

However, it is precisely these conflicts that render the definitional lines of the first phase of accessibility impossible to maintain. By the early twenty-first century, digital media technologies were increasingly convergent and interrelated. This state of affairs was foreseen as early as the mid-1990s, when designer Darcy DiNucci wrote that “The Web will also appear, in different guises, on your TV set (interactive content woven seamlessly into programming and commercials), your car dashboard (maps, Yellow Pages, and other traveler intro), your cell phone (news, stock quotes, flight updates), hand-held game machines (linking players with competitors over the Net), and maybe even your microwave (automatically finding cooking times for products” [7]. Not only is the Web everywhere, various protocols enable the increasing connection of devices over the Internet. It seems that “one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display. It’s driven primarily by the rise of the iPhone model of mobile computing, and it’s a world Google can’t crawl, one where HTML doesn’t rule.” (Anderson and Wolff, 2010) The spread of the Web and Internet services — from desktop computers to laptops, to phones, tablets, digital streaming devices, cars, wearable technologies such as fitness trackers, and countless other contexts — challenges our collective abilities to segregate and regulate technology as it relates to disability.

The iPhone is a particularly useful case for dissecting the ways in which technologies, and their relationships to accessibility and disability, have blurred. The iPhone is mobile, it is both a mainstream and assistive technology, and it is proprietary. The complications introduced by these convergences were not easily resolved, as seen in the second wave of accessibility policy development.

Mobile devices such as the iPhone destroyed the presumptions of the computer interface established in the first decade of the Web. With their small screens with different aspect ratios, awkward keyboards, touchscreens, and other features we now take for granted, mobile phones demanded more flexible forms of digital content. Such challenges, however, were quite familiar to those knowledgeable about Web accessibility for people with disabilities. Changing font sizes, colors, simplifying pages, presenting lists of links rather than high-bandwidth graphics — these techniques had all been part of accessibility practices, and were all taken up in the initial development of mobile sites. In fact, just as the first accessible pages were often specialized options, so too did many sites create pages especially intended for mobile phone users. Even attempts by the W3C to issue guidelines for mobile development drew explicitly on WCAG 1.0.

The commonalities in mobile and accessible Web content also challenge the notion that accessibility must be dependent upon disability. One corporate accessibility expert describes mobile devices as “putting people in situationally disabled conditions.” A strong social model of disability is evident in this statement; mobile phones demonstrate that it is not an individual medical condition, but social structures that create “disability,” meaning that a particular device could “disable” any number of variously embodied individuals. For instance, voice input is useful for people who are blind or have vision impairments, for people with limited dexterity, and also for people who are driving, in the dark, or otherwise in need of an interface other than a keyboard. Vanderheiden argues that these interfaces “begin to blur the definitions that we have traditionally used to describe devices, strategies and even people.” [8] Mainstream and assistive devices, accessibility practices, and definitions of disability are thus thrown into question by mobile devices and other technologies that serve multiple functions.

As defined in WCAG 2.0, “the basic difference is that mainstream user agents target broad and diverse audiences that usually include people with and without disabilities. Assistive technologies target narrowly defined populations of users with specific disabilities” (World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 2008). Traditionally, assistive technologies have been specially developed for the needs of people with disabilities, and have been expensive additions to a normative computer interface. Now, however, iPhones, tablets, and related devices have increasingly offered built-in features to make them accessible “out-of-the-box,” without additional costs, software, or accessories. Apple further emphasizes that these features allow access to the “fun and function of iOS. With these innovative technologies built right in, iOS devices become powerful and affordable assistive devices” (Apple, 2014). Importantly, iOS does not simply offer accessible means of doing specific things, but allows for a range of common uses, and supports any number of diverse applications that are coded in such a way as to be compatible with Apple’s accessibility features. By offering these features out-of-the-box, the iPhone creates a situation in which it is not necessary to elaborately retrofit media technologies (as has historically been the case with telephony and television). In the words of Vanderheiden, “If everyone can use a mainstream device, then we have eliminated their disability — at least with respect to this single device.” [9]

