In this episode Mariana interviewed Dr Anna Bramwell-Dicks, interdisciplinary lecturer in Interactive Media within the School of Arts and Creative Technologies.

A women standing in front of an audience.

You can listen to the episode with the audio player embedded below. There is also a transcription underneath.

Transcription of the podcast episode:


Mariana: Hi everyone. Welcome to our new episode of the DARCI podcast. The podcast on disability, accessibility, and representation in the creative industries. My name is Mariana López and I’m delighted to be joined today by Dr Anna Bramwell-Dicks. Anna has been at the University of York since 2004 in various capacities, but is now an interdisciplinary lecturer in interactive media within the School of Arts and Creative Technologies. Her research and teaching interests span different areas of the school, but are primarily driven by an interest in the role of the new technology, media, and music in improving health, well-being, and access. She teaches on a variety of modules, ranging from computer programming, including web design through to experimental methods and statistical analysis. She also teaches about disability and accessibility and has various active research projects in this space. Anna, thank you so much for joining us today. How are you doing this morning?

Anna: I’m very well, thank you.

Mariana: You have a really fascinating background. Your undergraduate degree was in electronic engineering with music technology systems, which I have to confess, I’ve known you for years and I didn’t even know you had done music tech. Then you went on to do an MSc in human-centered interactive technologies, and then followed on with a PhD in computer science, studying the effect of music on transcription typing. Now, a lot of your work is focused on disability in terms of accessibility but also representation. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how did the trajectory throughout those degrees lead to your research specialization, and how do you think those degrees helped you in that process?

Anna: When I was choosing my undergraduate, I really wanted to be a music producer. I wanted to be a sound engineer. That was the dream. That was what I started as. That’s where I started. When I came to university, I very quickly established that that was not my path. [LAUGHTER] I wasn’t very good at it. Frankly, I’d gone to an all-girls grammar school. I hadn’t had the opportunities to try music tech. My school didn’t offer computer science. I couldn’t do IT. It was a bit of an experiment, I guess, when I came to university. I quickly decided that that was not for me. But I found that what I really was interested in was the role of technology and its relationship with people. I particularly learned that through a third-year option module where I was introduced to the idea of human-computer interaction and the psychology applied to technology. That was particularly in the context of designing electronic instruments because of the degree I was on. But that really tapped into something I was really interested in. I went and had a real job after graduating for a year, and I didn’t like that very much. [LAUGHTER] I came back to university for my masters to specialize in human-computer interaction. Within that degree, that’s where I met Professor Helen Petrie, who specializes in accessibility and is a very prominent researcher in the field. She supervised my PhD, which wasn’t in accessibility, but gave me a lot of opportunities to do research with her along the way. I worked with her on a number of projects, and that’s where I became really interested in how you can use technology for access. That’s how I got into the disability research.

Mariana: That’s a really fascinating trajectory. You have been working on a project called, I think, but correct me if I’m wrong, is it called CoMusicate? Is that how you say it?

Anna: Yes.

Mariana: It’s focused on music for mental health. Could you tell us a little bit about it?

Anna: Yes. That project is working with a colleague called Dr. Caroline Waddington-Jones. In that project, we are looking at how music can be used for wellbeing, particularly for adults with mental illness. Because of our funders, it was particularly for adults with severe mental illness, which the funders determine as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder, and psychosis. We consider it more broadly, but our funders were from health sciences and they have a very strict definition of the term severe mental illness. That project was around trying to see how we could possibly in the future create some format that allowed people with mental illness and severe mental illness to create music together for the purposes of benefiting their wellbeing. To build connections with each other, to communicate using music. The term music is a little bit off-putting, I think. Really, we mean creative sound. It’s much broader than singing or playing an instrument. So it is collecting sounds and making sounds together. In that project, we have so far done some interviews and some workshops with both community music leaders and music therapists, but also with adults with severe mental illness to see what they might like from this sort of technology if we can create it in the future. That’s where we’ve got to with that project.

Mariana: Has it finished or is it still ongoing?

