Disability Rhetoric

disabling writing, in a good way

Disability at CCCC 2018

Greetings! As we enter conference season, please consider using the hashtags #dis and #4C18 in your presentations. Ruth Osorio has put together a list of DS themed presentations available here: Disability at 4c18

Also please check out Geoff Clegg’s guest blog, available here. Let me know if you’re interested in contributing towards a vibrant community of scholars, writers, and activists via being a guest blogger: bose@email.arizona.edu.

Looking forward to seeing you all!
Dev

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Gaps in Access: Representations of Disability in Professional Writing/Communication Textbooks

Read the latest guest blog, care of Geoff Clegg (geoffrey.clegg@gmail.com, geoffrey.clegg@mwsu.edu), the current webmaster for Writing About Writing who sits on the Labor SG for the 4Cs. Clegg is Assistant Professor of English at Midwestern State University.

If you’re interested in writing to a vibrant research community, please consider contributing a guest blog! The call is open and submissions are accepted on a rolling basis. Short works (including works-in-progress, conference panels, and abstracts) related to DS scholarship, activism, creative writing, and pedagogy are accepted. Teaching resources (assignments, lessons, syllabi themed around disability) are also being accepted. Email Dev Bose (bose@email.arizona.edu) for more information.

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Gaps in Access: Representations of Disability in Professional Writing/Communication Textbooks

            Lately, I have been thinking about how disability, access, and accommodation are featured in recent textbooks within the field of business and professional communication[1]. Having taught courses in the subjects for the last eight years and reviewing the texts for how disability, whether invisible or visible, is treated within them, I have come to the conclusion that the field itself and the workplace realities presented continue to treat disabled writers, clients, and audiences as unnecessary if not a valuable focus. This should not be seen as a slight upon the many dedicated textbook authors whose work provides the very foundations of my courses; instead, I see this as a gap that needs more attention than the expectation of an occasional supplementary lesson filled in by an instructor.

Within the genre of professional writing (correspondence, document design, reports, letters, presentations, resumes, etc.) the preference for proper attention to format, style, and clarity still weigh heavily in the course designs suggested by textbook companies. Scanning through traditional bound instructor’s guides and spiral bound companions only reinforces the notion that every reader is abled bodied as the focus on the structure and design of memos is highlighted for readers’ through examples, suggestions on the practical use of Microsoft products, or tips on how to use rhetoric when communicating to international audiences. Lacking, of course, are questions of design needs for blind or low-vision audiences of graphical reports, appropriate suggestions on the creation of accessible webpages or streamed company videos with captioning for the deaf, or ways in which the use of font choice may help dyslexic readers clearly read a resume. As someone who fits into the category of hard-of-hearing, the lack of material on accommodating HOH or d/Deaf audience members or presenters is left for my own creation.

Textbook Analysis

The plethora of textbooks available tend to offer little substance or discussion of disabled individuals inside and outside the workplace other than a cursory node to disability or ‘diverse’ audiences. Reading through a survey of eight of the most commonly used or marketed textbooks for business writing, I’ve come to find that they all lack any real discussion of creating accessible documents. Bovée and Thill’s Professional communications (2017a) does not touch much in terms of accessibility outside of reminding students that handouts are welcome for presentations. Likewise, B&T’s Business communication essentials: a skills-based approach, 7th ed. (2016) and Business communication today, 14th ed., mentions disability bias with nothing else about how genres perpetuate them. Despite their reach, they do little if anything to adequately cover the needs of students who might to know about or will encounter disabled coworkers, presentation audience members, or job candidates. Cardon’s Business communication: Developing leaders for a networked world, 2nd ed. (2016) does not address disability whatsoever nor does Kolin’s Successful writing at work, 11th ed. (2017). One textbook that does address the needs of blind and low-vision users is Oliu, Brusaw, and Alred’s Writing that works: Communicating effectively on the job’s eleventh edition (2013) as it spends time on creating webpages specifically for these users. However, their eight edition of The Business Writer’s Companion (2017) does not make mention disability or strategies for providing accessible material. The text used at Midwestern State University, Paul MacRae’s Business and Professional Writing: A Basic Guide for Americans (2016), lacks any discussion whatsoever.