A final way in which the iPhone and related technologies have challenged pre-existing definitions of accessibility and disability is through its construction of a proprietary mobile “platform,” encompassing hardware, software, and business practices. Tarleton Gillespie has examined the dual meanings of “platform” which can appeal to advertisers as well as users, powerful media industries as well as start-ups, capitalist and neoliberal ideologies as well as progressive notions of digital participation. In the case of Apple’s iPhone, the hardware and operating system constitute a platform for which others (individuals or companies) may create applications, which in turn are approved by and distributed through the App Store. This openness is contrasted with the closed system of the App Store (Goggin, 2009) and the ongoing connection between iPhones and their corporate parent, which renders them a kind of “tethered appliance.” Jonathan Zittrain describes tethered appliances as “easy to use, while not easy to tinker with. They are tethered because it is easy for their vendors to change them from afar,” and they are appliances in that they are consumer technologies that require increasingly less technical knowledge to operate [10]. Such devices lock users into a dependent relationship with a technology and its ecosystem, and enabling continual updates, upgrades, and upselling. In their eulogy for the Web, Anderson and Wolff (2010) describe the world of apps and tethered devices as “the world that consumers are increasingly choosing, not because they’re rejecting the idea of the Web but because these dedicated platforms often just work better or fit better into their lives (the screen comes to them, they don’t have to go to the screen). The fact that it’s easier for companies to make money on these platforms only cements the trend.”

In terms of accessibility, proprietary platforms that support user-generated content produce a quandary. First, the proprietary nature of iOS alone indicates that it is not a “W3C technology,” the use of which was recommended in WCAG 1.0. It is a separate technological ecosystem, with its own coding requirements. Furthermore, while Zittrain notes that tethered technologies may be easier to regulate, the duality of the iPhone as platform has meant that Apple can easily deny responsibility for ensuring the accessibility of applications distributed through the App Store. In the guise of a neutral party, Apple leaves accessibility implementation to other developers. Even as Apple has content standards and regularly intervenes to block particular apps on questions of taste, it absolves itself of any role as an enforcer of accessibility within those apps that build upon its platform.

In such a blended environment, with technologies converging and demonstrating the obsolescence of the definitions established in the first wave of accessibility policy-making, those responsible for accessibility guidelines and standards had a significant challenge. WCAG 2.0, released in 2008, had to balance a changing technological environment with the persistent needs of people with disabilities. Web 2.0 sites and services, dynamically generated Web content, multimedia, mobile devices, and client applications written as web applications eliminated any simple notion of “Web content.” The overly specific recommendations of WCAG 1.0 had quickly become out of date, as technologies developed in new directions, meaning that WCAG 2.0 needed to avoid such specifics. This was accomplished through a principle-based structure; Web content needs to be perceivable, operable, understandable, and robust. Supplementary documents laid out techniques, examples, and technical details for meeting these goals. This structure was intended to enable WCAG 2.0 to grow with new technologies, incorporating them into recommended techniques without requiring the total overhaul that would be signaled by, say, the creation of WCAG 3.0.

In the case of mobile technologies, Web browser and Web accessibility techniques became central to development and required guidelines to consider alternative mainstream devices. Shadi Abou-Zahra, Activity Lead of the Web Accessibility Initiative’s International Program Office, explains that the relationship between mobile and browser technologies meant that the applicability of Web content accessibility grew enormously. Specifically, “the interaction between the content and the hardware and the mobile is just so much closer than it was on the desktop. On the desktop, you had a window that was your browser, that’s where the internet was. And there would be maybe keyboard interaction or mouse or something. Now you’re tilting your phone and that causes an interaction or you are doing a three-finger swipe on your screen or your television or whatever. There’s all those different kinds of actions that are much more tied to the content so the browser really needs to support so much more.” (Abou-Zahra, 2013)

