Disability and New Media

To follow-up Goggin & Newell, the next installment of annotated bib posts is Disability and New Media. For a useful review, check out this piece by Laura Howard for Disability Studies Quarterly.


Cover of Disability & New Media

Disability and New Media by Katie Ellis & Mike Kent

This book offers a crucial cultural exploration of how disability (and disability studies) informs and is complicated by web 2.0 environments—a markedly different contribution than a technical approach to web accessibility that other new media and disability texts have offered. Building from Digital Disability, Ellis and Kent take as their exigence Berners-Lee’s call for accessibility, which they argue has been cast aside with rapid increases in complicated graphics and texts and the sheer volume of user-generated content that does not account for web standards (2).

At the heart of this book is a familiar concern for those in internet/new media studies: the reproduction of social inequity within the digital realm. The authors fear that the historical prejudices and exclusions of the disabled are reproduced by our digital technologies. Ellis and Kent take up social theory of disability in order to identify ableist practices and technologies and, more importantly, to offer possibilities for how we can productively eliminate ableist technologies (4). Broken into three parts, the book explores Universal Design (UD), the history of communication technologies and social networks, and how accessibility can be at the forefront of future digital design. Ultimately, “This book questions the rhetoric that digital technologies are an automatic source of liberation and inclusion of people with disability, and demonstrates that disability is socially created and reproduced in digital technologies” (7).

Part Two, “How Did We Get Here?” is the most useful for considering how our technologies and our perceptions and prejudices of disability have developed over time. In exploring the history of web accessibility, the authors argue, “Even in cultural and media studies of the digital divide, disability is rarely foregrounded as a case study” (77). That is, even though folks have explored how particular groups have gained (or been denied) material access to the web, accessibility has largely been overlooked. The authors also note that the rhetoric of Web 2.0 suggests a space that is open to everyone, which will make it even more collaborative; however, this is something that can’t happen if we don’t address accessibility issues or, more largely, recognize disability as socially constructed (77).

Ellis and Kent echo this when they argue that assistive technologies are stigmatized and that the disabled are seen as dependent on and helpless without those technologies in ways that able-bodied technology users are not (81). Assistive technologies are situated within a technological deterministic framework that positions disability as a deficit that a particular technology can help fix or cure, framing disability within a medical model of individual deficit (82). More specifically, “The deficit model of disability sees adaptive technologies as part of a rehabilitative discourse that assumes the relationship between the individual and user is one of dependence whereby experts without personal experience of disability dictate technological forms of cure and care” (84). The alternative that Ellis and Kent posit is not a retrofit that makes accommodations for particular users—which can exclude other users and position these accommodations as “special”—but to create accessible digital spaces from the start, folding in elements of UD into our web design.

Although other disability studies and rhetoric and composition scholars have problematized UD as a neoliberal fix, Ellis and Kent push UD not to emphasize it as a sweeping solution but as a means to begin creating more accessible technologies and digital spaces. The authors highlight closed captioning as a prime example of accessible technology that was not widespread until it became regulated by law, contrasting this with the inaccessibility of Netflix. Because Netflix is not legally required to provide closed captions, it has been a slow and difficult process—studded with user petitions—to make it an accessible service. Here, we can see the value of UD as a set of principles that could have made Netflix accessible from the beginning rather than necessitating a time-intensive retrofit, the fruits of which we can now access through the Netflix mobile app.

This flexible, mobile access is—as the authors argue—what will ultimately help create more accessible technologies because mobile access emphasizes accessibility as a universal goal for all technology users, not only for the disabled (146).


Ellis, Katie, and Mike Kent. Disability and New Media. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media

Next up in the annotated bib installment: Digital Disability.


Cover image of Digital Disability

Digital Disability by Gerard Goggin & Christopher Newell

Digital Disability is frequently cited as an initial and influential exploration of how disability shapes and is shaped by new media and communication technologies. Goggin and Newell take a social constructionist approach to disability and new media, positioning their book as an attempt “to cast a critical gaze upon the very technologies that are supposed to provide the solution to disability—and show how new media technologies actually build in disability” (xv). They question assistive technologies that are often touted as tools to overcome disability and instead argue for the development of technologies that embrace, rather than erase, disability by inviting the disabled to co-develop and produce new media.

“Part One: Technologies of Disability” explores how disability is shaped by the development and normalization of particular technologies by able-bodied creators. Something that has also been critiqued by rhetoric and composition scholars, Goggin and Newell critique “new” media, arguing that the “new” label makes particular technologies more attractive and seemingly more necessary; essentially, they critique a positivist view that technology is inherently better. They write, “The idea that technology is autonomous conceals the political and social contradictions and conflict associated with traditional and mobile telephones, the computer, the Internet, digital broadcasting and other digital technologies—especially in relation to how disability is constructed with these technologies” (9).

