Disability Rhetoric

disabling writing, in a good way

Applications of Disability in Teacher Prep

This latest post comes from Emily Wilson (emwilso@umich.edu), a Ph.D. student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Wilson explains how disability is approached in teacher preparation and includes a link to a unit for teaching the poetry and fiction of disability. Visit Wilson’s site for more information and resources: http://wilsonteacherstuff.wordpress.com/

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev


When I was getting my undergraduate degree in education, I learned the term “mainstream.”  This term referred to the kids who were, supposedly, “normal,” and it came loaded with assumptions regarding race, gender, cultural background, sexuality, and ability.  We had to take a class for children who were considered outside the mainstream, and the name of that class changed every year.  One year it was “students with special needs.”  Then “the exceptional child.” Then “differently abled students.”  We learned how to write lengthy IEPs, how to make accommodations, how to intervene to help those exceptional children.  Many things bothered me about that class, like the strange, tiptoe-ing euphemisms, the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy, the fact that disability was treated like an inconvenience that distracted teachers from the so-called “real work” of teaching.  It wasn’t until 13 years later, when I took Melanie Yergeau’s class, that I realized the problem: my disability studies class was not, in fact, a disability studies class at all.  It was what Simi Linton calls an “applied approach” that focused on disability as a problem to be solved and never turned the lens back on society to ask what we were presuming about bodies and minds that would make accommodation necessary in the first place.  My undergraduate experience is not unique.  Most teachers, if they are taught anything about disability, are taught in purely interventionist terms.  The social, political, and rhetorical implications of disability are never explicitly explored, and ableism is never mentioned.  School can be difficult–even nightmarish–for disabled students. I argue that inadequate teacher preparation is partly to blame.

Some educational scholars are turning a critical eye toward the concept of “normal.”  Kerry Anne Enright argues that there is a need “for a reframing of the notion of mainstream in order to better represent the linguistic and cultural diversity of today’s classrooms.”  It is critical that we broaden the space for engagement with difference in the secondary classroom.  Students need to become aware, in their formative years, of our culture’s discriminatory practices toward disability, and disabled teenagers need to see themselves represented in the curriculum.  It is also important, in framing this discussion of disability, to heed Stephanie Kerschbaum’s warning against turning the study of disability into some kind of “bazaar” where we gawk unreflectively at other people’s difference. Instead, teachers need to facilitate understanding of disability in a way that helps them work with students to create a more equitable society.

Working toward that end, I’ve created a unit plan, consisting of 12 full-length, Common Core-aligned lesson plans to teach the poetry and fiction of disability in the secondary English classroom (wilsonteacherstuff.wordpress.com).  The unit focuses on the novel Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World, by Sabina Berman, as well as a large collection of poems and essays from the marvelous anthology, Beauty is a Verb.  I’ve attempted to move toward something like a universal design in my pedagogical approach, working to make the lesson plans multimodal and widely accessible (I would appreciate feedback on how well I have or have not accomplished that).

I want to give you an example of my approach.

In the first lesson, my objectives are for students to:

  1. Understand how different bodies perceive and express themselves in different ways.
  2. Collaborate to establish ground rules for safe discussion, including learning some of the language for talking about disability.
  3. Respond to poetry, citing evidence from the poem that supports conclusions drawn from details.
  4. Analyze a poem and portraits for both denotative and connotative meanings. Analyze the impact of the author’s/artist’s textual or artistic choices in creating an overall effect.

The lesson starts with the teacher and students analyzing a variety of self-portraits, looking for details the authors are saying about themselves through their portraiture.  We examine well-known portraits, like Van Gogh’s, and I also introduce them to Laura Swanson’s brilliant anti-self portraits.  Students then have opportunities to create their own self-portraits through a variety of different media–using art supplies, technology, or even making digital recordings of descriptions of themselves. Here are some questions from our follow-up discussion after this activity:

  • Consider what some of the differences might be between how we choose to express ourselves to the world and how other people choose to see us.
  • Why is language important in talking about our own identities and the identities of other people?
  •  What problems or issues might we face when we’re talking about people who are different from us?
  • How might this process of presenting our selves to the world be complicated or enriched by the presence of a physical or mental disability?

