The Rhetoric of Description: Embodiment, Power, and Playfulness
in Representations of the Visual

Margaret Price and Erin Kathleen Bahl

Navigating This Webtext

Read by Erin. Audio length: 8:33.

Welcome! At this moment, you may be listening to a screen reader's automated voice. Or you may be visually following a path of words along a horizontal line. Or you may be listening to one of the authors' voices. Perhaps you are reading in some other modality, or a combination of them. We—Erin and Margaret—designed this webtext as capaciously as we could in hopes of ensuring accessibility for every reader. But we also recognize that, since "access is an interpretive relation between bodies" (Titchkosky, 2011, p. 3), the version of access that emerges here will always be partial and co-constructed, always in motion.

The page you're on now, "Navigating This Webtext," offers an account of how this webtext came to be; some notes on language, design, and navigation; and a summary of the content to be found in each section of the webtext.

How This Webtext Came to Be

Erin and Margaret met at The Ohio State University during the 2016 Digital Media and Composition Institute (DMAC), where Erin was Associate Director and Margaret was an attendee. We are everyday users of adaptive technologies, such as real-time captioning and text-to-speech software, and we were both curious about the ways that access moves—such as audio description—may also serve as moments of invention, storytelling, and collaboration. We decided to create a webtext to explore our mutual interests. The emergence of this webtext has spanned several years, two states, professional transitions, and many revisions.

All images were created by the coauthors as vector-art illustrations in Affinity Designer for the purposes of this project. The audio files were recorded on our computers and mobile devices and then edited in Audacity, and the web interface was designed in Atom. Earlier versions included many more decorative images, such as a multi-image map connecting story moments and description dimensions, or whimsical characters peeking out from behind navigation buttons. These image-file juxtapositions of lines and shapes ultimately confused rather than clarified the webtext's organization and created alt text audio clutter when described piece by piece. In this final version, we've included alt text for each image in the HTML as well as the body of the essay, and we've removed all images (such as the isolated character heads) that were potentially thematic but semantically distracting. (As Erin is a designer who thinks primarily in terms of shapes, colors, and spatial layout, developing this webtext posed the transformative challenge of learning to design for clear linear reading-listening experiences alongside engaging visual organization.)

During the design process, we consulted with disabled colleagues, including blind and low-vision colleagues, and ensured those colleagues were paid for their consultations. We are particularly grateful to Georgina Kleege and Elizabeth Sammons, who conducted detailed user tests. We are also grateful to the Kairos editorial staff, who offered helpful reviews; to Ashley Tschakert, for thorough content and design proofreading; and to the staff and attendees of DMAC, where this project was born.

Notes on Language, Design, and Navigation

We use "audio description," abbreviated as AD, to refer to the act of describing visual information for the purposes of communicating it to an audience. Although the term AD implies that description is always delivered in audio mode, it may be presented as written text, and sometimes appears in hybrid or combined form, as when, for example, a museum guide reads aloud from a posted description of a painting. In this webtext, we most commonly refer to AD, unless specific circumstances call for a different term.

There is no agreed-upon term for what we broadly call "AD" (Georgina Kleege, personal communication, July 2, 2021). And there are sometimes good reasons to draw finer distinctions—for example, to distinguish the "audio description" accompanying a film or TV show from the "image description" accompanying a static visual artifact such as a painting. However, after careful deliberation, we decided to use AD as a general term because we wish to follow the practice that has emerged among professional describers, disabled artists, and others with a direct stake in AD. We consulted with blind scholars of visual culture and studied projects led by disabled artists, including "Describing Diversity" by the UK group VocalEyes and the "Audimance" app under development by the ensemble Kinetic Light. Our conclusion is that, for now, "AD" is the most recognizable label across a variety of contexts (not just digital-media studies). Language use around AD will continue evolving, just as other labels—such as "universal design" and "participatory design"—undergo changes and challenges through use.

In the audio version, we've elected to read longer in-text references at the ends of sentences wherever possible. We precede those longer references with the word "reference." Both choices are intended to improve aural usability. For more on aural versus visual scanning, consult Melissa Helquist (2015).

Following Amanda Cachia (2013b), we understand access as a "creative methodology" (p. 260). Therefore, "multimodality" to us is not the sum of various modes, but instead is a negotiation between modes, each offering its own different but equitable path to meaning. (For more on this, visit Kerschbaum on "multimodal inhospitality" in Yergeau et al., 2013.) We have worked to make this webtext as accessible as possible by providing multiple channels for accessing information (including images, text, and audio); by attempting to create a hospitable reading experience through our decisions regarding navigation, background/text color, font type and size, and page margins; and by publishing in an open-access journal. Accessible design is always a work in progress, and we invite readers encountering any barriers in this text to please inform us (email please at: so we can continue to improve its accessibility and learn more for compositions in the future.

Overview of Webtext Sections