Graphic novels and comics for the visually impaired explored in award-winning paper


 Karen Doerksen | composite by DC Brandon

Karen Doerksen | composite by DC Brandon

 By DC Brandon


[dropcap]M[/dropcap]LIS degree candidate Karen Doerksen has a lot to celebrate these days. She just completed the last of her coursework in the Master of Library & Information Studies Program at the University of Alberta where she will graduate this June, and she just received word that she is the winner of the 2013 LITA/Ex Libris Student Writing Award for her work on a paper she completed during her time in the program.

The paper, called ‘A Sight to Be Held: Adapting Comics and Graphic Novels for Visual Impairment’, looks at the vastly under-explored world of using comics and graphic novels as a literacy tool for the visually impaired.  It is due to be published in the Information Technology and Libraries journal (ITAL).

The future librarian argues in her paper that because they can see images and text at the same time, sighted children have a leg-up in terms of their literacy development over visually challenged children.  She wants to call attention to the fact that this needn’t be the case.

Doerksen believes there is evidence to suggest that graphic novels and comics could be evolved into a form where they could help visually impaired students learn how to read faster.

She says research indicates that graphicacy (the ability to understand, use or generate graphic images) is closely related to literacy.

In her paper, she argues that pedagogically, it is sensible to look to graphic novels and comics as the perfect pairing of text and graphics. She sees them as potentially being excellent learning tools for the visually impaired, provided they are reimagined in a way that makes them more accessible.

Currently, there aren’t many successful adaptations to point to.

“I did a brief search across all the libraries in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. I only found five instances of graphic novels or comics that existed in assistive formats,” explains Doerksen.

 “The search wasn’t comprehensive, because what parent is going to be able to search every single library in the country for a comic book? The intent with the search was to try to replicate the approach a visually impaired child’s parent would undertake.”

Doerksen would like to bring attention to this apparent dearth of assistive format titles. She is joined by the National Federation of the Blind, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and a growing volume of researchers.

“Calls for age-appropriate levels of literacy amongst the visually impaired have been around for years, but accessibility to multi-modal learning materials has always been an issue. It is my hope that with advancements in technology we will see the development of some new products.”


Karen Doerksen | photo credit: DC Brandon

Karen Doerksen | photo credit: DC Brandon | Faculty of Education, University of Alberta

How graphic novels and comics can be made accessible to the visually impaired

 Innovative hardware/software combinations



Doerksen points out that, while traditionally, researchers have believed that only 3D representations of pictures would prove useful in enable the visually impaired to understand images, recently—aided by growth in the video game industry—advancements have been made in the haptic feedback and tactile graphic technology fields that are challenging that assertion.

Comic DS, a homebrew comic viewer for the NintendoDS (no word on a 3DS version) may be a precursor to more advanced solutions down the road, solutions that make use of transcribers, screen readers and magnifiers.

Web comics with auditory aids

ohnorobotWebsites like that rely upon volunteer transcribers to create supplementary materials upon request may offer some value to visually impaired readers. Users can access scene descriptions, metadata, character description and text transcripts.


Daredevil #1 cover art by Paolo Rivera

Daredevil #1 cover art by Paolo Rivera

Perhaps as Doerksen points out, the most promising innovation could be a one-off experiment developed for the first issue of Daredevil.

In the web comic, a narrator tells the story as the user moves his or her mouse over different areas of the screen. Assistive technology identifies each link and an audio description of the image is created.

“It is interesting, because the superhero himself is blind. The creators wanted the comic to be accessible to the blind community it references, and created what has been described as an ingenious act of love,” she says.

Listen a reading of Daredevil #1 here


 Worthy of further exploration

Doerksen says the key to any of the above methods proving successful may come down to popularity. Or, in other words: dollars and cents.

“The key here is that we need to stop looking at these alternative forms of creating comics as being intended for the visually impaired. If created with enough imagination, many sighted readers could find great enjoyment in reading in these new formats.”


The full paper will be published in the Information Technology and Libraries journal (ITAL) in the coming months.

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