As you can probably tell, there’s a hidden agenda here.  Teachers love free lesson plans and activities.  But throughout my lesson plans and in my bibliography and unit overview, I’ve embedded commentary and materials to help teachers think about systemic, discriminatory features of a society that has structured itself (both physically and rhetorically) to exclude or marginalize the disabled.  My hope is that this unit plan can serve as one step toward reframing mainstream and empowering teachers and students to promote justice and equity in the classroom and beyond.

Essay: Rhetoric of Submission Guidelines

Emily Michael has published an essay that may be of interest to Disability Rhetoric readers. It’s called “Stylish Negotiations,” and it’s now live in the March issue of Wordgathering. Here’s the link: http://wordgathering.com/issue37/essays/michael.html. The piece may appeal readers because it analyzes the ableist guidelines of journals that ask for stories of disability. Often these journals claim to want “authentic” perspectives from disabled writers, but they stipulate the stance and language of submissions.

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev

Online Learning and Students with Disabilities

This latest post comes from Mary Frances Rice (mary.rice@ku.edu), a Ph.D. student at the University of Kansas. Rice explains the intersection of online environments and disability.

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev


I am a curriculum and teaching Ph.D. student. Since January 2013, I have been working at the Center on Online Learning and Students with Disabilities at the University of Kansas. At this center, we focus on providing resources for K12 students with disabilities who are enrolling in online courses or participating in other types of digitally enhanced learning environments. During my time at COLSD, my research has taken several interesting turns. I started out researching text complexity and what makes a text difficult to read. In this work, the notion of what constituted disability was very narrow because all the formulas that one must use to calculate readability are based on fairly narrow views of reading comprehension that were invented long before the Internet and the flourishing of understanding about visual, gestural, and other social semiotic communication. I was glad to do this work because it enriched my understanding about how and why literacy needed to become literacies and why technologies had the potential to be a disruptive force in equity, but without deliberation, they could also be used to reproduce the status quo.

My next set of projects moved away from the curriculum products and towards the individuals engaging in teaching and learning online. Specifically I was charged with interviewing and collecting other data from online teachers who were working to provide accommodations and other support for students with disabilities as they learn. The work of these teachers was interesting to me because of their incredible knowledge of disability law and the deep level of care they had for the learners. What was unfortunate is that, for as much as they were investing, learners in their classes with disabilities failed to complete the courses at much higher rates. I also learned much about how these learners were constructed in virtual schools because there is so much less sensory data. You can hear or see the learners, but only through an Internet or phone connection and you only see what they want you to see. The totality of their body is never in the presence of the teacher. In some ways, this could be liberating; that a learner with a physical exceptionality need not share it with anyone and therefore, a certain kind of power emerges. However, it could also be just as colonizing; the virtual environment could allow the educational setting to deny disability entirely. All you are is what you turn in, and as long as you make progress in the course, interaction with a teacher in a fully online course is likely to be minimal in the settings where I conducted my research.

Another thing that struck me as I was engaging in this work was the “Senior Season,” where high school seniors rush to acquire the credit that they will need to pass courses and graduate. I presumed that it was likely that many of these learners are interested in pursuing university studies or other post-high school training. Like their English teachers, I wondered what lessons the learners were really learning about composition and writing that they would carry with them to college. After all, the curriculum the teachers were teaching was written by an elusive someone, somewhere who did not know the learners at all; the teachers, especially in the case of learners who disclosed their disabilities (another surprise, was even at this K12 setting, not all did) made special efforts to communicate with learners more about their writing and to make sure that learners understood what the assignment was really asking. Then came endless moral and ethical dilemmas about whether and under what circumstances to accept late work, how many revisions should a learner do, and what constituted quality writing when so much of what was assigned was canned, rather than planned. After talking with teachers, I focused next on administrators. These educators were also deeply caring and knowledgeable, particularly about policy aspects relating to disability, yet what it takes to help learners with disabilities move their learning to scholarship in the academy did not enter into our conversations. Online learning, as forward thinking as it is, has so many new dimensions that it is difficult to imagine individual futures of individual learners.