WCAG 2.0 has been a guide for the development of other standards, particularly the ongoing processes of developing more wide-ranging standards of legally enforceable accessibility. The Section 508 Refresh is still in progress, as are the attempts to update standards for telecommunications accessibility governed by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and attempts to issue Web accessibility standards for use in the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 21st Century Communication and Video Accessibility Act. Again, legal contexts require more stringent definitions than the voluntary guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium, but these processes have similarly had to wrestle with technological convergences. In the report from The Electronic and Information Technology Accessibility Committee (TEITAC), commissioned as a first step in the 508 Refresh, the authors stated that the existing standards referenced product types such as web, software, and telecommunications, but that since then, “many of these technologies have evolved and many of their various functions have converged and overlapped.” [11] As a result, the report stated that “instead of attempting to define the difference, for example, between ‘software’ and a ‘Web application,’ provisions are organized by how the products are constructed and used.” [12]

Several participants in both the development of WCAG 2.0 and the ongoing work around government standards, recalled that they “tried to draw a line ... to define ... . And we couldn’t draw a bright line.” The question, “can we draw a line?” demonstrates both the primacy and difficulty of definitional clarity regarding accessibility and digital media technologies. How could accessibility be separated from general best practices, such as W3C compliant code? How could it be defined in a way that encouraged the kinds of blurring between assistive and mainstream technologies detailed above? Was it intended to serve large audiences, or those with specific needs? Though there was no definition of accessibility given in WCAG 2.0, the introduction sets out the following description:

“Accessibility involves a wide range of disabilities, including visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological disabilities. Although these guidelines cover a wide range of issues, they are not able to address the needs of people with all types, degrees, and combinations of disability. These guidelines also make Web content more usable by older individuals with changing abilities due to aging and often improve usability for users in general.” (World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), 2008)

Once again, accessibility was tied to disability, but the line between accessibility and other theories and practices of technological development was drawn in sand, a blurry border that was only made legible through reliance on a notion of disability that was deliberately unfocused.



Accessibility without disability?

In the context of technological convergence and blurred lines of definition regarding accessibility, the controversy surrounding iOS7 presented a conundrum. IOS7 included both markedly new aesthetic choices, and important accessibility updates for many users. However, when the aesthetic choices created accessibility problems, the fungible nature of “accessibility,” and its reliance on limited conceptions of “disability” became obvious. These new features created an accessibility problem, resulting, in turn, in a disability where none had been previously.

As a consumer device associated with both “fun and function” (Apple, 2014), the iPhone carries cultural capital and conveys aesthetic values that reflect particular assumptions and arrangements of power. Most often, these “fun” elements reinforce the positions, abilities, and default status of a normative (white, male, able) body by appealing to the latest trends in design and building an interface to encourage new forms of user interactivity. iOS7 introduced new icon designs, zoom animations, and parallax effects. Gone were the shadowed, beveled icons of the past; new icons were deliberately flat in appearance. For some, this aesthetic turn away from the faux depth of shadowed icons represented an advance, with flat icons now appearing to float behind a window of glass, part of their own three-dimensional world (Tabini, 2013). It could be seen as part of a larger prioritization of content, downplaying the interface controls by reminding users of the ever presence of their desired content and activities (Skoda, 2013). Through the use of layered animations, icons appeared to float above the background, and many interface options took on a translucent appearance that blurred out (but did not obscure) the content “beneath” them. Invoking the voice interface, Siri, for instance, involves a default layer of transparent grey that sits atop a blurred version of whatever screen one last used. For many users, these aesthetics coupled with the zooms and parallax effects created a dynamic experience of interaction and user control over content.

