Dissertation (May 2015, Texas Tech University) : Eye, ear, hand: Multimodal literacy practices of blind adults

Literacy, in its dominant form of print or digital alphabetic text demands visual engagement, ignoring and negating other senses. Such visual hegemony constrains the literacy practices of individuals who are blind or low vision. Further, braille is considered by many to be the only legitimate form of literacy for people who are blind. A focus on braille, in combination with the visual hegemony of print, negates the audio-based literacy practices used by many people who are blind or low vision. This study explores the literacy practices of adults who are blind or low vision, with particular focus on how study participants use sound to read, write, and understand visual culture.
The study employs a collective case study approach with interviewing and observation as its primary methods. I interviewed twenty-eight adults (ages 20-68); interviews emphasized participants’ literacy life histories and daily literacy activities. Three individuals participated in follow-up interviews and observations, which focused on literacy activities related to specific assistive technologies.
Study participants’ literacy practices are diverse, multimodal, and constrained by assumptions about how literacy should be practiced. The study considers the intersections of literacy, disability, multimodality, and technology in order to elucidate literacy’s modal flexibility and to support the creation and circulation of accessible documents and literacy artifacts.
The exploratory study resulted in three primary findings: (a) modal affordances need to be re-examined from a disability perspective, as current perceptions of modes are limited by ableism; (b) rather than being separate and unique, modes can be flexible and robust, leading to opportunities for flexibility and accessibility; (c) literacy is ultimately about access to and engagement with information; therefore, individual literacy preferences and practices should be respected and supported. Ultimately, I hope that this study demonstrates that blindness and literacy is not an issue of either/ or, braille vs. listening. What matters is that the discourses surrounding literacy  are based on assumptions about
the specific affordances of print and sound. Sound can do things that both print and
braille do. And by saying this, I am not suggesting that sound should replace print or
braille. My argument is not post-literate, unless we take “literate” to mean specifically and only alphabetic print. I am arguing, however, for a more expansive definition of literacy, a multimodal definition of literacy where literacy acts as an interface between individual and culture and that interface can be shaped according to the individual’s abilities and preferences—as visual, tactile or aural. There is not one experience of blindness. Neither is there one experience of literacy. A person’s individual literacy preferences and practices should be respected and supported. We cannot rewrite the history of literacy, but as we discuss technology, as we explore new interfaces for reading and writing we need to not only consider how those technologies change the practices of reading and writing, we need to take ownership, demand the changes that we value. We cannot accept affordances simply as they come or as culture deems to understand them. We must challenge, reshape, and continually question. To paraphrase Simi Linton
(2005), through the lens of disability studies we need to ask, what is literacy and who has decided?

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