The Pandemic Preferred User

Keywords: accessibility, COVID-19, preferred user, captions


As COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, universities acted quickly to move their core business of teaching and research online. Classes shifted to platforms such as Zoom, Webex, Collaborate and Microsoft Teams and teachers and students alike were expected to adapt. And they did. While there has been much discussion of the unpaid labour involved in making this shift and the difficulties inherent in merging work, study and domestic life, there has been little acknowledgement or analysis of inherent notions of the preferred user in this rapid shift to technology.

This paper draws on critical disability studies to offer a conceptual and theoretical analysis of a deeply problematic aspect of the rapid move to online education in response to COVID-19: the reliance of notions of the preferred user. The preferred user is simply the type of person technology creators or institutions envision using their product or service. Within critical disability studies the preferred user is often recognised as white, male and able bodied (see Ellcessor, 2017). In other words, the preferred user often excludes people with disability and other forms of disadvantage.

Accordingly, in this paper we offer a preliminary overview, conceptualisation, and reflection on students with disability (and by extension other non-preferred users), their experiences and perspectives in relation to what might be described as disabling approaches to online learning, for example synchronous learning, video conferencing.

Firstly, we introduce the concept of disability, as it has been redefined in the past two decades, as social, political, cultural, and rights-based – rather than some kind of biomedical condition or charity topic.   We also give an overview of universal design for learning to reflect on the importance of adapting learning environments for all students.

Secondly, we discuss the disconnect between students, teachers and support staff. From these cases, there are some significant challenges to key questions, such as how we understand students with disability, whose responsibility is it to provide access and support, and is mainstreaming accessible technology always the most appropriate answer?

Thirdly, we chart the ways these already existing issues have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the opportunities that have also arisen. For example, accessibility features such as captioning for people with disabilities, or non-preferred users, are actually beneficial to everyone.

Finally, while the forced shift to online learning during this pandemic has the ideal potential to accommodate "non-preferred" users, the actual roll out and delivery of online learning is still defaulting to modes that are both difficult and challenging, and in many cases exacerbates existing issues and inequalities. We conclude with suggestions about how a consideration of the non-preferred user might actually be the preferred approach for all.



Author Biographies

Katie Ellis, Curtin University

Katie Ellis is Professor in Internet Studies and Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. Her research is located at the intersection of media access and representation and engages with government, industry and community to ensure actual benefits for real people with disability. She has authored and edited 17 books and numerous articles on the topic of disability and the media, including most recently the monograph Disability and Digital Television Cultures (Routledge, 2019).

Kai-Ti Kao, Curtin University

Kai-Ti Kao is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate with the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) at Curtin University. Her research interests lie in social engagement with digital media, particularly in relation to power, representation and inequality. Her current PhD research examines the sociotechnical construction of ethical AI frameworks. 

Tim Pitman, Curtin University

Associate Professor Tim Pitman is a researcher of higher education policy at Curtin University. His research has a focus on widening access and participation for groups of students historically under-represented in higher education. This includes persons from low-socio economic backgrounds, Indigenous persons, people with disability, people from non-English speaking backgrounds and people from regional and remote parts of Australia. Tim's recent research explored how universities might be ranked on measures of equity, in the same way they are ranked on quality. His current research investigates how people with disability in higher education are supported in their studies. His publications include An Australian study of graduate outcomes for disadvantaged students, Constructing a ranking of higher education institutions based on equity: is it possible or desirable?, and Unlocking the gates to the peasants: are policies of ‘fairness' or ‘inclusion' more important for equity in higher education? 


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