Currents in Electronic Literacy

Equivalent Alternatives?
Electronic Poetry and Readers with Disabilities

by John Slatin

  1. This issue of Currents is devoted to the poetics of electronic poetry. We offer two new creative works, Deena Larsen's "Sea Whispers" and Marjorie D. Coverley's "Mirror of Simple Annihilated Souls." We also offer two other pieces by the same authors, Coverley's "The White Wall: Re-Framing the Mirror" and Larsen's "What You See Is Not What I See." These texts reflect on the poets' coming-to-terms with our editorial commitment to publishing material that is accessible to readers who have disabilities.

  2. A few words of explanation are in order.

  3. Currents' editorial policy

  4. For some time now, it's been Currents' policy to publish texts that are accessible to readers who have disabilities. To that end, our submission guidelines point authors to the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 1.0" (, published in May 1999 as a formal Recommendation of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) following two years of work by the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

  5. When we began hashing out ideas for an issue about digital poetry and its emerging poetics, we agreed that we should leave this existing editorial policy in place. We would ask poets who expressed an interest in submitting their work to take the steps necessary to ensure that their new poems would be accessible to readers with disabilities. I am one of those readers (I'm blind), so there was a personal and pragmatic reason for raising this concern. But this is not merely a personal issue, nor is the purpose merely utilitarian. As the companion essays by Deena Larsen and Marjorie Coverley clearly indicate, the call for accessibility also raises a number of important aesthetic and political concerns, which deserve serious discussion by serious people. Let the games begin!

    A unique experiment

  6. This is a unique experiment. As far as I know, Currents is the first Web-based literary/scholarly publication to set such expectations. I'm not aware, either, of efforts involving other formats (such as CD-ROM or DVD) to create new works of digital literature that are accessible to people with disabilities.
  7. So I was thrilled when I heard that Coverley and Larsen had taken up the challenge, and we are proud to publish the fruits of their labors. Their companion essays include links to the texts they originally submitted to us, so that our readers may compare them with the transformed documents that emerged through their "wrangling," as Deena Larsen calls it, with the accessibility guidelines--and occasionally with me, as I responded to what they had done, pointing out places where my screenreader and I ran into trouble, offering (probably unwelcome) suggestions, obtruding on the creative processes of autonomous artists.
  8. I know that neither writer is fully satisfied with what she achieved. But in one sense, at least, the experiment has succeeded beyond my imaginings, opening up important insights into the challenges posed by the effort to achieve Web accessibility for people with disabilities.

  9. Wrestling with the accessibility guidelines

  10. That Larsen and Coverley wrestled hard with the accessibility guidelines is evident in intriguing and thoughtful essays that reveal a strong sense of frustration tinged with a certain excitement--o the siren call of what's difficult! The essays, like the poems, are lovely, and I'll leave you to read them for yourself, and to make the appropriate comparisons between the texts they submitted and the texts we've published here. But I do want to address some of the concerns they express and, I hope, make it clear that my--our--goal is to open up new avenues for experimentation and exploration, not to close things down, not to "stifle" expression for the sake of political correctness, as Larsen worries we might.

  11. Retrofitting poetry

  12. The works published in this issue of Currents open a window into the processes and pitfalls of attempting to "retrofit" existing Web sites for accessibility. They also throw into relief a certain habit of mind, a reflex response that I've observed in many other Web-authors faced for the first time with a call for accessibility. Perhaps not surprisingly, both poets appear to have thought first in terms of recuperation, of providing access to existing work rather than creating something new--just as architects and civil engineers are often called upon to retrofit existing buildings or other structures to meet the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. In the end, though, both artists raise questions about how new work might or should address the issue of accessibility.

  13. "Equivalent alternatives"

  14. Both Deena Larsen and Marjorie Coverley are brought up short, at first, by what I've described elsewhere (Slatin, 2001) as the "Prime Directive" of the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines," the demand that authors provide "equivalent alternatives" for all visual and auditory material on the site. Marjorie Coverley quotes the complete text of Checkpoint 1.1, the first of 14 guidelines (each of which has its own checkpoints as well):

    1.1 Provide a text equivalent for every non-text element (e.g., via "alt", "longdesc", or in element content). This includes: images, graphical representations of text (including symbols), image map regions, animations (e.g., animated GIFs), applets and programmatic objects, ASCII art, frames, scripts, images used as list bullets, spacers, graphical buttons, sounds (played with or without user interaction), stand-alone audio files, audio tracks of video, and video. [Priority 1]

