Louise Hickman

Transcription Machines: Feminist Labor and Access Work

Transcription Machines and Access Work: disability, technology and feminist labor (1956-present) investigates the cultural politics of real-time transcription for d/Deaf and hard of hearing students in the academic classroom. I analyze how these students maintain access to spoken speech through the transcriptive labor produced by a stenographer’s interaction with assistive technologies. Rather than think of access as a set of pre-established conditions, this project seeks to understand access as an historical event and mode of political production more broadly. To interpret access more capaciously, I undertake case study analyses of real-time captioning practices as supported stenographic technologies, and examine how the production of real-time captioning and access more broadly requires distributed, embodied, and social forms of 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 the codes of civic discourse.


In 1958, the US Congress passed the first legislative bill related to assistive technologies, which sought to provide captioning services for d/Deaf and hard of hearing users in order to enable widespread access to federal libraries across the United States.  Contrary to the received wisdom among historians of disability, who have often critiqued the turn to a legal rights framework for people with disabilities as a neoliberal phenomenon, this midcentury bill predates much disability legislation established in conjunction with the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991.  In the first chapter of my manuscript, I contrast these historical landmark rights cases with anxieties around automated technology for both the general population and people with disabilities. Following on from this I seek to understand the ways in which midcentury labor practices informed infrastructures of access for deaf readers today.  Specifically, my work explores the historical transformation of the stenographer’s shorthand – written annotations and textual ciphering, input through software programming – to transform spoken speech into real-time captions in academic spaces.


In contrast to the midcentury practice of technical hand-written shorthand, and the innovative early 20th Century stenographic machine, the human-machine labor of contemporary captioning is indebted to, and reliant upon, an aging system of technology. 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 the sphere of reproductive labor, my research focuses on an emerging category of access work that is increasingly defined by the standardization of labor practices for support workers. By tracing the transcriptive labor provided by stenographers, I seek to draw on feminist studies of affective labor and the ethics of care to argue that the precarity of this type of work has proliferated a new species in the sexual division of labor: access workers themselves. My manuscript examines many examples of caring labor, spanning the 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 piecemeal labor provided by online crowdsourcing, have played a vital role in making online content accessible for d/Deaf and hard of hearing users.  This project therefore calls on feminist epistemology to consider the critical intersections between pedagogical design and assistive technologies in the undergraduate classroom.