Anna: That project, we’ve run out of money on that one for now, but we will be applying for some more funding to continue with that work. One of the things that was really interesting for me on that project was that we originally thought that we would come out of it with a design framework: These are the requirements, this is what people from these communities would like of this kind of technology. But what we actually found was that it was really difficult for them to articulate what they wanted. So actually, the project evolved into designing almost co-production research methods for this type of technology. So we’ve created some workshops and trialled different workshops as a means of trying to get to what the requirements would be. So now the next phase of the project would be to use those materials that we’ve created and we’ve evaluated as being quite successful in trying to tap in to what people want from this technology into a way that then leads us to some requirements to then make it. Does that make sense?

Mariana: Yeah, yeah, very, very exciting. And you have very, very recently completed a two-year fellowship on the stigmatising disability in past, present and future stories, which was funded by XR Stories. Can you tell us a little bit about your research for that fellowship?

Anna: Yeah, so in that project, I was really interested in looking at how disability is represented across different storytelling frameworks. So that’s ranging from literature through to film and television to theatre, but really focusing on newer storytelling formats. So video games and immersive formats like virtual reality and augmented reality and how disability is portrayed in those newer spaces. The project is ongoing. Like, you know, this is a theme of my work. I start things and then, you know, we need to keep going with them. [LAUGHTER] I think research never really ends, does it? But what I’ve been really thinking about is that in a slightly reductive way, if you’re talking about disability representation on screen, so on film and TV, the message can be quite well controlled by the people who are writing the piece. But when you’re in video games or in your own immersive narratives, you lose that sense of control because you’re no longer controlling where the players are going. You’re not controlling what they encounter or how they encounter it. So I’m looking to kind of create some evidence that shows that this impacts how the message that’s understood by the audience. So, for example, what we’ve been doing is I’ve created a VR experience from the perspective of a wheelchair user. It’s basically supermarket sweep. We did this with input from wheelchair users. So I interviewed a lot about what should be in the experience. And we’re going to have three versions of it, which tell the story from different perspectives. So it’s the same story, but one will tell it from what we call the medical model of disability. So that essentially blames the disability for why the person can’t reach an item. Then there’s going to be one version that shares the story from the social model. So it will blame the environment and that the shelf is too high and that’s why they can’t reach an item. And then one where there’s going to be no narration at all. And I’m predicting that people in the ‘no narration at all condition’ will come away with an understanding of disability closer to medical model than social model because they’ll be comparing it to their own experience, which is probably not as somebody as a wheelchair user who has much experience of that. So the likelihood is that they will see the wheelchair as restrictive and limiting, which is not actually what many wheelchair users think of their wheelchairs because their wheelchair is the thing that gives them independence and freedom. So the plan is to use that to produce evidence that says people who are making these stories need to really carefully craft how they are telling the story. Otherwise, if you leave it into the minds of the player to interpret, the chances are it will add to stigma because it won’t be interpreting in the way that the particular group would like people to take the message from that story. Does that make sense?

Mariana: Yes, that’s actually fascinating. Yeah. And what is the timeline for that? Have you developed? Are you still developing?

Anna: We’re still developing. It’s the sort of age old story of we’ve run out of money. So I need to find some money to either money or time.

Mariana: We need to change the title of the podcast. [LAUGHTER]

Anna: Please, we run out of money. But no, I’m in the process of applying for some more money to finish the development. And once that happens, then I can run the experiment.

Mariana: Well, it’s quite complex.

Anna: It is quite complex. And writing the story of the experience and getting that right was really important. So I did some in-depth interviews with wheelchair users beforehand. I got some really interesting insights into the world of shopping in a supermarket as a wheelchair user. Things that I would not have thought of or considered, like if you’re in a supermarket that’s got two floors and they’ve got like the travelator thing, that’s not wheelchair accessible. You have to use a lift, which actually I didn’t know. So sort of things like that that we needed to consider and build into the storytelling. So it was quite an in-depth process to get the development done. And we’re nearly there. It’s just not quite ready for the study.