  15. This catalog of elements is worthy of Whitman or Marianne Moore, and it's a stopper, with its bland assumption of "equivalence" among image, sound, and text; we'll come back to it later. Deena Larsen doesn't give us much detail, in "What You See Is Not What I See," about the "great deal of wrangling" it took for her to get from "Sea Whispers" as she'd originally conceived and constructed it to a text that is not merely an "accessible version of "Sea Whispers" but a "different poem" altogether. Yet she also is concerned that the call for "equivalence" masks a more disturbing effort to impose a boring sameness on readers' experience, and thus on the texts that engender that experience.
  16. The poem Larsen first sent us was an integral, tightly organized whole depending in crucial ways on the visual quality of a written sign:

    In my "Sea Whispers," . . . undertexts of meaning are conveyed through structure and navigation. The poem itself is embodied in the Japanese kanji, or ideogram, for sea. As you move along [the] outer radical (the drops that mean water), you first feel the sea spray and develop a sense of the dream shore, the outer limits, of the sea. The inner radical (the top line and divided square that means every) can be broken down into man (the top line) and mother (the divided square). I used the man radical to show the search of the horizon--the search for meaning. The mother radical compares our dreams and reality. The whole kanji thus forms the structure, the inner meaning, of the sea. If you cannot see the picture of the kanji and the structure of the piece, then this navigation breaks down entirely . . .

  17. By contrast, the "accessible version" of "Sea Whispers" published here exploits an auditory conceit. Among other things, it takes advantage of the fact that the JAWS screenreader pronounces the asterisk (*) as star to create a new rhythm, a recurrence that punctuates the lines of verse. (See the "Note on accessing the accessible versions," below, for information on how to obtain demo versions of screenreading software.)
  18. Marjorie Coverley provides a more detailed account of her efforts to find viable "equivalents" for individual elements in her design--"Mirror"'s elaborate navigational conceit, images that flicker and dissolve, a musical air from the England of Henry the Eighth:

    … [T]he first job was to survey the image, motion, and sound elements and determine how to replace each of them with a representation in a different medium. The sound was the easiest, so I began with that. But here, immediately, the aesthetic considerations arose. The MIDI sequence for Mirror is a 16th century air from the Court of Henry the 8th. While it was a simple enough matter to provide an explanation of the harpsichord-like sound and the articulated, antique notes, it was less clear that the "text" was in any way an "equivalent." Unless the reader could, in fact, imagine a dark-light melody from five hundred years ago, then the effect of the bright mirror, the cameo of Marguerite of Porete, and the use of manuscript markers such as "Recto" and "Verso" became much less resonant. I began to see, in a way that had not been evident to me previously, that multimedia writing depends on a carefully constructed oscillation between the visual, the aural, and the textual. . . That is, each of the media elements provides a set of sensory suggestions that act in a rhythmic interplay. It wasn't so critical that a reader could actually hear the sound in and of itself, yet the sound acted in concert with other sensory signifiers. The problem I faced in making the sound accessible to the hearing impaired was that the images and text relied upon the sound for completion.

    Technical problems arose, as well. Screen readers, for example, are aural devices, and the reader needs to be able to hear the text read aloud. The music, one media element that visually impaired readers could access and enjoy, interfered with the text reader - so these readers benefit from an easy way to stop the sound. Currently, each of the browsers handles the loading of MIDI files differently, and the creation of a JavaScript that allows manipulation of the sound will not work cross-browser. The solution was to turn the sound down - and even that strategy tended to relegate the sound more to the background, muting the sense of oscillation between aural and visual signifiers. Since, finally, the reader can adjust the sound in a number of ways outside the piece itself (on the bottom Toolbar, or in the Control Panel), a low level of sound was an awkward, but workable, solution.

  19. It is extremely valuable to have these accounts of serious efforts by artists who are skilled in and committed to exploring the creative dimensions of the Web and related technologies. As poets working in digital media, Larsen and Coverley speak from a standpoint that is (to put it mildly) underrepresented in forums like the World Wide Web Consortium. Their statements highlight a fundamental conceptual problem in the way the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative has approached the challenge of making the Web accessible to people with disabilities--a tear in the complex skein of the Web.