This concealment is paralleled by the normalization of particular bodies and technologies, which is explored in Chapter Two, “Disability in Its Social Context.” Here, Goggin and Newell use the cochlear implant to argue that technology is political, tied to particular cultural values, and excludes the knowledge and life experiences of particular users: “Deaf people in various countries see themselves as disabled by a hearing culture that uses an oral approach, rather than inherently having a deficit. An excellent example of the clash of cultures is found in the cochlear implant, which is shown to be inherently ethical from the perspective of the hearing world, but unethical and destructive of culture from the perspective of the Deaf community” (xvi). This example shows how particular people and technologies are constructed as disabled or as assistive, reinforcing the critique that those who have historically been legitimized or authorized as knowledgeable are those in power: the able-bodied (19).

In Chapter Seven, “Cultures of Disability,” Goggin and Newell note that discussions of the interactivity of online spaces positions disabled users as capable of being more active and achieving fuller participation when in fact this framing creates new and different ways to marginalize and erase disability (130). Framing technology as interactive positions disability as a “deficit to be overcome, redressed, or made invisible” (131) by new media spaces that “equalize” user experience. Though the authors critique disablist values within new media spaces, they also focus on the cultural production of new media by disabled users, questioning whether the Internet removes disability or creates new dimensions of and possibilities for disability (131). Specifically, creation of and interaction within online communities reinforces disability culture and creates new cultural spaces for disabled users (132).

Finally, Chapter Eight, “Rewiring Disability” focuses on how we can make new media spaces and communicative technologies more inclusive, accessible, and truly equitable. Goggin and Newell are wary of inclusion for the way it assimilates and often normalizes the disabled rather than critically engaging with disability (149), and they are also hesitant to embrace Universal Design (UD) because its practice often identifies abstract needs rather than working with disabled users and identifying real, material needs (150). They ask, “Certainly, universal design is worthy of aiming for, but whose account of universal design will win the day?” (150). This question is particularly resonant in current critiques of UD as a neoliberalist cure to inaccessibility.

Ultimately, Goggin and Newell critique the idea of a technology that can “supersede or overcome or do away with disability” (153), arguing that we must critically interrogate our values in order to create technologies that are inclusive to, respectful of, and co-developed by disabled users.

Here’s the whole quotation, which is one of my favorites:

In different accents and voices, we are ceaselessly promised that technology will deliver us from disability. Yet we would suggest not only that technology will never deliver society from the reality of disability, but that disability continues to be constructed through such technology. We can never supersede or overcome or do away with disability. (153)



Goggin, Gerard, and Christopher Newell. Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2003. Print.

Disability Rhetoric

I realized today that I have lots of notes from the annotated bibliography component of my comprehensive exams that I never posted here, so I thought I’d post some this week. I try to offer a general sense of any text I read in these posts (argument, methodology), but I also pay particular attention to how these texts relate to my dissertation project and rhetorics of overcoming. Because it’s such an excellent text and I’m a huge fan of Jay and his work, I thought I’d start with Disability Rhetoric. 

If you missed it when the book came out, Jay gave a rad interview for Critical Margins. And thought it’s all good, this is my favorite quote: “I don’t just ‘accommodate’ disability and diversity but I expect it, make it an asset, welcome it. If there is anything that needs to be overcome in education, it is normativity.”

If you’d like a chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the book, check out this review Elizabeth Brewer wrote for Disability Studies Quarterly


Image of Disability Rhetoric

Disability Rhetoric by Jay Dolmage

Disability Rhetoric is the first book-length theoretical treatment of rhetorical history through a disability studies lens, blending rhetorical analysis with historiography in order to demonstrate not only how communication has historically been embodied but also to illustrate how bodily difference is deeply rhetorical. In the book, Dolmage defines rhetoric as “the strategic study of the circulation of power through communication” (3), arguing that the body’s role in shaping rhetoric has never been wholly or accurately understood. To create a fuller understanding of embodiment’s role in rhetorical history, then, Dolmage argues for a “critical alliance” between rhetoric and disability studies, claiming, “Rhetoric needs disability studies as a reminder to pay critical and careful attention to the body. Disability studies needs rhetoric to better understand and negotiate the ways that discourse represents and impacts the experience of disability” (3).

Disability is used rhetorically to describe and devalue non-normative bodies, and Dolmage’s goal is to focus attention to the many ways the body has been rhetorically contested, has contributed to meaning-making, and has been both denied and denigrated. To centralize the rhetoric’s ties to embodiment, he adds “the circulation of discourse through the body” to his definition of rhetoric as the circulation of power through communication, and highlights métis—“the rhetorical concept of cunning and adaptive intelligence” (5)—as a method for recognizing the embodied, divergent nature of rhetoric. Characterized by backward and sideways, rather than forward, movement, métis becomes a framework for rhetorical history and the historian, who Dolmage argues is responsible for layering meaning, highlighting contested narratives, and offering multiple and divergent meanings (6). That is, he argues for a métis historiography that, like the extraordinary body, is divergent, flawed, in need of others for assistance and perspectives (8).

