On Wednesday 25 May 2022, Dr. Eric Velleman was installed as a professor of Inclusive Digital Design & Engineering at HAN University of Applied Sciences (HAN). He has asked Internet Society Netherlands Chairman, Ruben Brave, to give a lecture on his inauguration.
Velleman (1960) is a passionate researcher and has built up an extensive international network in inclusive digital design & engineering over the past 20 years. He conducted research into the implementation of digital accessibility within Dutch municipalities and obtained his doctorate on this subject from the University of Twente in 2018. Velleman has conducted several studies into digital accessibility in, among others, the Dutch government, the business community and healthcare. These investigations, commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior, the Institute of Human Rights and interest groups, among others, were discussed in the House of Representatives and in the national media.
The title of Velleman’s inaugural lecture was: Accessibility Agents and the future of Inclusive Digital Design and Engineering. As we live in a world in which digital tools play a leading role and develop at lightning speed. They affect the way we work, learn, travel and shop. But what if a (visual) impairment makes it difficult or impossible to participate in the digital society? The Special Lectureship Inclusive Digital Design & Engineering has the ambition to make new media and technology applications accessible to people with a (visual) disability. In this way, everyone is able to fully participate in the modern, digital society.
Besides Velleman’s lecture, there were lectures related to next-generation technology, web accessibility implementation and current and future EU accessibility measures. Internet Society Netherlands President, Ruben Brave, gave a lecture with the theme “Digital inclusion and the power of the phenomenon called disability”.
Digital inclusion and the power of the phenomenon called disability
by RubenBrave.com – Chairman Internet Society Netherlands
25th of May 2022
Dear Eric Martin Velleman, Eric’s loved ones and his appreciated colleagues,
It is a great honour for me to hold this talk on Eric’s special day. My talk is an attempt to appeal to our society’s imagination, shift the narrative related to disability in the digital realm and show what Eric and his past and future work symbolize for me.
Due to personal and technical reasons I was restrained, you could say temporarily technologically disabled in the production of this talk. Therefore I will quote the building blocks of the talk that I’ve set myself to give today.
As Eric states in his dissertation “The Implementation Of Web Accessibility Standards By Dutch Municipalities, Factors Of resistance And Support“:
“Many studies looking into web accessibility implementation focus on compliance theory, based on a more normative approach of the problem (is the law applied, are the standards applied).
According to the European Commission, around 80 million people in the EU are – to some degree – affected by a disability. The ageing population will further increase that number to over 120 million by 2020. If we want all these people to fully and equally participate in society, we need to ensure that our society is inclusive.
Accessibility is a fundamental aspect of the modern information and knowledge society that is recognized by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (hereafter UN Convention) as a basic human right (United Nations, 2006).
Still, the minister concludes “that municipalities, provinces, water boards, non-departmental public bodies and central government agencies websites fail to conform with the required quality and accessibility standards. This means that the Internet, created to offer equal opportunities to all users, including people with disabilities, has become a medium that creates a digital divide that excludes large groups of users.
The UN Convention (United Nations, 2006) defines persons with disabilities as:
“persons who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual, or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”
[disability is] “an evolving concept and that disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”
And this I like very much as it is central to my view on shifting the narrative on disabilities, especially in the digital dimension that has penetrated nearly all aspects of life on our planet.
“On the Web pages, W3C continues to describe a ‘diversity of abilities’ where “websites and web tools that are designed for people with a broad range of abilities benefit everyone, including people without disabilities.”
Specifically interesting is the addition of the term ‘situation disability’ by W3C and Forrester (Forrester, 2016; W3C, 2017b). The Forrester report “Assessing the Value of Accessible Technologies for organizations” refers to three types of disabilities: permanent disability, temporary disability and situation disability. The latter is described as “a more generic accessibility requirement for a specific use case not tied to disability; for example, a natural circumstance might limit a person’s ability such as the glare of the sun making it hard to read a screen or a loud environment limiting hearing”. Most people will probably recognize these examples from their own experiences. It is not a disability, but it can be an additional driver for accessibility. For example, if the video is played in a loud environment like a tradeshow or a cafe, it helps to have captions. At the same time, captions make the video accessible for people who have a hearing impairment. De Andrés (Andrés et al., 2009) describes this as “although initially intended to benefit users with disabilities, it can also contribute to enhancing the relationship between a certain organization and people without disabilities but in certain situations.” These could also include recent immigrants and people with limited access to the Internet.”
