By Roy Hanes and Beth A. Robertson
Technological advances have historically been integral to creating inclusive spaces of learning, whether in schools, universities or public libraries, especially as the discourse has shifted from one of ‘charity’ to a human right. Yet how does one tell that story in an online format that is similarly inclusive and accessible? On Thursday, March 3, 2016, Carleton University’s Disability Research Group hosted a symposium to launch and gain feedback on a virtual exhibit intended for just that purpose entitled Envisioning Technologies: Historical Insights into Educational Technologies for Persons who are Blind or Partially Sighted in Canada Since 1892.  The event brought together community members who were blind or partially sighted, scholars, librarians, students, archivists and curators to engage with the exhibit and ultimately help the Disabilities Research Group refine and expand the project.
The day began with a presentation from Dr. Vanessa Warne from the University of Manitoba, an expert in the field of disability, the body and the history of the book in Victorian Britain. Dr. Warne spoke of nineteenth-century artistic depictions of blindness, followed by an exploration of the emergence of inkless books. According to Dr. Warne, the use of alternative writing formats such as Braille and other “inkless texts” brought literacy to scores of individuals who were blind in nineteenth-century Britain. Through public performances of reading, people who were blind were able to make at least a meager living in a world in which sight was privileged, demonstrating their abilities as entertainers, as well as purveyors of knowledge. Dr. Warne pointed out that while the public performance of “blind readers” may have been disparaged by many educators, the people who did so were nonetheless part of their communities.
Warne concluded by providing the audience with an overview of her most recent endeavor—an exhibit entitled Books Without Ink: Reading, Writing and Blindness 1830-1930, which she co-curated with Sabrina Mark, and is currently on display at the University of Manitoba’s Library and Archives. Some of the materials presented as part of the exhibit include raised print books with a number of different writing styles that were in vogue during different periods of the nineteenth century, such as Braille, Hauy, Howe, and Moon. In addition, to these pieces Dr. Warne indicated the exhibit included a number of other artifacts such as a kleidiograph as well as map making instruments and other items, which contributed to the literacy of persons who were blind during the nineteenth century.
Following Dr. Warne, Dr. Beth Robertson presented the Envisioning Technologies virtual exhibit on behalf of the Disabilities Research Group. She began by providing the audience with some background as to the development of the project and its origins. Dr. Robertson noted that a key element in pulling this exhibit together was to ensure that the exhibit would not be about technologies in isolation, but about the people who made and used these inventions as well.
The audience was introduced to scientists and innovators who were themselves blind or partially sighted, including James Swail and Roland Galarneau. Their stories and machines rest at the centre of the exhibit: a sensor, a talking clock, a unique braillewriter that Galarneau made by hand and that now graces the logo of our website. These individuals faced enormous obstacles and often carried out much of their research in their basements before being recognized by the scientific community. She also discussed the role of Edgar F.B. Robinson who helped create the Canadian Free Library for the Blind. Although cautious to not make her presentation about “great men”, she noted their stories are undoubtedly inspiring namely “because they did what they did despite the very real and oppressive obstacles that were intentionally placed in their way by others who refused to believe in their ability to transform not only technological design, but the world around them.” Dr. Robertson played a selection of audio interviews that are featured within the exhibit. In these interviews, individuals who were blind or partially-sighted discussed their experiences with past and present-day technologies wherein they noted that while many technological developments enhanced their lives, many technologies hindered them as well. Following this introduction, Dr. Robertson took the audience on a step by step journey depicting five core elements of Envisioning Technologies, noting along the way that the web site is organic and because of its “Omeka platform” more and more stories can be added over time.
During the third and final event of the day, participants were divided into groups wherein they addressed five questions:
- What other artifacts or stories would you like to have included in the exhibit?
- In what ways can we ensure the exhibit is accessible to you and others?
- Is there anything that should be changed or removed from the exhibit?
- What could be added to the resources for further study and research?
- How do you think this project could grow and be used for the future?
To say that the ensuing discussion was lively and informative would be an understatement. Participants voiced their excitement for the project and offered overwhelming support, alongside some invaluable suggestions and feedback. Enthusiastic about the rich stories already presented through the exhibit, attendees wanted to hear more, especially of users. Participants requested further details of the history of access to these technologies, as many could not afford braille printers and other innovations. Finally, individuals asked for a deeper consideration of the conflicted history of organizations created by and for people who were blind or partially sighted, as well as more audio descriptions of content. Some expressed concern about the availability of funding to keep the web site operational and group members brainstormed about ways in which to preserve this resource for the future.
Dr. Dominique Marshall concluded the day’s events. She noted that much of the history of access to reading technologies consisted of struggles for individual and collective rights on the part of people who were blind or partially sighted. Dr. Marshall ended by referring to a comment by one symposium participant—for people who are blind or partially sighted, blindness is not a weakness, sight is not a strength and navigating the world through touch is a possibility.
Envisioning Technologies is by no means finished or complete and the Disabilities Research Group hope the virtual exhibit will evolve and grow over time, becoming more accessible and meaningful as we continue to receive feedback and gather further stories of ingenuity and activism. This one-day symposium helped us move toward this goal, while reminding us that much work remains to be done in helping us wrestle with the contested histories of technology and disability.
Roy Hanes is a Professor of Social Work at Carleton University. He is one of the founders of Carleton University’s Disabilities Research Group and a member of the Minor in Disabilities Studies Committee. Beth A. Robertson, a co-editor of ActiveHistory.ca, is a member of CU’s Disabilities Research Group, as well as the researcher and developer of Envisioning Technologies.