For others, as described above, these effects produced fairly widespread feelings of dizziness and nausea. These effects were certainly unintentional, given the context of Apple’s other accessibility updates in iOS7. The National Federation of the Blind issued a very positive accessibility review of iOS7 for people who are blind or have low vision, praising the incorporation of more gestures to control VoiceOver, new features in the mail app, the ability to install speech synthesizers in multiple languages, and improvements to Braille features (Davert, 2013). Improvements for other categories of disability included caption support and the ability to operate the phone with a tactile switch. The NFB review indicated that there could be new difficulties for low vision users, due to the transparencies and other aesthetic choices, and briefly mentioned the “reduce motion” option in the accessibility menu, which could turn off moving wallpapers and parallax effects (Davert, 2013).

The development of copious accessibility features, and simultaneous creation of new disabling effects, suggests that Apple’s accessibility practices were focused on particular, limited notions of accessibility and disability that did not include conditions such as vestibular disorders. In fact, Apple’s own promotional material categorizes accessibility features relevant to vision, hearing, physical and motor skill, and learning and literacy. Where in these categories would vestibular disorders fit? Is it, in fact, a disability at all?

Craig Grannell (2013a) described the problems of dizziness and nausea with iOS7 as twofold: “first, many other people refuse to believe a problem exists; secondly, there’s no fix.” The disbelief is evident in the ongoing joking surrounding this issue, which minimized vestibular disorders and denied them the status of disability. Market analyst Greg Sterling told USA Today that the online comments were “an over-reaction” (Graham, 2013). Even an otherwise sympathetic story proclaimed in its headline that Apple offered “the discomfort ‘commonly found in long, bumpy car rides’” (Stewart, 2013). As Marissa Christina, a blogger and advocate for people with vestibular disorders, told Grannell, “The words ‘dizziness’ and ‘vertigo’ don’t strike fear into people, but those living with severe cases are in ongoing angst awaiting the next unwarranted attack.” (Grannell, 2013a)

Such minimization was facilitated by the lack of clear distinctions between those who had disabilities, for whom this was an accessibility issue, and those who had symptoms, for whom it was, presumably, an “annoyance.” A Twitter post by actress Eliza Dushku (2013) stated that “Ok now the new #iOS7 is making me motion-sick.” Dushku’s post was fairly widely circulated, with some agreeing and others referring her to information on vestibular conditions. Still others, however, took a less sympathetic approach, ordering her to turn off her phone, stop complaining, or otherwise fix the problem herself, because she — not the technology — was the problem. This is a fairly common ableist (and sexist) response, shifting responsibility for a disadvantage onto the disadvantaged group. It is often seen in simplistic demands that people change their desires, activities, and needs rather than ask for social change.

Though unjust, this is what users have to do when confronted with a lack of options for accessibility. Initially, there was no fix for the problems brought on by the aesthetic changes to iOS7. Although Kleinman (2013) in the Huffington Post proclaimed that there was a solution in “reduce motion,” this feature only disabled parallax effects, while “leaving in cool zoom animations” (Epstein, 2014). Yet, while this reduced parallax and moving background images, “Message bubble bouncing, folder and app zooming, not so much ... . That some of the effects can be turned off means Apple probably foresaw at least part of the issue. That all can’t means they probably didn’t foresee enough of it.” (Ritchie, 2013) One reason for this oversight may be the ambiguity of the relationship between vestibular symptoms, disability, and accessibility.

Many did not take seriously the notion that nausea and dizziness caused by an operating system could be not only unpleasant, but disabling. Grannell’s article, like many on this issue, attracted numerous comments from users being flippant or disbelieving about the problems, leading him to wonder “if the people being jerks on the thread of my article do that to deaf or blind people, or just those with balance disorders.” (Grannell, 2013b) Yet, even Grannell created a kind of disability hierarchy, writing that “I’m certainly not comparing temporary dizziness and sickness to being blind, say; I’m not suggesting motion sickness is as severe as motor limitations that would limit someone to not being able to use a keyboard, mouse or touchscreen with any degree of precision.” (Grannell, 2014) In short, these symptoms are not as important as a “real” disability such as blindness.