  20. The container model

  21. This flaw--which is also a crucial constituent of the Web's success and power--is in the "Guidelines"' unquestioning, tacit acceptance of what John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information (2000) call the "container model" of the Web. This is the idea that the Web document is a neutral "container" or "delivery platform" for "content," which may in turn consist of text, image, sound, video, animation--whatever!--which in turn contains (or delivers) "information" as a cardboard box contains, say, oatmeal, which can be put into a different kind of container (a metal can, a plastic bag, a burlap sack) without giving up its identity as oatmeal. The container model is enshrined in the very title of the document--these are the Web CONTENT Accessibility Guidelines, after all. HTML is a markup language, not a programming or scripting language: the tags' only function is to mark off (or mark up) blocks of "content" so that the browser or other "user agent" can "render" it appropriately.
  22. From the standpoint of accessibility, the problem with the container model of the Web manifests itself in the "granularity" of the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines." Checkpoint 1.1, quoted in full above, insists on "equivalency" at the level of the individual HTML element. There must be an equivalent alternative for every image, every sound, every spacer graphic, every bullet, every button, every whatnot. There is no talk of an informing design, of pattern emerging unpredictably from the interaction of those elements and (re)shaping those interactions.

  23. Accessibility starts at the level of design

  24. But accessibility has to start at the level of design, whence it permeates the whole, informing the artist's decisions at every choice-point, every turn in the quest for beauty (or for that matter, a more utilitarian effectiveness).

  25. The electronic poet's task

  26. The task of the electronic poet is to create the conditions for the richest possible interactive experience--not simply to create a text, however complex or beautiful. Roland Barthes said it beautifully, in a passage I stumbled upon on the Web site of my friend and colleague Samantha Henriette Krukowski's course on the future of narrative (

    Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author. The reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost; a text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.

    --Roland Barthes, Image / Music / Text

  27. This was not about Web accessibility for people with disabilities when Barthes wrote it more than 20 years ago. But that makes it all the more powerful for me now, in this context. The text's unity lies not in its origin but in its destination, and the destination is the reader.

  28. Strange bedfellows

  29. Here, astonishingly, literary theory and Web design and even federal legislation converge, if only for a moment. For in 1998 Congress revised Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 to create accessibility standards for the broad range of electronic and information technologies from fax machines and photocopiers to Web sites. This revised legislation (usually referred to elliptically as "Section 508," as if everyone knew just what that was) says, in effect, that a Web site may be considered accessible when individuals who have disabilities can use it as effectively as individuals who don't have disabilities. In other words, accessibility is a quality of the user/reader's experience, not a property of the Web document. Or, to paraphrase Barthes, the text's accessibility lies not in its origin but in its destination.
  30. This is not an easy thing, and both Marjorie Coverley and Deena Larsen write of the urgent desire and need to experiment, to explore, to push at the limits of the medium and of their own abilities to integrate/cause the appropriate oscillation among stasis and motion, image and text and sound. And both write as if a concern for making their art accessible to people with disabilities must be at odds with that desire and need. Coverley concludes, for example, that

    . . . we have a clear challenge to include as many readers as possible in the future of electronic literature. It may be the case, though, for the present, that equivalency cannot be entirely satisfied by current W3C standards when those are applied to electronic fiction and poetry.

  31. Larsen expresses her concern even more strongly, and then pushes beyond the anxiety to a call for further exploration:

    Electronic poetry is just beginning to explore the vast possibilities in this new [medium]. If we hobble the [medium] by requiring it to provide the same experiences and equal access to all, we will slam the door on an amazing art form--just as much as if we required all paintings to be completely understood by the blind or all symphonies to show their nuances to the deaf. Rather, we can open the doors in both worlds and create works that hold meaning in both the visual and nonvisual worlds. Let's embrace all of the potential for electronic poetry--visual, aural, animation, structure, and more. Let's access everything we can and in every form we can.

  32. Re-re-framing the mirror

  33. So now perhaps we can re-re-frame the mirror (an auditory mirror, an echo--and read Brenda Jo Brueggemann's shocking metaphor of the shattered mirror in her ears, in her "Hearing, with Aids," Currents Spring 2001). For it was in the hope of launching just such explorations as Larsen mentions here that we called upon poets to attempt the accessibility guidelines.
  34. I'd now like to end with some words for the e-poets out there . . .