His book, in fact, is an attempt to enact such a retelling—not to smooth and perfect history but rather to preserve its gaps and inconsistencies because, ultimately, “Disability historiography cannot be a normative mission; disability history should move like disability itself, understandable and unique because of its imperfections, suspect of any normative impulse” (11). Dolmage notes that rhetorical history has often been shaped like the idealized human body. He aims to create a rhetorical history that more fairly and fully represents bodily differences by deconstructing the function of norms and ideals as categories that structure our rhetorical understandings of the body, exploring some of the cultural myths and stereotypes that inform our understandings of disability, and critically examining social constructions of disability.

For my own interests in how we privilege particular types of writing (and writing bodies) and the different myths we circulate that represent disability, I’m interested in the discussion of normativity. In Chapter One, “Disability Studies of Rhetoric,” Dolmage explores the rhetorical history of normativity, which combines the logics of both disablism and ableism. Disablism is comprised of assumptions and practices that negatively construct the value and material realities of the disabled, while ableism is comprised of systemic assumptions and practices that positively value compulsory able-bodiedness (22). Normate—a phrase coined by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson that has gained currency in disability studies—is then used to reference “the privileged subject position of the supposedly (or temporarily) able-bodied individual and the culture that valorizes this position” (22). The normate is the normative body, and Dolmage extends this body and normative value to rhetorical history. He writes, “[T]he bodily ideal is the foundational metaphor for proper speech and writing. … Ideal bodies produce ideal communication, and rhetoric polices nonideal bodies, or else betrays them” (24). This argument is crucial for considering who has historically been positioned as able to speak to and claim rhetorical agency.

Later in the book, Dolmage asks, “Who owns and what constructs—what owns and who constructs—the disabled body?” (93). And although he is introducing a critique of social constructionism here, this question has important connections to the classroom and how our school systems and curricula control and construct disability.

In his conclusion, Dolmage reinforces métis as a model for change and critique, recursivity and invention and asks, “What if these were our central educational values (instead of accumulation, retention, comprehension, compliance reproduction)?” (289). There are echoes here of McRuer’s critique of the corporate university and standardized (i.e., compulsory heterosexual and able-bodied) composition. Specifically, Dolmage insists that taking a disability rhetoric seriously in our composition classrooms involves creating a space where we value embodied knowledge and meaning making, respect differences, and even desire bodily differences in order to engage students in ways that don’t reinforce the norm (290).


Dolmage, Jay Timothy. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2013. Print.

Support Systems

This is a “duh” statement, but there’s been a lot of talk recently about sexual assault, domestic abuse, violence against women. With so many high-profile cases, they’re nearly impossible topics to avoid. This is a conversation that we need to have—a conversation that lots of individuals, lots of organizations, lots of institutions need to discuss, listen to, and address. And I love that people seem to be genuinely interested in engaging with this discourse. It has, however, brought more of the dissenters to my radar.

A small example: I was in Michigan last week. One afternoon as I was walking my dog, a group of three guys circled around us. One said, “Hey cutie.” I smiled quickly, said “hi,” kept walking. As I walked past, the same guy asked me my name. When I didn’t respond and instead crossed the street, I heard, “Hey man, do you want me to choke you out?” I shared this on Twitter and awoke the next morning to some quality responses from trolls decrying women for not being thankful for men who are just trying to “appreciate beauty.”

I’m rarely in a position where I have to engage with—or even just read the perspectives of—misogynists. I have a strong feminist support group in both my physical & social environments. And I need that.

I attended an 800-student, all-women’s college as an undergraduate, which significantly shaped the way I see the world. I’ve attended two institutions since my time at Hollins, and I haven’t connected with either university in the same way. That could just be the nature of experiencing a campus as an undergraduate versus a graduate student instructor. But I think it also depends on the campus climates. When I visited Hollins as a senior in high school, I remember staring at the decorated t-shirts strung along clotheslines across the quad. They were raising awareness for sexual assault. I attended Take Back the Night events every year. Many of my friends volunteered for the Coalition against Sexual Assault. I comforted friends who had been sexually assaulted, and they comforted me. I often think about those invaluable experiences and the fact that I knew—at any moment—I could ask for advice, silent understanding, a hug, long-term support.

I’ve missed that community in the last two institutions I’ve attended. And today, for the first time, I regained some of that. Although I love my program—and have been so well supported within my own graduate networks—I haven’t felt much connection to Syracuse as a larger student community.

Today, students organized #rallyforconsent. In early June, after students were gone for the summer, the administration announced the closing of the Advocacy Center, which provided sexual assault resources and support to college students. The AC services have been redirected to the Counseling Center, but this decision—both the decision itself and the way it was delivered with no community impact—was immediately met with outcry. There was a petition. There were Buzzfeed articles. And there was organizing.

Today was a culmination of these efforts, and, depending on which news source you read, close to 100 students and faculty gathered in front of Hendrick’s chapel to make their demands (from the rally’s Facebook group):

  • The prompt creation of a standalone center for advocacy and education on campus
  • No more decisions about us without us! Student input and participation now!

