Accessing Accessibility

Earlier this month, Inside Higher Ed ran a piece describing the circumstances that led UC Berkeley to delete more than 20,000 lectures from public view.

For those of us who missed it, the gist of it is: Berkeley has, for years, been posting video content online for the students, faculty, and the “public.” In Fall 2016, these videos were found to be in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Strangely, it seems it had never occurred to the University that among these individuals (to whom they have a legal obligation) were people with disabilities. These videos were not compliant with speech readers. They were not captioned or transcribed. They did not provide options for high-contrast visibility. They were, as the Department of Justice determined, inaccessible. Rather than update this material, in March 2017 the University decided to remove the videos and place their content behind a paywall.

There has been a good deal of outcry about the removal of this content. I took issue with the framing of this Inside Higher Ed piece (because it seemed to suggest that there is something wrong with a University being held accountable for the content they produce and that people with disabilities are outrageous for asserting their legal right to access) but the tone has been echoed in other coverage I’ve seen online.

Just today the announcement that the “20,000 unfairly deleted… lectures” have been copied “rescued” by LBRY and again made “available for free on its website,” suggests that the question of whether the videos have been saved is somehow more important than the question of who can make use of them.

Look: I agree it sucks that a major University would rather delete/hide content behind a paywall. But if you are lamenting the loss of these resources, you should acknowledge that those feelings of frustration – over a lack of access to important and edifying content –  echo the concerns raised by members of the deaf and deaf-blind community who initiated this process.

Berkeley has been clear that there were a number of reasons why the content was removed. Yes, the cost associated with updating older and less-used videos to make it accessible, but also because of broader campus concerns regarding intellectual property.

We have an obligation to create a nuanced commitment to free and open access: one that considers accessibility more broadly. It isn’t open if everyone can’t make use of it. It isn’t accessible if it’s not accessible to everyone.

I’m disappointed that a major University, when confronted with this question did not commit to a model of comprehensive Open Access. They could have developed a plan for making all content available. Rather than undo their mistakes (over 20,000 of them) and to caption and otherwise make accessible the lectures to their students, faculty, and the broader community, they’ve locked up their ADA compliant content and removed the rest.

I’m also disappointed with an online community that would decry the deletion of videos, but not their lack of accessibility. How narrow is your definition of access that you don’t consider this lawsuit a matter of OA? How legitimate is your commitment to Open Access if it is limited to a subset of the community? How committed are you to removing barriers to information if you only remove barriers that prohibit your own access?

These questions have been rattling around in my mind for the past few weeks as I’ve come across article after article repeating the same refrain, “What a tragedy! What a loss! People with disabilities are ruining it for everybody!”

I can agree that we need better solutions than simply deleting vast amounts of content. We need to make information available, without an exorbitant price tag. But the lesson from this should be that we need more dynamic and effective tools that allow us to make educational content accessible in multiple ways. We should be committing ourselves to creating comprehensively open access content, not blaming the community that has revealed the flaws in our own conception of access.

Records and Relocation

On July 1, 1875, Austin Ward Mann, a deaf lay missionary held religious services in sign language for deaf people in the basement of St. James’ Church in Chicago, Illinois. From this service, a mission was founded in the city that would offer spiritual guidance, support, and gathering space to deaf people for over 100 years.

Across this period the Mission was served by at least three deaf ministers, meetings and events were led by a number of deaf lay readers, and members of the congregation supported the mission as members of the vestry and church guilds. Though the Mission had a solid foundation, for most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it lacked a physical structure.

Intermittent services were held in St. James, St. Clements, Trinity, and Grace Churches through the 1880s. In the 1890s Rev. Mann attempted to raise funds and support for a chapel and parish house. In 1908, Rev. George Flick moved to Chicago, expanding the Mission by initiating weekly services and organizing church agencies. Despite efforts by the Bishop and clergy to locate a suitable building the Mission continued to operate in borrowed chapels, basements, and meeting rooms until 1915. Under the sustained leadership of Flick, the Mission acquired St. John’s English Lutheran Church in January of that year. Renovations converted the building into a space suitable for the sensory preferences of clergy and laity and the Mission “flourished.” Fifteen years later, however, the congregation again [Flick, ‘Story of All Angels’ Mission’]. Once again, the mission was temporarily housed in borrowed church spaces in the city.

The challenges that the priests in charge of the deaf ministry in Chicago faced in the struggle to firmly plant the congregation are many; financial concerns, location, building size, maintenance, renovations, and the competition of Rev. Hasenstab’s Methodist ministry in the city. Larger historical trends also influenced the relocation of All Angels’ Mission to the Deaf, including attitudes toward deafness, barriers to employment, and ideas about race. These challenges, however, are echoed in the histories of Missions across the United States.

The challenge to the historian, however, is that the frequent movement of itinerant ministers and the relocation of missions results in a scattering of documents and materials related to this ministry across church and diocesan archives. For instance, Mann, a missionary with seemingly boundless energy, regularly offered services in six states. As the clergyman-in-charge of the midwest, he traveled by train using postcards and newspaper announcements to manage his schedule as he moved between missions, schools, and large deaf community events in the US, Canada, and the UK. His travel produced a particular type of historical record; reports that offer limited insight. The sacramental registers, pamphlets, guild reports, posters, and other documents that are associated with the activities of the church are noticeably missing.

Several sources refer to a detailed record book used by Mann. In his August 1906 report to the Diocese of Chicago, he wrote, “A record has been kept in a suitable book of 500 pages. The last page was filled a few days ago, and another book purchased. The records show upwards of 5,300 services held in 419 different parishes; nearly 1,000 baptisms and 900 confirmations.” [pg 12] This record book is invaluable, offering considerable insight into his activities across multiple dioceses. It is, however, also missing.