In attending the Council of Writing Program Administrators annual meeting in Boise, Idaho in July, I presented these wonderings about the body, about writing instruction expectations and how they matched up in secondary (especially virtual settings) and university expectations, and about disability and its co-construction on the whole. After secondary schooling is complete, the laws from IDEA (individuals with disabilities in education act) no longer serve learners; other public laws do. However, self-advocacy is required to receive accommodations. Are learners being prepared to talk about what might help them learn without submitting to stories that deny them their embodied personhood? After all, even a body learning online needs things to learn, and whether one is socially deemed –abled or –disabled and whether an exceptionality is physical or not, the physical must be attended to. Online learners need to be able to access a device that will enable them to access information and provide responses. They need to have means to communicate with instructors and classmates that are suitable. They need to have chances to have their personhood acknowledged and their body accepted—whether anyone sees it or not.

Disabling Writing Program Administration

This latest post comes from Crystal Benedicks (benedicc@wabash.edu), an assistant professor of English at Wabash College. It starts with Amy Vidali’s recent article in WPA, as a response to her call that we “disable” writing program administration.

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev


“ . . . I suggest that we disable writing program work, which means knowingly and innovatively thinking through and with disability, particularly in the stories we tell about ourselves.”

—Amy Vidali, “Disabling Writing Program Administration” in Writing Program Administration, Spring 2015

In a season marked by prominent publications in disability theory and rhetoric, Amy Vidali’s call for WPAs to “disable” their stories is particularly cogent. She argues that many traditional and abelist narratives of WPA work include “depression and anxiety” as “primarily metaphors for the job, rather than something real.” Job-related anxiety routinely figures as a “badge of honor for being dedicated to your work,” an accolade that “heroic” and otherwise presumably able WPAs garner as they fight the good fight against the potentially draining and disabling forces of university administration. Vidali points out that this typical narrative restricts disability (in this case depression and anxiety) to a nauseous side-effect of WPA work and forecloses the possibilities of a more “productive” inclusion of disability in the very fabric of this work and the identities of those who do it.

Vidali’s essay crystalizes for me the disability themes in my own history of becoming a WPA. In the spirit of her call to disable writing program work, I offer the following vignette:

I’m a WPA and writing teacher at a small liberal arts college. But several decades before that, I was a child in the backseat of my parents’ minivan as we pulled into a local strip-mall. I forget the purpose of this family trip, but it was something about which we were all excited. “We are pregnant,” My father announced playfully, “with anticipation.” My mother turned some essentialist feminist scorn his way: “You can’t be pregnant with anticipation. You can only be pregnant with a baby.”

As the paraplegic mother of three children she was told she would never have, my mother took physical metaphors very seriously (and she mostly didn’t take them at all). I don’t think she had the luxury of thinking of the body as a metaphor: As a child with polio, my mother was a March of Dimes poster girl and, later, a clothing model, noted for the double-bind of her obvious beauty and her obvious disfigurement. I know she didn’t have the schooling to do fancy things with words: like many physically disabled children of her time, she was placed into “schools” for mentally and intellectually disabled children—and not much was taught in those institutions. Her spelling and pronunciation are still not standard. Meanwhile, as a first-generation college graduate and then-doctoral candidate, my father prided himself on his newly-found powers of metaphor and word play. As a child and incipient academic, I was impressed with my father and vaguely annoyed by my mother.

When I think back on how I got to be a WPA, someone who pays attention to questions of access and communication, this story looms large for me, although I’m not sure I fully understand all the implications. The landspace of my sympathy has shifted: I hear my mother now in a way I didn’t then. I’ve grappled with and continue to come to terms with my own infertility, unexpectedly replaying my mother’s anxieties about the maternal body. I’ve been humiliated and surprised. I’ve seen the toll that the medicalization and pathologizing of the body takes on a career and on a relationship, and the ways in which the foregrounding of the suddenly “deficient” physical self smashes neat academic perceptions of mind and body, work and life.

