The publishing industry caters to a nondisabled readership, erasing the work of disabled authors.

This is what Clare Mullaney will posit in the manuscript of A Word Made Flesh: Disabled Authorship and Editorship in U.S. Literary Culture when she submits it this summer. The Clemson University assistant professor is an expert in disability studies and focuses on 19th- and 20th-century texts to reveal how editors might retain marks of authors’ impairments or access needs from the page.

“It’s a book that thinks about books. How do disabled people read and write in ways that challenge the forms books traditionally take?” Mullaney asked. “I interrogate the book as an object that makes assumptions about the bodies and minds of the people who sit down to write and read it.”

Hellen Keller feels sign language from a book collaborator holding a page of the manuscript. Another collaborator is nearby.

Readers of Midstream: My Later Life (1929) will never know the multimedia through which Helen Keller’s autobiography was composed. The deafblind American icon would write sections of the book on a typewriter and create Braille marks on the top of the page with a hairpin to include a tactile summary of each page. Her collaborators, Polly Thompson and Nella Braddy Henney, would then reread the sections back to her through the manual alphabet. Keller would sign changes back to them. 

When the book was published in print — and only available in Braille via request — these collaborative practices were erased. Editors might privilege Keller’s own reliance on touch in a book made readily available for both sighted and nonsighted readers.

“We read a book and think it’s great,” Mullaney said, “but we don’t see the bodily and cognitive labor and material negotiations involved in the process of creating it.”

With a targeted release date in 2027, Mullaney is hopeful her work will contribute to the growing effort to make the publishing world more accessible by recognizing and retaining the labor that authors with disabilities put into a book.

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