Digital Access is Vital: A Conversation with Lydia X.Z. Brown

Lydia X. Z. Brown is an advocate who is changing the way that people think about equity for people with disabilities. In several capacities, as Policy Counsel with Center for Democracy & Technology, a Georgetown University lecturer, and an impassioned disability justice advocate, Lydia is working to address the ways in which algorithmic injustice furthers, exacerbates, and accelerates the oppression of disabled people and multiply marginalized communities.

NCC: Can you tell us about the difference between digital access and digital justice for people living with disabilities?

Lydia X. Z. Brown: Many people think about disability solely as a question of accessibility. For example, is this building physically accessible to somebody in a wheelchair? Has this book been made accessible to somebody who reads Braille, or who listens to text to speech? Is this website, program, or software usable by somebody who does not use their fingers to type, somebody who uses their voice to navigate, or somebody who cannot see a screen?

Digital access, like other forms of access, is necessary and vitally important for disabled people. Because if we do not have access, then we cannot participate in the same parts of society and culture as everyone else. At the same time, access is insufficient because merely having access to a space does not necessarily mean that we are wanted, welcomed, or valued in that space. We may not have the means necessary to even know that it exists or to avail ourselves of the opportunities that are associated with that space.

For example, a particular website may be technically usable by users who are blind or who are deaf or have a reading impairment, but is the functionality of that website useful for disabled people? Is the purpose for which that website was created useful for disabled people? Is the purpose for that website actually just or in the interest of justice? 

Digital justice asks us to consider more broadly and more deeply what it means to address societal, cultural, and political inequities and injustices that are perpetuated and exacerbated by technology and digital spaces. For instance, rather than thinking of an algorithm as being unfair or exclusionary to disabled people, digital justice and disability justice frameworks consider whether the purpose of that algorithm is just or helps advance a more just society. 

NCC: You touched on the importance of identity and how individuals are not monolithic and do not only have one identity? They’re intersectional. Could you talk about the importance of achieving an intersectional approach when building services for individuals with disabilities, especially those that are a part of multiple marginalized communities? 

Lydia X. Z. Brown: Let’s go backward a little bit and acknowledge where the term intersectionality comes from. It first entered in public discourse through the work of the legal scholar, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who used the term to describe the framework necessary to understand the failure of our existing legal mechanisms for understanding, comprehending, or responding to discrimination faced by Black women, which can’t be understood simply as sexism or racism. In fact, it had to be understood as a type of discrimination and therefore structural or systemic oppression that arose out of the nexus or the intersection of both of those identities and experiences compounding one another to create a particular experience of oppression and discrimination. (Moya Bailey and Gradient Lair creator Trudy later named and described oppression of Black women as misogynoir.)

The term intersectionality helps us to understand and provide a framework for recognizing how a variety of identities or experiences can contribute to and compound different individual experiences of oppression. In other words, when we talk about disability, we must understand that ableism does not affect all disabled people equally or identically. Ableism manifests wildly differentially, depending on experiences related to class, caste, gender, sexuality or other attributes of power, identity, domination, and oppression. 

When we talk about digital justice, an intersectional framework helps us grapple with the ways in which capitalism and ableism and racism have created the conditions necessary for some people to be systematically deprived of technological access and harmed by technological injustices. 

As technology becomes ubiquitous and necessary for participation in and success in public and commercial life, so does a dual reality. People who are marginalized, and particularly those who are marginalized in multiple ways, are often deprived of digital access, exploited and extracted from, and face actual grave injustice and harm caused by deployment of unjust technological innovation.

NCC: Do you think that ableism has changed in this moment where there is widespread agreement that we need to work towards a more equitable society?

Lydia X. Z. Brown The way that ableism manifests today is not identical to the way that it manifested 20, 100, or 500 years ago. But disabled people continue to see widespread and intense ableism in every part of our lives. 

And you can just look through the way that we experienced the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote work and remote learning made work and school infinitely more accessible for disabled people who formerly could not physically access certain locations, had unreliable transportation, or had to contend with inaccessible (including cognitively or emotionally) aspects of work or work environments. 

At the same time, the online migration guaranteed outright exclusion for people whose jobs cannot be performed remotely. Especially people working in low wage, physical labor, or retail jobs, who are disproportionately people who are marginalized, people who’ve been generationally impoverished, including many disabled people. 

Many spaces became further inaccessible and exclusionary for disabled people who were not reliably able to use technology. Software used to spy on workers’ data or tracking by school-issued devices only increased surveillance risks. Thinking about what happens to disabled people from an explicitly intersectional framework allows us to recognize both the ways in which technology further enables access and also impedes it while actively engendering conditions of harm and injustice.

NCC: How can local state and federal leaders work toward a more inclusive digital landscape? 

Lydia X. Z. Brown: We have existing laws that address digital accessibility. For example, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and more broad disability nondiscrimination provisions, can impact how technologically backed programs and services are offered to employees and the public. Unfortunately, what we’ve witnessed over and over again is that many private and public entities who fail to follow their obligations established under federal law, and in many cases under state law as well. (In fact, some state laws around disabilities on discrimination actually hold entities, public or private, to higher standards than federal disability nondiscrimination law.)

One thing that certainly I would like to see is better enforcement of our existing laws. Additionally, we need clearer guidance from the appropriate regulatory agencies on the ways in which newer applications of software and other technologies impact disabled people that perhaps were not contemplated when some of these laws were passed 30 to 50 years ago. 

For example, when we’re thinking about hiring, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidance around establishing or investigating bias and discriminatory hiring practices hasn’t really accounted for the difficulty and the complexity of auditing for disability bias and identifying ableist hiring patterns. It does not adequately address the myriad ways in which technologies, particularly algorithmic ones, can be used to systematically discriminate against candidates from marginalized communities.

NCC: When you think about the work that’s ahead of us – making sure that all people, including people living with disabilities have equitable access to technology – is there a quote, a story, something that keeps you motivated and reminded that we’re moving in the right direction? 

Lydia X. Z. Brown: The more that I witness disabled and other marginalized people working in positions as policy advocates, technology experts, programmers, developers, or as people who have training in technology who are thinking about policy and societal issues, I see that there is hope on the horizon. We know, as with every marginalized and oppressed community, that we can’t wait for people who are from outside of our community – people who are privileged and have power or resources – to save us. We can only expect those who come from our communities, who know exactly what it means to be in the fight for our liberation, and hope to see more disabled and other marginalized people existing in those spaces. 

They give me hope for the future because their presence and work remind me that we are everywhere. Disabled people have always been everywhere. We have already been everywhere. Black disabled ancestor Ki’tay Davidson famously said that “Disability is innovation.” Disability makes us have to invent and innovate constantly in order to exist and live in a world that is literally not meant for us. We are the future, and we will be in the future. A future that does not center disabled people is not a future that I want to be part of or one that scholar-activist Damien Patrick Williams would argue is “a future worth thinking about.”

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