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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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The History of -Ess

August 16, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.


-ess (or -esse): from ME -esse < OF < LL -issa < Greek
-Merriam-Webster Online



English borrows words from many languages. One way to identify the origin of a word is to look at the word parts. Today’s blog will outline some details about the suffix -ess (or -esse). When investigating a single morpheme, such as -ess, the dictionary is a good place to start. In this case, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists -ess as a noun suffix which means “female.” In other words, -ess does not mean female by itself, but that when attaching it to a specific noun, that noun becomes gendered. So, instead of steward, we have stewardess, or a female flight attendant, for example. Or instead of host, we have hostess.

The next thing to notice from the dictionary entry is the suffix’s etymology. One of my favorite parts of a dictionary is the line that reads like a math equation. According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the -ess suffix comes from Middle English (ME) -esse, which comes from Old French (OF), which comes from Late Latin (LL), and originates in Greek. However, the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition offers a slight adjustment. The following note changes Old French to “Anglo-French” in this entry. The note explains their reasoning:

“Incorporating material from major scholarly reference works completed in recent years, the etymologies of late Old and Middle English words borrowed from French now apply the label ‘Anglo-French’ (abbreviated AF) to all medieval French words known to have been used in French documents written in Britain before about 1400. This treatment acknowledges that literate English speakers then were typically bilingual or trilingual readers and writers who cultivated distinctive varieties of Latin and French as well as of English, and that words moved easily from one to another of these three languages. The label ‘Anglo-French’ should not be taken to mean that the etymology is attested exclusively in Anglo-French, for in the great majority of cases the word has a cognate form in the continental northern French of Picardy and Normandy or the French of Paris and its surroundings.”

This note alone demonstrates the complexity involved in tracing etymologies. It is often hard to find the date that a word came into English usage as well as the parameters which define a specific language such as Anglo-French or Old French. And though suffixes were common in Old Engish, documents demonstrate that English borrowed this specific suffix from French about a century after the Norman Conquest.

One of the oldest known usages of -ess in English comes from the Ancrene Wisse, which is a Guide for Anchoresses written in the early 13th century. Since the anchoress tradition no longer exists today in the same form, the term has also fallen out of use. However, the Middle English offers insight into the suffix -ess itself.

-Ess is of particular interest to me because what was once so popular has now become almost an anathema. For example, female TV and radio show hosts now prefer host over hostess, because the latter sounds more like someone throwing a party than an official job title. In other words, hostess runs the risk of belittling or demeaning rather than granting respect. Likewise, stewardesses are now flight attendants and actresses prefer actor. (It is interesting to note that the decline of stewardess has also dropped the usage of steward, while actors and hosts remain unchanged.)

Dictionary.com notes that: “Nouns in -ess denoting occupation or profession are rapidly disappearing from American English. Airlines now refer to cabin personnel as flight attendants, not stewards and stewardesses. In the arts, authoress, editress, poetess, sculptress, and similar terms are either rejected or discouraged and almost always replaced by author, editor, poet, sculptor. Nouns in -ess designating the holder of public office are hardly ever encountered in modern American usage. Women holding the office of ambassador, mayor, or governor are referred to by those titles rather than by the older, sex-marked ambassadress, mayoress, or governess. (Governess has developed a special sense in relation to childcare; this use is less common in the U.S. than in Britain.) Among other terms almost never used in modern American English are ancestress, directress, instructress, manageress, oratress, postmistress, and proprietress. If the sex of the performer is not relevant to performance of the task or function, the neutral term in -er or -or is now widely used.”

The suffix -ess demonstrates one of the many, many ways in which language is always changing. -Ess seems to capture the instability of this precise juncture in history which combines women’s rights, Me Too movements and political rhetoric. Our desire for precision, accuracy and political correctness adjusts our speech, whether we notice it or not.

If you are interested in learning more about the history of language, or suffixes, I suggest the following resources (in addition to dictionaries, of course!).

  1. The History of English Podcast on suffixes

  2. The Online Etymology Dictionary

  3. The Dictionary of Prefixes and Suffixes by Manik Joshi

  4. The Ancrene Wisse

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Traces of Bergson

June 21, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Read Lalucq’s full poem from Fortino Sámano here: https://poets.org/poem/fortino-samano

Bergson’s Creative Evolution: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26163/26163-h/26163-h.htm

For our upcoming Quarterly Discussion, we will discuss a selection from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution. I had such a difficult time narrowing down this reading because there are so many wonderful avenues to take. I find his ideas of multiplicity to be very much in our rhetoric today. Since these concepts challenge the reader, today, I wanted to apply them to a contemporary poem which may (or may not) illustrate some of his ideas. Below, I focus on a single poem from Fortino Sámano by Virginie Lalucq which demonstrates, at least to me, the way that perspective alters a thing. This concept aligns with Bergson’s discussions of duration and reality.

