Access as Inaccess and Disability as Impingement

From the Series: Disability as Rupture

Close-up photograph of a piece of knitting. The photograph focuses on unraveling red loops of yarn poking out of black fabric. Different patterns of red, green, and black knitting appear in the foreground and background of the photograph.
Detail from an untitled ethnographic knitting project, 2021. Image and knitting by Rebecca-Eli Long.

I have been conducting research on deafness and disability in India since 2007. My earlier work focused on the experiences of new Indian Sign Language speakers as they learned about and worked toward building sign language-focused ways of being in the world and earning livelihoods. To learn about this, I spent time in deaf schools, vocational training centers, workplaces, deaf churches, and pyramid scheme recruitment sessions. I was also a newer signer myself and there were many ways in which I “fit into” my fieldsites, at least linguistically. Although no one used the word “access,” what was at stake in the sites I studied was creating spaces that were linguistically available to others and where asking a question or requesting repetition was not an impingement; rather, active engagement, including interruptions, which demonstrated a desire to participate, and ultimately, to develop as a deaf person. Or perhaps, it was an impingement, but one perceived positively, a request for help that marked people as being in relation to each other. I see impingement as an exertion of presence and a demand for inclusion. As I discuss, requests for and enactments of access are impingements with multivalent effects.

Access is defined by the OED as “The power, opportunity, permission, or right to come near or into contact with someone or something; admittance; admission.” That is a rosy definition that ignores the kinds of frictions and interpersonal relations that produce conditions for access to happen (or not). Moving away from this ideal-type definition, I am inspired by disability theorist Kelly Fritsch (2016, 24) who writes about the importance of negotiating the tensions “between ‘access’ as a kind of attack and ‘access’ as an opportunity enabling contact.” What about requests for access and the labor of enacting it? In some sites and encounters, requests for and the enactment of access function as an “opportunity enabling contact” in moral and material ways. And in others, they are indeed an attack, a rupture of carefully constructed norms and boundaries and fantasies of idealized capacitation. In both, however, requests for and enactments of access are impingements that ultimately surface questions about values and structuring orders.

In 2016, I began a new project exploring Indian central and state government programs providing cochlear implants and habilitation to children living below the poverty line. I also analyzed the emergence of a growing private cochlear implant market in India. Alongside cochlear implants, government administrators, surgeons, audiologists, and speech and language pathologists were promoting the possibility, indeed probability, of normality. There was a sense that deaf children could become normal through implantation; after implantation, they would be productive citizens who would not need accommodations. Ultimately, they would not impinge.

Conducting research in habilitative settings like clinics, therapy centers, and cochlear implant industry conferences differed from my previous work in terms of how I engaged with people and was included in research sites. There was little room for improvisation, mouthing, gesturing, and working to make communication happen in such settings where there was a strong commitment to bringing the normative into the world. I felt that I had to surveil myself and ensure I was not signing or gesturing with children (and the rare therapists who did sign told me about it in confidence). I found myself trying to speak as clearly as possible and if I did not hear something, I did not ask for repetition. I did not want to create a rupture in this clinic space so focused on listening and speaking; I did not want to impinge.

In 2019, I attended an annual Indian cochlear implant industry conference in Mumbai where surgeons, therapists, audiologists, and company representatives gather. In advance of the conference, I deliberated on whether to bring an American Sign Language or Indian Sign Language interpreter to provide access. But I could not imagine how that would go. Specifically, I could not imagine how the presence of an interpreter would not function as an attack on the convictions of those present. As the sole deaf person at the conference, I would have had to advocate for individual access and not collective access as I often did in my previous work with deaf signers.

There is something awkward about fighting for individual access in fieldsites, especially those in which people are ideologically opposed to the means through which access happens. Instead of an interpreter, a research assistant accompanied me and typed segments of lectures during the conference and we discussed what was being said during breaks. I also recorded talks to be transcribed after the conference. During breaks, I focused on one-on-one conversations and networking with conference attendees.

I have been thinking about the next industry conference and how I might like to bring an interpreter—but it is impossible to imagine an interpreter signing on stage next to a surgeon or cochlear implant manufacturer representative speaking without it interfering with other kinds of access. While providing access to lectures, an interpreter would foreclose other forms of interpersonal access since discourses around sign and implantation are polarized. A cochlear implant surgeon or therapist might be less than willing to talk to me because talking through an interpreter would impinge upon their normative assumptions. Access to one thing might mean lack of access to something else—a door opened is another door closed. Indeed, if access is experienced as an attack, how could a door remain open? What happens when a researcher’s preferred or required mode of communicating is seen as non-normative and she is studying a world that is invested in creating and maintaining the normative? The signing researcher in need of an interpreter would impinge, as would the interpreter. Access would impinge.

Understanding access as impingement problematizes fantasies of effortless access in research by foregrounding the inaccess that often exists—as well as the tactical work-arounds in which we engage to make access possible. Touch, gesture, eye contact, drinking coffee together during a conference break, and other non-linguistic ways of establishing co-presence that exist below the radar of access disrupt normative assumptions about access and presence. More broadly, we might think of disability itself, in the form of the disabled anthropologist or interlocutors—as impingements in and on our fieldsites. How might anthropologists open themselves up to and acknowledge such impingements?


Fritsch, Kelly. 2016. “Accessible.” In Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late-Capitalist Struggle, edited by Kelly Fritsch, Claire O’Connor, and AK Thompson, 23–28. Edinburgh: AK Press.