Particularly as I listened to organizers read student comments from the change.org petition about the importance of the AC to their Syracuse experience, I felt connected to this community in a way that I haven’t before.

I’m applying to jobs for the next couple months, and as I think through what kind of academic community I hope to join—to contribute to as a teacher and researcher and department/university citizen—I realize I want to join a community that cares about the well being of their students. Really cares. Being part of an academic community that privileges social justice, ethical labor practices, and the needs of its students is important. Knowing that I’m supported both as a faculty member and as a whole person is important. Knowing that my students are supported as people is important.

I’ve heard lots of people talking about what it means to be a balanced academic. For me, that means ensuring I have a strong intellectual support system that motivates & encourages me, nourishes me, and pushes me to advocate for better resources & support for others.

Rhetorics of Overcoming

I was able to take a trip down to WV this summer, and I love driving through the mountains on winding interstate roads, watching the fog roll slowly through the valleys—pale gray against the dark green trees. Fog is admittedly not the best of driving conditions, but it’s beautiful and haunting.

Pictured is the fog moving into the valleys of Snowshoe Mountain at dusk. The pale gray fog contrasts with dark pine trees in the foreground and delicate shades of peach, pink, and light blue in the sky.

Fog rolling through Snowshoe Mountain, WV // 2008

When your brain feels foggy, it’s also haunting but perhaps less beautiful. Today I feel like you do when you wake up after falling asleep in the sunshine—eyes blurry against the too-bright background of everything moving out of focus. I felt like that last week when Robin Williams died, too.

I admit that I struggle with empathy. My mom used to tell me I was extremely sensitive, and—as a child—I convinced myself that I was riddled with either Catholic or Jewish guilt. To be clear, my family was neither, but I had read about both in the books I consumed. I empathized with the large problems of the world (and still do, eyes watering as I scroll through #Ferguson for hours) but struggled & continue to struggle to empathize with other things that other people seem to immediately get.

I don’t understand celebrity deaths. It’s not that they’re not sad; it’s just that the things that happen to celebrities also happen to the people I know and love. I don’t quite understand the pain of losing someone you don’t know.

I do understand the pain of depression discourses that circulate after someone like Robin Williams commits suicide, though. The “Oh my goodness, he was so funny!” reactions versus the “How could someone so admired do something so selfish?” reactions versus the “He’s not suffering anymore” reactions. All, in their own ways, hurtful.

And though I was shocked by the responses—Facebook friends opening up about their own struggles with depression, suicide, self-harm—I understand them, too. I understand wanting to reach out to others who may be suffering when something like this happens. It’s perhaps the most interesting thing I’ve ever seen develop on Facebook—people who had previously been vocal about mental health issues contrasted with people who were disclosing them for the first time in a semi-public space. It was fascinating and humbling and very, very human.

I also saw a string of articles posted about the impact of Robin Williams. I successfully avoided every one. When the segment about him played on CNN while I was getting my oil changed, I turned up Sylvan Esso on my headphones. For some reason, though, one got through—probably while I was binging on Buzzfeed quizzes. I managed to click the most explicit “article” (I use scare quotes because do Buzzfeed compilations really count as articles?) that I had been hoping to avoid from all the others: “19 Candid Confessions about Overcoming Depression.”


This summer, after consulting all of my mentors and many of my friends, I decided not to teach so that I could work on my dissertation. And I spent my summer making delicious meals from my CSA vegetables, gallivanting across Central New York to different state parks with my boyfriend, and working on my dissertation from 9am to 3pm six days a week. I’ve enjoyed it because I love my topic, I’ve been thinking about it in some capacity for the three years that I’ve been at Syracuse, and I think it matters. And maybe that’s the sign of a good research project: that it matters, to you and to others. Yesterday at our annual programmatic Community Day, Eileen Schell advised (paraphrasing here), “Don’t do work that doesn’t matter to you or others. Your scholarship represents & serves communities.”

My dissertation is about rhetorics of overcoming and how they manifest in spaces of composition: specifically, through our scholarship and pedagogical practices in the composition classroom and writing center. My dissertation interrogates the tendency in our field to try to diagnose disabled students and default to accommodations (or turn to remedial practices) rather than trying to craft more accessible pedagogies. I argue that rhetorics of overcoming—the idea that disabled bodies must overcome their disabilities in order to be successful, to fit in, or to meet the standard—is a useful framework for considering how we as a field de/value disability, accommodations, and accessibility.