This kind of hierarchy accomplishes precisely the opposite of the intended effects of digital media accessibility. By casting some disabilities as more important or worthy of accommodation than others, a situation is created in which only those impairments or material conditions are recognized and addressed. Recall the emphasis on blindness in early accessibility work; though this was likely due to available technologies rather than a prioritization of disabilities, the result was to standardize in such a way that some conditions — particularly cognitive disabilities — were unaddressed. And, again, if there is “no law against designing badly,” then there is no recourse for those experiencing symptoms that may not be disabling “enough” to fall under accessibility mandates.

Despite the doubts surrounding vestibular symptoms and the hierarchies of ability evident in the discussion surrounding iOS7, it is very easy to make an argument that these impairments can rise to the level of disability. The Vestibular Disorders Association, the leading U.S. education and advocacy group for vestibular disorders, explains that the vestibular system — parts of the inner ear and brain charged with processing sensory information related to balance and eye movements — can be damaged by disease or injury, and can also be exacerbated by environmental conditions, genetics, and sometimes unknown causes. They then state that “the most commonly diagnosed vestibular disorders include benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV), labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis, Ménière’s disease, secondary endolymphatic hydrops, and perilymph fistula.” Beyond these, and other, less common conditions, vestibular dysfunction can be caused by migraine headaches and by complications from allergies or autoimmune disorders (Vestibular Disorders Association, 2014). These medical conditions, or impairments, may be disabling in that they, in the words of the ADA, “substantially limit[s] one or more major life activities of such individual.” [13] Such conditions, and their symptoms, may also allow for individual identification with disability. Christina, the blogger mentioned above, explains that she came to personally identify with disability when it became apparent that her vestibular condition would prohibit her from working a nine-to-five office job and caused her to carefully allocate energy for basic activities such as taking a walk or grocery shopping.

Bringing vestibular disorders under the category of disability make it easier for them to be addressed through existing structures for digital media accessibility. Following the outcry over iOS7, Apple released accessibility updates in version 7.0.3 in October 2013. The “reduce motion” setting was expanded; “In past versions of iOS 7, it only turned off the parallax effect for wallpapers that makes app icons look like they’re floating. Post 7.0.3, it completely turns off all of iOS 7’s navigation animations. Instead, a quick blur transitions you in and out of windows.” (Heath, 2013) With this change, most of the complaints about dizziness, nausea, or motion sickness seemed to be resolved. The ability to turn off disorienting effects was sufficient to enable both the advantages of these aesthetic changes for mainstream users and the health of people form whom these elements posed a problem. This fix, then, was essentially one of customization and options; increasingly, accessibility blends into customization, as disability blends into a wide range of bodily experiences. Without clear definitions of disability, or accessibility, such problems must be addressed on the basis of variation of both technologies, bodies, and cultural contexts.



Conclusion: The utility of accessibility

Through this brief history of digital media accessibility, attempts to define “accessibility” and “disability” have both advanced and constrained the goals of making digital media usable by a wide range of embodied individuals. Codependent definitions of accessibility and disability have enabled legal enforcement and the advancement of access for many people with disabilities, it also produces a situation in which lesser known or culturally devalued impairments, physical conditions, symptoms, and experiences may not be accommodated. Given this, it seems prudent to ask whether “accessibility” is a concept worthy of preservation as customizable computational technocultures become ubiquitous.

Already, many advocates of access for people with disabilities have proposed alternative frameworks. First among these is “universal design,” a concept that arose out of architectural contexts and has been taken up in many design disciplines (Mace, et al., 1990). Universal design proposes that by designing for disability from the beginning, it is possible to produce products that are more beneficial for a wider range of people. Web developers Wendy Chisholm and Matt May adopt such a perspective in Universal design for Web applications, where they write that they have “the ultimate goal of providing the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people possible. This is the principle of universal design.” [14] Such a perspective is similarly evident in claims that accessibility features — whether physical curb cuts or “reduce motion” controls — benefit users other than people with disabilities.