Despite efforts to locate this rich source of information about Mann’s activities, the record book remains elusive. Though the evidence of his ministry is abundant in diocesan archives across the country, none I’ve contacted have this book preserved in their holdings. Nor does the expansive archives at Gallaudet University. This challenge is not unique to the history of the Deaf Episcopal Ministry – historians struggle with a scarcity of sources from every time period and across many fields of interest. The difficulty is compounded, however, by the unique circumstances of this religious organization. Frequent movement makes preservation difficult without concerted effort. Given the divided attentions of  the clergy, the distributed nature of the Episcopal church, financial burdens, and linguistic/cultural divisions, the records of clergy and congregation may not have been preserved by traditional means. For me, the search continues.

Religion 804: Culture and Lived Religion

In this week’s readings Jason C. Bivins and Grant Wacker examine lived religion and demonstrate the multiplicity of religious expression in the twentieth century United States. In Spirits Rejoice!, Bivins describes the religiosity of jazz beginning in the 1940s, largely covering the experiences and expressions of musicians after the 1960s. Wacker, in Heaven Below, examines the early pentecostal movement, with emphasis on the founding generation from 1900 to 1925. Putting these works in conversation is a complicated project as there is little overlap in subject matter and time period. In terms of approach, however, there is considerable space for discussion.

Bivins’s work envisions Jazz music in a “complex entanglement with ‘religion’” [Bivins 12]. He suggests that “as a form of human cultural communication that can be ‘heard’ meaningfully within its contexts, histories, and according to the self-understandings of those involved in the music,” jazz may be read as a religio-musical practice and ritual [Bivins 18]. This interpretation incorporates notions of lived religion and a form of religiosity that is communicated in spaces that are not commonly recognized as religious. Like Robert Orsi and Diane Winston, Bivins seeks to expand our notion of sacred space and expression. Bivins describes this in a number of ways, using ‘lived religion,’ ‘experienced religion,’ and ‘inbetweenness of religion’ alternatively [Bivins  272]. Bivins suggests that the jazz musicians described in the book utilized music as an expression of their faith. The form of this expression drew from many religious traditions, and like the jazz music they performed, Bivins describes them as expressive, playful, non-traditional, fluid, and improvisational.

These actors are positioned in terms of difference, operating at the edges of religious traditions and blending them. Bivins suggests that they subverted power and authority through this syncretic blending of faith and instrument, through the rejection of traditional religious expression/spaces for unique forms of sacrality and religiosity. Despite the emphasis on music, Bivins work is a cultural history with oral histories and biography serving as the basis for his examination. The notion of a “usable past”, as we saw recently in Kathleen Cummings’ New Women of the Old Faith, appeared in the work as well. The work is densely packed, despite this it would be strengthened if Bivins had incorporated less musical metaphor and placed more nuanced analysis on the subject of race. From what religious traditions are musicians borrowing and why? What about audience members? How might we evaluate their experience of religiosity?

These critiques aside, Bivins’s emphasis on sensory experience and “embodied spirituality”  were meaningful to my interests [Bivins 154].  These discussions encouraged me to think about nineteenth and early twentieth century religious expression within the deaf community, particularly those behaviors and activities that stand on the edges of religious practice. His continued effort to move away from a “privileging of the textual,” was also instructive [Bivins 7].

Notions of sound and religious expression take another form in Wacker’s examination of early pentecostals. Wacker imposes a rigid interpretive framework to his study of radical evangelicals. Each chapter allows Wacker to meditate on particular features of pentecostal belief and practices, with each considered in the context of “productive tension” between primitivism and pragmatism [Wacker 10-11]. Wacker presents this work as rooted in an ‘insider’s perspective.’ This positioning provides a better vantage for the examination of the “hum and buzz of implication,’ the multitudinous whispers of everyday life that other studies have tended to overlook” [Wacker 9]. This closeness, however, may account for a hesitancy that exists throughout that cautions him against critique. Race factors prominently in the early history of pentecostalism and the subject deserves greater consideration in Wacker’s work. Similarly, gender (despite appearing across the text) is only critically engaged in a single chapter on Women. It seems that in an effort to frame and describe pentecostalism, Wacker leaves little space for these subjects.

Still, Wacker is successful in unpacking pentecostalism in a nuanced way. He is careful to develop a sense of worldview for early pentecostals. Frequently positioned as outsiders, and set apart from other evangelicals for incorporating practices like speaking in tongues, adherents were “heaven-minded,” placing primacy on biblical authority [Wacker 19]. The bible was read literally and “articulated carefully and defended vigorously.” [Wacker 76]. Testimony was an important way that pentecostals established and reinforced identity, it was also a space where believers described supernatural experience that afforded them some authority [Wacker 86]. Placed alongside Kruse, Sutton and Worthen, Wacker’s careful analysis highlights the ideological and theological differences between these evangelicals and the ones described in those works. In particular, while Wacker does highlight a shift after World War II, he suggests that “pentecostal or pentecostal-like teachings and practices overflowed their historical boundaries in the radical evangelical tradition and penetrated the Roman Catholic Church and some of the older Protestant denominations, especially the Protestant Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Church in America,” and that pentecostalism experienced significant growth outside of the United States during this period [Wacker 8]. Given that Wacker reserves later chapters for a discussion about how radical evangelicals engaged with the larger community, it is, at times, difficult to envision these believers as members of a larger social system, or to unpack how these beliefs are set apart from other faiths.