The physical component of this piece is printed in the main book. There is no audio component.

The ADA-Compliant Elevator of Literature: A Note on The Descriptive Transcript That Accompanies This Issue

by Andrew Leland

When people talk about how accessible a work of literature is, they usually mean how difficult it is to read. The fiction writer Gari Lutz, whose work performs regular feats of aphoristic acrobatics, once wrote that she aspired to compose “narratives of steep verbal topography,” as though her short stories were sheer mountain faces marked with warning signs: experienced climbers only. The novelist Jonathan Franzen has also compared reading challenging fiction to undertaking a mountaineering expedition. In his essay “Mr. Difficult,” he draws a distinction between “Contract” writers, who honor readers’ desire for a pleasurable and entertaining reading experience, and “Status” writers, who are more interested in constructing unscalable edifices of monolithic genius. Franzen describes the alpine effort it took him to read William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, the writer’s famously experimental 968-page first novel—the apotheosis of the Status model of literature. After getting the gist of the book from its first few hundred pages, Franzen writes, “I sat and read the extra seven hundred pages in something like a fugue state, as if planting my feet on a steep slope, climbing.” Difficult reading, for both experimentalists like Lutz and self-appointed Contract writers like Franzen, is a kind of literary ascent, making one’s way not so much through a text as upit, a task that requires incredible strength, stamina, and exertion. The experience isn’t designed to be accessible, any more than the granite monoliths of Yosemite Valley are.

A few years ago, I received an email from a McSweeney’s Quarterly subscriber named Kevin that pushed me to think differently about what makes a work of literature difficult. Kevin had heard a few episodes of the Organist, the McSweeney’s-adjacent podcast I hosted. In later episodes, I’d begun to speak about my experience of progressive vision loss. Kevin, who is also legally blind, and works as a special-ed teacher in Chicago, wrote that he enjoyed hearing about blindness in a McSweeney’s-related venue, but added that it compelled him to get in touch about something he’d been considering for a long time: the dismal state of the accessibility of the Quarterly.

By this he didn’t mean that this journal was publishing too much Lutz or Gaddis or other craggy, mountainous Status fiction—though the frustration and effort that Kevin experiences in his reading life would surpass even those of Jonathan Franzen’s sofa-bound excursions. One of the tools Kevin uses to read is a closed-circuit television. It’s the same technology that security guards use, a large monitor that shows a magnified live feed of whatever its camera is trained on—in Kevin’s case, usually a book. What the average reader finds comfortably legible—say, the 11-point Garamond in which this essay appears in the print version of this issue—looks to Kevin like indecipherable glyphs. But when he lays books on the tray of his CCTV, which bumps the text up several sizes from what appears on the page, each letter becomes about as large as a tangerine: legible.

This is, as you might imagine, an extremely cumbersome, uncomfortable, and slow way to read. There’s no curling up with a book on an ultrasuede sofa module, or cracking it open on the bus. With a CCTV, which has the footprint of a minifridge, Kevin has to be at home, sitting at his desk, his nose pressed to the screen. So he usually prefers listening to books. And if a book doesn’t have a professionally recorded audio version available, Kevin needs to find an accessible digital file, which he then uses a screen reader to read. Screen readers use a synthesized voice, a more verbose cousin of Siri or Alexa, to turn a well-formatted PDF or epub file into a gently robotic audiobook at the touch of a button. But currently, most Quarterly issues are unavailable in audio or digital formats. So Kevin has to go through what he describes as “tedious processes with assistive technology”—reading them on his CCTV, the type blown up to the size of a road sign. He’s a member of a larger category of readers that the Library of Congress calls the “print disabled,” a group that includes readers with even less usable vision than Kevin has, for whom magnifiers like the CCTV are useless, along with readers whose impairments extend beyond blindness. Some people with orthopedic impairments can’t physically hold a book or turn its pages, for example, and there are those with cognitive disabilities, like severe dyslexia, that make reading a page of normal print impossible.

Kevin was attracted to McSweeney’s in part because of our experimental approach to the print form. When I called him, he told me he loved the tactility of McSweeney’s books—as a blind reader, he was especially drawn to the way they felt. He has a shelf of them in his house, which he cherishes. The hardcover of Dave Eggers’s novel A Hologram for the King, for example, “is like—I don’t even know how to describe it,” he told me. “The cover has this really interesting texture to it. I just really like holding it in my hands.” This is a sentiment many sighted readers share, a multisensory appreciation for books—not just the way they look, but the way they feel, the rustle of pages, even their scent. (When I worked at the Believer, readers would write in once a month or so specifically to praise the way the magazine smelled.)

