Tuning in to Soundwriting

Sound and Access: Attuned to Disability in the Writing Classroom

by Dev K. Bose, Sean Zdenek, Prairie Markussen, Heidi Wallace, & Angelia Giannone

In this chapter, we develop a roadmap (and "soundtrack") for rhetoric and writing teachers that foregrounds questions of access and illustrates how disability can be a transformative, enabling insight for students composing with sound (Brueggemann, 2001, p. 795). We challenge the popular conceptions of access as an add-on or afterthought, a checklist to be completed to ensure legal compliance with web accessibility standards or laws. We consider key concepts in disability studies that resonate with sound studies: ableism, access, Deaf gain, DeafSpace, the social model, universal design, and others. These concepts can be leveraged in the classroom to complicate and broaden students' understanding of audience and access, challenge them to listen agilely (Bull & Back, 2003, p. 3), and teach them to caption and describe media for diverse users in rhetorically informed ways. To apply this framework, we offer examples of how teachers can develop curricula for culturally analyzing captions. Drawing on a handful of films and television shows, we argue that this curriculum can build students' literacy by promoting metacognitive (i.e., self-reflective) awareness.

1. Soundwriting, Retuned

Typically, when scholars write about and compose with sound, they assume an able-bodied subject, a "default user" who can hear and see and move effortlessly through environments and texts that are already attuned to their needs (Yergeau et al., 2013). The default user—and those scholars who appeal, usually automatically, to such a construct—may neither recognize nor appreciate the countless ways in which digital environments are founded on a presumption of normalcy. Writing about sound, scholars tend to inscribe the able-bodied subject in shared experiences of hearing. For example, Deborah A. Kapchan (2017), editor of Theorizing Sound Writing, equated the ability to hear with being human: "There are acoustic limits to what humans can hear, yet much of our sound environment remains mute to our ears simply because we have not been trained to listen to more than a limited range of sonorous events" (p. 4). Kapchan invoked a shared sonic environment ("our" and "we") in which every human can hear. What "we" may lack—the ability to listen deeply or agilely (access Bull & Back, 2003, p. 3)11 In order to avoid relying on metaphors of seeing or hearing, we follow Jay Timothy Dolmage's (2017) convention of using "access" instead of "see" when referring readers to another source (p. 193n1).—is assumed to be correctable. After cleaning their ears of "sludge" through proper training, humans can "regain the talent for clairaudience—clean hearing" (Schafer, 1977, p. 11).

Within a context of presumed normalcy, technology is defined as either normal or assistive. Users with disabilities require special accommodations: screen readers, refreshable braille displays, alt text, captioning, semantic HTML tags, and so on. This binary distinction between "normal" and "assistive" perhaps seems inevitable. But Jason Palmeri (2006) has questioned the "naturalization of conventional ableist technologies," urging instructors to "teach students to view all technologies as assistive" (p. 58). Doing so can call attention to the ways in which so-called normal technologies are not transparent and unmarked but designed to privilege certain bodies and minds over others. The able-bodied audience addressed by normal technology too often leaves another audience—a large and diverse audience with disabilities—ignored, forgotten, or marginalized (cf. Wander, 1984).

When accessibility is viewed as a special accommodation—an add-on, afterthought, legal requirement, or retrofit—it is too often characterized as a burden, something that must be done to comply with the law or a checklist that oversimplifies a complex set of practices for a diverse audience (on "checklistified" approaches to universal design, access Dolmage, 2015). In 2017, the University of California, Berkeley removed twenty thousand audio and video files from public view rather than comply with an order from the Department of Justice to make them accessible to people with disabilities (Straumsheim, 2017). By making the videos private instead of providing universal access in the form of captions and audio descriptions, Berkeley reinforced the normal/assistive binary and gave additional ammunition to those who view web accessibility as a zero-sum game in which access for disabled users comes at the expense of access for able-bodied users.

In this chapter, we offer an intervention in sound studies—a retuning of priorities—from the perspective of disability studies. We question the sometimes ableist assumptions at the heart of sound studies, namely that scholars, and the readers they invoke, share able-bodied experiences and embodiments and that access, when it is recognized as an issue at all, can be addressed after the fact or tacked on from the margins. How can we retune the study of sound for more diverse audiences? How can we challenge or transform audism in scholarly work? What does it mean to start with accessibility, to weave it into our pedagogies and compositions instead of confronting it primarily through the fear of lawsuits and the external pressure of required checklists? Following our retuning of sound studies for rhetoric and composition, we offer a series of case studies centered on our experiences teaching rhetorical captioning processes at the University of Arizona in an undergraduate digital storytelling course, a graduate teacher-training course, and a first-year writing course. Sean Zdenek (he/him) outlines our theoretical framework in terms of four preattunements for sound studies that are grounded in disability studies. Dev Bose (he/him) discusses pedagogical soundwriting considerations and applies them to his graduate teaching-practicum course. Prairie Markussen (she/her) discusses the value of using podcasts and offering audio feedback in her foundational composition courses. Heidi Wallace (she/her) illustrates how podcasts and audio/visual film captioning provide inclusive methods for close reading in the composition classroom. Angelia Giannone (she/her) explores describing and captioning short videos in a digital storytelling classroom.

Our use of transcriptions is a sort of metapractice. In this chapter, we implement classroom practices to reach various kinds of learners and abilities. Similarly, we include screenshots with image descriptions for the sake of having visuals alongside text, in the spirit of technical writing guidelines ensuring accessibility.2 2 Access, for example, General Standard 8 of the Quality Matters (2018) course assessment tool, Accessibility and Usability, which references accessible texts and images and alternative means of access to multimedia content to meet the needs of diverse learners, as well as Cornell University's Engineering Communications Program's (n.d.) Help for Engineering Communication page Captions for Figures in Documents.