My Everest: The University of Michigan Press

I am a blind professor of disability studies and literature. I teach at Syracuse University. I’m now 60 years old though on the day I was born in 1955 I wasn’t expected to live more than a few hours. In fact my identical twin brother died straight away. We were premature babies in small town America.

In general terms I think anyone who pretends disability is easy is dishonest. In the blindness world, which is heavily impacted by charity narratives, we have countless stories of heroic and strenuous accomplishments. I love accomplishments. And though it’s not fashionable, I appreciate inspirational journeys. I loved Sir Francis Chichester’s story of sailing around the world alone and I love all accounts of successful mountain climbs. When Eric Weihenmayer  climbed Mt. Everest I cheered. Please note: I didn’t cheer because Weihenmayer was blind. I simply applaud all persons who live as if it matters.

Displacement narratives of stamina and disability which are designed to inspire the non-disabled trouble the bejeezus out of me. This is because ordinary blindness, the daily “living with it” blindness, is often dreadful.

One way blindness remains grim concerns the ongoing and considerable difficulty of acquiring accessible books. As a blind scholar I must say this is my Mt. Everest. Getting ahold of books I can read is not only difficult, it’s often nearly impossible. When the “i” word enters into disability land, it means more often than not, that inaccessibility is essentially part of the built environment.

Consider my recent experiences. I’ve been trying to access new books about disability from the University of Michigan’s press. In order to read one of their ebooks on an iPad (or iPhone) their website directs you to download an application called “Blue Fire Reader”. It turns out to be inaccessible to the iPad’s screen reader which is called VoiceOver.

Reading deeply on the U of Michigan press’ website you’re instructed that you can read their ebooks with a different application called Adobe Digital Reader. I downloaded it. It also doesn’t work. Next I tried importing the books to other apps including Evernote, Goodreader, and even various cloud apps. No dice.

The only way I can read a Michigan book is on a desktop computer. So, yes, it can be done. I can sit in an upright chair at my desk and listen to a book and I’m glad to be able to do so.

But you wouldn’t know this from the Michigan web site. In fact, there’s no accessibility information of any value on their site, and moreover, they make the experience of attempting to read one of their books nearly impossible.

I find it ironic that a press which publishes books on disability and culture has so little expertise in making its scholarly publications easy to read for blind researchers. But they are not alone. Try reading online journals or downloading articles from major academic websites. You will find its a jungle out there.

My own theory about this is that higher education still treats disability as a mandated form of service provision—accordingly they see it only as a student affairs issue. True accessibility is seldom imagined as an important facet of knowledge delivery.

Books are my Everest. I’m still at base camp one.

 

2 thoughts on “My Everest: The University of Michigan Press

  1. Dear Charles:

    I’m gratified by your response. Trust me, I admire your press. Moreover, I’m mindful this accessibility issue is played out across academia. Your willingness to take this on is a matter of leadership and I applaud you and your team. I’ll write a blog post about this.

    Steve

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  2. Professor Kuusisto, thank you for your thoughtful post. I am commenting as Director of University of Michigan Press. While we do try and make our books available in a variety of ebook formats (including Kindle and Kobo editions in addition to ePDF, in DRM-free versions on Project Muse as well as in DRM-included formats), we are very aware that we have more to do in making our works more widely accessible. As part of the University of Michigan Library, we are particularly sensitive to the needs of a diversity of users and our disability studies editor, LeAnn Fields, has recently been involved in the recruitment of an Accessibility Specialist for the Library who will be working with us on exactly the issues you raise. This blog post comes at a particularly valuable time, as did the recent open letter/guidelines to publishers written by our author Professor Lennard Davis and his colleagues in June. Please know that we are actively working on the issue and hope to provide a better service to both our authors and readers soon.

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