Connective Threads & Disruptive Gaps Assessing the Accessibility of Assigned Readings in Master’s Level Courses Emily Simmons, INLS 737, April 2021

Academia is infamous for being difficult terrain for disabled students. This project examines one way that ableism shows up in higher education: inaccessible assigned texts. From PDFs that are not screen-readable to video and audio “readings” that have no accompanying subtitles or transcripts, inaccessible materials leave a trail riddled with holes and gaps where content and learning should be.

I collected the data for this project by examining the assigned readings from the courses I took last semester and the courses I am taking this semester. I assessed the accessibility of each reading and recorded the data in a spreadsheet. I assessed over 250 texts, including book chapters, scholarly articles, YouTube videos, radio segments, and websites. Almost 25% of the texts were inaccessible.

I wanted to create a physicalization of the data that was both visual and tactile. For this reason, I chose to use macrame. I created a strand of knots for each class. For readings that were accessible, I made one square knot; for readings that were inaccessible, I left a centimeter of unknotted yarn. These empty spaces represent the information missed when assigned readings are inaccessible. When viewed as a whole, one can see how multiple inaccessible texts in a course create huge gaps of knowledge.

seven strands of knotted red yarn

I also appreciate the media of thread and rope and strings and knots for their symbolic relation to Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s concept of care webs. Disability justice is about weaving together a web or net of care so that fewer individuals fall through the gaps.

At UNC-CH, there are university-level standards specifying that digital course content needs to be accessible. Assigned course readings that are not accessible violate these standards. These standards put weight behind my project and should compel instructors to make their materials accessible. There is a whole office on campus–the Digital Accessibility Office–that offers trainings and support for making digital content accessible. My hope is that instructors will put more care into making texts accessible for their students and that administration will prioritize accessibility initiatives in their planning and policy. It should not fall to students to request access to course content.

Created By
Emily Simmons