Two People and a Baby: On Accessibility and Literary Publishing

June 26, 2019 § 7 Comments

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Two People and a Baby

By Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter

My fingers manipulate keys, navigating Facebook. Arrowing down, the cursor lands on a picture, and I hear, “Two people and a Baby.” Great, I think, no context. I continue to arrow down, finding another picture. This time, the electronic buzz of my computer’s voice says, “Man in sunglasses.” Again, zero context for me.

Fifteen years ago, I became visually impaired. I transferred my visual understanding of the world into a non-visual medium. To use a computer, I now use a program called JAWS, which is a text-to-speech screenreader. It reads whatever the cursor highlights, allowing me to still do email, Google-search, write and, of course, shop! However, if pictures and graphics are not properly captioned, I have no clue what they are.

Recently, a writer friend spoke about the aesthetic appeal of a literary journal she stumbled upon. It occurred to me that, while I can still envision in my head what visual information looks like, I rarely consider aesthetics. Instead, I look at how accessible an online magazine is; is it compatible with my screenreader? Are pictures and graphics labeled well enough for me to understand their point? The kaleidoscope of a world we are surrounded by has narrowed down to sound and touch for me. When looking at publications, I only consider those that have online access as hard-copy print is not readily accessible for blind people. With online magazines, I care little for how they look visually, wanting easy navigation for my screenreader, affording me the same opportunity to read pieces and study submission guidelines.

Our world is extremely visual. Despite it being the least intimate sense, we place so much importance on sight. Since becoming blind, my life does not feel less than, as if I’m missing out on something. I do have to navigate the world non-visually though, and sometimes it’s made more difficult when accessibility is not a factor. Pictures and graphics in particular can be pesky, uninteresting, not-useful pieces of information if not given captions. Whether social media, Amazon or online publications, undescribed photos hold no appeal for me. Some platforms have created generic captions that interact with screenreaders, but they provide bare-bones details, like if a picture is of a group taken outside, my screenreader will likely say, “Several people in nature.” I have no clue who is in the picture, or what kind of nature scene it is. I don’t need a dissertation on the pic, but, some context and brief detail is good. If posting a photo of you and your baby, JAWS might tell me, “Woman and baby.” I want some extra detail to paint a visual in my head.

I have the ability to discover fonts and formatting in a Word document on my laptop, but JAWS is not able to discern this information online. I appreciate innovative structures and playing with format, but at the end of the day, I don’t think much about this unless I’m aware of it. I can only be made aware if it’s noted somewhere. I have several blind friends who are literary, and like me, they read a broad selection. It’s primarily based upon how accessible and easy to navigate a publication is. Some of us use a screenreader, some use both a screenreader and refreshable Braille, which is a device that connects to a computer, and as the cursor jumps from line-to-line, Braille pops up on the device, allowing you to read in Braille. Placing a caption under pictures and graphics and if necessary, providing a brief description of content if the formatting is experimental is a simple solution. This allows people with visual impairments to have equal access.

As a nonfiction writer, I write about the world, using my experiences to address discrimination, isolation, acceptance, breaking stereotypes, usually in context to disability. As a writer, I participate in classes, retreats, conferences and workshops, and often, we are given very visual exercises. Recently, I was asked to create a visual memory map. Having been sighted for twenty-two years, I can recall visual memories in my mind, but creating them on a piece of paper is difficult. I ended up writing a timeline with descriptions of place instead of drawing a map. This emphasis on the visual is so prevalent in the writing community. While I’m actually still a visual person, constantly creating visuals in my head, and while I think visual references can be great and beneficial for sighted writers, I’m also now in this other world where non-visual means of accessing the world make more sense and are much more helpful. Thinking of non-visual means to achieve writing goals not only includes potential blind writers, but is a good sensory exercise for all writers.

Inclusion and equality for all is a big topic these days. However, disability is usually missing from the discussion. It’s not always intentional, we just need more education about accessibility. As the artistic community moves forward, as the world moves forward, we need to consider accessibility, making disabled people an active part of the conversation. Often, it doesn’t take much to make information accessible, but it has to be considered, then implemented. I want to work with the writing community to bring attention to this issue and help create resolutions. The world is a better place when inclusion involves all of our voices.
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Bridgit Kuenning-Pollpeter has her BFA and MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska Omaha. She is currently working on a graduate certificate in nonfiction writing. Her work has appeared in 13th Floor, Breath and Shadow, The Omaha World Herald, Misbehaving Nebraskans and Emerging Nebraska Writers. She was a finalist for the McKenna fellowship. She lives in Omaha with her husband and two sons who provide endless material for her writing, when they give her the time. She tells us that she “recently joined a Crossfit cult. I mean class!”

Staging an (Accessible) Online Reading: A Step-By-Step Guide

May 22, 2017 § 16 Comments

zz_sonyaBy Sonya Huber

The typical literary reading presents an obstacle course for many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses. From finding transportation and parking to staying up late to navigating stairs and chairs, every decision involves stress and difficulty. My recent essay collection, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays From a Nervous System, deals with the twists and turns of living with chronic pain, and I knew that I needed to find ways to connect with people with chronic pain. I was surprised to find that an online reading was easy and fun, and I believe this is something other authors can easily do to extend their own audiences and make literary readings more accessible.