Like the depression and anxiety Vidali discusses, infertility is often an invisible disability. Another invisible vector of disability is the ways in which one is shaped by having a disabled family member. Unless I disclose that the fact that I grew up with a disabled mother, no one will know. Similarly, unless I disclose my infertility and the co-attendant anxiety and depression, I pass as a perfectly “normal” “woman,” especially because I now have children and create a regular, low-grade maternal spectacle in my very small town, lugging a crammed double-stroller through the farmer’s market. In fact, these vectors and echoes of disability are so invisible that I almost didn’t notice them myself: it was only several years after finishing a dissertation on Victorian poetry and nineteenth-century medical discourse that I realized I’d written a piece on disability. And it wasn’t until I found myself teaching in a composition program designed to provide access to higher education for precisely the students who least often graduate (economically underprivileged male minorities) that I realized I was trying to also intervene in my familial past, to hold open the doors, to grapple head-on with the awful sense of shame that can haunt those who feel themselves to be outsiders to higher education.

It strikes me that the dangerous thing about not recognizing this trajectory is that it would allow me to naïvely cast myself as an heroic teacher/savior, swooping in to rescue the disadvantaged students. Not acknowledging, even to myself, the role that disability plays in my life enables me to inoculate myself from it and locate it in my students, which only perpetuates the systems of shame and barred access that I hope to ameliorate.

The fact that it takes hard work for me to notice how disability has shaped my life and career is both testament to the ways in which disability is disavowed from productive narratives of self and suggestive of the fact that there is more uncovering to do, both for individuals trying to tell useful stories about themselves and for the field of composition and rhetoric in general. Compositionists often talk about “access” without noticing the ways that term is central to disability theory: it is after all a metaphor for the movement of bodies through space.

The Medical Model Controversy in Disability Studies

This recent blog post comes from N. Renuka Uthappa (renuka.uthappa@wayne.edu), a Ph.D. student at Wayne State University in Detroit. Uthappa is a scholar whose personal experience “puts her firmly within the medical model of mental illness at the same time as that model faces what seems like a fair amount of resistance within the disability community that deals with mental illness. (Catherine Prendergast notes in an essay that she feels awkward explaining that she considers schizophrenia a disease in the face of her own ‘post-structuralist leanings.’ She worries that her opinion “makes me sound at best conservative and at worst, theoretically unsound.”)”

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev


“Like you, I wear many hats in my life. I am a Ph.D. student, a teacher, a wife, a sister, etc. But I’m here today talking to you because I am a person with a mental illness, specifically bipolar mood disorder.” This is the way I have been starting the presentations I give to high school psychology classrooms as part of my membership in a local group known as the Speakers Bureau. Made up of people with a variety of mental illnesses, the Bureau seeks to “put a face on mental illness, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse to overcome stigma and discrimination by sharing successful stories of hope and recovery.” I joined the group in order to research their rhetorical efforts from the inside and to contribute to their fight against stigma.

In the course of my initial research into disability, disability and rhetoric, and the particular rhetorics of mental illness, I find myself in a tricky position. I am steeped in the medical model of mental illness, a model not much in favor outside the mainstream. My decades long acceptance of the psychiatric assessment of a chemical imbalance in my brain and a genetic predisposition to mental illness, as well as my use of medication to successfully treat what I view as a biological illness place me in opposition to at least certain aspects of the consumer/survivor/ex-patient (c/s/x/) model of mental illness.

In her chapter of James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson’s collection, Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture, Catherine Prendergast states: “For an academic such as myself with generally poststructuralist leanings, to think of schizophrenia as a “disease” makes me sound at best conservative and at worst theoretically unsound.” I can understand her concern. As a fledgling disability and rhetoric scholar, how can I acknowledge and stay open to the well-argued viewpoints of the c/s/x or Mad Pride movement while still living within my conviction that I have a disease that requires specifically medical intervention? How can I say a simple “No!” to their contention that states of what they call “mental distress” represent ways of being on the spectrum of human existence or even natural responses to external factors such as modern isolation or materialism?