While this is not an exhaustive search of textbooks on the market and does not provide an overview of in-house, departmental textbooks, the trend of not acknowledging the needs of disabled audiences and creating accessible material remains firm throughout each text. The majority of the audiences defined by the textbooks are by default seen as able-bodied recipients who can process information with ease. The only divergence from this model of audience member comes in discussion of the design and rhetorical needs of international audiences. In fact, sections on writing and speaking to international audiences tend to be the sole area where writers are suggested to tailor their material to the needs of a specific group.

What about data visualization and textbooks?

Even texts that are not viewed as traditional primary texts for business writing course often overlook disabilities as a topic. Two texts that have been used at Midwestern State University for a Visual Rhetoric and Inforgraphics course, Knaflic’s Storytelling with data: a data visualization guide for business professionals (2015) and Wong’s The Wall Street Journal Guide to information graphics: the do’s & don’ts of presenting data, facts, and figures (2010), provide an excellent source for students beginning to understand the how’s and why’s of creating effective presentations and reports. However, both texts assume abled-bodied audiences as a substantive part of whom the material would be created for. Knaflic focuses heavily on narrative as a key to effective data visualization, which ultimately can exclude HOH and d/Deaf audiences from participating in the analysis of material. Similarly, the focus on attention and short- and long-term memory makes use of the idea solely as a tactic while ignoring how cognitive and neural problems complicate the processing of information on a page or PowerPoint. This is not to say that Knaflic is providing bad information, just incomplete information. The second text, The WSJ Guide, provides similar advice with a nice section on providing appropriate color to graphs for the color blind.

Within both texts are a kernel of the continued invisible nature of disabled audiences. While disabled audiences are not in the forefront of the minds of these authors, certainly we can and should have students take them into consideration as they begin to embark on careers where trends like data visualization are ubiquitous. The use of visualization tools and their relationship to blind users is a question I wish to explore further, especially with my students from our business college. Focusing on narration to help the blind certainly has value even if it is only a stopgap. Having students write out detailed captions for figures, tables, and images within reports and presentations that are accessible to screen readers provides the simplest solution so far. Likewise, having students understand the value of explaining the patterns they are describing could prove to be just as useful for the d/Deaf.

Filling the gaps

Expecting that textbooks should do the yeoman’s work in dealing with disability is, of course, not addressing the available options for instructors. Those, like myself, who try to integrate more venues for accessibility in business writing can and should continue to create alternative lessons that value the basics of the genres we teach while also informing students on how to create a document for different audiences. Over the past two years I have spent time and effort guiding students through design workshops for reports while also having them reflect and think about whether their choices will be easily read through a screen reader or might present problems for low-vision users. When it comes to presentations, I spend time with them on alternatives they might devise, specifically captioned video, which would help d/Deaf users of websites or as promotional material. I try to impress upon them as they work through assignments within our computer lab that audiences are not just a reflection of their own selves. Be creative and think of alternatives that may arise as you create, explain, or present information for a variety of peers and clients in the future.

The tragic aspect of supplementing these lessons, however, is that it takes adequate and available technological resources. Campuses, such as my current campus in Texas, lack software to test the usability of documents or other necessary resources like cameras to record presentations for later captioning. This should not deter us since most of the work we can do should focus on having students think about adapting their work to meet the needs of diverse audiences.

After meditating on this matter

I realize that many publishers are constrained for space due to the finite nature of paper and that these texts are trying to include the most information possible to create a comprehensive textbook. All of the textbooks I have poked, prodded, evaluated are excellent specimens and reflect the labor of both the authors and editors. My worry is that we will still create an invisible barrier that excludes discussion or accessibility needs that students will need to think about while they are moving through the process of creating, designing, and writing documents in the workplace.

