Scholarship

#cwcon16: townhall edition

Computers & … Professional and Technical Writing

Computers and Writing, as a field and in its membership, has always had a strong connection to composition/rhetoric, even while our work has helped to make possible expanded notions of composition and what constitutes “writing” as taught in secondary and higher education contexts. Recently, the C&W community has reached out to the emerging field of digital humanities, hoping to bring our histories and advances to the attention of a potentially allied field whose members primarily come from different academic disciplines and traditions (and thus may not e aware of the depth of research and technology-infused pedagogy that we have built over the past 40 years). This Town Hall seeks to extend our trans-disciplinary networks by identifying connections between the work of Computers and Writing and the fields of Professional and Technical Writing, and the ways that our fields–both situated in writing studies–can both complement and challenge each other’s approaches to both teaching and research.

Accessibility and/in Professional Writing 

Accessibility is often addressed in professional and technical communication discourse, but it’s largely framed within the specific context of disability and positioned as an accommodation or legal requirement rather than a central rhetoric practice.

In Rhetorical Accessability: At the Intersections of Technical Communication and Disability Studies, Lisa Meloncon (2013) argues that with shared commitments to social constructivist views of science and technology and a shared concern with accessibility, “the field of technical communication is perfectly posed to put the theoretical work of disability studies to practice” (5). Though accessibility has been addressed in PW scholarship, we have not critically explored how PW discourses shape and are shaped by social constructions of disability and normalcy (Palmeri, 2006).

However, disability and accessibility are central to discussions of professional writing: web and document design, usability, visual rhetoric, audience.

So how do we craft professional writing curricula that are accessible to a diverse range of students and that incorporate and account for different needs?

First, there are web accessibility technologies that can jumpstart discussions about how different users interact with texts, ranging from testing color schemes through vision simulations of the different types of color-blindness (paletton.com) to free screen readers (WebAnywhere) to hearing simulators (Starkey Hearing Technologies). And of course, WAVE is a useful tool to assess the usability and accessibility of a site. Impairment-specific approaches to accessibility can lead to oversimplifications and generalizations about disability experiences (Walters, 2010), so these tools can supplement discussions of accessibility but shouldn’t be used in isolation of critical discussions about disability and responsible design.

Second, there are useful texts that provide critical, rhetorical awareness of accessibility in relation to PW and design. Horton & Quesenbery’s (2014) A Web for Everyone is a great example of designing accessible user experiences from the start. I paired it with Krug’s (2014) Don’t Make Me Think this past semester, and the authors blend theoretical discussions of accessibility and design with concrete design practices. Ellen Lupton’s (2014) Beautiful Users: Designing for People is also a great example of how to foreground bodies and lived user experiences. Integrating texts like these into our curricula helps to foreground accessible design.

Finally, PW curricula can benefit from DH approaches to accessibility and Universal Design (Williams, 2012) and rhet/comp approaches to accessibility (e.g., Yergeau et al., 2013; Meyer, 2013; Zdenek, 2015). For example, in Debates in the Digital Humanities, George Williams argues, “To embrace accessibility is to focus design efforts on people who are disabled, ensuring that all barriers have been removed. To embrace universal design, by contrast, is to focus ‘not specifically on people with disabilities, but all people’ (Mace)” (204). Although accessibility can assist a disabled user by being more usable, accessibility does not guarantee aesthetic design or affordability, whereas UD weds functionality and design in order to create technologies that can be used by everyone.

From rhet/comp, attention to multimodality can also be a useful place to supplement discussions of accessible design. In “Multimodality in Motion,” Stephanie Kerschbaum argues that when we don’t foreground accessibility as anything more than a legal requirement or as an accommodation, we do nothing to improve or engage systemic cultures of access that inform the composition and production of digital texts. Attention to accessible media—echoed by folks like Jody Shipka, Steph Ceraso, Melanie Yergeau, and Sean Zdenek—can and should inform our PW practice.

Examples of this include writing useful and usable alt text, image descriptions, and captions; captioning or transcribing video and auditory content; using design elements in conjunction with color to emphasize information, and creating flexible interfaces that allow for user manipulation. These are things that we already value when we discuss usability and accessibility, but by providing a more explicit attention to the diverse users who these practices benefit, we can engage students on what it means to be ethical professional writers and designers.

Explicit attention to accessibility gives PW students experience with accessible technologies, engages them in critical conversations about how design normalizes experiences, and asks them to carefully consider how can design dynamic interfaces that are accessible rather than accommodating.

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