As a kid, I loved nothing more than listening to audiobooks while I played video games or drew in my ridiculous number of journals. The perfect union of some of my favorite activities helped me calm the anxieties I had, even at a young age. But more than that, because of my migraines, I struggled to read, and audiobooks gave me a way to experience books just like any other book nerd.
I remember only a few other kids my age who enjoyed audiobooks, but usually their experience was limited to renting an audiobook at a Cracker Barrel to help their road trip pass along more quickly. So, whenever I tried to talk about my love of audiobooks like Eragon, The Golden Compass, or Alanna: the First Adventure, I just got blank looks and awkward silences.
Fast forward 20 years and audiobooks are more popular than ever before as more and more non-disabled people discover the joy of reading with their ears. Now when I mention audiobooks to my friends, I’m often greeted with the same enthusiasm that I always hoped that I would receive. Audiobook lovers share their audio speed preferences and favorite apps, and Bookstagram users make audiobook templates and tips for taking cute photos of digital audiobooks.
Most of these things I couldn’t have even imagined existing as a kid, and I’m thrilled to see people taking audiobooks more seriously. But while audiobooks continue to grow in popularity, there still remains a lack of awareness that audiobooks are, first and foremost, an accessibility tool. Conversations around audiobooks continue to center non-disabled people and their experiences with their reading preferences rather than disabled people and our reading needs.
I recently came across an article about how audiobooks have grown in popularity with students during the pandemic. The article goes on to discuss the use of audiobooks as an educational tool and whether or not teachers should count audiobooks as “real” reading for their classes. The subheading stuck out to me: “The use of audiobooks has grown among kids, but the question persists: Does listening to an audiobook qualify as ‘reading?’”
While I appreciate this discussion in regards to education and think teachers may find audiobooks a useful tool in their classrooms, articles about using audiobooks in education often assume non-disabled students as the default. Would articles like this still be written this way if people thought about audiobooks as first and foremost an accessibility tool rather than a trendy new media format?
Recently in an article in The New York Times, Shira Ovide used audiobooks as just one example of how disability drives innovation by inspiring people to think of creative ways to find accommodations for their disabilities. Audiobooks exist because disabled people needed them to help us adapt to a society not built for us. Audiobooks are an example of disabled folks’ ingenuity and persistence in creating a space for ourselves, in this case in the bookish world.
I’m exhausted by the continued debate on whether or not audiobooks “count” as reading. We’ve been having this conversation for decades now, and the only reason the question of whether or not audiobooks count as reading has persisted for so long is because non-disabled people keep insisting on asking it.
Every other week or so, I’ll scroll through social media and see a post by a creator giving the sassy response, “Of course audiobooks count as reading!” While this is well intended, good allyship is more than just saying, “Of course audiobooks count as reading!” Good allyship confronts the system that legitimizes questions like “Do audiobooks count?” in the first place. After all, we’re not asking for a seat at the table. This entire time, we’ve been asking you to remember that we invited you to sit at ours.