Kevin is also delighted by—and has full access to—the conceptual side of the Quarterly’s design. He has a copy of Issue 17, for instance, which takes the form of a stack of mail bundled together—the issue’s contents appear in envelopes, newspaper circulars, and obscure, made-up journals. It is hard for Kevin to read some of these, particularly the ones that don’t have standard book-style layouts, but he still derives enormous pleasure from the ideathat handling the pamphlets and envelopes gives him: “You can interact with it as an object, at the same time as you’re reading,” he said—even if he wasn’t always the one doing the reading. “I basically have no access to any of the story or the text or anything,” he said of intricately printed matter like some of the features in Issue 17, or most graphic novels. But he still loves them as objects, and relishes the experience of sifting through leaflets and booklets and fold-out posters, “admiring them as tangible things.”

Too often, arts organizations (and, really, most institutions) look at accessibility for disabled people as a burden, a compromise that gets in the way of their primary objective, whatever that may be: teaching classes, building websites, designing buildings, publishing books. McSweeney’s has been guilty of this too: for years, the uncompromising emphasis we put on the aesthetics of the print form led us away from ebooks and digital publishing. As a result, we unwittingly excluded readers like Kevin, who maintained their interest in the books we put out precisely because of that emphasis on the possibilities of the book as art object—even as that emphasis, in a sad irony, excluded them as readers.

But this situation needn’t be as paradoxical or tautological as it sounds. On a very basic, practical level, Kevin’s email was a reminder, a correction: it’s long overdue for McSweeney’s to start making all our Quarterly issues available to print-disabled readers—which we will, beginning with this one. But as we started developing this audio issue, we remembered Kevin’s email, and it made us wonder: Is it possible to make a publication that still revels in the possibilities and pleasures of print, while also allowing print-disabled readers access to the stories and texts themselves? What if we made an issue of the Quarterly that leaned further into this idea of accessibility, of translation and the interplay between mediums, between modalities (the visual, the aural, and the tactile)?

As we began talking through the Audio Issue’s themes—the way spoken and printed language interact and inform each other, and the transformations that happen as language is translated across those mediums and modalities—it seemed clear that accessibility and disability were crucial features of the landscape we were exploring. After all, media access is fundamentally concerned with the interplay between image, sound, and text: a film’s soundtrack is translated into text for closed captions; a book’s illustrations are described in words for a screen reader (or, at least, they ought to be, though this practice is chronically overlooked). But most writers and artists (and their editors) have only recently begun thinking with any seriousness (and in any significant numbers) about this kind of access when imagining the audience for their work. Instead of considering readers exclusively in terms of their preferences and sensitivities, writers are beginning to consider a reader’s possible sensory and cognitive abilities, which will determine—as much as their tastes will—how the work is received.

When artists imagine only one kind of audience, and accessibility is at best an afterthought, it shows. Take, for example, Thomas Heatherwick’s sixteen-story, $150 million structure, Vessel, built in 2019 in Lower Manhattan’s Hudson Yards development. Vessel has 154 flights of stairs, comprising 2,500 individual steps and 80 landings. Heatherwick and the Hudson Yards developers who built Vessel resemble Jonathan Franzen’s caricature of William Gaddis and the other Status writers in “Mr. Difficult.” If people are too lazy (or uncultured) to press their way up to the summit of these monumental works, the structure’s design suggests, then the fault lies at the feet of the public, not the artist. But, as Shannon Finnegan wrote in the documentation for Anti-Stairs Club Lounge, their brilliant artistic response to the project, “from its inception, Vessel has centered the experience of climbing stairs and imagines a public without people unable, unwilling, or uninterested in climbing stairs.” Finnegan created a lounge area in the park at Vessel’s base, offering visitors drinks, snacks, comfortable chairs, and cell phone charging stations. The only catch was, in order to be admitted to the lounge, they had to sign a handwritten, large-print contract stating, “AS LONG AS I LIVE, I WILL NOT GO UP A SINGLE STEP OF THE VESSEL.” That was the price of their solidarity. The ableism of Vessel, as Finnegan and others have pointed out, isn’t remedied by its “ADA-compliant” elevator, which is available only for disabled people, and stops only on levels five, seven, and eight. The elevator separates out the disabled population from everyone else, and, because it doesn’t enable them to experience the central point of the work—climbing stairs—it works as a veiled act of exclusion. Access is about more than shuttling disabled people through a few discrete sections of a work; inclusion requires far more care, thought, and integration.

