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Designing for (Dis)Ability: Children's Books and Blind Readers

August 23, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

From the Three Blind Mice to Mary Ingalls Wilder, blindness remains a rare -- albeit important topic in children’s literature. In the past, many literary representations presented blindness (and disability overall) as a tragedy or even as a public burden. Fortunately, readers can recognize some progress. According to scholar Donna Sayers Adomat, “In the past ten years, literature for children and youth depicts increasingly positive attitudes towards people with disabilities.” Fortunately, in many newer titles, authors feature blind children in school, with friends, and living fulfilled lives. However, most of these children’s books about blind characters are not designed for a blind reader.

I do not write about disability and the publishing industry without precedent. In Dust, Carolyn Steedman describes how bookbinders and papermakers experienced respiratory illnesses in the early ages of the European printing press. The dust from the paper manufacturing process clogged their lungs, a tangible example of how literacy and disability have been materially connected for generations. With children’s books, the bright colors and flat pages are not, in and of themselves, ableist. After all, many children learn best with visual stimulation. According to Maria Popova, “bright, primary colors are most effective for the very young” because young children “tend not to have the language skills to express in words what they are receiving from an image.” Nonetheless, this visual communication evokes harm when children’s books use traditional illustrations to portray blind characters. In producing blind characters for abled readers, authors ostracize blind children who might otherwise find a valuable sense of community in the book.

Children’s literature relies on sight: bright colors, flat pages, full-page illustrations. Most children’s books featuring blind characters do not articulate self-awareness about their design. One book, Lucy’s Picture by Nicola Moon, positions itself as reflective analysis of blindness and literacy. Lucy tries to decide how she should paint a picture for her grandfather. Lucy isn’t convinced by the red, yellow, and blue paints: “they’re not right.” When Lucy asks if she can “stick things on” the page with glue, her teacher says, “You’ll have to move to a different table. There’s not enough room here.” She moves to an empty table in the corner of the room. Lucy closes her eyes and thrusts elbow-deep into a box of fabric and paper scraps, feeling with her eyes closed. Slowly and thoughtfully, Lucy collages materials into a landscape. Lucy spends her recess collecting sand and twigs for her picture. Finally, Lucy cuts her own hair to replicate the fur of her grandfather’s dog. At the end of the story, the reader finds out that the grandfather is blind and his golden retriever a seeing eye dog. “It’s the best picture I have ever seen,” says her grandfather.

Lucy’s Picture breaks ground by critiquing flat pictures and showing how blind readers can “see” texts in tactile ways. The text demonstrates an awareness of the pitfalls of flat images. This analysis provides a valuable springboard from which we can discuss book production and inclusive literacy. However, Lucy’s Picture centers the abled reader. Lucy’s Picture is produced for the Lucys of the world rather than the grandpas, so to speak. Lucy makes “the most beautiful picture” that her grandfather can “see” through the touch and feel components. Nonetheless, the book itself does not make the same multimodal accommodations that Lucy provides her grandfather. Lucy refuses to use red and blue paint because she understands that her grandfather cannot see these colors; they are “not right.” Ironically (and perhaps hypocritically), a reader’s first impression of this book is the bright color splashed across the cover. The children’s book continues to use these bright colors on every page. Lucy uses multimedia elements so her grandfather can touch and “see” her art, but Lucy’s Picture does not make this same use of media elements.

What does it mean to promote a new model of readership, of accomodation in publishing praxis? First, publishers and abled authors must work alongside disabled people to create multisensory alternatives. Menena Cottin’s The Black Book of Colors serves as an example. The text features Braille translations and full spreads of raised images, tangible pictures of leaves and flowers. Like in a colorful children’s book, these full illustrated pages engage the child and set the pace of reading. However, this book foregoes all color. Flowers and grasshoppers come to life under a reader’s fingertips. Even for seeing readers, these raised images are hard to spot with the naked eye. Seeing readers and blind readers alike find more meaning when their hands study the page. By avoiding bright colors, The Black Book of Colors promotes a similar reading experience among blind and seeing readers; children have a moment of kinship when they share this text. Chamari Edirisinhe, Norhidayati Podari, and Adrian David Cheok created a book prototype similar to The Black Book of Colors. In this multisensory experience, each page has English and Braille translations. Certain black pages are adorned with tactile materials, accompanied by sound, and even highlighted with scent. These sensory cues and reader questions all invite young readers to critically engage in the text. On one spread, a reader will touch a tuft of black fur. The text reads, “Alice’s friend is a playful cat. Did you enjoy it?” A book designed for a blind child may look very different than a mainstream picture book. This book rolls out flat like a scroll, the child moving across the room as they touch and read each page. Such a text demonstrates the ways in which abled bias permeate our reading experience, from character stereotyping, illustrations, audience, and even the codex form. Additionally, we can look at pop-up books, touch-and-feel books, and toy or moveable books to provide inspiration for ways in which we can design entertaining books for blind children.

While the history of disability representation has changed for the positive over time, educators, authors, and publishers alike can adopt a better design model for all young readers. By working alongside disabled creators, we can create new texts specifically for -- not just about -- disabled children.

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