At a Speakers Bureau workshop about how to craft one’s story of mental illness, the leader cautioned the group, “Don’t promote broken brain theory.” When I asked her about this statement later, she brought up the idea that certain “states of being” can be considered life experiences rather than “symptoms” and noted that there are varying opinions as to what mental illness is. Is it a medical illness, she asked, or a part of living? Her commentary raised my hackles. I found myself wanting to argue against the idea that mental illness could be considered just another way of being. This idea rang false against my experience of both mania and especially depression, where I found the depth of sadness and hopelessness absolutely incommensurate with anything going on in the outside world. Given that the ultimate endpoint of untreated depression for many is suicide, I found this new (to me), alternative perspective frustrating.

Later on, I told the workshop leader that my experience of deep depression had been incommensurate with anything going on in my life and asked “Doesn’t that suggest that the cause must be biological?” She replied “The purists would say you had not looked hard enough for a source for your sadness.” Slap! We let the matter rest there, but inside I was seething, not at the group leader, who I respected and liked, but at the “purists” who would dare lay their interpretation over my crystal clear experience. (It has not escaped my attention that I am doing the same thing to their experiences!)

Those experiences, I know, have included the reality that people with mental illness diagnoses can in many states be involuntarily hospitalized and legally forced to take medication. I can only imagine the terrifying experience of being forced into a hospital against my will or the frustration of having to take medications in a similar fashion. On the other hand, as someone who worked at one time providing supportive services for mentally ill adults living independently in the community, I have seen instances of very negative personal results when people suddenly stop taking their medications. And I have seen the positive results that hospitalization can sometimes provide once it helps a severely ill person stabilize.

I am hoping the existence of multiple views about the ontology of mental illness does not require me to decide on an absolute definition. In some ways, at present, it seems to come down to a sense of how experiences influence one’s sense of identity. Because I have had mostly good experiences within the medical model, and because it makes sense to me, I use the term “mental illness” and identify as a “person with a mental illness.” This phrase attempts to put distance between my “self,” or my essence, and my medical condition. The more I read, however, (Susan Gabel, thank you for “Depressed and disabled: some discursive problems with mental illness.”), the more I find myself open to questioning my current sense of identity. Thanks for the great scholarship, everyone, and I look forward to any and all responses to this, my first ever blog!

DS gains recognition by the Association for Business Communication

Fellow Disab Rhet people –

Wanted to let you know that the article I wrote with Lisa Meloncon based on
the disability data from the 2010-2013 Faculty Surveys of the CCCC Committee
on Online Writing Instruction was awarded the 2015 Distinguished Publication
Award from the Association for Business Communication. The article is
broadly targeted at Composition Studies community.

We will be in Seattle at the annual conference of ABC to accept the award
and give a presentation on it. While the article gives a shout out to you
all, it’s important for me to say thank you once again because it’s the
collegiality and the smart crip conversations we always have that inspire
this sort of scholarship. Many thanks to each of you.

Sage, which publishes the Journal of Business and Technical Communication
has made the article open access.  Simply go here: http://jbt.sagepub.com/
the red box will link you to the download for, “Paying Attention to
Accessibility When Designing Online Courses in Technical and Professional

Hope you all are wrapping up lovely and restorative summers,

Sushil Oswal

News in Disability Studies Research; Guest Blog from Alison Hitt

We have had some updates in disability studies. Brenda Brueggemann has published an extensive list of disability themed issues in academic journals from 1993 to now. The list is available on the Resources page under Bibliographies. See also this guest blog from Allison Hitt, who works at Syracuse University. Hitt’s website, Accessing Rhetoric, is available here.

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at dev.k.bose@gmail.com if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev

Hi, everyone,

It’s that time of year again where I offer a Storify collection of the disability- and accessibility-related tweets from CCCC (#4c15) in Tampa, which you can access through the following link: https://storify.com/ahhitt/disability-and-accessibility-panels-at-cccc-2015
I pulled public tweets using the hashtags #dis, #access, and #4c15, as well as session-specific hashtags (for example, #B11 was the session hashtag for Brenda Brueggemann, Sean Zdenek, and Nicole Snell’s excellent panel on captioning). These are only tweets from public accounts, but please let me know if you would like anything to be removed. Please also let me know if you have any comments, questions, or tweets that you’d like me to add or modify. For example, I had a difficult time properly attributing some tweets to particular people/presentations that I didn’t personally attend.
This is a long text, so please be patient as tweets load! I also exported the page as a PDF, which I’m attaching to this email. You can interact with the PDF by clicking individual tweets, which will link you to their original posts. [This has been added to the Resources page as well.]
You can access previous years as well:
I hope these continue to be useful to folks, and it was great both engaging with your presentations in Tampa and then re-reading them again as I curated these tweets. Thank you all for your thoughtful, generative work!