The overcoming narrative is a classic trope that positions disability as something that must be overcome in order for an individual to be successful—the disability version of the bootstraps narrative that individualizes struggles and achievements and glorifies triumph over personal hardships. Overcoming stems from ableist ideologies that position disability and disabled groups as inferior to able-bodied groups. Linton explains, “The popular phrase overcoming a disability is used most often to describe someone with a disability who seems competent and successful in some way, in a sentence something like ‘She has overcome her disability and is a great success’” (17).[1] This idea can be interpreted a couple different ways: the individual has willfully risen above her disability, or she has risen above society’s expectations of how a disabled person should act and be. Extended to rhetoric, the ideology embedded in overcoming is “of personal triumph over a personal condition” (18). In Disability Rhetoric, Dolmage connects overcoming to Joseph Shapiro’s articulation of the “super crip,” the disabled individual who has some type of compensatory ability or gift—a gift that reassures the able-bodied that if they become disabled, they too can overcome (39-40).[2] The supercrip is the ultimate image of overcoming, the “courageous or heroic super achievers” (Shapiro 16) who are represented as “‘superhuman’ because they achieve unexpected accomplishments or live a normal life just like people with no disabilities” (Zhang and Haller 321).[3]

This narrative—and the discourses that emerge from it—manifest in larger cultural contexts, too. We see it all the time in cancer discourses. And perhaps most notably (because of recent attention in the media), it manifests in depression discourses. Rhetorics of overcoming in cancer discourse tell cancer patients/survivors, “If you believe you can do it, you totally can!” It takes the biological, physical, totally uncontrollable aspects of cancer and individualizes them to particular people who are supposed to—through willpower, belief, or prayer—beat cancer. Depression discourse is similar, although it tends to erase different things, like the social elements of depression.

The issue with discourses of overcoming depression is how damaging they are. That you should in the first place. That when society tells you you can overcome—something you internalize—it’s even more traumatic when you don’t. This was perhaps the most difficult thing for me about the Buzzfeed compilation: the brief admittances of overcoming that clearly were not going to have a storybook “happy” ending that that the author had so deeply internalized.

Pictured is a gif of Parks and Recreation character Chris Traeger, who struggles with (and ultimately overcomes) depression in the show. He is pictured riding his bicycle, and the text reads, "If I keep my body moving and my mind occupied at all times, I will avoid falling into a bottomless pit of despair."

Chris Traeger from Parks & Rec struggles with & ultimately “overcomes” depression in the series.


I can’t relate to the pain of a celebrity passing, but in some specific ways I can relate to the disclosures of depression that stem from such events. I can relate to people wanting to open themselves up as support networks, but I can’t relate to the extreme discourses that often emerge from that space: the idea that depression is an illness or that depression is something that can be overcome. Each is too individualized, too focused on depression as something that is my fault or my responsibility. This is not to say that folks are wrong for thinking of depression in either of those ways but does point to the need for understanding how this rhetoric manifests—in our cultural conversations through media and news, in our personal conversations with friends and family, in our theoretical musings with colleagues and pedagogical practices with students.


[1] Linton, Simi. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York UP, 1998.

[2] Dolmage, Jay. Disability Rhetoric. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2013.

[3] Zhang, Lingling, and Beth Haller. “Consuming Image: How Mass Media Impact the Identity of People with Disabilities.” Communication Quarterly 61.3 (2013): 319-34.

#cwcon: Beyond Afterthought

This is the presentation I’m giving at #cwcon this year (part of i2, “caption, performance, code: composing accessibility across multiple interfaces”).


Given the limited time available in the composition classroom, simply teaching the basics of technologies can feel overwhelming even before we consider the rhetorical production and accessibility of digital texts. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that accessibility is typically included as an additionaltask if acknowledged at all.

When accessibility is addressed, it’s frequently framed within the context of disability and positioned as an accommodation to pre-existing technologies and practices. In this way, accessibility becomes a retrofit rather than a central practice. Jay Dolmage has defined a retrofit as the act of adding a component to an already-built space (20).[1] A classic example is adding a ramp to the back or side of a building, but retrofitting easily transfers beyond physical spaces. For example, if someone publishes a podcast and it’s pointed out to the creator that the podcast is inaccessible to deaf or hard of hearing users, the creator might produce a transcript. This is an example of a retrofit because the accessible component was added on. Stephanie Kerschbaum refers to this phenomenon as “multimodal inhospitality,” which “occurs when the design and production of multimodal texts and environments persistently ignore access except as a retrofit.”[2] We can also imagine this as an accommodation because the transcript now accommodates disabled audiences. Melanie Yergeau argues that retrofitting occurs when we’ve assumed normative bodies as our default audiences and designed our digital texts with those bodies in mind. The production of inaccessible digital texts reproduces ableist assumptions about who we include—and exclude—as our audiences.

Today I want to focus on how practices that are typically used to accommodate digital texts help us make rhetorical choices about how to represent content, voices, and sounds and think critically about how those choices affect real audiences. And though captioning is in the title of our panel, I’m going to focus on transcription, which I think tends to get positioned as the least sexy, most mundane accommodating practice.