So what is then “a disability”? As stated on the inauguration website:
“Inclusive digital design and engineering seem simple, it is written in the law!”
The rule according to a higher law is a statement which expresses that no law may be enforced by the government unless it conforms to certain universal principles (written or unwritten) of fairness, morality, and justice. Thus, the rule according to a higher law may serve as a practical legal criterion to qualify the instances of political or economical decision-making, when a government, even though acting in conformity with clearly defined and properly enacted legal rules, still produces results that many observers find unfair or unjust.
Equality before the law is the principle that all people must be equally protected by the law. The principle requires a systematic rule of law that observes due process to provide equal justice and requires equal protection ensuring that no individual nor group of individuals be privileged over others by the law.
So how can we attain equality before the law, to inspire lawmakers?
For many within the community, disability is more than a diagnosis. Disability is a complicated, multifaceted identity that many individuals value and hold dear. Not every disabled person wants to be “fixed”.
A great quote I bumped into therefore states:
To attain the right attitude we need to expand our consciousness through broader awareness.
Eric concludes in his dissertation that five factors demonstrably increase or decrease the chance of successful application of web accessibility standards. It concerns the following processes:
- Involvement of (top) management
- Adjusting the organizational structure
- monitoring and reporting
- Applying information systems
But also: 5. Developing awareness and knowledge
To fortify my conviction I find proof in the relationship between the state of technology and science fiction. Not only we must recognize how the current state of technical affairs is constantly influenced by the imagination ignited by science fiction. It is also important to acknowledge that for sustainable inclusion, all actors in the ecosystem, regardless of the diversity in abilities, must be able to recognize themselves in the narrative of digital life.
Disability representation in science fiction typically signifies both the limits of human boundaries as well as the innovations beyond those boundaries. From this perspective, I encourage you to read Hannah Tweed’s work “Disability in science fiction: representations of technology as cure”.
In particular, the idea of disability in SF as an ‘inclusive community of human belonging’ (5) is repeatedly emphasized.
It’s no secret that disability representation is severely lacking within the film and television industry. Like any other community, disabled people need to see themselves on both the small and big screen. If you don’t see yourself, you feel invisible and unseen. Science fiction has the ability to construct worlds that stretch beyond human expectations and structural limitations, and with it a novel vision of disability representation on screen. The sci-fi world can therefore be a welcoming home for characters with disabilities, and therefore fans with disabilities as well. There’s nothing better than seeing yourself represented in a positive light, and that’s exactly what these characters above do for our community at large.
There are some great examples that have inspired me to work in the tech world.
If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you likely remember Star Trek: The Next Generation from the 1980s, when George La Forge (portrayed by the Afro-American actor Levar Burton) was a character on the show.
George was the Chief Engineering Officer on the spaceship and thus was often portrayed repairing machines or discovering new scientific phenomena.
George La Forge was completely blind.
In most shows, this may have been a topic for doubt, suspicion & annoyance by the characters, but instead, the episodes written for him were just like he was any other crew member, with his blindness only being referred to on a rare basis. This is exactly how people with disabilities would love to be treated in real life, which is why Star Trek was so far ahead of the “Diversity & Inclusion” game that has become very relevant for social justice, innovation and economic prosperity in the Netherlands. Because the show was also quite progressive when it came to race and gender in its characters as well.
George’s colleague, although in another Star Trek series, was the ‘Autistic’ Alien & Genius: Mr Spock, part human, part Vulcan.
The representation of autistic characters on screen throughout the film and television industry is few and far between, and that is no different in science fiction.
