Documentation is a Feminist principle

by Dorothy Howard, July, 2015

Originally Published in Expansion Foam: Tracings edited by Devin Kenny and Temporary Agency.

Blue book cover from Expansion Foam: Tracings

There are blatant forms of the assumption of knowledge – “You didn’t know that?” – “how could you not know that?” – questions carrying mobilized condescension, ‘splaining, and white knighting, exclusionary practices based on the expectation of knowledge. Then there is another form, characterized by a sheathing of the discoverability of information through lack of action, or documentation or the offering provisions of learning for a multiplicity of accessibility needs. The expectation of knowledge or familiarity with cannons only viable to the holder of a certain type of knowledge interface leads to an insular media environment. The web exists as a failed promise of the democratization of information when inequalities in accessibility have persisted in the emergent architectures of the internet and digital telecommunications.

The purpose of this paper is to describe the ways in which web accessibility provisions are related to the idea of documentation as a feminist principle, and to offer some techniques for building accessibility online and checking websites for accessibility. Feminist discourse is a dialectic to unpack systematic inequalities and practices of exclusion, and can be applied to the conversation about accessibility on the web. Information communities are enmeshed in labor within access, and information production, invisibility of representation, leading to a lack of historical canonization, and continued institutional neglect. Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own identifies the bedroom as a technology developed among women, enabling them to have more free time to think and to build an interiority when no interiority was given time to flourish.

That a famous library has been cursed by a woman is a matter of complete indifference to a famous library. Venerable and calm, with all its treasures safe locked within its breast, it sleeps complacently and will, so far as I am concerned, so sleep for ever. Such material difficulties were formidable; but much worse were the immaterial. The indifference of the world which Keats and Flaubert and other men of genius have found so hard to bear was in her case not indifference but hostility. The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw, Write? What’s the good of your writing?

The place of invisibility has become a place of interiority, of building new libraries of Alexandria. Feminism at its origin is engaged in building new bibliographies. Martine Syms’s project The Queen’s English demonstrates the radical potential of the reading room within black feminist communities of the 1970s of building a library, a space for research. Yet despite extensive organizing to construct parallel histories to the white hetero-patriarchal, dominant history, the claim of “structurelessness” has been used again and again as an excuse to exclude populations from participating in contemporary knowledge economies and from accommodating difference as a priority.

Documentation becomes a feminist principle when we acknowledge the gendered aspects of knowledge discovery within platforms in which we learn. I’d like to use disability justice educator and organizer Mia Mingus’s term access intimacy, which I first learned about via the documentation for Constantina Zavitsanos and Park McArthur’s “Still Life, a workshop” as part of the New Museum’s Department of Education and Public Engagement R&D Salon. Access intimacy can help us understand web accessibility the intimacy created between the maker of digital platforms and users. Mingus writes on access intimacy:

I have grappled with how to describe the closeness I would feel with people who my disabled body just felt a little bit safer and at ease with. There have been relationships that carried emotional, physical and political intimacy, but sorely lacked access intimacy. And there have been relationships where access intimacy has helped to create the conditions out of which emotional, familial and political intimacy could grow. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met. It is not dependent on someone having a political understanding of disability, ableism or access.

A lack of attention to web accessibility is equivalent to a dismissal of non-sanctioned ways of using the body. “Disabled people are impacted by people’s discomfort or by people’s lack of knowing how to interact or react that’s similar for all people in some ways” said Sunaura Taylor in conversation, on a walk with Judith Butler in their segment of Astra Taylor’s film The Examined Life. Taylor furthers:

That an able-bodied person can take a walk independently without anything else is sort of a myth. They do need certain ground, they do need shoes, as you said, they need social support.. That somehow disabled people are perceived as more dependent, or that they are the ones that are dependent, when in actuality we are all interdependent, that is, dependent on different structures and on each other.

Access intimacy is created when the gatekeepers of knowledge understand, recognize, and act preemptively to accommodate diverse learning styles, seeing communities as interdependent. In the press release for her exhibition Ramps (Essex Street: January 12 - February 23, 2014) artist Park McArthur evokes activist and author Marta Russell, author of Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract:

To think access is to think health care and affordability, language and translation, documentation and identity, social convention and code.

The enforcement of the social contract to accommodate the participation of a multiplicity of bodies on contemporary platforms for communication and learning is a kind of access intimacy where the preemptive provisions and documentation that society / government create a sense of intimacy between person and state via social acceptance and recognition.

Legal Frameworks as Intimacy

Legal action towards web accessibility standards as a priority in web development constitutes one aspect of the state / institutional expression of access intimacy. I’d like to here lay out some of the major relevant U.S. Federal legislation pertaining to online accessibility standards.