There are a lot of benefits to incorporating audio into our digital texts. It allows composers to experiment with voice, sounds, music; to incorporate multiple voices and emphasize dialogue; and to convey certain moods and tones that written text can’t. As Heidi McKee notes in “Sound Matters,” although we’re immersed in sound and it’s a critical communicative mode, we tend to privilege visual design when teaching multimodal assignments (336).[3] If we exclude sound from these discussions, we also exclude critical discussions about the accessibility of sound. So while we should encourage students to think critically about visual design, we should also make sure that sound receives the same careful attention. Kerschbaum warns, “Many multimodal texts exclude disabled audiences because they are not commensurable across multiple modes, thus rendering the text inaccessible.” For example, a text that relies solely on audio—like a podcast—necessitates an accommodating component to be accessible. In most cases, this accommodation is a transcript. Transcripts have more potential than simply an afterthought, though.

I’m going to focus on podcasts, although most of what I’ll discuss can be applied to any texts with audio components. Computers and writing scholars have contributed greatly to scholarship about the potentials of using podcasts in the classroom,[4] and writing center scholars have written about their pedagogical potentials.[5] Although podcasts have been of interest to scholars for almost a decade, there’s a dearth of scholarship on transcription[6]. But if we ask students to produce projects that involve audio, like podcasts, we must also emphasize the accessibility of producing these texts, which may involve transcription.

Podcasts are accessible in the sense that they’re readily available for people to download or stream but are not necessarily accessible in terms of users easily or equally accessing that content. In “Accessible Podcasting,” Sean Zdenek notes that access in podcast discourse is commonly equated with availability.[7] A podcast we can easily access is not necessary accessible to disabled users who may benefit from transcripts, text descriptions, or captions.

There are a number of tools available that, even without much technical experience, users can immediately record and publish podcasts. With this quick, do-it-yourself appeal, taking the time to write transcripts may seem unappealing. However, as Jennifer Bowie notes, requiring students to submit transcripts with their podcasts acknowledges and includes non-hearing audiences or low-vision or blind users who use accessibility software.[8] And in terms of taking too much time, she argues, “Usually students write out transcripts before they start recording the more formal assignments anyway, so it is often little extra work for them to submit these along with podcasts.” At the very least, students often already have something written that they can use to form a richer transcript.

As someone who’s not deaf or hard of hearing, I find podcasts super inaccessible. This may be ironic because I work on This Rhetorical Life, but I don’t listen to podcasts because I don’t process auditory information well and struggle to focus on audio. That’s why I’m grateful at conferences when presenters offer full-text copies or even handouts for their presentations. It’s also why I actively live-tweet at conferences to focus my attention. Making audio accessible, then, is not only important for deaf and hard of hearing audiences but also for people who don’t process or focus on audio well, people in a time crunch for whom skimming a transcript is more useful, or for people with poor internet connections who may have an easier time downloading a PDF than streaming audio. When we imagine that disabled users are the only people who benefit from accessible practices, we conflate accessibility with accommodation.

And while we should pay attention to how transcripts benefit users, it’s also important to consider how transcription can benefit the composers.

When we position transcribing as part of composition—a process of making choices about what content is included and excluded—we shift its purpose from an accommodation to a rhetorical and creative act. Transcription allows us to critically examine the audio elements we value and those we tend to ignore. For example, fillers and silence are not typically elements that are included in a bare-bones transcript intended only to indicate verbal data. The same is true for silence. As Cheryl Glenn has argued, not all silences have rhetorical meaning, but we too often dismiss silence as passive rather than as a “tactical strategy” (xi).[9] She notes that even though the delivery of silence is always the same, “the function of specific acts, states, phenomena of silence—that is, the interpretation by and effect upon other people—varies according to the social-rhetorical context in which it occurs” (9). The indication of silence as [pause] may look the same across transcripts but may have very different discursive meaning. In the podcast I’m going to discuss next, Elaine Richardson’s pauses are filled with many types of meaning. The silence of thinking is much different than the long pauses when reflecting on the violence of black and brown bodies or her memories of being a sex worker. If we transcribe only to communicate dialogue, though, these non-verbal “fillers” are silenced.

“A One-Woman Show with Elaine Richardson”

So I want to focus now on an activity that I used in a composition pedagogy graduate class to highlight some of the many rhetorical choices involved with transcription.

We began by playing the first 1.5 minutes of the Elaine Richardson podcast. When I asked what people had observed as important, they referenced many of the things I expected: the spoken dialogue, particular words that were emphasized, and who was speaking. Students also reported that they had used italics, caps, and asterisks to try to indicate shifts in tone. Perhaps more surprising—or less standard in a transcript—were suggestions about how to indicate temporal shifts of voices layered on top of each other, which gave us an opportunity to discuss the limitations of trying to preserve content across different media.

When asked what was left out of their observations, one student remarked that she was unsure whether or not to represent the Black Vernacular English of the speakers. I chose this clip because it’s playful and performative; it includes long pauses, snaps, and hands hitting the table; and the speakers dip in and out of BVE as they engage with each other. This created space to discuss audience (How would different audiences read this representation of voice?) the politics of how we represent voices that are not our own (Is this accurate or ethical representation?), and rhetorical considerations about style.