Mobile devices in particular have been the subject of much enthusiasm related to universal design, due to their close ties to accessible design, as discussed above. Katie Ellis and Mike Kent argue that “the fact that accessibility allows greater ‘mobile’ access provides an interesting moment of contemplation ... . As more people both with and without disability seek flexible and mobile access, accessibility will become a universal goal, not a disability-specific one. Accessibility can potentially hold a central position, with mainstream benefits, as the Web moves beyond Web 2.0.” [15] Such a centering of accessibility, or “accessibility 2.0” is possible in a technoculture built upon consumer choice, customization, personalization, and individual usage. To the degree that this enables greater access, across a range of identities and needs, this is undoubtedly positive. As recounted above, though I do not have a known vestibular disorder, I found these features irritating and mildly painful, and took advantage of features that were classified as “accessibility” options. A more extreme example might be in the hacks that have emerged around the iPhone and iOS7, in which accessibility features are repurposed according to the needs and preferences of mainstream users. For instance, some users have used the accessibility “switch” options — designed to enable users with motion impairments to partner their iPhone with other input devices — to create custom interactions, such as activating Siri automatically through specific gestures (Whitney, 2014).

Yet, there is something lost if “accessibility” is folded into “universal design” or is taken up as a part of creating broad appeal and usability for consumer markets. First, such “universal” practices and artifacts may stem from accessible design, but they do not necessarily emphasize this connection. By extending the goals of accessibility through the language of universal design and appeals to audiences other than people with disabilities, it is all too easy to reaffirm social hierarchies in which what really matters are the benefits that universal design brings to other (normative, able-bodied) people (Williamson, 2012). This can be seen in the advocacy for closed captioning in the late 1980s, when arguments for captioning came to prioritize immigrants’ ability to learn English and children’s literacy skills over the benefits for deaf and hard of hearing Americans (Downey, 2008; Strauss, 2006).

This re-erasure may be due to the persistent stigma of disability, long understood as a kind of deficit located within individual bodies. In such a context, the abilities of normative bodies and subjectivities to communicate, interact, and take action in the world are presumed. Technological and social structures are created in accordance with those norms. In contrast, as Ingunn Moser eloquently writes, “non-standardized bodies and subjectivities ... appear as problematic and particular, and so do the material arrangements and relations that disable or enable them.” [16] Thus it is that conceptions of “access” to the Internet and related digital media focus on those who “lack” it: the poor, the disabled, the isolated, the elderly. This once again locates the problems of unequal access in the bodies or identities of specific groups of people, rather than in the larger social, cultural, economic, and material structures that may funnel access through specific, and often exclusionary, experiences, and requirements.

Secondly, arguments about universal design, temporary able-bodiedness (the idea that anyone could, at any point, become situationally, temporarily, or permanently disabled), or claims that “everyone is a little disabled” may attempt to break down the stigma associated with disability. However, in their blithe universalism, these statements also deny the lived experiences of disability and the importance of a disability identity or culture for many people. It is akin to claims of a post-racial society; pretending that race or disability is not meaningful does not automatically reduce prejudice, discrimination, or stigma. Instead, such assertions may protect and extend racist or ableist structures, by failing to interrogate, alter, or demolish them.

Furthermore, if accessibility measures are allowed to slip entirely into the category of “options,” “customizations,” or similar settings, it becomes difficult to retain the connection of accessibility to matters of access, civil rights, and political participation. Instead, accessibility features become yoked to ideologies of consumer choice, provided through proprietary means, and made not a matter of access rights, but of personal “choice.” Media access and participation, according to theorist Nico Carpentier (2011), are not positive in and of themselves; they derive their value from their connections to the civic, the political, and the collective dimensions of society. Thus, in advocating accessibility, we remind ourselves that we are not merely advocating for good design, but for the integration of people into a larger civic body via mediated channels.

