Universal Design for Literature

Tribes in Africa were calling each other way before the invention of any modern means of long-distance or instant communication were invented. However, their technological breakthrough was ignored because of racism and western-centrism. These tribes could have conversations with one another from miles apart in a language spoken by drums and their drummers. Before you could just pick up your phone to check the news or call a friend, these tribes were communicating news of arrivals, warnings, and even jokes with one another by using their drums. This kind of innovation closely resembles a principle that comes from architecture and education. What in the world does architecture have to do with education? They are both the most effective when using universal design. Universal design is when architects consider all types of abilities when they are creating a new building. This leads to fully functional and incorporated wheelchair ramps, elevators, and anything else that may help people who have disabilities navigate the space. You can tell a building hasn’t been built by anyone who’s heard of universal design when there is a rickety wheelchair ramp awkwardly slapped onto it. In education this is called universal design for learning. When writing a lesson plan a teacher can either write a lesson plan for the general population of the classroom and then modify it for students with special needs or write a lesson plan with all students in mind. Often the lesson plan that’s written with the individual students in mind is better for all students, not just those with special needs. 

What does this have to do with talking drums? Well universal design is only just picking up traction because people have a very difficult time thinking about people with disabilities if they don’t have one themself. Why would an architect who doesn’t use a wheelchair think to incorporate a ramp into the design of a building? Furthermore, people often don’t realize that making things accessible for people with disabilities can be useful for everyone. For example, no one expected texting to be popular. Texting was simply a late addition to phones so that people who are deaf could use phones to communicate. Personally, I hate talking on the phone, but I text constantly. I’m not deaf, but this addition to phones is something I use every single day. No one thought that it would be popular because it was originally thought of as something only people who are deaf would use. People who don’t have disabilities have an incredibly hard time realizing that things designed with all types of abilities in mind are usually more effective. Similarly, Europeans “described Africans as ‘primitive’ and ‘animistic’ (Gleick 16) which is why the drum system never caught on anywhere else. People couldn’t see past their racism much like today people have a difficult time seeing past their ableism. 

This affects the world of literature, and especially digital literature, much more than anyone might realize. A huge question people in humanities have today is, where do the humanities fit in this ever-growing technological world? People wonder what’s lost when a book is no longer ink on paper, but they never question what’s gained. With computers, books are more accessible to everyone. Audio books help people who are visually impaired or have a reading disability such as dyslexia access the world of literature easily. Not only are audio books more accessible than something such as braille, people who don’t have a visual impairment or reading disability also enjoy audio books. The ease of access to audio books and furthermore eBooks has sparked a revival of reading. More people can read or listen to books right on their phone. While academics wonder what we’re losing by converting our reading from paper to computer, they don’t realize that this opens the world of literature to a whole group of people who previously weren’t able to access books this easily. Instead of following the lead of the Europeans when faced with the talking drums, humanities academics should take the transfer of books from physical to digital seriously as it invites more people into the conversation. Ignoring what can be gained from literature’s collision with technology would be as foolish as waiting years and years for Morse Code when the talking drums exist as a means of instant communication. Letting racism blind them from all of the technology and culture of Africa was a major mistake made by the world. The same mistake shouldn’t be made when it comes to adapting universal design to literature. Just because texting was made for people who are deaf, doesn’t mean that everyone else doesn’t benefit from it. Similarly, just because audio books benefit people who have visual impairments or reading disabilities doesn’t mean that everyone else can’t also benefit from them.

Switching to universal design in literature may seem like going “directly from the talking drum to the mobile phone, skipping over the intermediate stages” (Gleick 27), but it’s not as far fetched of an idea as it may seem. Just like how the talking drums are not that different from the mobile phone in their goal or level of complexity (while the drums didn’t require the invention of the computer, you don’t have to learn an entirely new language that involves no alphabet to use your cell phone), the traditional form of literature is not that different from a universal design of literature that’s built to include all types of people within its community.

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