Disability Studies · Media

Multimodality in Motion: Disability & Kairotic Space

I got bogged down last week trying to get a webtext ready for submission, so this is a late contribution to my annotated bib series. I was so excited for this piece to come out in Kairos and find myself quoting it for one reason or another in almost everything I do.

This is by no means an in-depth summary of each author’s contribution but rather highlights of some of the ideas that I’ve continued to think about for my own practices: ethics, infrastructure, accommodations, and multimodal (in)hospitality.

"Multimodality in Motion: Disability & Kairotic Spaces" index page that features a yellow safety sign of a person being struck by lightning, lists author contributors, and offers two red buttons to move into the text. One reads "Access," and the other reads, "Enter."
“Multimodality in Motion” screenshot // How do we access (enter and engage with) texts?

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The motivation behind access, after all, is not simply that individuals can enter buildings, navigate websites, or get the class notes, for example, but that they can be part of the community. —Elizabeth Brewer

How can we create more accessible and inclusive communities (through our scholarship and through our classroom practices)? How do we design and maintain spaces that give access to students and ideas that have often been excluded?

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In this webtext, the authors explore what multimodal composition can gain from a DS perspective; specifically, how multimodal composing “normalizes and has been normalized by our understanding of the rhetorical triangle.” The central argument of the authors, then, is this: multimodal composition has been touted as a means of being more inclusive and enhancing access—in terms of production and consumptions—but it is undergirded by ableist assumptions about both the composer and the audience of multimodal texts.

In the introduction, Cynthia Selfe and Franny Howes call for instructors to be more cognizant of accessible practices, arguing, “For educators, it is ethically questionable to practice pedagogies and construct spaces that categorically exclude entire classes of people.” An ethics of accessibility, they argue, accounts for the material needs of both students and instructors of composition while also recognizing the need for composition curricula to be responsible for and respectful of difference. This ethic connects not only to our classroom practices—the activities we engage students in and the assignments we assign—but also to the texts that we produce and the literacies that we privilege. In order to engage in an ethics of accessibility, we must interrogate both how we theorize and enact both access and multimodality.

In “Space/Presence,” Margaret Price argues that access cannot be positioned as something that only affects a particular group and that we must critically examine how particular technologies enable and disable access. She also draws attention to kairotic spaces, “the less formal, often unnoticed areas of academe where knowledge is produced and power is exchanged,” in order to prompt us to think about how we may be marking particular student bodies as present/absent in different moments. That is, the technologies (& classroom practices) that we value and define as important for being present in these spaces necessarily marks as absent the bodies who do not or cannot access them. Price writes, “If infrastructures continue to be designed for normate bodyminds, non-normate bodyminds (those that are gendered, classed, raced, disabled in particular ways) will disappear as well.”

When infrastructures are accessible, however, they are often done so retroactively as accommodations.

In the section titled, “Reason,” Melanie Yergeau argues that discourses of access often overlap with discourses of accommodation. Specifically, she argues that our understandings of accommodation place blame on particular bodies and spaces rather than infrastructures and practices. She argues, “To accommodate is to retrofit; it is to assume normative bodies as default and to build spaces and infrastructures around those normative default bodies; it is to deal with deviant bodily and spatial conditions as they bubble out at the seams.” Though not ill-intentioned and certainly not uncommon, the production of inaccessible digital texts combined with retrofitted accommodations creates a dynamic that Yergeau refers to as “an us/them divide between the able-bodied savior-designers and the disabled victim-users.” That is, the production of inaccessible texts reproduces ableist assumptions about the normative default bodies that we imagine as our audiences.

And the process of retrofitting these inaccessible texts, Stephanie Kerschbaum reminds us in “Modality,” does nothing to improve or engage systemic cultures of access that inform the composition and production of digital texts. Indeed, Kerschbaum argues that we often reproduce “multimodal inhospitality,” which “occurs when the design and production of multimodal texts and environments persistently ignore access except as a retrofit.” This can be seen in multimodal texts that do not balance meaning across modes, that are inaccessible, and that cannot be manipulated by users. In these cases, she argues that multimodality becomes a problem rather than an asset and—echoing the larger arguments of the webtext—Kerschbaum urges us to reimagine how we can compose and represent information across multiple modes and be flexible to a diverse range of users and user needs.

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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.

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