My first foray into online readings was through a Facebook Live Event. I hadn’t seen this done before so I kind of winged it, and in the end I think it turned out very well.  I know that I will hardly ever in my life have 345 people watching me read at a bookstore, so even though I couldn’t see their faces, I could see little hearts and thumbs-up icons floating past the screen along with comments as I read. And within a few days after the reading, the video had been viewed over 1,200 times—a number that warms any creative writer’s heart. I believe that jumping into online “broadcast” can help to get ourselves out there and share our work with wider audiences, so here’s how I did it:

  1. Choose your platform. My options were Facebook or YouTube, and I chose Facebook because I have more contact with friends and followers there, but I think there are arguments for both platforms. The one argument against Instagram as a live video service is that it does not support captioning.
  2. I picked a day and time to host the “live” event and made a Facebook event for the reading. Since the reading was going to be on my personal page, I put a link to my personal page on the event itself along with information about what I would be reading from. I chose an afternoon time on a weekend because some groups of people with disabilities and chronic illness have their best energy before evening, so late events are usually not ideal.
  3. I worried that no one would come and that I was going to pioneer a new kind of bad idea on live video. I was grouchy with anticipatory embarrassment.
  4. I investigated how to caption a video and whether I could download this video. I learned that it seems complicated at first but then, once you become comfortable, it’s very possible and even easy. Captioning is important to allow access to people who want to engage with the reading but who are d/Deaf. Captioned video often comes with a separate text file called a SubRip or “srt” file, and I briefly dove into learning about that but then I learned that for basic applications like this, it’s not necessary to understand.
  5. I ran a test “live video” reading that was about half a minute on my Facebook profile so I could play around with the file (first learning that I couldn’t go live because of some browser preference, so that was good to know). After fixing my browser, I recorded a bit of me talking live by pressing the “Go Live” button. I learned that by clicking on the video itself so that it was the only thing on my screen, and then clicking the three dots in the upper right of the video, I could download the file as an mp4. Great! I also learned through extensive Googling that Facebook offers a new valuable service in which videos published to a Page (not a personal profile) would have an option to use automatic voice-recognition captioning. Yay! I have an author page, so I figured I’d upload the file and use the captioning in the Page itself to caption the video.
  6. I uploaded my “test” file (about 30 seconds of me talking) to my page. After I hit “Publish,” and the thing was uploaded and processed, I had the option to go back and “edit” the post. When I hit “edit,” there was a “captions” option that included a button to “Generate.” (I paused for a bit of joy because I was so excited.) I hit the button, and YES! Captions! I scrolled through and edited the captions where Facebook interpreted by nasal speech to nonsense, which was super-easy.
  7. The day of my reading, I was JUST AS NERVOUS as an in-person reading. That was interesting. Doing this also fulfilled a childhood fantasy of being a news anchor. I think many people might not have been nervous doing this as I was, but I am old-school enough that Skype and FaceTime both make me want to throw up for some reason (like… you can’t actually make eye contact with people.) Nevertheless this didn’t feel as weird as those platforms, and I happily couldn’t see anyone’s face beside my own. I read, and people watched, and then they typed questions in the comment field that I could answer. I answered some of them, and I sort of rushed those because I was self-conscious, but overall I think the whole thing went well, and I said, “I love you” a lot. The best part was feeling really immediately connected to a lot of friends. It was intense!
  8. I said goodbye and did a celebratory adrenaline lap around the house and ate some chocolate.
  9. Later after I’d calmed down, I downloaded the file and tried to upload it into my page to work on the captions. THERE WERE NO CAPTIONS, or rather, no option to generate them. This was super-annoying. After some more Googling, I learned that Facebook will only do captions (I think for longer files) for pages that are “verified.” I went on a tangent trying to prove that I am a real “business” and uploaded some tax forms and in general got frustrated. This part still hasn’t resolved yet, and I ended up getting rejected. I think you need an official listed phone number connected to your business, so universities would probably fit that bill. Anyway, whatever, Mark Zuckerberg.
  10. Then I turned to YouTube. It’s very worthwhile to set up your own YouTube account so you can upload content. YouTube saved the day. I uploaded the mp4 file to YouTube, and then I panicked because someone online had said that captioning was available, but once again it was not there.
  11. I paused for despair, but it turns out that this pause was functional. While I was despairing, YouTube was processing my file. The option for YouTube to generate captions doesn’t show up immediately, especially with a longer file. I went back to YouTube and after Googling some how-to’s, I figured out how to see the captions: go into the “Video Manager,” then edit the file, then click on the last option at the top menu bar, “Subtitles/CC.” The captions show up. If you click on “English (Automatic)” that is the rough version of your captions, and then you have to re-save your corrected version. Google a how-to if you’re nervous about this.
  12. I scrolled through the captions, correcting and punctuating. It was really easy. Then I published!
  13. I am inordinately proud of the captions that showed up beneath me, which you can see here (if the captions don’t show right away, hover over the bottom of the screen and click the CC button):

  1. That is completely and utterly it. Because I did this at home with wifi and my computer, the video quality is so much better than anytime I have been filmed giving a reading. I was actually surprised at how easy this was. Doing this can be considered literary citizenship work aimed at broadening and diversifying our audiences. If you are interested in other resources for making your literary and other events accessible, you can look at this collection-in-progress of accessibility resources gathered and curated by Action Together Southeastern Massachusetts.
  2. My son watched the first two seconds of the video and made fun of how much of a nerd I am, because really: who starts their online reading with “Woohooo!” and two index fingers in the air? Me, that’s who.

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Sonya Huber is irrepressible. Additionally, she has written many wonderful books and also teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.

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