Accessibility remains both theoretically and practically useful precisely because it is so closely tied to disability, its cultures, and the technological, cultural, and political needs of people with disabilities. It offers some legal protections regarding access and affirms media access as a civil right for people with disabilities in the U.S. Universal design, and similar frameworks, have no such institutional standing. “Accessibility” also guards against the erasure of people with disabilities and the disability cultures that have often been leaders in the creation of accessible media and the development of mainstream technologies. Disability cultures, understood as shared identifications, with their own histories, artistic artifacts, and perspectives on society have value (Brown, 2002). To take this value and apply it to the construction of mainstream technologies while erasing its visibility, as often happens through universal design, is to exploit and marginalize disability. Finally, accessibility remains valuable through its focus on the technological needs of people with disabilities. This enables innovations based not upon simplistic identities (the blind, the poor), or upon consumer markets, but based upon particular needs of various people. The case of iOS7 is illustrative here; many differently embodied people had difficulties with parallax, zooming, and other aesthetic effects. The accessibility issue, then, involved not diagnosing these individuals, but finding ways to meet particular, shared needs. This is a model of coalitional identity and activism that is increasingly important in disability activism, and reflects relational approaches to disability and access (Gilroy, 1996; Kafer, 2013; Siebers, 2008; Titchkosky, 2011).

Instead of defining disability, access, or accessibility, it is more useful to think in terms of relations between people, technologies, and design. Disability scholar Alison Kafer offers a “political-relational model” of disability in which the internal experiences of pain, external barriers of society, and unequal relationships with normative individuals and institutions are all relevant dimensions of “disability” as a category of identity and analysis. Disability, then, is not an internal individual phenomenon, nor simply socially produced through inaccessible features. It is a relationship between these factors, and as such, it is a political relationship shaped by relevant power dynamics. Tanya Titchkosky similarly argues that access is relational, and always available for analysis; access emerges in the nexus of bodies, artifacts, social norms, ideologies, and other rich contexts. It is not a single state, but a complex and varied relationship. Building on these authors, it would seem that accessibility is also a relational concept. In the relations of bodies, technologies, and cultures, different arrangements of access and power are visible. Thus, both the needs of visually impaired users and the needs of users suffering motion sickness are accessibility issues for the iPhone and its operating system. They are different relationships, but they are both relationships in which there is a mismatch between ability and technology. By preserving accessibility, we preserve the important political and ideological challenges to normative technologies and business practices that are seen in such moments of disjuncture.

Accessibility, then, offers progressive possibilities regarding varied uses of technology as well as intervening in ideologies of ability and hierarchies of identity. Aimi Hamraie (2013) has argued that it is possible to conceive of universal design as “informed by a politics of interdependence and collective access” and thus capable of addressing intersectional exclusions. As Hamraie indicates, there is a need for collective, coalitional, and interdependent forms of access and activism surrounding disability and technology. However, these goals can be articulated in a way that maintains connection to “accessibility” and its historical and linguistic advantages. To do this, I suggest a framework of “cultural accessibility.” In the interests of creating a more open, participatory, and politically progressive form of design for access to technology, there is value in holding on to the language of accessibility, disability, and culture. By doing so, we not only look to elevate accessibility as a key component of contemporary digital media, but we look backwards and recognize the people, the exclusions, the innovations, the cultural formations, and the coalitional politics that have supported the development of accessible technologies thus far. “Cultural accessibility,” as I have explored it elsewhere, “calls for a kind of participatory, open process that combines the best elements of coalitional politics with the possibilities for collaboration that characterize digital media spaces and technologies.” [17] It entails not merely technical access, but attention to cultural relevancies, affective experiences, and shared interests and needs. It is, thus, profoundly open even as it remains firmly grounded in the history of access for people with disabilities. In the case of iOS7, adopting a framework based in cultural accessibility would mean considering not merely how technologies did or did not enable access for particular medicalized individuals, but would require taking into account the varied experiences, conversations, and attempted interventions that characterized reactions to the dizzying dimensions of the operating system. By understanding accessibility within a robust context, it is possible to move across the blurred lines of definition and analyze accessibility as a multifaceted relationship between bodies, cultures, and technologies.

