I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on San Francisco State University's panel on making comics accessible to blind and low-vision readers. The panel explored various approaches to adapting comics for blind readers that have been tried, as well as a really important thoughtful conversation about what blind readers need and want from a comic. (Read my livetweets of the panel)

Translating such a visually expressive medium to equally expressive nonvisual media poses so many questions. Which nonvisual formats do you use in the first place? Which details are important to convey? How do we avoid cumbersome over-explanations?

I think comics theorist Scott McCloud summed up the question of the night really well:

"Are we adapting the form of comics or the content of comics?"

Blind Readers' Needs and Wants

For me, the most significant part of the panel was when blind advocates Chancey, Josh, and Sky talked about their experience reading adapted comics, and about what blind and low-vision readers need from adaptations of nonvisual mediums.

What struck me the most about this part of the conversation was how all three of these advocates hammered home that there is no one-size-fits-all heuristic for the amount of detail you need to provide readers. Different readers will want different amounts of detail — and that makes sense! Besides, many well-meaning, enthusiastic allies will overdescribe contents, and that can be cluttered and overwhelming.

Chancey described her experience having an interpreter describe comics for her. In her experience, it was incredibly valuable that she could give her interpreter feedback about the level of detail, and the interpreter could adjust accordingly.

Similiarly, any blind or low-vision reader should be able to adjust the level of detail to one that fits their needs. As Josh put it, the level of description should be up to the reader, not the describer.

(As a sidenote, that conversation is causing me to rethink all the alt text I've ever written)

What's Been Tried

Over the years, comics writers and adapters have tried many different approaches for translating comics to nonvisual media. Heck, New York City's Mayor Fiorello La Guardia read comics aloud on the radio in 1945 when the newspapers went on strike.

Many nonvisual adaptations of comics lean on sound, particularly audio descriptions which explain the comic in a very audiobooky way. Some experiments have attempted to convey sensations and comics' spatiality by using virtual with 3D soundscapes, which is just plain rad.

Other approaches lean on tactile solutions — from braille text to raised outlines to more fully 3D-rendered renditions of the comics. Digital approaches leverage tactile approaches, too, in the form of haptic feedback.

Still other approaches focus on providing a wholly textual alternative to the comic, such as providing a paragraph of text that describes the key narrative of, say, a page of the comic. This seems particularly important when you need to convey a clear takeaway, such as instructive comics, but it strikes me as less useful for conveying more artistic works.

There are also approaches in the works such as Comic Book Markup Language, which wasn't mentioned in depth but which I'm absolutely going to be reading up more on.

One app that attempts to solve the problem of varying levels of detail, VizLing, provides three modes of detail to describe comics, which can sort of get at the concerns from earlier:

  • Global narrative: The comic told as more of an audiobook than anything, with a holistic view of the narrative
  • Panel-to-panel: Describes the contents of an individual panel, and provides haptic feedback to let the reader know when they're close to the next panel
  • Free exploration: The reader can navigate around the whole page and interact with its elements as they wish

While I suspect the future will hold more customizability than just these three modes, this seems like a helpful lens for considering different levels of detail for now.

What the Future Holds

At the end of the panel, each of the panelists were asked whether they were optimistic for the future, or whether they foresaw potential pitfalls for accessible adaptations of comics.

Overwhelmingly, the panelists' responses were positive. Tooling and assistive technologies are in a great place. Audio and text descriptions are in a golden age right now, and they enjoy strong community advocacy. Plus, the kids are alright — professors in the multimodality space are seeing that today's students are incredibly empathetic and receptive to accessibility needs.

The one caveat in this bunch was legislation. As it stands right now, legislation is the biggest potential blocker for innovation in this space — namely because copyright can threaten crowdsourcers' abilities to adapt comics and other materials. However, the right legislation can also be accessible comics' greatest boon, by applying pressure on comics distributors to provide accessible experiences.