Interview with Author Anne McGuire on Autism Awareness and Accessibility in Publishing

by Sam Killian on April 18, 2016

Disability studies scholar Anne McGuire’s War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic of Normative Violence takes a critical look at autism awareness campaigns.  Scheduled for publication next month, the book will be the first to follow the Press’s new accessibility guidelines. Below the author discusses her goals for the book and how she worked to ensure its accessibility for readers with print disabilities.

April is Autism Awareness Month. What is the relationship of your book to autism awareness campaigns, and did you have particular audiences in mind when you wrote it?

War on Autism takes a critical look at mainstream autism awareness initiatives. Throughout the book, I really try to think carefully about the question of awareness: what does it mean to be ‘autism aware’ in the contemporary moment? How are we (autistic and non-autistic alike) expected to orient toward autism? How are we meant to understand it?  Mainstream autism awareness today almost always evokes a deficit model of autism. Awareness materials that are circulated by these advocacy organizations typically focus on autism as nothing other than a series of pathological signs and symptoms in need of identification and remediation. War on Autism argues that dominant cultural understandings of autism as some-thing pathological and so as some-thing to “be against” are creating the conditions of possibility that render autistic people more vulnerable to violence. Of course, autistic activists, self-advocates and their allies have long contested such awareness tactics, instead describing autism as a valuable, alternative way of being in and moving through the world. In 2011, as a response to the harmful rhetoric that so often gets circulated throughout the month of April, Paula Durbin-Westby (who was also the indexer for this book) organized the first Autism Acceptance Day and Autism Acceptance Month. These sites contain links to articles and websites that are working to create new and multiple meanings of autism and neurodiversity.

War on Autism is the first book published under the University of Michigan Press’s new accessibility guidelines. When you think about the question of accessibility in publishing, how does it differ from thinking about accessibility in the classroom or at a conference?

 First let me say that I was so proud when I read the announcement that the University of Michigan Press would be the first university press to adopt the accessibility guidelines outlined by a group of disability studies scholars.  I’m particularly thrilled and honoured that War on Autism will be the first of many books published under these new guidelines. Like virtually all accomplishments in the realm of accessibility, I know that accessibility in publishing did not come without the hard labour of people at the press and, of course, without the activism of colleagues in the field of disability studies – Lennard Davis, Catherine Kudlick, Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, Melissa Helquist, Stephen Kuusisto, among others.

Is the way I think about accessibility in publishing different from how I think about accessibility in the classroom or at conferences? Certainly, there are specific accessible practices and techniques that differ as we move from the realm of publishing to that of the classroom or conference. However, in many ways, I don’t think about these spaces as all that different from one another. For me, and I know for many of us teaching and learning in the field of disability studies, accessibility is a political commitment born of a desire to make the world more more habitable for disabled people.

Of course, if accessibility is a political commitment, it’s also a practice. Accessible publishing is a concrete and necessary step toward ensuring accessible pedagogical spaces like classrooms and conferences. You can’t have accessible classrooms without accessible texts. Whether in the classroom, organizing an event or publishing a book, we need to be conscious and creative about adopting practices that work to ensure the presence of disabled people, disability perspectives, knowledge and so on.

War on Autism includes a variety of illustrations that enhance the book’s arguments. How did considerations of accessibility figure into your selection of images and their discussion in the text? Did you have input from people with print disabilities as you worked on making your book accessible, and if so, what did you learn? Do you have advice for others?

My use of images in War on Autism is an attempt to document cultural understandings of autism as these are so ubiquitously reflected in visual culture.   An image or an illustration can be an excellent tool for creating access. Images can be invitational, help the reader to make sense of a textual argument. Of course, visual images can also deny access – to readers with visual impairments, for example.

Despite what it says on the cover, writing this book wasn’t a solo act. The book was written in conversation with a group of friends and scholars in the disability studies community here in Canada and beyond.  Dr. Rod Michalko, in particular, mentored me throughout every stage of writing this book.  It’s not an exaggeration to say that he has listened to every last word of this book, multiple times! I often found myself (a sighted person) orienting to Rod’s blindness during the writing process. In particular, our meetings really influenced the way I came to see and use images. All of the images that appear in the book are described in the text proper. What is more, often the very act of description shaped the content of my analysis. In order to effectively describe an image, I really had to slow down, closely examine the details of the visual materials I was working with.  The relational process of visual description transformed – and I think enriched! – both the form and content of the work itself.

In terms of advice for other authors, I suppose I would echo what many disability studies scholars have said before me.  In order for any access practice – including image description – to be successful, it has to begin with imagining and wanting disabled interlocutors. I think such a desire will inevitably shape writing and thinking to be more inclusive and more critical.

What do you see as the goal of making scholarly work in disability studies, and your book War on Autism in particular, more widely accessible? Are there particular audiences you hope to reach?

The academy has had a long and unfortunate history of producing knowledge about disabled people while at the same time not making that knowledge available to the people most implicated.  It is essential that any work – whether it be in the field of disability studies or beyond – be accessible to the range of scholars and community members who wish to read it.

War on Autism was written in solidarity with the important political, cultural and academic work that is already being done by autistic activists, self-advocates and allies in the neurodiversity community. My hope is that the book will be read by disability activists and scholars as well as mainstream advocates. Above all, I hope that it will be useful: a tool for further understanding and contesting the ways autism violence is normalized in the Contemporary West.

What has your experience been in advocating for accessible practices among your colleagues? Could you share any successful strategies? 

I am very fortunate to be a part of an engaged community of scholars at New College, University of Toronto, who are very interested in thinking about pedagogy.  College instructors, program directors and teaching assistants meet regularly to discuss and reflect on our pedagogical approaches. This has proved to be an ideal space in which to collectively negotiate questions of access and work toward making the university more open and welcoming to more people. Our pedagogy lunches have provided a space for me to discuss disability studies perspectives and theories with colleagues not in the field. They have also given me the opportunity to learn from others about different kinds of access practices.  For example, I’ve learned a lot about the technical side of making information more accessible from our college Librarian, Jeff Newman, who has worked to ensure our online course texts and materials are screen reader friendly.

In her book, The Question of Access, Tanya Titchkosky suggests that access is best conceived of, not as a final end-point, but as an ongoing process.  Good teaching techniques such as describing visual images/text used in power point presentations, or captioning audio materials – these practices are crucial to creating access in higher education. Access has to be about more than a checklist of best practices. I’ve recently received support from the university for a project that makes use of disability studies pedagogies to develop a series of recommendations that I hope will help educators better understand accessibility in the university classroom.  While the project is still in its early stages, I know that access has to begin and end with a commitment to the value of disabled people and disability perspectives.


Anne McGuire is Assistant Professor in the Equity Studies Program at the University of Toronto. Her book War on Autism: On the Cultural Logic of Normative Violence was awarded the inaugural Tobin Siebers Prize for Disability Studies in the Humanities. The book will be released in May.

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