The team behind the Displacements conference has made a commitment to inviting accessible presentations as part of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s first virtual meeting. This will, perhaps, be most obvious with the use of captioning, which we are asking all presenters to use. But access has broader dimensions, and this post introduces some of its conceptual parameters and practical implications.
The verb to access, as historian Bess Williamson (2015) has noted, means entering into, coming in contact with, being proximate to, or otherwise participating in something. Anthropologists are used to thinking about research access. In disability theory and activism, however, conversations about access seek to ensure that the widest swath of human variation can be a part of an activity, collectivity, or space. As a result, reflections on access bring into view unmarked forms of privilege that are built into material and technological forms. Access is a legally protected right, obligating companies like Netflix to provide captions for streaming content and buildings to come with ramps and elevators. But it reaches beyond the legal: access is fundamentally a question of both justice and hospitality, a matter of convivial inclusions of forms of human difference that exist at the levels of cognition, perception, and embodiment.
Conversations about access have focused on the ways that material, social, and infrastructural elements privilege some kinds of minds and bodies over others. According to one of the foundational insights of disability studies, known as the “social model of disability,” disability is not lodged in the individual but rather arises out of relationships between minoritized bodies and minds and their environments. There are iconic forms of access and inaccessibility. For a person using a wheelchair, a building can either exclude and disable (by being built without ramps and elevators) or it can include them. Conversations can take place with or without signing and other forms of nonauditory language, thus including or excluding Deaf people.
Conferences, too, can disable and exclude, or they can welcome and include. The American Anthropological Association’s Disability Research Interest Group has created guidelines for presentations at traditional, face-to-face conferences. Online conferences like the SCA’s spring meeting call for somewhat different forms of access. Presenting online media that is accessible isn’t difficult, but it does require some dedicated time and conscious effort, especially if this is your first time making accessible media. There are several basic parameters of making online content accessible.
All speech should be at an easy-to-follow pace. No speed-reading! It’s not just inconsiderate when your remarks are too long and you rush through them; it actually excludes people from accessing what you are saying. Invite people in. Share your words and images in a way people can digest and enjoy them.
What would it take to make the visual dimension of your presentation accessible to a conference participant who does not see it? Addressing this question involves making images and visual media more accessible through language (e.g., “In this image . . .”). One widely regarded strategy for rendering the visual accessible—a kind of best practice—is audio description, where spoken descriptions of images accompany the images as they are presented. Imagine you’re recording a talk that includes this image:
When the image first appears, you could include something like the following in your spoken remarks by way of introducing it:
Two older white women are kneading dumplings. They are both wearing aprons and standing over a table that is covered with flour, dough, and finished dumplings.
Narrate the details that you see as relevant—whatever will make the image accessible to someone who does not see it. Note that assumptions about race and ethnicity may come to the fore when you translate the visual into the verbal. With the image above, some might argue for “light-skinned” as a description of the women; others might counter that in North America (where the image was made) “white” importantly signals not only race but racial privilege. There is no simple answer that fits all cases, only important choices that demand reflection.
Audio description will be easier for some presentation formats than others, and it may present a significant challenge for formats where there is a loose or suggestive relationship between image and narration. In that case, captions could be used alongside images. For the above image, for example, you might supply the caption “Two older women making dumplings” (see the next section for how to do so). Screen readers, which make text audible, can pick up on captions, though not perfectly. Once again, there is no simple answer for all presentations. The point here is to be conscious of ways that conference participants may or may not be able to access your presentation, and to create something that strives to include those who do not see some or any of its visual dimensions.
There are many different approaches to captioning. You are welcome to build captions and subtitles right into your presentation if you are using video editing software, though this can be very time-consuming. Since the Displacements conference will be streaming video presentations using YouTube, you may wish to use YouTube’s in-built captioning function. I have been pleasantly surprised by YouTube’s speech recognition capabilities, especially compared to where speech-transcription software was just a few years back. YouTube’s automatic speech recognition is far from perfect, but it’s also not hard to correct errors. There are many guides to captioning in YouTube, like this one from the National Center on Disability and Access to Education. Beyond the fact that this approach takes less time than captioning in video editing software, it also allows conference participants who do hear and/or see your presentation to turn captions on or off as they choose.
Unless your captions are built into your original video submission, we will ask you to caption your submission once we have uploaded it to the YouTube channel for the Displacements conference. We will have YouTube auto-generate captions and then invite you to correct them via a link to your submission. Please take the time to do so, because the auto-generated captions will have mistakes.
We will send out more detailed instructions on captioning via YouTube once presentations have been submitted. But, in brief, here’s what you do to edit captions:
- Click the CC button that is superimposed onto the lower right corner of the video to turn closed captions (CC) on.
- Then click on the Settings button, which looks like a gear, right next to the CC button.
- In the Settings menu, click “Subtitles/CC > English (Auto-Generated)”
- Then, go back to the Settings menu and click “Subtitles/CC > Add Subtitles/CC”: this will allow you to edit and move around the auto-generated captions.
- When you are satisfied, click the “Actions” drop-down menu above the text box where you have been typing and then click “Download.” You now have a file of timed captions to accompany your presentation.
Again, you will receive more detailed instructions soon. This is just to give you a head’s up and a chance to begin experimenting.
Access as an Art of Conviviality
The techniques described in this post for promoting access to an online presentation might seem strange at first. Audio description, for example, can feel unnatural when you first begin to practice it. But it soon becomes second nature, and it constitutes an important political statement of inclusion when it is a starting point for giving a presentation. Moreover, research suggests that accessible media make for better media experiences for everyone, regardless of ability.
While conversations about access may start with disability, they also point to broader concerns, including those that gave rise to the Displacements conference: the desire to make the conference accessible to those who live far away and cannot afford (or are not permitted) to travel to the United States. Language is another access issue. English is the working medium of the Displacements conference and the language in which we expect captions to be submitted, even if the conversations and encounters out of which the presentation grows unfolded in other languages. This choice itself creates forms of exclusion and inclusion that future conferences of this nature will need to consider.
Ultimately, accessibility is an art of conviviality, a means of acknowledging and incorporating disabled and nondisabled people alike. As an art of living together, it requires conscious reflection, creativity, and openness to difference. Thus, while practicing accessibility may be new to many anthropologists, its fundamental premises are at the heart of our discipline.
Please feel free to contact me, as the conference’s access advisor, with any questions or concerns that come up after reading this post or as you work on making your conference submission accessible. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Williamson, Bess. 2015. “Access.” In Keywords for Disability Studies, edited by Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, 14–17. New York: New York University Press.