Image Description

In a sunny, outdoor plaza, Danielle checks into the Anti-Stairs Club Lounge by signing a pledge. They’re seated in a mobility aid that combines a wheelchair and a handbike. In the background, a wheelchair user rolls up to the group, smiling. There are also about a dozen people clustered around, some of which are wearing Anti-Stairs Club Lounge beanies. Photo by Maria Baranova.

We wanted to avoid providing Kevin with the literary equivalent of Vessel’s ADA-compliant elevator—tossing him a poorly formatted website that offered a few of this issue’s stories digitally. We tried to think about access from the project’s inception, both formally and thematically. This is nominally The Audio Issue—and many of the stories included here explore the interplay of sound, image, and text in ways that will create complications for those with sensory or mobility impairments. But the point of accessibility isn’t to limit oneself to working in a medium that is available to everyone, because no such medium exists. Exclusion is inevitable: the audiobook that the blind user enjoys is inaccessible to the Deaf reader, as the on-screen captions are to the blind viewer. Perhaps The Audio Issue itself is a bit of a misnomer—the sounds on the issue’s website aren’t sonic translations of the print stories, or vice versa. More clunkily, but perhaps accurately, we might have called this The Modality Issue—focusing not only on sound, or vision, or even touch, but on the interplay between all those sensory modes of perceiving the world, the various paths we can take through an artwork, whether it’s in sound, text, or print. The works included here by Shayla Lawz and Kate Soper, for instance, play on the way one might experience a text (or a sound) both visually and aurally, exploring the rich terrain that’s uncovered in the slippage between what we see and what we hear. Yvette Janine Jackson’s and Andy Slater’s contributions are both sonic compositions that occupy imaginary worlds, drifting between fiction and music, each audio piece grounded with a parcel of print ephemera they’ve manufactured—newspapers, field notes, correspondence—that lines the sonic space of wild expansiveness and abstraction with the specificity and authority of the archive.

Alongside exploring these ideas around sound and vision, we hoped to make an issue that has all the tangible, tactile pleasures that Kevin admired in Issue 17, but presented in such a way that he wouldn’t have to appreciate them from the outside, like a wheelchair user rolling a foot or two out onto level seven of Vesselbefore quietly rolling back into the elevator. One strategy for making a text accessible to the widest range of people—all the images, all the words, all the audio—is to produce a Descriptive Transcript. This document, which is freely available at, offers a transcription of all the audio for this issue, along with descriptions of all the images, and provides all the issue’s text—from the copyright page straight through to the contributor bios—in a screen reader–accessible format. It also includes plain-language translations of the features for readers with developmental disabilities.

But bringing a work of art from one medium into another is never a simple act of transcription. Transcripts themselves are deceptively complex documents: pinning the spoken word to the page involves decisions about punctuation, spelling, regularizing forms of speech like dialect, eliding the proliferating ums and uhs and [coughs] and [sharp intake of breath]s, the whole meaning-rich grain of the voice in its vocal performance. All translation requires interpretation, adjustment, and invention, as the work of art in one medium is remade in another. Describing an image for a blind person is likewise far from a neutral act. Consider this stock image I pulled at random from Shutterstock: What would a blind person need to know about it?

Image Description

A white man hurls a laughing blond toddler into a sunny, cloudless sky, with a vista of low, rolling, forested foothills laid out behind them.

Do you say what race you think these people are? Do you describe their clothing? Do you assume this man is the child’s father? Should you describe the expression on the child’s face? If so, how? How much of the landscape do you describe? And what style should your description be? How lyrical, how literal, how detailed? How steep a narrative topography should it have? How much opinion or editorializing is allowed? Is the man handsome? Athletic? Is the child cute? Can you tell its gender? What about the composition? Does the blind reader need to know that the man faces away from us at a three-quarters angle, and the child faces toward us at the same angle? In short, what information is important to convey about this image?