CCCC 2015: Accessibility Guide

This post comes to us from guest bloggers Lauren Cagle (cagle@usf.edu) and Ellie Browning (erbieze@mail.usf.edu) from the University of South Florida. To share the Guide on listservs and emails, please distribute this link: http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/Convention/2015/Accessibility-Guide.pdf.

Each year for the Conference on College Composition and Communication, local volunteers put together an Accessibility Guide to support conference attendees as they make their travel and presentation plans. This year, we’re particularly proud of the Accessibility Guide, which was produced by the largest group to date of local collaborators: two Accessibility Committee co-chairs and four volunteer members. All 39 pages of the Guide are packed with information and photographs designed to help you make informed choices about your trip to Tampa.

The Guide features accessibility information about:

  • the Tampa airport,
  • traveling from the airport to downtown Tampa,
  • the Tampa Marriott Waterside,
  • the Tampa Convention Center,
  • and navigating downtown Tampa.

Other sections of the Accessibility Guide address the secondary conference hotels and downtown amenities, such as drugstores, restaurants, and support group meetings.

We ask for your help in sharing the Accessibility Guide as widely as possible. We also encourage you to spread accessibility by using the resources at https://disabilityrhetoric.com/access/ to make your CCCC presentation, poster, or workshop accessible.

Our contact information is available in the Accessibility Guide, and we encourage you to contact us via email.

Here’s to an accessible CCCC, and we look forward to meeting you in Tampa!

Voices in Error: Counting against Competence

Guest blogger Emily Michael contributes this post. Emily is an adjunct writing instructor at the University of North Florida. Read more about Emily at her blog.

Voices in Error: Counting against Competence

Before I begin teaching in any classroom, I must tailor the environment to my specific needs. I secure my guide dog to the sturdy teacher’s desk, turn off three of the four lightswitches, and run my hand along the chalk tray to find the eraser and black dry- erase markers. I shuffle the blue and green markers to the end of the tray where I won’t confuse them with the colors I prefer. I move the desk chair from behind the bulky computer table and place it near the short, unadorned desk – careful not to disturb my dog, who lies underneath with a toy.

After the first course meeting, the novelty of my daily accommodations diminishes. Students welcome the dimmed lighting and rarely forget to submit assignments in large print. Only two features of the routine elicit regular comments – the guide dog and the whiteboard. From their seats, students fill the last minutes before class with variations on this theme:

“Your dog is so cute. I wish we could pet him.”

“I just love your dog – I’ve told my friends about him!”

Those who approach my desk repeat these sentiments, usually adding, “Your dog is sniffing me; he probably smells my cats.”

The second topic receives a disproportionate amount of conversation.

“Ms. Michael, the board is covered in writing.”

“Yeah, it looks like a bunch of equations.”

Here, I insert some grumbling about professors who don’t erase their work, and my students laugh. They ask if I want help erasing the mess, and I refuse: “Just direct me and I’ll erase it.”

This request generates unparalleled class participation as students call out, “Left, no your left! A little further down, okay stop! Back and forth right there, now over right. The last bit is high up, almost at the top of the board. You got it. All clean.” Because the board is so often covered in half-erased material, I’ve learned to ask if I have a clean surface before uncapping my black marker. Students answer readily – occasionally imitating a GPS: “In two inches, erase left.”