Neurotypical people get to watch all possible versions of themselves on screen at any given moment – as a human, as an alien, like a robot, in a position of power or at the bottom of the career food chain, like a genius or decidedly not, funny, serious, kind, or any other number of characteristics – and autistic people deserve that same level of representation too. They deserve to be able to see themselves on screen in characters that aren’t only coded as autistic and that aren’t aliens, robots, or geniuses. They deserve to be able to see themselves on screen in characters that encompass any and all possible facets of what it is like to be autistic.
But in examining the characteristics of Mr Spock, it becomes clear why so many autistic people feel such an affinity towards him. The appeal to logic at all times to keep your strong emotions and self-locked deep inside can be understood to be a form of masking; the bigotry and lack of understanding from even the most well-intentioned of humans and friends is something autistic people are keenly familiar with; and the aversion to touch as a result of strong telepathic inclinations as an element of sensory processing disorder, something that many autistic people experience to some extent.
Talking about telepathic abilities brings me to the last character.
Professor Xavier of The X-Men with the Disability Paraplegia is a mutant who possesses vast telepathic powers, therefore is among the strongest and most powerful telepaths in the Marvel Universe.
Interestingly this character was recently portrayed by Sir Patrick Stewart who also played the role of Captain Jean-Luc Picard in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Thanks in part to Patrick Stewart’s performances in the X-wheelchair, Professor Xavier remains one of the best-known X-Men, and his philosophy of acceptance gives the science fiction narrative its most important message.
Professor X was not always disabled in the series, however. He becomes paralyzed when his legs are crushed by an alien scout named Lucifer.
What is wonderful about Professor X’s character is that he is highly respected and one of the most intelligent characters on the show with a disability not hindering him whatsoever. In fact, his disability makes him somewhat more respected and perhaps more stable, as he is able to be more observant.
As the founder of Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, he has gathered and protected vulnerable children with mutant genes and is able to be there for them with advice and guidance constantly thanks to his psychic abilities.
For his noble work, Professor X uses a device called Cerebro (Spanish/Portuguese for “brain”), a fictional device that amplifies the brainwaves of the user. In the case of telepaths, it enables the user to detect traces of others worldwide, and also able to distinguish between humans and mutants.
Cerebro was also a great inspiration for my work at Internet Society.
As some of you might know, I’m also the founder of the Internet Society Make Media Great Again (MMGA) Working group.
We use an annotation platform, both based on the W3C Web Annotation Protocol and blockchain technology, in which hundreds of screened & trained expert and/or critical thinking readers can provide constructive feedback to high-impact news sites concerning the use of sources and other quality aspects of news articles to correct misinformation and combat disinformation; NU.nl and AD.nl, two of the ‘Big Four’ largest Dutch online news platforms have previously signed up as a co-development partner.
The Working Group focuses on collaboration with impactful media and scientists but also on building an MMGA community consisting of critical thinking citizens and experts called “MMGA annotators”. The annotations they provide are practicable suggestions in the form of labelled notes, directly attributed to words, sentences or paragraphs. The working group has access to the worldwide community of 65,000 ISOC members to tackle poor journalism and fake news and provide an impactful voice for marginalized communities.
The people who we attract as annotators have been identified with a nowadays, in this age of infodemic and fake news, very relevant and special skill: critical thinking. Some people, often the most productive ones in the annotator’s community, sometimes label themselves with disabilities, either physically (e.g. at home due to age or Paraplegia) or cognitive (e.g. autism). When envisioning the annotation platform we had Cerebo in mind, to find and recruit the most enhanced critical thinking minds on the planet.
But in all modesty of our MMGA efforts at Internet Society, we must now conclude that our society has found, in Eric Martin Velleman, a new Professor X, who uses his new chair at the HAN University of Applied Sciences, not only to be an advocate for so-called less-abled persons but also to find and enhance all minds of our digital world. To discover society’s hidden innovative value by embracing the diversity of abilities.
Thank you for accepting this so much needed role dear Eric and our sincere congratulations on your inauguration.