  35. Accessibility guidelines are not different in kind from other formalisms in other genres

  36. Achieving accessibility absolutely requires imaginative experiments with combinations and oscillations of sound and image and text, video and animation, music and words, spoken and written, in order to create the most beautiful and rich and intense experience for everyone, using every resource the medium affords.
  37. The constraints imposed by the accessibility guidelines are not different in kind from the those imposed by the formalisms artists have been accustomed to: sonnet, villanelle, ode, aubade, syllabic verse, haiku . . . three-point perspective . . . Gothic Revival, Bauhaus . . . But, like these artistic constraints, the accessibility guidelines are also affordances. Any genre, any medium affords its artists a vocabulary with which to work. The Web is no different. Our poets have taken to it with such delight because it extends the traditional repertoire, adding to the poet's tool chest the likes of HTML and JavaScript and Flash, applets and scripts and plug-ins, rollovers and mouseovers and animated GIFs, MIDI and WAV and AVI, to which we now add ALT and LONGDESC, TABINDEX and ACCESSKEY and CSS, audio description and closed captions, SMIL and XML and SVG, RealPlayer and QuickTime and more . . .

  38. Readers' capabilities are poets' resources

  39. But we aren't concerned simply with the medium's technical affordances. If we take the reader actively into account (as both Barthes and the accessibility standards suggest we must), we come to understand that the reader's capabilities are also poets' resources, whether those capabilities are "native" to the reader or extended by prostheses such as screenreaders, voice input, gesture, joystick, and/or mouse. The robot voice of the screenreader (the voices have names--Paul, Reed, Betty, Second Male Voice, Jennifer . . .); its ability (indeed its need) to vocalize text both seen and unseen (ALT text, TITLE attributes attached to IMGs and other elements in the source code but not visible on the screen, for example); the voices of readers/interactors who control their machines by speaking to them; the ability of an eye-tracking system to respond to and in the wink of an eye--these are resources, so far almost completely untapped by artists, for the construction of richly interactive experiences. The goal is not--there is no requirement--to ensure that every reader/user/participant has the same experience as every other reader/user/participant. The goal is to create works that engage each reader/participant in the richest experience of which she or he is capable, using all the resources at the artist's disposal.
  40. Those resources are considerable. Flawed as they are, the "Web Content Accessibility Guidelines" are among those resources: guidelines rather than rules, they support Web-authors, point to issues we might not have thought of (flicker-rate, for example, or the order in which screenreaders treat text in columns, or the difference between server-side image maps and client-side image maps). I'll cite just a few more examples--tools that may allow you to tap into the assistive technologies I've mentioned above while also producing the rich visual and multimedia effects you're eager to exploit and explore.
  41. Flash isn't the only multimedia game in town--consider SMIL, the W3C's Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language. Like Flash, SMIL supports a rich interplay of image and sound and text and animation, including audio descriptions and closed captions for video sequences. In short, SMIL includes built-in support for accessibility, whereas it's difficult if not impossible to make Flash movies accessible (Clark, 2001). Flash isn't the only game in town where vector graphics are concerned, either. You might experiment with Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), another emerging W3C technology that allows complex graphic images to scale up or down on different display devices with far less degradation of image-quality than is commonly the case now. And SVG can do things that Flash hasn't even dreamt of yet. For example, SVG has the added benefit, for accessibility's sake, that the alternative (ALT) text and extended descriptions may be included as part of the image itself--and included as text that screenreaders like JAWS can read!--which opens up some very interesting new possibilities for the interplay of word and image . . . As for rollover buttons, you don't have to give them up, either--just add a couple of new event handlers to your repertoire: to on mouseOver and on mouseOut, you can add onFocus and onBlur and onSelect, handlers that make it possible for people who don't use a mouse or other pointing device to enjoy the same effects that others get when the mouse passes over a button on the screen, or when a mouseclick initiates some more intricate action.

  42. Call for invention

  43. A final note: The Web is what it is--a rich, complex, often infuriating, sometimes wonderful environment--because so many thousands of people, acting sometimes alone and sometimes in deliberate collaboration with others, have put their creative intelligence and their talent to work to make it so. The Web is a continuously self-inventing, self-organizing phenomenon. To make the Web accessible requires the same degree of individual and collective inventiveness, the creative intelligence of many, many people. The creativity and inventiveness of our poets are vital to this effort to expand the Web's potential. We can't do it without you!

  44. A note about accessing the accessible versions of "Sea Whispers" and "Mirror"

  45. If you're interested in hearing what the accessible versions of Larsen's and Coverley's works sound like on a screenreader or talking browser--or if you'd like to experiment with listening to your own compositions--you can download and install the free demo versions of two widely used screenreaders and a talking browser. You can obtain the JAWS screenreader demo from the Freedom Scientific Web site at (This is a 19MB download, so don't try it over a modem line unless you've got all night!) Alternatively, you can try a free demo of IBM's talking Web browser, Home Page Reader, at, or GW-Micro's Window-Eyes, available at

Works Cited

Please cite this article as Currents in Electronic Literacy Fall 2001 (5),