Digital Youth With Disabilities: An Interview with Meryl Alper (Part Three)

 

You note that the kinds of warnings and labels that describe “age appropriate” media are problematic when talking about children with disabilities. Why? What are some of the ways that parents of children with disabilities are making choices about what kinds of media content to bring into their homes?

This question speaks to a larger pressure that parents in the U.S. are under for their children to keep up or be left behind. Paradoxically, contemporary middle class U.S. parents generally want their children not to grow up too quickly, yet they are increasingly being expected to be develop advanced literacy and math skills as a shield against an uncertain job market. Any discussion of what media is “age appropriate” for a child has to take into account the content of that media, the social context around their media use (e.g. peer group, home life), and also everything else about that child—their gender, race, ethnicity, class, language background, and range of abilities and disabilities.

For example, in one family I spent time with, the mother and father were artists and their 3-year-old son with cerebral palsy was a jazz music aficionado who used his iPad both for augmentative and alternative communication and also as a jukebox through iTunes. And in another family, a 13-year-old autistic boy liked to spend his free time on websites like PBSKids.com that were designed with a preschool audience in mind. These interests are outside the norm of that which is “age appropriate,” but they are appropriate for these children.

It is also important to note that in both of these families, parents were not alone in making choices about their child’s media use; the children weighed in as well. Though this sort of dialogue and negotiation process might look different in these families (particularly as neither child regularly communicated through oral speech), it is important for parents of children of all abilities to keep in mind their child’s perspective and agency.

You raise some key concerns about the ways that many of the platforms — YouTube for example — that support the grassroots production and sharing of media may not be able to fully support the needs of people with disabilities. What are the implications of this finding for those of us who care about participatory culture and learning?

I’ll dive right into the example of YouTube, as I think it is the main battleground right now over which individuals or what entities are responsible for making the internet an accessible and participatory space for cultural engagement and learning. YouTube’s automatic captioning feature is notoriously poor. It also offers no way for Deaf and hard-of-hearing YouTube users to search exclusively for videos with proper captioning. There have been some policy decisions that push online video in a more accessible direction, but there are many hurdles.

The U.S. Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act has mandated that all TV shows broadcast on television and then shown on the internet must have captioning (e.g. series that re-air on Hulu or Amazon Prime). However, the Act did not include programming that is exclusively distributed via the internet (e.g. user generated videos, online videos made by news organizations that never air on broadcast TV). These create huge captioning gaps on the internet. Different volunteer-driven crowdsourcing technologies such as Amara.org support DIY captioning and video descriptions at little or no cost to content creators and distributors (Ellcessor, 2012).DIY captioning sites though have been met with resistance from the entertainment and news industries, claiming that such practices violate the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The main issue here is whether or not lack of online captioning options violates citizens’ rights to equally access public spaces, including the internet.

In terms of young people’s learning, there are a number of ramifications for these barriers to YouTube accessibility. First, closed captioning doesn’t just benefit Deaf and hard-of-hearing students. It also has demonstrated benefits in formal and informal learning settings, for example, for beginning readers (Linebarger, Piotrowski, & Greenwood, 2010). Second, beyond a U.S. context, closed captioning can also help make YouTube programming accessible in multiple languages, seeing as most views come from outside of the U.S. Also, with poor online captioning, YouTube also sends an implicit signal that it is not a space “for” Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Lastly, adolescents and teenagers with disabilities should have the opportunity to be able to fit in with their peers and participate in the same online communities, especially those as fertile for grassroots production and sharing as YouTube.

Meryl Alper is a Ph.D. Candidate in Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.  She studies the social and cultural implications of networked communication technologies, with a particular focus on disability and digital media, children and families’ technology use, and mobile communication.  Prior to USC, she worked in the children’s media industry as a researcher and strategist with Sesame Workshop, Nickelodeon, and Disney.  She can be found on Twitter @merylalper and online at merylalper.com