I really enjoy how Virginie Lalucq plays with Bergson’s ideas of being and time. In Lalucq’s poetic series on Fortino Sámano, the narrator assumes the persona of Sámano on the day of his execution. Using nothing more than the last surviving photo, she begins a narration of his final thoughts. The poems, however, do not contain his voice any more than they contain the poet’s. Rather, they demonstrate an interplay between reality and perception, vital ideas in Bergson’s theories. In Chapter IV of Creative Evolution, Bergson addresses duration and perception. He suggests that the mind does not invent reality, but reconstructs a portion of it. In fact, reality happens simultaneous to a single perception of reality. This gives rise to the idea of multiplicity. Bergson writes,

“Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition that we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. Consciousness, being in its turn formed on the intellect, sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making. Thus, we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us, and that we have gathered along its course. These alone we retain. And we are right in so doing, while action only is in question. But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming. Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile.” (273)

In her poetry, Virginie Lalucq plays with this idea. The narrator wonders about Sámano and asks, “How can he be absolutely in motion and/ absolutely motionless at the same time?” In other words, why does the photograph appear to be a single, instantaneous image, but in reality is a container for many narratives. The viewer perpetually makes and unmakes the image, adding details, questioning details, and then changing the narrative again. This reflects Bergson’s idea that we perceive only states of becoming, but not becoming in its entirety. This is our attempt to make something concrete out of something much too fluid which in this case is, ironically, a photograph.

Furthermore, the narrator addresses the dilemma of an absolute. The image has become shaded, “snowy,” distorted or unclear. The opacity heightens the enigmatic ending which reads: “From which the snowy/ image: each thing in its place is absolutely in/ motion is absolutely at rest.” The line break indicates a potential definition for image: “each thing in its place is absolutely in.” Generally speaking, the voice indicates that an image contains everything, perhaps even the motion. However, they also note that the motion is at rest, which reiterates the question from the beginning: how can he be simultaneously in motion and motionless? The poem’s structure literally reflects this question by placing four lines above and four lines below the central word: “absolutely?” This word becomes its own line because it is the key to the poem. That it is in the form of a question demonstrates its inability to be pinned down or defined.

This poem is about both becoming and duration. This poem demonstrates multiplicity because without multiplicity the reader (and narrator) would not be able to embody Sámano, to recreate his life from images, to wonder about the details in the photo’s background. In short, the reader moves Sámano because of the mind’s ability to think in terms of multiple realities. Only through the dense stream of reality can one body understand the “traces” left by motionless bodies. I think this poem directly expresses the confusion that one feels in trying to assemble reality, or, in Bergson’s terms, in trying to come to terms with the way that consciousness constructs our duration. It indicates that consciousness “sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making.”

I wonder about the idea of duration and how it plays into our knowledge base, or our constructed world. I want to see more examples of the “radical becoming.” For this reason, and many others, I am excited to discuss Bergson’s ideas in our upcoming Quarterly Discussion. If you would like to join, email asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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Sor Juana's Letter

March 22, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was born Juana Ramírez de Asbaje. Her actual date of birth is unknown, but is thought to be around 1651. At the age of three, she walked to a local school, told the teacher she was five years old, and asked to learn to read and write. Inspired by Juana’s determination the teacher helped her, even though she realized her young age. From that day on, Juana dedicated herself to studying. She became known for her wit, intelligence, and beauty. Despite all odds, her actions and ambition led to an elite education at a time when poor women had very few educational resources.

Juana quickly outgrew the constraints placed on her as an illegitimate child from the small community of San Miguel Nepantla, Mexico. She moved in with an aunt and uncle in Mexico City by the age of eight. There she received formal training from a tutor. She learned languages such as Latin and Nahuatl, and set a rigorous studying regimen for herself. At this time, Mexico was mostly controlled by Spain and maintained a Spanish royalty. Juana caught the attention of the vicereine who immediately asked for her to join their life at court. She so astonished the royals that the Marquis de Mancera invited forty intellectuals (all men) to debate against Juana on different subjects. He writes, “[I]n the manner that a royal galleon might fend off the attacks of a few canoes, so did Juana extricate herself from the questions, arguments, and objections that these many men, each in his specialty, directed to her” (Paz 98). Yet at the height of this royal fame, she decided instead to join a convent. So, at the age of twenty, she entered into the convent of San Jerónimo.

