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Aiming for Access

June Behrmann

June Behrmann is a longtime special education teacher (pre-K to grade 6) who retired for about two seconds, and is now prospecting for accessible instructional resources. Follow June on Twitter @aimnoncat. Thank you to AIM-VA: Accessible Instructional Materials for sharing this blog with us.

El Deafo: Virginia Author-Illustrator Turns Her Use of an Assistive Technology Device into a Strength

February 2, 2015

Students who use a device to support their access to the curriculum often struggle because assistive technology (AT) can make them feel different from their peers.

Devices as strengths

In this podcast, heard on NPR last December, Virginia children's book author-illustrator Cece Bell explains that her listening device made her feel different from her classmates. However, her story as told in El Deafo, shows that what once set her apart from her peers evolved into a strength—actually, into a superpower.

El Deafo, is written with people as rabbits and text as speech bubbles. Her assistive technology (AT) is as much a star of the book as her characters.

Bell's hearing loss when she was age four resulted from meningitis. To access her instruction at school she used a Phonic Ear listening device that was "big and bulky." This worked with a teacher's microphone that amplified the instructor so Bell could hear. When the teacher left the device on, Bell could hear everything, even her teacher's visits to the bathroom and flushing toilets. The experience was empowering, she said, like the powers of actor Bruce Wayne during the 1970's. He used devices on his belt to transform himself into Batman.

Superhero with AT

El Deafo is her eighth children's book. She reveals the irritations that she experienced when using a device and other needed strategies such as learning to read lips. And, while the story is partially about disability and devices, it is also reveals typical social learnings from finding a true friend and learning to persevere to handling life's ups and downs. "Even though in the book, it seems like at the end of the book that I'm totally cool with it, with having trouble hearing — it took me much, much longer in my life to get to that point," she tells Arun Rath, the weekend host of All Things Considered. "But suddenly I was ready so then I did it," Bell continued. "And I'm kind of glad I waited, because I got a lot more experience as a storyteller with these other books, and I think that made me better ready to do it now."


Bell's book comes in an iBook version with a problem of accessibility for those who use screen readers. The text is locked in speech bubbles. The fixed format precludes readers with print disabilities from reading the book on their own using assistive technology. However, teachers, parents, and librarians can employ read aloud strategies with a buddy or family member as this book has a valuable message about learning.

Thank you to AIM-VA: Accessible Instructional Materials for sharing this blog with our Reading Rockets audience.

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"Wear the old coat and buy the new book." — Austin Phelps