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

Margaret Price and Erin Kathleen Bahl

Conclusion: Pedagogy and Other Applications

Read by Margaret. Audio length: 6:31.

We argued in Navigating This Webtext that "access is an interpretive relation between bodies" (Titchkosky, 2011, p. 3), and that adaptive technologies are fundamentally caught up with relations of power, including those that manifest through race, gender, class, and disability. We conclude, then, with a few suggestions for exploring our argument through everyday practice, a crucial aspect of critical access studies (Hamraie, 2017). These suggestions are framed as ideas for the classroom, but they could also be tried out as individual experiments, activities at an institute like Digital Media and Composition (DMAC), or through other relations.

The purpose of these activities is not to make students into objectively excellent describers, but rather to strengthen their (and instructors') rhetorical and critical knowledge by considering AD as part of the composing process. Each activity is easily adaptable across modalities, since it focuses on what students are experiencing, what others are communicating, and what they make of that—not what they see (or hear or otherwise sense) according to some objective standard. In general, we encourage instructors not to treat AD "as a detached, neutral act of translation that functions only as an enabling accommodation" but rather to "regard its multiple functions and contingencies as fertile ground to be explored and utilized" (Kleege & Wallin, 2015).

Activity 1: Participatory Description

Ask students to divide into two groups. Give one group access to an image, while preventing the other group from having access. Georgina Kleege and Scott Wallin (2015) have suggested asking one group to turn away from a screen in the room, after which an image is projected on the screen. They noted that students can take part in this exercise whether they are blind, sighted, or have low vision. After a period of description and interpretation, students reflect together upon what they learned about description through the exercise. As Kleege and Wallin suggested, this exercise can be accompanied by a quick introduction to the history of AD. Margaret and Erin have used this exercise at the DMAC Institute as a precursor to more complex description tasks, such as creating an accessible infographic or video. A fuller overview of this exercise is provided in Kleege and Wallin's (2015) "Audio Description as a Pedagogical Tool."

Activity 2: Exploring Social Media Tools

Ask students to explore the possibilities for description on platforms including Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and any others they use. Possible questions might include the following: Does there seem to be a designed or official path for description? If so, how easy is it to turn on and then use? What audiences are implied or invoked by the tool? How might users modify the tool (or lack thereof) for their own purposes?

Activity 3: Replicating a Study

Meredith Ringel Morris and co-authors (2016) conducted a study that analyzed tweets containing images posted by blind and sighted users. They investigated blind users' experiences on Twitter and also conducted a large-scale analysis of Tweets from over 200 users over a six-month period. Try replicating (with a much smaller sample) part of the study described by Morris et al. For example, using a specific sample of tweets, ask students to analyze those tweets using the following questions: 1. What is the type of image embedded in the tweet? 2. How important is the embedded image to interpreting the meaning of the tweet? 3. Would the text of the accompanying tweet serve as a useful description for the image? (Morris, et al., 2016, p. 7)

Closing Thoughts

We could close with a number of justifications for why it's important to think about description in your and your students' multimodal work. For instance, we could point out that it's a means of expanding literacy for all digital-media composers (Slatin, 2001). We could note that 23.7 million people in the U.S. alone have "some degree of visual impairment" and that descriptions are required by law (3Play Media, 2019). We could make a universal design argument, pointing out that accessible media benefit everyone. We could even argue for diversity as a commodity, citing the American Psychological Association's (1997) assertion that disabled people form a "valuable resource pool" (quoted in Price, 2009).

But we are going to offer you a different justification: Access is an optimistic way of thinking about digital media. This idea of digital optimism comes from Scott DeWitt (2013), who wrote

How do students imagine and generate expectations for the future when they think about writing and writing instruction? And, more importantly, what might student writing and writing instruction look like if we met students' optimism—their imaginations and expectations of the future—in our pedagogies and curricula?

AD is fundamentally optimistic in the space it opens for new forms of composing, new approaches to collaboration, and a deeper understanding of design justice. Like the animals in "The Bremen Town Musicians," readers can explore new possibilities through the way they describe the world around them, and can unleash their own creative, critical potential in crafting the stories they tell.