How do we solve this problem? Outside of generating our own materials, it is imperative that we discuss our feelings, needs, and wants with publishers like Bedford/St. Martins, Broadview Press, Pearson, and others so that they can see the value of including material both within textbooks and in web resources for our students benefit. Publishing moves glacially slow even in the era of print-on-demand textbooks but not if we make industry professionals more aware of practices that inform students on the needs of disabled audiences. We may not be able to provide tips and explanations for every type of disability, but instead, we might be able to better begin to process of providing a gateway to access.

 

[1] I use business writing mostly due to the nature of the course generally having the same focus whether called business communication or business writing. They still follow the same genres. Technical communication often faces the same problem.

 

A PDF of this blog is attached here: Gaps in Access

Letter to CCCC re: SJAC Priorities

CCCC Disability Standing Group Letter to Asao (PDF version)

This letter was published on Oct. 13, 2017 and is sponsored by the CCCC Standing Group on Disability Studies. For reference to the original solicitation for feedback, visit Asao B. Inoue’s blog, Infrequent Words, accessible here: http://asaobinoue.blogspot.com/2017/10/4c18-update-sjac-priorities-are.html.

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Dear Asao,

Thank you for publishing the SJAC’s priorities and soliciting feedback. I am writing to you as a Co-Chair of the Disability Studies Standing Group. We had a lengthy email discussion about the current state of the conference and the SJAC’s proposals, and we agree that we wish to act in solidarity with members of our sibling caucuses and standing groups, especially those that centrally represent Black scholars and scholars of color. Here are our main questions:

-The Disability Studies Standing Group is glad that CCCC is talking seriously about implementing virtual presence to the conference, and we hope that these measures are implemented intentionally. How will CCCC ensure that virtual presence is accessible both for the in-person attendees and the virtual attendees? Will there be captions? Also, members expressed concern about the larger concept of remote attendance: does this create a second-tier experience for members of color who do not feel safe traveling to CCCC? 

-We noted an emphasis on safety and security in the list of priorities, as well as a reference to engagement with police and authorities. Given that the NAACP Travel Advisory cites racist law enforcement practices in Missouri as one of the reasons for the advisory, how will CCCC work to promote safety, security, and engagement with police in a way that doesn’t potentially expose members of color to aggressive policing practices? Who do we mean by “authorities”?

-The Black, Latinx, American-Indian, and Asian/Asian-American caucus statement asks that CCCC develops “increased transparency regarding the decision-making process in the selection of conference locations.” We don’t see that addressed in the SJAC priorities. This may not be in the purview of the SJAC, as its focus is on the 2018 CCCC, but we believe this should be a core focus in moving forward. How can CCCC implement a transparent system for choosing locations that reflect our organization’s values, especially in terms of diversity, safety, and access?

-Related to the previous question, while we acknowledge the value of the inaugural Social Justice and Activism award and 2018 activist events, we are concerned that they act as retrofits—a temporary fix rather than a radical transformation of our organization. This is not the first time CCCC or NCTE in recent history has faced issues related to social justice and diversity. What long-term, structural changes are being proposed in these discussions?   

-There is much discussion about organizing with local activists at CCCC in the SJAC list. We appreciate the effort to bridge a connection between our national organization and local groups. We also want to point out that CCCC has many activists within its own branches, people who engage in racial, gender, immigration, and disability justice outside of their academic roles. Will there be any effort to draw from this rich source of wisdom in CCCC organizing?

Thank you for your leadership and for considering our questions in moving forward. 

