disability and kairotic spaces





A dark photo of rounded glass (bright orange)  entering a kiln
stephanie kerschbaum » modality


Stephanie KerschbaumStephanie Kerschbaum
University of Delaware

To start the process of conceptualizing an ethical infrastructure for rhetoric and composition studies, in this section I highlight the multimodal inhospitality of many of the kairotic spaces that Price introduces in the previous section, on space and presence. These kairotic spaces include both face-to-face and online interactions as individuals move in environments that have social, intellectual, and professional consequences for them.

To illuminate what I am calling multimodal inhospitality, I here offer three critiques:

These critiques and their implications urge us to create multimodal environments with an eye towards broader access and presence. Such work can cultivate greater inclusivity within our profession and our classrooms. The kairotic spaces discussed here all highlight moments where multimodality, as it is typically valorized in talk about digital environments, instead renders those environments inaccessible.

The definition of multimodality used in this essay includes both multimodal texts and multimodal environments. Multimodal texts use a variety of semiotic resources that aim to activate multiple senses (most often those of sight and hearing); multimodal environments entail multiple channels and interactional resources that, taken together, convey meaning. For example, many social media sites constitute multimodal environments that ebb and flow in real-time using a rich variety of communicative tools and resources. Not all interactions within multimodal environments constitute kairotic spaces. However, many of the kairotic spaces people experience in academe draw from or are influenced by people’s access to and use of the communicative resources within multimodal environments.

Thus, when considering the experience of moving within the kairotic spaces of the academy—moments when, as Price explains, "knowledge is produced and power is exchanged"—it is important to consider the ways that multimodal texts function as well as the ways that multiple channels of communication occur simultaneously within a multimodal environment. While many of us celebrate multimodal richness, when considered from a disability perspective, multimodality can be a problem rather than an asset. That is to say, multimodal texts and environments can frustrate participants’ ability to effectively engage within a variety of kairotic spaces. This situation results in what I call multimodal inhospitality.

Multimodal inhospitality occurs when the design and production of multimodal texts and environments persistently ignore access except as a retrofit. Retrofits are problematic because they tend to be added on only after complaints are lodged and determined to be legitimate. Indeed, in many cases, access issues are addressed only after legal action is taken (see e.g., Ellis & Kent, 2011). Retrofits are also problematic because they do not change the culture of access within digital environments. When texts or spaces—including web pages, library resources, and learning environments—are inaccessible, they impact disabled people’s participation in kairotic spaces, and, as Sushil Oswal points out, access after the fact is not true accessibility.

In order to transform the reactive dimensions of providing access, considerations of multimodality should take up how texts are designed as well as how they can be modified by users. Those who design and produce multimodal texts and environments need to incorporate redundancy across multiple channels in order to make digital texts more—not less—flexible, and they should enable customization and manipulation of these texts by readers.