Comics and Accessibility

Prior to the start of classes this semester, our teachers’ union (AFT Local 1650) organized a Professional Issues Conference (PIC) that all full-time faculty were required to attend. This year’s speaker was Thomas Tobin, who talked to us about Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept that aims to make educational materials accessible for people with disabilities and for people who might be accessing information on-the-go, i.e.: let’s talk about not just how people access information via screen readers, but let’s also talk about when and where and why they access information in the ways that they do.

Colleges and universities are facing significant pressure in regard to ADA compliance, and rightfully so. But accessibility for people with disabilities isn’t the only issue in need of addressing. Here is a link to an infographic illustrating demographic information for today’s college students, from the Lumina Foundation (you can read this article about the Lumina Foundation’s foundation if you’re interested; I think the infographic is still useful despite this criticism). In sum, college students are NOT always white, middle-to-upper class, fresh out of high school with lofty dreams and parents footing the bill. We can probably agree on that much: anyone who has walked the halls of a public university, and especially anyone who has been on a community college campus, can attest to the range of ages, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and expressions of personal identity. However, there are less visible but still apparent differences in lifestyle: some people might be raising children (or siblings), others might be working multiple jobs, some may have arrived in the United States just a few months ago, others might be in temporary housing situations. UDL takes these factors into consideration in addition to making materials accessible for those relying on technology or other assistance because of disability. It’s about reducing barriers. Here’s a video to illustrate:

One thing I was able to do for this semester was to check my syllabus and calendar for accessibility using Word 2016. I also chose an accessible theme on WordPress, meaning that it is flexible and can be viewed on both desktop and mobile devices. I’ve also tested the screen reader on my iPhone (Settings>General>Accessibility>Speech>Speak Screen) by having it read posts to me out loud, which was especially useful. After making sure that my electronic materials were accessible (I am still learning, so if you find something that needs fixing, please let me know!), I created a Google calendar for each class nd embedded it into a page on my site. I’m not sure how accessible these are on mobile devices, but it’s certainly useful to pull up quickly if the paper document isn’t available. One student told me they really appreciated the calendar, so I’m hoping that it’s actually going to be used; if it’s not accessible easily by phone, I’m not sure I’ll put the time and effort into making them in the future.

Despite my best efforts to make these materials accessible, it occurred to me this weekend that traditional text is fairly easy to adapt to devices like screen readers, but texts that rely heavily on images are not so easily translated. We have apps like Audible, or even audio books through the library, that can do the work of seeing words on a page for us and speak them out loud so that we can get information or follow a story. But comics, even when digitized, pair words with images in order to communicate, and the images can be especially significant. Scott McCloud, in his book Understanding Comics, illustrates several types of word/image combinations that writers and illustrators use.

A friend of mine sent me a link to a comic that uses texture to tell a story, and the creator’s hope is that storytelling could happen by way of tactile exploration. This is ultimately what got me thinking about Blankets, by Craig Thompson, which students in my ENG 132 classes read. For traditional novels, a person who is visually impaired or blind would perhaps use the audio book or VoiceOver/other text-to-speech features to listen to the story. With a graphic novel, that doesn’t quite work. There are a number of wordless panels in Blankets, and plenty of panels that use both words and pictures to convey information, particularly subjective information about the characters. How is this information delivered to somebody who is not relying on sight to see and interpret what is on the page? Here’s an example:

blankets2
This is a wordless panel from the graphic novel Blankets. The image shows Craig and Raina laying together in bed in their pajamas, on top of the blanket that Raina made for Craig. Raina’s eyes are closed, and she is laying in Craig’s lap, holding on to his arm. Craig’s arms are wrapped around Raina, but his eyes are open and he looks uncertain or worried.

You can see my caption below the image. Is that how you would have described the image? What details led you to see Craig and Raina in the way that you did? Can you think of any experiences from your own life that allowed you to relate to the image? Do you see yourself in Thompson’s story (think about recognition as one use of literature we are exploring)? It’s likely that our descriptions of this image would be similar, though they may differ depending on how descriptive we chose to be, or what details stood out to us. If this panel did have words, we’d need to include in our image description whether those words were narration, dialogue, or thoughts that were not said aloud.

Here’s a link to a WordPress page that gives tips for making blog content accessible; one strategy they mention is how to write descriptions for images like the one I’ve used above. WordPress suggests not just describing objectively what is in the image (i.e. two people laying in a bed) but to convey the feeling of the image as well, which I have tried to do in my caption above. However, this is complicated by the fact that interpretation of images is subjective, and unless the author/illustrator has contributed to the alternative text, it’s possible that the story could be lost in translation, or at least mixed up along the way. Think about all of the Bible translations! Scribes put their own twist on the material, and differences of interpretation (which is something Thompson gets at in his book) led to some pretty serious divisions within Christianity. Whose interpretation should we trust? Would my descriptions of the images in Blankets do the story justice? Would my own experiences color my retelling? I imagine they would, just as they influence my teaching.

I will be the first to admit that I am not well-versed in accessibility; I don’t teach online, and I rely on pretty simple and easy to find methods to assist me when I need it. I’ve never had a student who needed accommodations, but I would like to become more knowledgeable so that I can provide that support should the need ever come up. I’d also like to assign material that can demonstrate these needs for other students who may take their sight, or even their ability to access material without logistical complications (language! time! money! patience!), for granted. We’ll spend some time working on writing rich descriptions with some panels from Blankets together to experiment.

Below are links to a few sites regarding comics and accessibility; I’d love to know if you have any feedback or resources to share!

“Digital Comics: Successful, Accessible, and Ruining How We Read Comics?” This article addresses the concept of time in comics, the individual reading experience, and how digital comics may fall short. The title is misleading; the only mention of accessibility is “anyone…anywhere.”

“Enhancing the Accessibility for All of Digital Comic Books” This is an article from a Belgian publication that argues comics “[do] not completely fulfill the needs of a large segment of public such as mobile users, motor-impaired people, and low-sighted people.” The article highlights the physical nature of comic books (they are distributed primarily as paper copies), and in regard to sight only addresses how to make the images viewable to users who have low-sight, not those who are completely unable to see.

Accessible Comics for the Blind by Paths to Literacy links to Comics Empower, an online comic book shop that makes comics accessible using audio.

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