Mariana: But it shows the importance of talking to people.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Mariana: And is there something that particularly frustrates you of the representation of disability in the creative industries? Maybe there’s more than one. [LAUGHTER]

Anna: There’s a few things. I think that a lot of it is still based on stereotypes. A lot of the representation in film and TV still kind of goes into those tropes. The you know, there’s various people have done various analyses of these. But the sort of the disabled person as a villain, the facial disfigurement means that you are a villain type. Stereotype is still one we see a lot. So that really frustrates me that we’re still in that space of just using the stereotypes. We are starting to see more what we call incidental representations. So where there are characters who are disabled, but it’s not a plot device, which academics call the narrative prosthesis. Which is a very pretentious term. But essentially, that’s that’s where representation kind of started. You’d only see disabled characters if the story was about being disabled. So it’s good that we’re starting to see more of that kind of incidental representation, but it’s still a lot of it is still based on stereotypes and tropes. So, yeah, that’s my biggest frustration.

Mariana: What are your thoughts about representation off screen?

Anna: It’s not something I’m particularly expert in. I don’t have many sort of stats and figures to back it up, but I’m guessing it’s still not very balanced in the representation off screen. I mean, if you look at things like the time report from the SIGN project about working practices in the creative industries, it suggests that it’s not very conducive for people who are disabled. It requires a lot of hours and lots of intense periods and that kind of thing. So I think it’s definitely a problem. I also think that, you know, we do need more diversity, more varied voices behind the scenes as well as on camera. But I’m quite keen that we shouldn’t be in a position where disabled people have to write stories about being disabled, if that makes sense. So we need more people in this industry who are from diverse backgrounds, but they shouldn’t just have to focus on creating stories that are about that. So we need more of it. But we also need to create frameworks where people who are not disabled can do this sort of thing well, probably through coproduction and through working with disabled people. But I don’t think it’s the responsibility of disabled people to write those stories about being disabled. Does that make sense?

Mariana: Yeah. Yeah. And what would be your message for then creators of new media kind of looking to represent disability in their work? What are the key messages they can take from it?

Anna: I think the most important thing is to work with communities and to work closely with them, but also to assess them, … not assess them carefully, that’s not the right framing, … but to think carefully about the people that you’re working with, because there are examples where, the one I always talk about is the film music by the Sia. Which is a film about a nonverbal autistic girl. And it’s an absolutely horrendous, horrendous piece of disability representation. But they consulted very heavily with the charity Autism Speaks. And so on the on the face of it, they were doing the right thing because they were working directly with a charity to inform how they created that piece. But that particular charity is a proponent of ABA therapy, which is essentially trying to kind of almost train the autism out of people. And a lot of autistic people don’t like that type of therapy. So if you talk to autistic people about a charity that you could work with, that would be one that was not highly recommended by many, I would think. So it doesn’t entirely surprise me that having worked with that charity, they they came up with a piece that essentially glorifies abuse as a means of caring for the main character. Like they’re kind of physically restraining her in various scenes. And it’s just not very good. And that’s the 2020 or 2021 film? Like it’s recent. It’s not like 10 years ago. So, yeah.

Mariana: So that’s the key message, collaborating with communities ..

Anna: But careful collaboration.

Mariana: Careful collaboration.

Anna: Yeah, absolutely. Like, do your research basically.

Mariana: Yes. And I also know you’re passionate that you’re passionate on teaching disability and accessibility at university. And, you know, I happen coincidentally to know that you’re working on a new module that shares the title with this podcast. So many coincidences. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about what the aim of the module is and what do you feel is the role that education plays in kind of questioning this representation and the lack of access many people experience?