In my first months of teaching, I would have called this collaboration generous: I assumed that my students would read a request for help as a sign of my incompetence. I expected my students to measure my authority by everyday difficulties – reading pencil or blue pen, seeing raised hands, performing a quick head-count, recognizing faces. Now, entering my seventh semester as a part-time writing instructor, I recognize that these seeming glitches have become part of my classroom management, minor features of a holistic learning experience.

As an adjunct instructor at a state university, I design my courses within a programatic range of expectations. My department chooses textbooks, grading schemes, and assessment procedures; I fine-tune the day-to-day schedule and assignment prompts. While I don’t mind teaching a course where themes, texts, and learning outcomes are already determined, I am less willing to engage with certain assessment practices. As an academic subordinate, I can assert little control over the assessment methods my department chooses, but as a disability advocate, I experience a conflict when I am asked to monitor and medicalize the writings of my students.

My department uses a series of aculturalist rubrics for assessing student work, and these rubrics, like any pervasive grading scheme, color the perspectives of their most frequent handlers: students, faculty, and peer tutors. The most formulaic rubric addresses mechanics through error-counting: professors calculate a student’s score based on the number of errors per page. Although the rubric localizes grammatical correctness, the impartial counting catalyses a perspective of diagnosis and repair, a sense of “correcting and perfecting.”

It is this idealistic vision of students’ writing that bothers me. Each day, I offer my students a visible interaction with disability – guide dog, dark glasses, large print, braille labels. In my classroom, disability is not a taboo subject, and I welcome students’ respectful inquiries outside of class. When I grade their work, I must adopt the counting rubric and the curing pen; my comments and calculations must rehabilitate the broken writing in front of me. Grading within this pre-assigned framework, I feel awkward, ashamed, robotic – as if my normalizing efforts on the page discredit my individualistic teaching in the classroom.

The error-counting rubric dehumanizes my students, taking stock of their nonstandard grammar and stripping them of rhetorical power. In a course that prioritizes the understanding of rhetorical situations, this rubric denies the force that enables rhetoric itself: context. If a student repeats the same typo seven times throughout the essay, (the unfortunate occurrence of “common spice” instead of “comma splice” or the phonetic interpretation of Seeing Eye Dog as “see and eye dog”), the rubric counts each iteration as a new error. Rather than noticing a pattern that indicates some personal feature of a student’s work, the rubric searches for arbitrary, non-hierarchical flaws. Defects compiled without context – this is indeed a bleak vision of our students’ abilities. No wonder some colleagues stand by their cynicism: “ A punitive approach to grammar is the only way to make students care about their work.”

Again, my activist voice pipes up, sounding small and naive in my own head: I want to know what drives a professor to teach such careless, error-strewing wretches. If this is the vision we have of our students, why do we remain at our posts? I find it frightening to believe that my colleagues choose these practices to treat, to perfect, to normalize with so little regard for the unique voices already in place in their classrooms.

While my students look to me for guidance, I cannot perform such standardizing practices without reflection; my red pen stalls over the fourth missing apostrophe, the third dangling modifier. Foremost among my favorite errors is the word used “incorrectly” – usually a Latinate word deployed in a sense I don’t recognize. Before I search the OED, I want to know what language(s) the writer speaks, what books she reads. As cognitive scientists unravel the brain’s complex grammar processing, a nonsensical sentence functions like a work of art – daring me to examine how I create meaning.

Error-counting leaves no room for these inquiries. Each misplaced comma is an intolerable deviation. Textual bodies must be repaired before we can admit their human creators into our class of “professional communicators.” With rigorous defect-spotting, students learn to repudiate their own difference, coding the presence of grammatical errors as “being a bad writer.”

I do not rail against the teaching of grammar or the value of proofreading. But even our most timeless standards are situated among a chorus of cultural biases. I find hostility in a system that condemns difference for its own sake. As part of a larger conversation, students must be allowed to respond to our counting.

Spotlight on Sushil K. Oswal

One of the best aspects of being a part of this community is learning with and from such tremendous colleagues. People working at the Disability Studies/Rhet-Comp nexus are producing fantastic work right now (as I hope we showcased in our last blog). This blog entry showcases one particular scholar whose work intersects the areas of technology, accessibility, and disability. If you don’t know his work already,  you should!

