Great Power, Great Responsibility: Accessible Pedagogy for Teaching Comics

Great Power, Great Responsibility:Accessible Pedagogy for Teaching Comics

Written by Amanda Athon with Art by Joe Hemmerling

Written by Amanda Athonwith Art by Joe Hemmerling

Disability Rhetorics and Comics

This project was first designed as a webtext. The webtext features an opening splash page presenting three main sections: Disability Rhetorics and Comics, illustrated with a young superhero in outer space whose ring shines light on the Americans with Disabilities Act; a second section, Accessibility Strategies, with illustrative text and nonlinear blocks; and the final section, Inclusive Teaching of Visual Media, featuring the same superhero shining a flashlight down stairs in the graphic style of an early 1950s comic, featuring a comic tagline, "Uncover the secrets of accessibility." Each image is cropped and used as a heading for the three sections. This audio companion is intended to present the ideas in multiple modalities.

Attention to visual literacy and graphic literature has greatly increased in the field of rhetoric and composition. However, the comics industry has fallen behind in terms of attention to access for readers. This webtext discusses how writing faculty can make their visual course content—comics, in particular—more inclusive while fostering discussion of disability studies and access in the classroom. This section, Disability Rhetorics and Comics, discusses relevant scholarship in the field of comics and rhetoric and grounds the need for access. The section Accessibility Strategies provides various ways that instructors might teach comics to diversify classroom discussion and activities, and the final section, Inclusive Teaching, ends with a discussion of specific ideas and examples to use in a writing classroom. The navigational structure allows readers to move through the piece at their own pace with each independent section exploring accessible multimodality in the writing classroom. The Home, Next, and Back buttons at the bottom of each page allow readers to flip pages to mimic reading a comic.

The audio companion is intended to serve those seeking an alternate modality, similar to the comics discussed in this piece.

Comics are an engaging way to discuss multimodality, but instructors need informed pedagogies for teaching comics inclusively; the content of comics can also help bring up classroom discussions of access and difference. As Jonathan Alexander and Elizabeth Losh (2014) pointed out in their blog post on teaching comics, comics have the potential to not be seen as serious enough to tackle difficult subjects. Yet, comics can make students feel more at ease to discuss difficult subjects because the medium seems less intimidating than traditional texts. As evidence of this, popular comics such as Cece Bell's (2014) Newbery winner El Deafo center on themes related to disability, proving there is substantial interest and need for texts that explore disability.

Access and Visual Literature

Still, comics are typically a visual medium, and this can create rigidity and inaccessibility for students. Colleges and universities are required as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to make course materials—including comics or visual literature—accessible. The U.S. Department of Education defines ADA-related accessibility as:

a person with a disability is afforded the opportunity to acquire the same information, engage in the same interactions, and enjoy the same services as a person without a disability in an equally effective and equally integrated manner, with substantially equivalent ease of use. The person with a disability must be able to obtain the information as fully, equally, and independently as a person without a disability. (United States Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, 2013, emphasis added)

Yet, ADA compliance is often left to the administrative level, and the university may suggest alternative assignments rather than the pedagogy designed by the instructor. In contrast, the growing field of disability studies has encouraged a shift toward viewing disability as difference, where this difference is, according to Stephanie Kerschbaum (2012), "a relation between two individuals that is predicated upon their separateness [… that] reveals the lived experience of difference" (p. 624). This difference is rhetorical because it emphasizes the relationship between speaker, writer, and audience and the situated nature of a given classroom activity; it also acknowledges that disability is a shifting, permeable identity and can be invisible. Pedagogy is inherently rhetorical. Thus, faculty can make access the norm for all students rather than accommodating individual students. This piece explores access as an opportunity and the ways that more accessible teaching—in this case, visual literature in higher education settings—can benefit all students.

When teaching comics, this means that accessible materials in a variety of modalities—which this text examines in later sections—should be available to all students and can serve as the basis for this discussion of difference, rather than simply accommodating students with a documented disability, leaving the burden of inclusiveness upon the student. In their essay "Moving Beyond Disability 2.0 in Composition Studies," Tara Wood, Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson (2014) wrote that "Disability's presence, like the presence of students with race, class, or gender differences, is not a 'problem' but rather an opportunity to rethink our practices in teaching writing" (p. 148). The authors noted that a common question asked regarding disability in the classroom is, "How can I accommodate everyone?" when a better question is, "How can a classroom community be productively and continually transformed by an orientation of inclusion?" (p. 148). Our teaching thus affords us with opportunities for fostering a space where inclusion is a central tenet of learning. An accessible classroom returns agency to students. In his book Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, Jay Timothy Dolmage (2017) discussed the tendency of universities to engage in "disablism," where a university "negatively constructs both the values and the material circumstances around people with disabilities" (p. 6). To this end, Dolmage echoed calls for online courses, scholarship, and digital work to be presented in an accessible format with graphics described in alt texts and formatted for screen readers. Comics in the classroom should thus be presented in multiple modalities with diverse stories, including race, gender, class, and disability.

Opportunity, Not Absence

James C. Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson's (2001) work in embodied rhetorics revealed that disabilities are often referred to as an absence or defect, and in light of this, they called for an examination of how accommodations can actually foster opportunities for discussion of learning differences and diversity, rather than inhibit them. English is a field that values discussion of purpose and audience, and comics allow for this conversation, particularly of how nonlinear texts and media complicate these ideas. Similarly, Scott Lunsford (2005) argued in "Seeking a Rhetoric of the Rhetoric of Dis/abilities" that there is a silence regarding disability and that this is a type of "hegemony which makes dis/ability invisible" (p. 330). Rather than singling out individual students, developing lesson plans with access as a central theme will benefit the entire classroom community. Margaret E. Weaver (1996), in "Transcending 'Conversing': A Deaf Student in the Writing Center," argued against the idea that the literacy practices of disabled students are somehow deficient and that these students will need to be "pushed" by faculty members (p. 243), as if students aren't already capable and willing to do the work. By creating accessible assignments designed to include all students, and not just some, we can help avoid perpetuating these stereotypes.

Thus, this webtext provides strategies for inclusion with the ultimate goal to provide resources that enable instructors to foster access for all. For example, this webtext uses mixed modality to represent the work that students might do in the first-year writing classroom. While the author primarily focused on text and the illustrator focused on visuals, constant communication and feedback was needed to make the webtext a cohesive piece with a unified and accessible navigational structure. These collaborative conversations are useful in the classroom, as well, when students create webtexts or multimodal pieces. Comics can provide an important focal point for discussion of multimodality, difference, and diversity on many levels. For example, not only is the genre ripe for discussion of what constitutes an accessible modality, comics can also provide another opportunity to integrate texts that focus on disability itself. Shannon Walters (2015) suggested framing discussion of visual art through genre-based concepts such as invention, memory, and delivery. Walters also suggested assigning comics that make disability a central focus to foster conversations about what is "normal," using Alison Bechdel's Fun Home as an example: "When Bechdel reproduces on the page the words, symbols, and images of her experience with OCD, she delivers an approach to multimodality not as representative of a 'normal' way of communicating by a 'normal' composer, but instead explores alternative ways that disability enlivens her approach to composition" (p. 176). These conversations about texts can obviously foster discussion about disability and access in other settings and spaces.

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