Octavio Paz notes that while Sor Juana embraced many of the characteristics that define the Baroque period and wrote in traditional Baroque forms, she used unique material. Paz describes a style that represented the conflicting emotions of the era such as the desire for instant riches, personal freedom, and a new spiritual kingdom (71). Additionally, Sor Juana was very ambitious. Her poems demonstrate ability and ego. In the book Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers, Nina M. Scott explains some of Sor Juana’s talents. She writes, “From her earliest years Sor Juana was a consummate poet. The baroque was an age splendidly suited to her talents: she loved the play of dialectical opposites, puns and double entendres, labyrinthine syntax and imagery, much of it derived from classical mythology. She was also skilled at all the poetic forms in use at the time and enjoyed showing her mastery of them” (56). It is possible that she entered the convent to avoid marriage, which would make too many demands on her time to allow for studying.

While the vicereine was busy publishing Sor Juana’s material in Mexico and Spain, the church asked her to write about religion. As her fame grew, the church, however, became uncomfortable with Sor Juana’s secular poetry and ‘manly’ aspects (which is how they viewed her religious critiques and opinions). They were uncomfortable with a woman who capably and eloquently criticized the church since theology was thought to be a man’s realm. As a result of her fame and her secular writings, Sor Juana received a notice of censure from “Sister Philotea.” In reality, the Bishop of Puebla penned the letter, but in order to soften the blow he signed his letter “from Sister Philotea.” The actual source was clear to Sor Juana, and to the rest of the convent, however.

Sor Juana replied to his letter with a logical appeal for her situation. Scott explains, “Sor Juana’s famous ‘Reply to Sister Philotea’ is one of the unique documents of the seventeenth century, for it is one of the only ones to record so eloquently a woman’s cry for intellectual freedom” (58). This letter is worth reading solely for the historical content, yet it also speaks to continued struggles for equality today. As part of her defense, Sor Juana explains that God gave her these talents, which she has used on behalf of the good of the church. She defends her continued education and goes even further, asking that all women receive education. Below are a few excerpts from this astounding letter which dates back to 1691 (translated by Nina M. Scott).

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“My studies have not been undertaken to hurt or harm anyone and have principally been so private that I have not even made use of the guidance of a teacher but have relied solely upon myself and my work, for I know that studying publicly in schools is unseemly to a woman’s modesty because of the hazardous familiarity with men and this would be the reason for keeping women from public studies; not delegating a special place for their study is probably because as the Republic has no need of women for the government of magistrates (from which area, for the same reasons of propriety, the former are also excluded), [the state] is not concerned with that of which it has no need, but who has forbidden women to engage in private and individual studies? Have they not a rational soul as men do? Well, then, why cannot a woman profit by the privilege of enlightenment as they do? Is her soul not as able to receive the grace and glory of God as that of a man? Well, then, why should she not be just as capable in matters of information and knowledge which are of less import? What divine revelation, what rule of the Church, what reasonable judgment formulated such a severe law for us women?” (75)

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“If I have read the prophets and secular orators (a lapse of which Saint Jerome himself was guilty), I also read the Holy Doctors and Scripture and cannot deny that to the former I owe countless gifts and rules of good conduct.

“For which Christian will not avoid wrath when confronted by the patience of a pagan Socrates? Who can be ambitious in view of the modesty of the Cynic Diogenes? Who does not praise God in Aristotle’s intelligence? And finally, what Catholic can fail to be astonished when contemplating the sum of moral virtues in all of the pagan philosophers?” (76)

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“Your Reverence wishes that of necessity I should be saved in a state of ignorance, but my beloved Father, can one not accomplish this end and be learned? In the final analysis, for me it is the easier path. Because why should one be led to salvation by the way of ignorance if this is repugnant to one’s nature?

“Is not God as ultimate goodness also ultimate wisdom? Well, then, why should ignorance be more pleasing to Him than learning?

Let Saint Anthony achieve salvation with his holy ignorance and well and good, while Saint Augustine goes by a different path and neither one of the two is wrong.” (76)

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“Has Your Reverence any stake in my betterment by reason of obligation, blood relation, upbringing, Church authority, or anything else?

“If it is pure charity, let it seem charity and have it proceed as such, gently, because exasperating me is not a good way to bring me around, for I do not possess such a servile nature that I will do something when threatened which reason would not persuade me to do; neither would I do for human respect that which I would not do for God, for to give up everything that might give me pleasure – even though it might be very just – is good if I do it to humble myself when I might want to do penance, but it is not when Your Reverence wishes to obtain it by dint of reprimands, and these not in secret as befits paternal correction… but publicly, in front of everyone, where each one reacts to a situation to the extent of his understanding and speaks as he may feel.” (78)

Paz, Octavio. Sor Juana, or, The Traps of Faith. Trans. Margaret Sayers Peden. Harvard, 1988.

Scott, Nina M. Madres del verbo/ Mothers of the Word: Early Spanish American Women Writers. Ed., Trans. Nina M. Scott. University of New Mexico Press, 1999.


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