After discussing these observations, we practiced some actual transcription. Although I think this is a stressful and generally inaccessible in-class activity—unless students can type, use headphones, or listen on their own—I wanted to illustrate the choices and challenges that factor into transcribing even just 30 seconds of audio.

Once I played the clip multiple times, we discussed the similarities and differences across people’s transcripts. I was surprised to hear that no one felt that they had accurately transcribed the audio. I knew that this would be a difficult clip, but I had assumed—maybe because they were graduate students, some of whom transcribe for This Rhetorical Life—that it would be easier for them. However, there were a number of challenges trying to represent particular sounds through text: snaps, claps, “filler” sounds, the emphasis of particular words, screams, time lapses, singing and background noise, tonal shifts, and even editing glitches.


This clip (0:35-01:10) is complex despite its brevity. This is an excerpt from the transcript for TRL, which isn’t perfect but illustrates one method for textually representing this audio:

SD: We had a chance to sit and chat about the George Zimmerman trial, the memoir itself, African American rhetoric, and even RuPaul.

SD: [Chatter] What was I going to say? I guess we can get, get st—

ER: [Chatter] We gon make it happen.

SD: [Chatter] Yeah, we gon make it happen. It’ll be all right.

ER: [Singing] Make it happen.

SD: [Chatter] So is it recording?

ER: [Singing] [claps] I know life can be so tough [snaps] and you feel like [snaps] givin up. [Directed to Seth] You remember that? [Singing] But you must be strong. [claps] Baby, [snaps] just hold on.

SD: Okay, here’s my first question. This is easy. From PHD to PhD—

ER: Oh! So we goin? We rollin?

SD: We been goin!

ER: [Screams] Oh noooo!

SD: We been goin.

ER: Oh no! This is the real beginning. [laughs]


This is an example of horizontal transcription, and we don’t have rules for how we indicate non-verbal data such as laughter or interruptions. Horizontal transcription is what we likely expect from a transcript: dialogue written like a playscript where each person speaks one at a time and, generally, only verbal content is recorded. This method can be limiting, though, because it “communicate[s] what was said, but not when or how or with what intent” (Gilewicz and Thonus 27).[10] Vertical transcription has rules for signifying temporal shifts, silences, and gestural and non-verbal data, which Gilewicz and Thonus argue is more precise for capturing the dynamic nature of a speech act:


((background music))

S: We had a chance to sit and chat to talk about the George Zimmerman trial, the memoir itself, African American rhetoric, and even RuPaul. ((to self)) what was I going to say? I guess we could get, get st…

E: We gon make it happen.

S: Yeah we gon make it happen, it’ll be aight.

E: ((sings)) Make it happen

S:                         [((to C)) so is it recording?

C:                         [((to S)) yeah

E:                                           > > I know life can be so tough ^ ^ and you feel like ^ ^ givin up. ((to S)) You remember that? ((sings)) But you must ^ ^ be strong, > > baby just ^ ^ hold on.

S: Okay here’s my first question. This is easy. From PHD >> to >> PhD

E: Oh! So we goin? We rollin?

S:                                [We been goin!

E: ((screams)) Oh no!

S:                         [We been goin! This is the, this is the…

E:                                                 [Oh no!

C:                                                  [((laughs))

E: This is the real beginning. ((laughs))

C:                                                [((laughs))


Having people transcribe even just 30 seconds of audio made clearer the number of decisions that can factor into transcription, and it raised questions about how we represent time, non-verbal utterances, and voice. For example, we discussed the different ways to represent rollin/rollin’/rolling—each subtly creating a different representation. Rollin’ creates the illusion that something is missing and, thus, isn’t the proper word, whereas rolling is the “standard” representation of the word but is not actually the word Elaine Richardson uses. Even this brief activity allowed us to talk about the different factors that can go into a task as seemingly basic as transcribing. This isn’t to say that this much effort must go into transcribing, nor should it be an activity that shames people for not considering these elements before. Rather, it’s an opportunity to highlight the functional, creative, and rhetorical choices that inform what is traditionally positioned as an accommodating process.

concluding thoughts

When we assign multimodal projects, we need to stress accessibility both in the assignment guidelines and in the evaluation criteria so that it’s clearly an integral part of the process. More than that, though, we need to emphasize accessibility along the way, offering more than a single “day of access” where we talk about the ethics of producing accessible texts. I try to model what I want from students: offering print handouts, posting class notes, captioning any videos that I use or create as examples. By folding accessible practices into our curricula, we emphasize the importance of accessibility as an ethical practice but also as a rhetorical practice. Accessibility can’t be ignored if we want to engage with responsible and ethical digital composing practices as scholars and teachers.



[1] Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggemann. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 14-27. Print.

[2] Yergeau, Melanie, Elizabeth Brewer, Stephanie Kerschbaum, Sushil Oswal, Margaret Price, Michael Salvo, Cynthia Selfe, and Franny Howes. “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Space.” Kairos 18.1 (2013). Web.