Understanding how digital media accessibility has been constructed and challenged allows consideration of how it might be improved, extended, and used to make digital media inclusive to a variety of bodies, needs, and interests. In this paper, I have reviewed attempts to draw these lines within U.S. laws and the guidelines of the World Wide Web Consortium. In both policy processes, participants routinely asked “can we draw a line?” What is, or is not, accessibility? What is its relationship to disability? Though policies did demarcate these concepts, convergent technologies and experiences that did not map easily onto notions of disability threw them into disarray. Though it may no longer be possible, or desirable, to draw bright lines around accessibility, and though frameworks such as universal design offer many valuable insights, the definitional dependence of accessibility on disability continually reminds us of the politics of difference, the difficulties of access, and the relationship of media to civil rights and public participation. In doing so, accessibility reminds us that technological access is not and end in itself, but is a place from which action may begin. End of article


About the author

Elizabeth Ellcessor is an assistant professor of cinema and media studies at Indiana University — Bloomington. Her research focuses on accessibility, media access, and participation.
E-mail: eellcess [at] indiana [dot] edu



1. For an illustration of this three-dimensional parallax effect, see the image at Cult of Mac, at

2. For the purposes of this article, I focus exclusively on Apple iOS7 for iPhone, and use the regulatory background of U.S. laws and English-language global initiatives (such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 and 2.0).

It is, however, relevant to point out that Android smartphone operating systems offer significant quantities of information and support for the development of accessible applications. Android defines accessibility as “the measure of how successfully a product can be used by people with varying abilities.” While this is indebted to an ability framing of accessibility, and is followed by a list of impairments, it is employed in the service of universal design and is capacious enough to potentially include the vertigo symptoms discussed in this article.

Furthermore, international smartphones operate under their own sets of regulations and expectations regarding access and disability. For instance, the Taiwan-based MediaTek produces chipsets and displays for incorporation into a range of handsets, including smartphones using Android. This enables flexibility in terms of cost and function, as MediaTek serves multiple countries and price points, and sees itself as “democratizing the smartphone.” This flexibility and broadened access may function as a universal design that can serve disabled users in Asian markets, as well.

3. See “29 U.S. Code § 794d — Electronic and information technology,” at

4. “42 U.S. Code § 12102 — Definition of disability,” at

5. Deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans often do not identify themselves as disabled, even as they benefit from accessibility policies gained through this disclosure or from the fact that others understand them to be disabled.

6. Doug Wakefield, interviewed by Norman Coombs, at

7. DiNucci, 1999, p. 38.

8. Vanderheiden, 2007, p. 154.

9. Vanderheiden, 2007, p. 156.

10. Zittrain, 2008, p. 206.

11. U.S. Access Board. Telecommunications and Electronic and Information Technology Advisory Committee (TEITAC), 2008, § 2.3.

12. Ibid.

13. “42 U.S. Code § 12102 — Definition of disability,” at

14. Chisholm and May, 2008, p. 2.

15. Ellis and Kent, 2011, p. 146.

16. Moser, 2006, p. 388.

17. Ellcessor, forthcoming. Restricted access, p. 263.



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Editorial history

Received 21 August 2015; accepted 22 August 2015.

Copyright © 2015, First Monday.
Copyright © 2015, Elizabeth Ellcessor. All Rights Reserved.

Blurred lines: Accessibility, disability, and definitional limitations
by Elizabeth Ellcessor.
First Monday, Volume 20, Number 9 - 7 September 2015