App developed by professor to help visually impaired read comics expected to launch in June


Jordan Plowman/ The Sunflower

Darren Defrain, Associate Professor and Director of the Writing Program, reads comic in his office during his down time on Feb, 1.

Professor Darren Defrain often gets asked why visually impaired people would want to read comics. 

His response? Comic books are so engraved in our culture that even if someone hasn’t read every comic, they still know the characters.

Defrain starts his graphic novels course by asking everyone what they know about Wonder Woman. Students go around the room sharing facts they know about the superhero, with every student saying at least one thing. When Defrain asks how many people actually read the comic book, very few people raise their hand. 

“[Comics] are such an important to our culture,” Defrain said. 

That is why Defrain is in the middle of developing an app to assist visually impaired people in reading comics. Back in August, he was rewarded $100,000 from the National Endowment for Humanities.

Now, five months later, the app is expected to launch in June.

“We’re going to be doing a lot of testing between now and June,” Defrain said. “We’re working with two different visually impaired comic book artists, and they’re going to have the first comics up on the site.”

Darren Defrain, Associate Professor and Director of the Writing Program, reads comic in his office during his down time on Feb, 1. (Jordan Plowman/ The Sunflower)

Defrain said at the end of the day, what they really want is that the people who use the app feel their advice is being heard. 

“We’re not trying to prescribe to people who can’t see, like, ‘Oh, this is what’s best for you,’” Defrain said. “But instead we’re getting really strong input in the people we’re testing with [to know] what works for [them].”

With the app expected to launch in a number of months, Defrain said that the team has been focusing on marketing and getting the word out. That’s why graduate student Lara Law got involved.

“We drew Lara in so we could have someone to do that,” Defrain said. “We had a website that was not meeting our threshold for accessibility and so forth, and so we took  that completely down, and Lara’s kind of helping with the redesign of that.”

Law just started this semester and assisted in writing a grant proposal. 

“We just finished that last weekend and that’s been submitted and now it’s just the waiting game,” Law said.

Now, she’s been focusing on ways to get the word out. 

Law took Defrain’s graphic novel class last semester and was intrigued by the conversations they had in that class.

“When we read comic books, we’re not just reading the printed words, we’re also reading the images,” Law said. “How do we read through not just the words but the pictures? Which really intrigued me.”

She said she was interested in the way the brain reacts to comic books and graphic novels, and wanted to be part of a project that could bring that to people who wanted it.

“I know there are people who would love to be able to read comic books who cannot, just in general there is a population of people who would love to interact with comic books in a way that they cannot currently,” Law said. 

The app would be able to be used in classrooms as well.

This app will not start and end in Wichita. Defrain has already heard from people outside of Wichita who are interested in being involved.

“We actually had a big library in Philadelphia reach out to us, they have a huge collection of movie posters and they want to make sure all that stuff is fully accessible, we’re interested in working with them as well,” Defrain said.

“So it’s going in some other directions, and we’re pretty pumped about that too.”