[3] McKee, Heidi. “Sound Matters: Notes toward the Analysis and Design of Sound in Multimodal

Webtexts.” Computers and Composition 23 (2006): 335-54. Print.

[4] Bowie “Podcasting in a Writing Class?” and “Rhetorical Roots and Media Future” 2012; Jones 2010; Zdenek 2009; Reid 2008; Dangler, McCorkle, and Barrow 2007; Krause 2006

[5] Cosby and Thompson 2009; Lape 2009; McKinney 2009; Vee, Shapiro, Karls, and Hughes 2009

[6] Bowie 2012; Zdenek 2009; Gilewicz and Thonus 2003

[7] Zdenek, Sean. “Accessible Podcasting: College Students on the Margins in the New Media Classroom.” Computers and Composition Online (Fall 2009). Web.

[8] Bowie, Jennifer L. “Podcasting in a Writing Class? Considering the Possibilities.” Kairos 16.2 (2012).

[9] Glenn, Cheryl. Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2004. Print.

[10] Gilewicz, Magdalena, and Terese Thonus. “Close Vertical Transcription in Writing Center Training and Research.” The Writing Center Journal 24.1 (2003): 25-49. Print.

#cwcon: Accessible Tools, Accessible Methods

This is the 4-minute spiel I’m giving at #cwcon (today! G.9), part of a roundtable titled “Everyday Methods: Tools of the Digital Scholar.”


What tools are available, and what practical and theoretical concerns might inform our assessment or adoption of such tools?

My everyday tools are so commonplace that they hedge on the mundane: Twitter, Google Drive, and the built-in speech-to-text function on my iPhone. They’re worth mentioning, though, because they’re tools that contribute to what the authors of “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces” call an ethics of accessibility, which accounts for the material needs of students and recognizes the need for writing curricula to be respectful of and responsible to difference. This ethic connects not only to our classroom practices but also to the scholarship that we produce and the literacies and technologies that we privilege.

Even in scholarship that advocates for more inclusive modalities and technologies, the focus is often on access. When accessibility is addressed, it’s typically framed within the context of disability and positioned as an accommodation to pre-existing technologies and practices. In this way, accessibility becomes a retrofit rather than a central practice.

Accessibility can’t be ignored, though, if we want to engage with responsible and ethical digital composing practices in our own scholarship and classrooms. So for the next few minutes, I’d like to emphasize the value of the seemingly mundane—the accommodating tools that allow us to transcribe and caption, the speech-to-text apps that allow us to compose in new ways, the technologies and platforms that shift our attention to accessibility.

Accessibility, like literacy, is embodied, dynamic, and full of rhetorical potential. Accessible literate practices—like transcribing and captioning—are opportunities not simply to accommodate texts but to allow students to make choices about how they represent content, voices, and sounds and to think critically about how those choices affect their audience.

Once students have produced their videos, a basic service like Amara allows you to upload videos and assess the accuracy and effectiveness of the automatic captions provided. It’s not the most efficient, but I always use iMovie: manually typing captions, selecting time frames for each, and making decisions about typeface and font styles. Exploring these tools (and others! Windows Movie Maker, Overstream, MAGpie, Google Video) with students foregrounds accessibility as a necessary part of composition and encourages more ethical digital composing.

And this takes me back to an ethics of accessibility and the everyday tools (Twitter, Google Drive, speech-to-text technology) I initially mentioned. I’m going to just rapid-fire explain why they’re useful, specifically for engagement and invention practices.

One way I try to directly address accessibility—and that tech can help—is creating alternative forms of participation. I encourage students to use Twitter to post content relevant to our readings and class discussions, and it makes class more accessible by creating an alternative venue for students to engage and contribute. I also encourage it for collaborative note taking.

Each semester, students sign up to take notes for each class period, and I create a space where they can post them. This past semester, we used Google Drive, which was fun because other students could watch the notes in real-time and pitch in. Because these tools are readily available and familiar, this is an easy way to adapt a common accommodation (note taking) and make it a shared responsibility that not only becomes a class resource but also reinforces the idea that accessible practices benefit all students.

And with that in mind, I’ll end on a tool that’s traditionally been positioned as assistive technology: speech-to-text apps. I frequently talk through ideas using my notes app or even the free DragonSpeak app (which records about 60 seconds of speech). For me, and for many of our students, and maybe even for some of you, writing is difficult and frequently doesn’t take shape in the normative ways that we assume it will.

Speech-to-text technology allows me to tease out ideas whenever they occur, but it also offers a different platform to work through ideas in their developmental stage. I haven’t done this yet, but I’m increasingly interested in using audio to record student feedback and also as an in-class exercise—a speech-driven “free write” that may be more inviting particularly for students who struggle with writing, consider themselves bad writers, or engage with ideas better verbally. (Check out Toau, Capti Narrator, and Voice Dream!)

If we want to be ethical, responsible digital scholars and instructors, we need to address accessibility, and I’d love to hear if there are others ways y’all already do this.