Image description—this practice of providing verbal descriptions of images (photographs, films, paintings, and so on) for a blind audience—is an emerging art form, a new kind of translation, with its own rich and developing set of interpretive best practices. (It’s also not without its pitfalls, and its ethical and social hazards are brilliantly explored in John Lee Clark’s essay in this issue, provocatively titled “Against Access.”) It occurred to us that rather than hire an industry professional, we might approach description in this issue as another literary experiment. Instead of viewing the impossibility of an exact translation as a hindrance, making these transcripts and descriptions lesser versions of their original forms, we leaned into the creative possibilities of interpretation, allowing our descriptions to stand alone alongside the images and sounds they represent. Who better to perform this role than those who work language into lifelike shapes professionally—poets and writers? (Shannon Finnegan, the artist who created the Anti-Stairs Club Lounge response to Vessel, has another project, called Alt-Text as Poetry, which provided inspiration for our describers, and is a superb resource for anyone interested in the creative potential of image access.) In our Descriptive Transcript, you’ll find descriptions written by a crew of brilliant writers and poets.

Unlike print, sound is notoriously intangible. A printed page will lay faithfully open and visible (and touchable, and sniffable) on your desk until (so it seems to the sighted reader) the end of time, whereas a sound vanishes as soon as it’s played, making way for the next sound to follow. As the media scholar John Durham Peters has observed (paraphrasing Hegel), this disappearing act is crucial to sound’s existence: if it were otherwise, sounds would hang around indefinitely, piling up into an “unintelligible soup of brown noise.” Listening to a story and reading one in ink print are equally valid ways of consuming literature, but each brings its own conventions, tendencies, and advantages. So, emphatically, there’s no primary or preferred way for you to consume this issue—you may find the Descriptive Transcript just as interesting as the audio, or as the visual material in the box. The sighted, hearing reader can read and listen, listen and gaze, moving between the sonic and printed components of a piece simultaneously or separately. Sensory-disabled and mobility--impaired readers can use the Descriptive Transcript to follow along with the parts of this issue—sonic, visual, tactile—that they can’t access independently. And, crucially, our hope is that non-disabled readers will check out the Descriptive Transcript, too, even if they don’t technically “need” it. The Descriptive Transcript is the only way you can read these image descriptions, some of which are prose poems worthy of publication on their own—the literary equivalents of a wheelchair or a cane with its aura of medical stigma scrubbed away, transformed into an object of inquiry and pleasure in its own right. Able-bodied readers who skip the Descriptive Transcript will be missing out on original writing from excellent writers—and what is literature, anyway, if not artful description, an illuminating verbal adaptation of the messy, multisensory world? Like the celebrated curb-cut effect—by which the slopes cut into sidewalks to allow wheelchair users to independently roll up and down curbs quickly became urban features beloved by parents pushing strollers, elders pulling carts, kids on scooters, and so on—the only way that image description and other accessibility practices will enter the mainstream is if they’re made prominent, ubiquitous, and familiar, like the muted ballgame with closed captions playing in the neighborhood bar.

Finally, in addition to the descriptions of images and sound, and the transcriptions of speech, the Descriptive Transcript includes plain-language versions of all the stories in this issue. Plain language is an emerging practice in accessibility, aiming to include readers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Translating literary text into plain language poses as complex a challenge as writing image descriptions does.

How do you translate a seven-thousand-word short story—one that invents a mythology centered around a fictional stone fruit, the history of racial violence, and a bloodthirsty wolf, with two alternate endings that appear only as audio fiction (Rion Amilcar Scott’s piece in this issue)—into plain language that’s accessible to someone with developmental disabilities? The caricature of the Status writer (and reader) might chafe at the idea of a plain-language translation on its face: Isn’t the whole point of literature its irreducible music, deploying language that the author has already labored to make as plain and clear as they can—and, in some cases, intentionally avoiding plainness, when the pleasurable derangement of the senses is what’s called for? But in the same spirit in which we invited poets and writers to compose image descriptions, we also invited them to write plain-language translations, not to replace any of the works in this issue but to supplement them, offering still another way in for the widest possible range of readers. Some readers with intellectual or developmental disabilities may prefer to read only the original works, or only the plain-language versions, or perhaps both, one after the other. The same is true of non-disabled readers. It’s another experiment, another offering, another path toward the summit of this imperfect vessel.

When you include people with disabilities in your audience, no aesthetic compromise needs to take place. Making an artwork accessible doesn’t mean making it any less challenging, its slopes less steep: it just means that everyone ought to be able to have the chance to rise to the challenge, if they choose to.

Andrew Leland’s book about the strangeness, difficulty, and occasional joy of going blind very slowly is forthcoming from Penguin Press.