Sushil K. Oswal is a Technical Communication faculty member in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington-Tacoma as well as faculty of Disability Studies at the University of Washington-Seattle. He is a former Taft Fellow and the winner of C.R. Anderson Award for his Environmental Communication research in the area of environmental technology applications in the research and development division of a Japanese-owned company. As a driving voice in our field, his work has addressed faculty access and accommodations, accessibility issues for visually impaired students, design problems in learning management systems employed by higher education, self-service kiosks in the banking industry, and the development of best practices in online writing instruction. He is the accessibility architect and co-author of the College Composition and Communication Conference’s 2013 “Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI)” http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/OWIPrinciples.pdf, which should be required reading for all writing program administrators and instructors aiming to thoughtfully engage accessibility as they design online curricula.

One of his publications, “Ableism,” a part of collaborative project under the banner of “Multimodality in Motion” for Kairos http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/18.1/coverweb/yergeau-et-al/index.html, offers both a demonstration and an invitation for multimodal rhetoric informed by disability. At the 2014 Computers and Writing Conference in Pullman, Washington, the Computers and Composition Digital Press presented the Accessibility and Digital Composition Award to this project. His chapter on E-portfolios also received an honorable mention from the same sponsor.

Dr. Oswal is presently working on a cross-Atlantic project with colleagues in the United Kingdom on the topic of “Avoidance in the Academy” which aims at critiquing the ways the contemporary  university compulsively ignores disability by making it invisible through its ableist policies and structures while simultaneously tolerating the presence of its disabled members to avoid legal and social complications. So we’ll have that work to look forward to…

In addition to his scholarship, Sushil maintains an invaluable presence at our flagship conference (CCCC), sharing research ideas at the Standing Group for Disability Studies meetings and providing service and critical insight to the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition (CDICC). Beyond CCCC, he sits on the Disability Committee of the Council for Writing Program Administration and consults in the area of digital technology and accessibility with industry. We invite you to engage his work and cruise through the suggested reading list we’ve provided below. Sushil is also open to being contacted if you have questions, comments, or just want to introduce yourself to a fellow colleague. He can be e-mailed at oswal@u.washington.edu

Big thanks to Sushil for his willingness to participate in this showcase and for his contributions to our field. We wish everyone happy reading!

Tara & Hilary

Selected Publications

“Participatory Design: Barriers and Possibilities.” Communication Design Quarterly 2.3 (June 2014).
“Paying Attention to Accessibility and Disability in Technical and Professional Communication Online Course Design.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication (October 2014).
“Access to Digital Library Databases in Higher Education: Design Problems and Infrastructural Gaps.” WORK: A Journal of Prevention, Assessment & Rehabilitation (July 2014).
“Faculty Members, Accommodation, and Access in Higher Education”, Co-Authored with Stephanie Kerschbaum, et. al. Profession. (December 2013).
Book Review, The Online Writing Conference: A Guide for Teachers and Tutors, by Beth L. Hewett, Composition Studies 41.2 (Fall 2013): 3.
“Multimodality in Motion: Ableism.” Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy 18.1 (August 2013).
“Accessible ePortfolios for Visually-Impaired Users: Interfaces, Designs and Infrastructures.” In K. V. Wills, & R. Rice (Eds.), Eportfolio Performance Support Systems: Constructing, Presenting, and Assessing
. Anderson, SC: Parlor Press. (2013): 133-151.
“Exploring Accessibility as a Potential Area of Research for Technical Communication: A Modest Proposal.” Communication Design Quarterly 1.4, (August 2013): 50-60.
“Accessibility Challenges for Visually Impaired Students and their Online Writing Instructors.” In Lisa Meloncon (Ed.), Rhetorical Accessibility: At the Intersection of Technical
Communication and Disability Studies
. Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company, Inc. (2013): 135-155.
“A Position Statement of Principles and Example Effective Practices for Online Writing Instruction (OWI)”, Co-Authored with the Committee of Conference on College Composition and Communication for Best Practices in Online Writing Instruction. Digital Publication at
http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Groups/CCCC/OWIPrinciples.pdf (March
2013): 1-35.