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Things that just won't go away | AV for Access

Well, it’s February…again… Every year I wish we could skip this month, it’s too short, it messes up schedules, and around here there’s a break week in the middle for K-12 so it throws off a lot the ability to go anywhere, and of course the unending gray skies. 


Anyhow, what elements just won’t go away in AV? This is probably going to be one of my more controversial pieces, so please make sure your pitchforks are sharpened and your torches primed, because here we go. 


We’re falling behind, and we will continue to fall behind. That’s what isn’t going away. Before you all come after me let me explain. We’re not falling behind technically, that’s the good part. We’re actually doing a lot to move forward and we’re growing by leaps and bounds in that. No. Instead we’re falling behind in terms of visibility, vision, and staff development. Don’t get me wrong, there are a TON of great visionary people in this field, hell if you’re reading this you probably are one of them. However, there’s a deeper issue and it’s causing us to become not just buried but we’re actually losing ground. Let me explain. 


Through the 1990s and early 2000s, the boom in tech jobs was seen as a great pathway for people to advance in their careers and their lives. People were jumping into IT related fields left and right it seemed and there was no limit to where they could go. IT was the Wild West and it was growing. By the time of the dot-com bubble bursting, IT had begun to move away from the more independent spirit and become siloized and homogenized. Some of this was good, to be sure, but it also began to create a culture of gate-keeping whereby individuals now had to meet ever more stringent requirements to enter the field and it was no longer an “opportunity” field for people to enter and self-teach themselves how to do it. IT also split between the white collar side of management and devs and the blue collar side of the physical layer and the support staff, as other industries have in the past. IT also became such a well known quantity, becoming embedded in popular media from The IT Crowd to Dilbert and so the idea of an IT or “tech” career became mainstream, no longer the province of a few gurus with beards who bucked corporate dress codes. While this was going on, we saw a school to career pipeline develop, where majors such as computer science were developed, and  


At the same time, AV was growing, in parallel to IT, but quietly. However, unlike IT, we didn’t change the perception of the field. Instead, and partly because we grew from live production, we remained in the background and the shadows. While IT became the gateway to a “better career” as so many late night TV ads for Devry or other for-profit schools told us, when I joining the field in 2010 I still had to explain that I wasn’t just the guy who pushed a cart with a film projector into the room. Until recently, the main depiction of an “AV” person was someone like Family’ Guy’s Neil Goldman, a nerdy high schooler who pushed a cart around. 


As a result of this, while IT has become a large part of common culture (to the point in fact of no longer guaranteeing a “better life” ironically) AV has in large part either been subsumed by IT or become a taken for granted part of life in both academia and corporate life. 


This, however, is only half the problem and now I’m going to address the issue which is our “groundhog day.” 


One of the biggest issues facing our field today is that it is “greying.” Our recruiting of younger professionals is not keeping up with the maturation of the existing members of the profession. As a result, we’re losing institutional knowledge, hard won knowledge, which will be needed going forward. In addition, because we have failed to set ourselves apart from the rest of the “tech sector” we are more and more being conflated with sysadmins and other general IT practitioners. If we are to combat this, we need to do what IT did in the 90s and begin to define ourselves as a distinct sector and abandon (as much as I hate to say it) the wild west characteristic of training our staffs through an oral tradition rather than formalized training. 


Now on to a second thing which is a perpetual problem, stigma. Now, many of you may not know this but I was a Sociology student in college, earning my BS from Boston University. One of the topics that comes up frequently in sociology is that of Stigma, defined as the ‘situation of the individual who is disqualified from full social acceptance’.1 This is one of the biggest barriers both to accessibility in classrooms and indeed in society. Ironically, much of this stigma is coded into the ADA itself in the provisions that allow broad discretion in providing accommodations. If it creates an ‘undue burden’ for example, without defining what that is, a “covered entity” may deny accommodations to an individual who is qualified for them. In other cases, and this has been my own experience which is why I stopped seeking accommodations, the process is so frustrating and off putting that the individual who would benefit academically or medically from those accommodations simply gives up. I’ve encountered uncaring staff, angry dogs, and processes which would make a Soviet bureaucrat wince. Plus, at many schools, students then have to approach their faculty to provide them a letter indicating the accommodations they are authorized and even then the faculty member may refuse. Pre-pandemic there was a trend of faculty who would post long angry screeds against accommodations and why they refused them.  


Thankfully, there is already a solution to this problem, and you all know where I am going. Universal Design / Universal Design for Learning. If we, as a field, took advantage of the tools we have at our fingertips and designed our classrooms with a broad base of accessibility tools, from built-in assistive listening systems that don’t require students to single themselves out by requesting a receiver, to simply recording and using auto transcription of lectures and making them freely available to all students, we could cut down on stigma. I’ll leave you with one final thought on stigma, from Goffman, which will help understand both why we need to change the perspective people have of our field, and why we need to make our campuses universally accessible wherever possible. 


“The stigmatized individual tends to hold the same beliefs about the identity that we do. [This may cause him] to agree that he does indeed fall short of what he really ought to be. Shame becomes a central possibility”2 


2 Goffman E. Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster; 1963.