Webcomics do so many things right. The way they engage with their audience and the medium of the web. The way they explore issues like gender, diversity, the more adult stuff, and the just plain rude. But there’s still one place webcomics (like pretty much every other web-based enterprise out there) has largely failed to push the envelope – accessibility to the blind and visually impaired.
In the past week, you might have seen the Instagram post by Chris Pratt, where the Guardians of the Galaxy star apologized for some comments that were insensitive to the deaf and hearing-impaired community. Now, being a pop culture troglodyte, I hadn’t heard of this until – predictably – it cycled back around to webcomics. Specifically, a Facebook post where Charles C. Dowd (of asked:
“Saw this story in my feed… Are there examples of audio comics or services out there that could potentially appeal to the visually-impaired?”
The answer, as I found, was: yeeeaaaah…kinda.
When it comes to making webcomics accessible to the blind or visually impaired, there seem to be two main options – transcriptions of the images that can be understood by screen-readers and therefore become accessible to the blind, or straight-up audio descriptions of what is happening in the scenes. Unfortunately, as far as both of these options go, they are far from the norm when it comes to Webcomics.
By far the most common of an uncommon bunch, transcriptions are done by several webcomics out there – It Never Rains by Kari Maaren, Irregular Webcomic/Darths and Droids by David Morgen-Mar and Leftover Soup by Tailsteak (although I don’t think that’s their real name) to name just a few (a more extensive list can be found here). In addition to this, there are a few webcomics where the readers have got on board and taken on transcription roles – such as Randall Munroe’s xkcd and Kris Straub’s Broodhollow (I should note that XKCD has a plugin that allows transcripts to run automatically if using accessibility devices). Overall, though, it seems that webcomics are in the most part content to overlook this simple step (I know mine was, when it was running) whether by ignorance or unthoughtfulness. Which is doubly a shame, as inclusion of transcripts has other benefits besides accessibility.
The other option, audio descriptions, seems to be something practiced by the ‘large, traditional publishing’ community, but not something readily taken up by webcomics. I couldn’t find any webcomics that included audio descriptions of their updates for the blind/visually impaired. There may be a few reasons behind this but the main one is probably time and cost. As we well know, most webcomics are produced by independent or small-time operators, often working day jobs in addition to their creative efforts, and taking the time to do audio descriptions of their work is simply too much to bear.
Even though it doesn’t appear to be an approach embraced by traditional webcomics, there are independent organisations out there who aim to bring comics to the blind or visually impaired, such as ComicsEmpower.com (a version of the website for the sighted can be found here). Although they focus more on traditional styles of comics, EmPower have some great resources for the blind and visually impaired to access, and the narration of the comics they host on the site really bring the pages to life. An interview with their founder, Guy Hasson, can be found here.
Having the chance to explore the issue of accessibility in webcomics over the past few days really opened my eyes (sorry) as to how easily the blind or visually impaired are overlooked when it comes to the web, and the things we create for the web. So what can we do about this? Well, as creators and readers we can always try and do better.
If you’re a creator, why not take the opportunity to look at some of the ways you can increase accessibility to your comics – usually at only a small investment of extra time. As readers, this is a chance to reach out to our favourite creators and share these resources with them, or ask if they can look into increasing their accessibility, or even volunteer to do some transcribing for them. I’m willing to wager the only reason most webcomics don’t already take steps to increase their accessibility, is that they simply haven’t realised they can. As sighted creators, it’s easy to overlook those who don’t have the same level of accessibility to the majority of readers. It’s not malice. It’s not a lack of empathy. It’s simply human nature. But we can do what webcomics do – and be better. Always better.
Do you know any webcomics not listed here, or any regular print comics/other resources that emphasize accessibility for the blind and visually impaired? Do you know anyone who could benefit from webcomics embracing a more inclusive approach? Be sure to let us know in the comments or on Twitter, and until next time – don’t eat the clickbait!
N.B. I’d like to give a special shout-out to Kari Maaren from the award-winning It Never Rains for her help in putting this article together – Kari was kind enough to send me a laundry list of resources and context behind accessibility in webcomics, and if you haven’t checked out her comic already you should definitely head on over now!