Anna: So I think the aim of the module is to encourage the students that we’re working with, that we’re teaching to think about disability and to bring that into their awareness in a way that they might not necessarily have thought about otherwise. And so at the end of the module, you know, we’ve got students from a film background, from theatre, from interactive media, from business, from humanities type master’s programmes. It’s a very diverse cohort of students. But I’m hoping that by having explicit teaching about disability and access, they will go into their future careers with at least a starting point in thinking about this as an important topic. And it’s not something that will be a kind of an afterthought for them, I’m hoping. I’m hoping that we’ll be able to demonstrate that this is really important and it should be foregrounded and it should be at the forefront of what you’re thinking about when you’re creating anything and that we give them enough of a starting point that they feel confident that they can go and explore more. That’s sort of what I’m hoping. And I think that that’s really important. So in terms of education, because I think a lot of people are not that aware of disability. I sometimes talk about a term I’ve coined of unconscious ignorance as a particular type of unconscious bias, because I think with disability, it’s not actually unconscious bias, because that’s all around that you’re unconsciously biased about things that you have had exposure to. And I think actually a lot of people just haven’t had any exposure to disability. And as a result, they know nothing. So it’s not actually bias, it’s just ignorance. They don’t know and they don’t know what they don’t know. And therefore you kind of stumble into making mistakes. Right. So I’m hoping that we can help to sort of raise that level of awareness and sort of get that sort of understanding with some of the students that then means that they go and do more work on it, because in one module, you can’t teach them everything. Like it’s a huge topic. We’re struggling to condense it into one module. There’s so much we could do. I could do an entire degree on this, but it’s a starting point, isn’t it?

Mariana: Yeah. And it’s I mean, I’ve talked about the module at a few events. I’ve been on accessibility and a lot of people have been very impressed about having disability and accessibility in a framework that isn’t the traditional audio visual translation. So AVT studies, which is where things like audio description tend to be to be taught and thinking about how creators themselves can integrate this method. So I think it’s, you know, I’m looking forward to working out with you on this. And what’s next for you? What exciting things do you have ahead of you?

Anna: There’s a few things in the pipeline, but they’re not kind of confirmed. So I’m slightly limited on what I can say. But I am in the process of writing two grant applications at the moment, one which is being submitted imminently, which is around AI and accessibility, but not what people might be expecting. So I think a lot of the AI and accessibility stuff is around using AI for accessibility. This project is not in that framework. So this is about looking at how AI technologies are the future. Like this is coming. It’s already here, but it’s definitely coming and it’s going to be in a big way. And it’s going to be part of our everyday usage, right, in the same way that the web was. So how do we make sure that technology that is going to be a fundamental part of our lives is accessible from the get go? So it’s not about using AI specifically for access. It’s about how AI that will be everywhere can be accessible. So that’s quite an exciting project to say that we were putting in for money soon in the next week.

Mariana: It’s all about the money. [LAUGHTER]

Anna: It’s all about the money! Yeah. So that’s that one. And then the other one is an extension of the SoundCeption project, which I worked on with Helen Petrie, which is around access to art and culture for visually impaired audiences. So that’s a really interesting project. And we’re working with some museums and art galleries and sculpture parks to look at whether some technology that we created a while ago can work in that context to provide access to art and culture. Which is quite a fun development for me because I think a lot of accessibility stuff has traditionally been around quite pragmatic things. So technology for access is about being able to use the web, being able to use your mobile phone to do X, Y and Z, quite pragmatic tasks. But we’re getting into a place where we’re starting to think about accessibility for fun and for the things that make life worth living, you know, which … There’s still lots of work to do on the pragmatic stuff. But I think it’s really exciting to start looking at it in more of the kind of creative spaces and access to those sorts of experiences.

Mariana: Well, thank you so much. And best of luck getting that money.

Anna: If anyone has any money, please get a contact! [LAUGHTER]

Mariana: So if anybody listening to the podcast has any money for Anna, please get in touch. [LAUGHTER] I’m sure you can find her email online. But thank you so much for sharing all your insights, both on accessibility and representation. And the latter is a topic we hear much less of. So thank you so much for joining us today!

Anna: Thank you.

Mariana: Thank you so much, everyone, for tuning in. And we’ll be back with a brand new episode next month. Until next time. Thank you very much for listening.


Photo by Ben Moreland on Unsplash