The nondiscrimination requirements of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were enacted by Congress in 1990 and afford similar protections as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In 1998, an amendment to Section 508, Congress required Federal agencies to make their electronic and information technology (EIT) accessible to people with disabilities. It maintains to provide agencies with compliance standards and best practices. The Federal Agency, the DOJ Department of the U.S. Access Board is responsible for enforcing Section 508 compliance. Currently, The Civil Rights Division of The United States Department of Justice, Special Litigation Section Cases and Matters is responsible for enforcing these federal statutes. The Americans with Disabilities Act Standards for Accessible Design (ADASAD) was first adopted by the DOJ Access Board in 2004, and renamed to its current design in 2010.

Also available is our ability to call out the U.S. laws currently in place, and submit comments on Federal regulations via the sanctioned, following methods: Federal eRulemaking Portal: Follow the instructions for submitting comments. The ID for this docket is ATBCB-2015-0002. E-mail: Include docket number ATBCB-2015-0002 in the subject line of the message. Fax: 202-272-0081. Mail or Hand Delivery/Courier: Office of Technical and Information Services, Access Board, 1331 F Street NW, Suite 1000, Washington, DC 20004-1111.

Web content accessibility guides and tools

Another mode of access intimacy via web accessibility can be the development of resources and tools developed to assist hearing and visual impairment in using the internet. An ideal web supports different learning styles, hearing and visual impairments, and other accessibility needs. The POUR principles: Perceivable, Operable, Understandable, and Robust– can assist in the evaluation of technological accessibility. The book A Web for Everyone by Sarah Horton and Whitney Quesenbery use what they call “personas” or “characters” as a means of structuring design thinking to accommodate for the fictional characters it outlines, which posses a range of access needs. Such exercises should be more widely embraced by engineers, designers, and anyone enacting digital projects.

One of the more comprehensive protocols for web accessibility might be the W3C Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), which has produced the W3C Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 which includes such recommendations as: Non-text Content: All non-text content that is presented to the user has a text alternative that serves the equivalent purpose, except for the situations listed below. (Level A)

Some useful guides might also include The Accessibility Project’s How-To’s, Tips, and Basics for assistive technologies; KHAN Academy’s tota11y project; Accessibility Practices on the Geek Feminism Wiki, which include considerations for technology conferences and venues; The CAL State, L.A. Web Browser Tools for Testing Accessibility list.

It’s also important to remember that each different technology, interface, and coding language should involve accessibility considerations. For HTML, CSS, and Javascript this might include accessibility techniques for images and text, labeling and titling, tables, keyboard accessibility. For Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and Microsoft Office programs, this might mean font, formatting, and image to text considerations. Assistive technologies must also be inbuilt into the design of hardware, for Mac, PCs, and mobile devices, this might involve different considerations.

Then there are general multimedia accessibility principles which are increasingly being enforced through the creation of browser add-ons and other tools which help users scan websites for accessibility. The WAVE Add on toolbar, which runs within Firefox, allows users to run a “WAVE report” that evaluates rendered versions of webpages for various accessibility concerns, and to disable styles, and rearrange structure and order as necessary. The WEB Aim (Web Accessibility in Mind) project, run by the Center for Persons with Disabilities, Utah State University, the Bobby Approved, practical web accessibility evaluation tool icon; the Watchfire WebXACT online service; and the TAW3 tool all serve a similar function.

The website Audio Accessibility provides transcription and other services related to making audio, video, and events accessible for deaf people, and more services are starting to emerge. Additionally, the Department of Health and Human Services provides information about ASL interpretation online and other online accessibility questions.


One might think of the README file as a metaphor for access intimacy. A README file is a common name for a file placed in computer software to assist with installation and configuration, provide credits and acknowledgement, describe copyright and license, and convey known bugs. Other types of README–s include “cheatsheets,” which explain the basic notations of a given language. The README can be used in a more general and expansive definition to explore how lack of technical documentation is exclusionary, the README being a sort of symbol of accessibility in its expanded definition. As feminism evolves to address the structural inequalities, the metaphor of the README file might be embraced as a means of applying the notion of documentation as a feminist principle to the conversation about web accessibility.

The web looks different in depending on the screen it is accessed, and on the hearing, vision, and learning styles of its viewer. Making website accessibility a priority means bringing it to the forefront of conversations in web and interface design, and amongst those working with designers to invest in the production of websites. Not considering web page accessibility during the creation of websites, digital platforms, and digital community, is otherwise, necessarily exclusionary.*~

For information about purchasing a copy of the text contact Temporary Agency at Other folks in the book: Emi Kuriyama, Aria Dean, Panther Jones, Giovanna Olmos, Analisa Teachworth, Christine Haroutounian, Morgan Green, Ana Maria Bezanilla, Alex Velozo, Maayan Zik