The Accessiverse: On Accessible Comics
This is a guest post from Rachel Osolen, from the National Network for Equitable Library Services (NNELS). You can find Rachel on Twitter. (Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash)
During my career I have watched accessibility in publishing grow exponentially over the past few years. One area that still needs more attention is the creation and remediation of comics, graphic novels, and manga. So what exactly is an accessible comic? The quick answer is it is a comic that can be read and accessed by anyone with a print disability. Print disabilities are the common term used for perceptual disabilities, and include three broad categories of people who need accessible formats. These categories include: severe or total impairment of sight or hearing or the inability to focus or move one’s eyes, the inability to hold or manipulate a book, or an impairment relating to comprehension. For the longer answer you will have to keep reading.
For generations comics have provided a seemingly endless source of storytelling, world building, and entertainment. Famous movie franchises, tv spin offs, and even novelizations have been created based on the characters and adventures found in comics — and vice versa! As creators and lovers of comics we want to share these experiences with all readers. This includes people living with perceptual disabilities. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that people with perceptual disabilities are just as interested in comics as anyone else. Comics also are being included more and more in education, and without proper accessible formats any student living with a perceptual disability is left behind. This is not acceptable. The bottom line is that everyone who enjoys storytelling should have access to the same stories.
Throughout my own work and research over the past few years I have heard a growing number of creators and people from the community showing an interest in accessible comics. The market exists, the readers exist. Why not work to create access to all these incredible stories? The exciting part of all this is that there are already so many examples of people working hard to create accessible comics a reality. The following is a brief overview of what is happening in the publishing landscape for accessible comics.
Human Narrated Audiobooks
This is probably the most common alternative format for comics. Yes, audiobooks are more accessible to a certain extent by default compared to print or digital books, but most audiobooks out there are for novels. Human narrated comics like Sandman, which features image descriptions, music, and a full cast, are changing the way we create audiobooks. There are also examples specifically for accessibility, such as Unseen, a comic about a blind assassin by Chad Allen (who is also blind). Then there was Comics Empower, an online comic book store for the blind, which was created and maintained by Guy Hassan. The company’s mandate was to create and sell comics to people with perceptual disabilities through transcription and original writing. Unfortunately, this company no longer exists, but is a rich example of how the comic book experience can be accessible. In thinking about creating accessible comics, why not come at it from the perspective of a reader with a perceptual disability?
If the comic is in an EPUB format, there is the option to apply Regional-Based Navigation.
Regional-Based Navigation is the ability to create a guided reading experience through the implementation of specific code. Regional-Based Navigation is a type of semantic code used to structure the comic. The code creates an ordered sequence for what are termed ‘Regions of Interest’ that a Reading System will use to navigate the reader through the comic. There can be more than one region or sequence created on a page, and they can be nested to help create levels of navigation. Regions for comics include: panel, panel group, speech bubbles, text areas (for titles and other non speech text) and sound areas (for sound effects.) These regions can help the reader focus on a specific area of the page using TTS, zoom, or by highlighting the area and blurring out any surrounding areas. It can also be made responsive for smaller devices, such as cell phones.
Image Description (Alt-text) Only
This option is what it sounds like, comics are described in Alternative-text (Alt-text). Alt-text has been developed to replace an image with text so that a reader can get a full reading experience, but when it comes to comics it could flatten the experience. There is the issue of reading order if the text is separated from the image, meaning the device reads the text separately from the image description. This can get even more tricky with complex page spreads and sound effects. Creators are faced with the choice to write shorter descriptions and leave out large chunks of the visual story, or write longer descriptions that could lead to cognitive overload (basically too much information in one description the reader can’t keep track or loses interest). Longer descriptions can also be harder to read because there is no way to build navigation into the description. Remember, Alt-text is read as one chunk of text, and you only have punctuation to create pauses. This being said, there are some wonderful projects out there that have been working with Alt-text and comics such as the Accessible Comics Project by Lucy Bellwood.
This work was developed in part by myself and my colleague Leah Brochu. We found that it is possible to create a balanced description that combines the visual grammar of a comic with the narrative story in what we term a described comic. A described comic goes further than a basic novelization of the story, or the use of alternative text. It draws from guidelines from Video and Audio description, Alternative Text, and guidelines on how to write a comic. The aim is to recreate the comic book experience that includes the unique visual aspects including panels, speech bubbles, movement lines and more. Our goal is to ensure that visually impaired readers have a comic book experience that closely matches that of a sighted reader, and is standardised across producers, so that the onus of understanding the approach to comic book description is not put on the visually impaired reader. Some of our biggest tips for comic book description include the idea that readers with visual impairments want to have an authentic “comic book experience”, and that the describer’s intention should always be to state what they see, not their interpretation of what they see – objectivity is key. You can read more about our research in our article Creating an Authentic Experience.
Tactile Braille is an exciting form of publication for readers with perceptual disabilities, and there are already a few elegant and engaging examples in the comic realm. Ilan Manouach’s Shapereader, which began in 2014, is a tactile constructed language that can be used to create comics that can be read through touch. One comic that uses this language is the comic Arctic Circle. This is an interesting, conceptual approach that demonstrates that there are real opportunities for outside-the-box ideas!
Then there is Jorge Grajales’ Sensus where each two page spread is divided between braille on one side and images on the other. This is similar in style to what is done with a lot of children’s books. This can also be utilised in digital books with an electronic braille file that can share not only the text, but also image descriptions.
Comic books are already multi-modal, so it makes sense to consider multi-modal solutions. This combines more than one accessibility solution into the comic for the purpose of creating a dynamic experience. Some options include: tactile graphics accompanied by digital versions with image description; digital content accompanied by files to print 3D-printed objects, and more! Robust experiences can be designed, built, and shared, and the world of comic books can become more inclusive.
There is also the Vizling app that is an approach that lets blind and visually impaired readers navigate through visual versions of comics on their mobile devices. It reads out the text and image descriptions, and gives haptic feedback which guides the user through the layout of the panels and the page! For those who don’t know, haptic feedback is touch-based feedback. In the case of the Vizling app, it gives different vibrations if you go “off course” or stay on the right track.
The Future of Comics
The accessibility landscape is growing and evolving, and so is the landscape of storytelling. Comics are such a creative and engaging medium that I firmly believe they are ideal for development in accessibility. I’ve been working for five years now reformatting ebooks and audiobooks into accessible formats. My work has connected me to many fascinating people and rabid readers and I have discovered that there are a lot of people who want to read comics, but don’t have the access to them.
The most engaging and exciting projects in accessible comics include people with lived experiences. One such exciting endeavour is the Accessible Comics for the Blind Project. This project is an ongoing collaboration at San Francisco State University between Comics Studies, the Program for Visual Impairment, and the Longmore Institute (now called The Accessible Comics Collective) to explore ways of making comics accessible for blind and low vision readers. When working with accessibility, you must include people with lived experience as it is the only way to ensure success. When it comes to accessible comics, the future is now!
Note: The SFSU program has a contest going right now. The proposal deadline is June 30, 2022. More information can be found in this Google doc.