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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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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

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

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. Furthermore, she invites all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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What's Your Sign?

January 11, 2019

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

“Let’s listen with our eyes and not just our ears. That would be the ideal.” -Christine Sun Kim

Early exposure to language seems to be the key in all languages. The key to what? Success in that language, or with language in general? Or in society? What is the bar for success and how is it measured? With today’s blog, I want to better understand how language expresses thought, particularly through the lens of sign language.

Most of us have some experience with a young, non-verbal child (your own, someone else’s, or even through movies, etc) in which the child wishes to communicate. Think of the crabby one or two year old demanding something by screaming or crying, body language and/or facial expressions. Also, think of the parents’ joy at their child’s first word. It really is amazing to have these tiny humans mimic words at such a young age. This seems to be proof of an innate desire to communicate with others. Even if it is mimicry at this stage, they come to grasp the idea of language and communication, which still leaves me wondering how far language is learned versus innate. The child simply sees adults talking, or perhaps older siblings, and they want to join. Spoken language has existed for over 60,000 years, making it difficult to differentiate natural from learned behaviors. However, a lot of superb scholarship is currently coming out of sign language due to two facts: a) it is a relatively new language and b) sign language is not linked with verbal language. These differences offer some key insights into how languages act.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), sign language relies upon visual cues alone. It creates language with bodies and space. Though there is an alphabet, it is used mainly for spelling new words or names. While there are a number of popular sign languages, today’s blog focuses mostly on American Sign Language (ASL).

First, let’s start with fingerspelling. This is the process of spelling a new word, such as the name of a person or organization. But it could also be some new piece of information. According to this lesson plan on ASLU, many flowers lack specific signs in ASL. Therefore if you want to say daisy, you would fingerspell D-A-I-S-Y. In further explanation of the utility of fingerspelling, the instructor continues: “How about food? While there are quite a few signs for various food items, there are thousands of types of foods that have no established sign. Hold on to your chair when I tell you this - there isn't even a widely accepted sign for burrito. (As opposed to a burro, which is a small donkey. We do have a sign for "donkey," but try showing a picture of a both a donkey AND a mule to 10 different Deaf people and watch 'em tell you ‘mule is spelled.’) And a mule is a relatively common animal -- don't even get me started on ‘ring-tailed lemurs!’”

Another use of fingerspelling is when you have a common name like John or Bob, you can fingerspell the name, but refer to a particular space in front of you which will equal “Bob” for the rest of the conversation. So, as a shortcut, you can point to that space to indicate Bob, rather than fingerspelling the name each time. There are some instances, however, in which a name does have a particular sign. Think of names like Dawn or Penny. These are somewhat common names which also have a corresponding sign. In this case, you would fingerspell the name to explain that you mean to designate a proper noun and not the concept of dawn, for example.

In fact, names offer such a rich area of study in terms of sign language. There is an entire culture dedicated to naming things in sign language. Names often depend upon a person’s characteristics as decided by the Deaf community. This short video from My Smart Hands gives a little more understanding into how names are assigned.

SignSavvy.com (among others) explains:

“Fingerspelling your name can seem a bit impersonal, especially among friends. So, members of the Deaf community often give each other sign names. Your sign name is often related to something about you (a characteristic). For example, if you have curly hair, your sign name may be a combination of the first letter of your name and the sign for curly hair. Culturally, it is not appropriate to pick your own sign name and only Deaf people assign sign names. When you first use a sign name in a conversation, you would fingerspell the name and then show the sign name. Once the people know who you are talking about, the sign name makes it easier and more personal to refer to the person during the conversation.”

Many cultures have not been able to control their own language due to outside oppression and/or language mixing. While French sign language and ASL do share a common history, today they are distinct languages. Due to the unique nature of the Deaf community, it is not clear (to me, at least) to what extent an outside force could actually affect or alter a particular sign language. (For more on this, check out Nicaraguan Sign Language or the fascinating Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language.) It makes sense that the Deaf community prefers to assign their own signs for names, since much of sign language relies upon a cultural understanding of how to use space, body language and gesture itself. In the same way that typing in all capital letters looks like shouting, some subtle body change (such as pointing, shaking your hand, or raising an eyebrow) may greatly affect the nature of the word that you mean. The artist Christine Sun Kim explains that “In deaf culture, movement contains sound.” (She explains the concept of full-body language in this TedTalk.) Signs can express irony, sarcasm, anger, humor, etc. just as capably as voiced speech. Understanding humor or sarcasm in a second language, however, is one of the greatest challenges of learning a new language.

Due to the way that sign language involves full body language, I find that it is an extremely emotive language. While the Syntopicon does an adequate job of outlining topics related to Language, I find fault that there is not a cross-reference for Language in terms of Emotion. I believe there is much development to be made between the cognitive associations of language making, language preferences, language learning, memory recall and emotion. Since memory and emotion are both contained in the limbic system of our brains , it would make sense to pair language recall with memory and/or emotion. (To Adler’s credit, he does suggest a link between Memory and Imagination). There is room though, I believe, for exploration regarding emotion as it relates to language cognition, use, and development. One other area of great interest to me is the bridge between Language and Art (which Adler does address in the Syntopicon). (For more about the deaf experience in the world of art (and sound), check out artist Christine Sun Kim’s exploration of noise.)

I also wish that there was a cross-reference between Language and Nature. Is language natural? In what way(s) does the early language-learner express a natural tendency to communicate? If the young child desires to communicate, is this concrete evidence that natural language exists, that language is natural to humans? What does it mean to say that language is natural? And finally, what can a developing language such as sign language tell us about language itself?

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