Academia’s Default Mode is Ableist…

… so every minute that we’re not pushing back, we’re complicit.

Of course, academia’s default mode isn’t just ableist. It’s also racist, sexist, transphobic, classist. I mean, the list goes on. And on. And on.

But today I’m thinking about ableism, because I’m thinking about how hard it is to get a video captioned for education. My favourite hack is to run your video through YouTube, swipe their machine-generated captions, and edit them into a usable transcript. But it’s not a very elegant solution for long videos, or for podcast transcription. Importantly, not every video can or should be put through YouTube, and you certainly can’t (ethically) demand your students hand content over to a big evil corporation — and whether or not students care about privacy is another post entirely that I will eventually write, but consider that it’s our job to make them care, or at least to understand the stakes?

Anyway. I spent part of my morning in a webinar for a new video platform my institution is in the process of implementing. I’m not going to name them because they’re no worst than any other tech developer and indeed I think they might be better than most. But access is never an out-of-the-box concern; in this case, machine-generated captioning is coming, but not quite yet (but at least it’s coming! and it’s coming because I work for folks who push on these issues!), and the pre-training info video they sent did not have captions enabled. Because no one at the company thought of it.

And because when the system is oppressive, not thinking about it means reifying existing structures over, and over, and over.

We had an older build of this same platform at my previous institution, and we didn’t have the captioning function enabled at all — whether an issue of cost or currency, I’m not sure. The reasoning, though, was that the Accessibility Services would take care of captioning content for those students who needed it. Hm. Lots to unpack here.

First, that means that captions only get provided for course content that is supplied well in advance, to accommodate the workflow at an already wildly overworked and under-resourced division. And I’ve been instructional faculty. I’ve been uploading a videoblog for students to watch mere hours (… minutes?) before they need it. This is the exact kind of scenario that sent me hunting for a different way.

Second, “those students who need it.” Whew. That’s a lot. In our institutions, we usually define “students who need it” as students with documented disabilities, and that documentation usually needs to be less than five years old. Now, I have known a lot of accessibility counsellors who move mountains to get students who need support classified appropriately, but I also know how many of my own students have fallen through the cracks because they don’t access necessary services before their high school diagnosis expires, and they can’t afford to go through the process again as adults, when costs are much higher. I’ve also known students whose parents will revoke financial support if they seek this kind of accommodation. I’ve known students whose own sense of themselves wouldn’t allow them to define their learning differences as disabilities.

The principle behind a universal design approach to learning, though, is to look past even these obvious slippages to see that a simple accommodation like captioning a video has broader implications for accessibility beyond disability. It accommodates new parents (I can’t tell you how much captioned Netflix I watched while my newborn slept on my chest, terrified that any sound would wake him); it accommodates folks who process text more effectively than audio (also me); it accommodates language learners who might need the guidance for spelling and referencing key lecture terms; it accommodates people who have never heard the names referenced in a lecture before and are spelling them for the first time.

So who are “those students who need it,” anyway, if we really consider the breadth of student experiences? There’s “duty to accommodate” and then there’s “behaving like a compassionate human being.”

Pushing back against thoughtlessly ableist structures in academia helps far more students than we might first consider, and it harms no one. I’m happy to work with folks who get this, and I’m excited to see the captioning function of this video platform roll out — sooner rather than later, and I’m told before users begin to interact with it. I’m excited to see what faculty buy-in looks like here.

Just keep pushing back.

7 Replies to “Academia’s Default Mode is Ableist…”

  1. Great post – looking forward to following along with your workblogging – assuming your jerk of a boss doesn’t squash it…

    We’re trying to think about ableism and supporting access – things like our new campus video platform coming with automatic closed-captioning so every single video has a text track. It’s automatically generated, so not 100% correct, but can be quickly manually corrected as needed. And makes the video more useful for _everybody_ because it’s now searchable.

  2. The boss is widely known as being a really conservative and image-conscious guy, so I’ll have to be on my best behaviour, I think.

    YES, searchability! Totally forgot about that. Also loving the idea of auto-generated transcripts for students to build lecture notes around. I was reading a twitter thread the other day about how searchable transcripts for podcasts make it easier to prove plagiarism, which is also something to think about (I think many of us as faculty could better model ethical citation practice in our lectures/lessons if we’re really going to claim our institutions are committed to academic honesty for everyone and not only for students).

    The editing is not terribly onerous on short videos. Those with RA/TA access might consider how that labour could be reframed as a paid gig for a student, too.

  3. I am loathe to admit this, but MS Stream (packaged with office 365), does a decent job of auto transcribing. That doesn’t get around privacy concerns, but the technology is maturing. A faculty member I know has started auto transcribing her lectures in real time, and recently demoed a transcript in English and simultaneous translation to French.

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