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Access Workers, Transcription Machines, and Other Intimate Colleagues: Disability, technology and labor practices in the production of knowledge (1956-present)


Curating Accessible Infrastructure investigates the cultural politics of real-time transcription for deaf and hard of hearing students in the academic classroom. I analyze how d/Deaf and hard of hearing students maintain access to spoken speech through the transcriptive labor produced by a stenographer’s engagement with assistive technologies. Rather than think of access as a set of pre-established conditions, this dissertation project seeks to understand access as an historical event and mode of political production. To interpret access through this broader understanding, I undertake case study analyses of real-time captioning practices as supported by stenographic technologies, and examine how the production of real-time captioning and access more broadly requires distributed, embodied, and social labor. These processes, when studied together, reveal formations of access that are bound by their relation to what I call “collegial infrastructure,” a network of affect and technology governed by codes of civic discourse. I draw on the history of disability legislation in the United States and the United Kingdom to critique a legal rights framework for people with disabilities as a neoliberal phenomenon, and I focus instead on how midcentury public accessibility laws, predating the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, illuminate a political economy of access.

Drawing on these genealogies, I trace how midcentury labor practices informed infrastructures of access for d/Deaf and hard of hearing readers today. The historical transformation of the stenographer’s shorthand – from the mode of transcribing speech to personal handwritten annotations used by machine stenographers to support their ciphering texts through software programming – informed how spoken speech is rendered into real-time captions in academic spaces. I argue that this approach to the production of real-time access reveals the historical practice of shorthand and digital coding to be a crucial precondition for the success of the information economy today. During the transition of stenographic technologies from the midcentury office into the classroom, the production of real-time access for d/Deaf and hard of hearing users became increasingly gendered, disciplined, and even machinic.

Amidst the rise of automation, the idiosyncratic pairing of the stenographer and their machine continued to resist the process of standardization. In situating the political economy of transcription work outside of the sphere of reproductive labor, this dissertation considers an emerging category of access workers that is increasingly defined by the standardization of labor practices. By tracing the transcriptive labor provided by stenographers, I draw on feminist studies of affective labor and the ethics of care debate to argue that the precarity of this type of work has proliferated a new species in the sexual division of labor: access workers. This discussion surveys multiple examples of caring labor, spanning a feminist genealogy of dependency work to recent research into “crowd work” where human interactions are mediated by online platforms. The contrast between somatic, direct-contact forms of care, and the growth of low-paying and piece labor provided by online crowdsourcing, has played a vital role in making online content accessible for d/Deaf and hard of hearing users. Attending to these labor changes, this project examines access as a mode of production that interrogates the politics of disability by centering workers’ material and affective labor.

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