Best,

CCCC Disability Studies Standing Group

Storify of Disability Tweets from #4c17

This is my annual offering of the Storify collection of disability- and accessibility-related tweets from CCCC (#4c17) in Portland, which you can access through the following link: https://storify.com/ahhitt/disability-accessibility-at-4c17

You can also access an HTML version, which loads the content all at once: https://storify.com/ahhitt/disability-accessibility-at-4c17.html And I have attached a PDF. Storify used to provide an option to export interactive PDFs, but that’s no longer available for personal accounts, so the PDF should be readable, but the tweets are not linked. [NOTE: PDF available here for download. –DB]
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. I didn’t personally attend some of the sessions that I archived, so please correct me if I have misattributed information.
You can access previous years, as well:
I hope these continue to be useful to folks. Let me know if you have suggestions about ways to make this information more usable and accessible, and thank you all for your thoughtful, generative work!
Allison
Dr. Allison H. Hitt
Assistant Professor of Writing
University of Central Arkansas

New Issue of the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies (Vol. 6 No. 1)

Come and get some Canadian disability studies research!

I am excited to announce that a new issue of The Canadian Journal of Disability Studies is now live: http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca/index.php/cjds/issue/view/18

Please read, download, share, and respond.

Thanks as always to Reviews Editor Dr. Jen Rinaldi and Assistant Editor and Social Media Editor Sarah Gibbons. Thanks to accessibility partner Accessibil-IT (http://accessibilit.com) and to Geoffrey Salisi for their work creating the most accessible PDF and HTML files possible.

Here is the table of contents:

Articles

Framing Deaf Children’s Right to Sign Language in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Jennifer J. Paul, Kristin Snoddon

In the Nick of Time: A Pan-Canadian Examination of Extended Testing Time Accommodation in Post-secondary Schools
Laura Sokal, Alina Wilson

“The World is Wide Enough for Us Both”: The Manitoba School for the Deaf at the Onset of the Oralist Age, 1889-1920
Sandy Barron

Eyeing the Pedagogy of Trouble: The Cultural Documentation of the Problem-Subject
Devon Healey

Measuring Integration of Disabled Persons: Evidence from Canada’s Time Use Databases
Clarke Wilson, Mary Ann McColl, Fang Zhang, Paige McKinnon

Reviews

Review of DeShazer, Mammographies: The Cultural Discourses of Breast Cancer
Kristen A. Hardy

Review of Rioux, Pinto & Parekh, Rights Monitoring, and Social Change: Building Power out of Evidence
Grace M. Lockhart

Review of Dunn, Disabling Characters: Representations of Disability in Young Adult Literature
Danielle Lorenz

Review of Esmail, Reading Victorian Deafness: Signs and Sounds in Victorian Literature and Culture
Joanna Rankin

Thanks as always for your support.

Jay

Jay Dolmage, Ph.D
Editor, Canadian Journal of Disability Studies
Associate Chair, Undergraduate Studies
Associate Professor of English
University of Waterloo
Department of English
224 Hagey Hall of Humanities Building
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada N2L 3G1
Tel: 519 888 4567 x31035
Fax: 519 746 5788
dolmage@uwaterloo.ca

Tracking Access Successes and Issues at C’s 2017 (Portland, OR)

Hi everyone,

As we all pack up/prepare materials to head to C’s, one more Google Doc/Word Doc as some collaborative wisdom gathering — thanks to Susan Naomi Bernstein and Dale Ireland for these ideas.

Attached to this post are MS Word documents that you can add to and send to me; we’ll also have a copy of this at the Access Table if people want to write things down there.

We intend this to be a place where people can document things that worked well access-wise and should be continued as well as things that were barriers, issues, challenges, or problems in Portland.

The goal is to document these things in a central location so that those who work on the Kansas City Accessibilty Guide, the NCTE staff, as well as the Local Arrangements people can have a record of things they should be aware of/avoid. I will be glad to update the google doc and, when making those updates, also send a Word doc to the list.

I’m also attaching the CDICC agenda as a MS word document.

Warmly,

Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, Ph.D.
(pronouns: she/her/hers)
Associate Professor, Department of English
Coordinator, UD Faculty Achievement Program
University of Delaware
320 Memorial Hall
Newark, DE 19716
http://sites.udel.edu/kersch

Files may be accessed by clicking  on the hyperlinks:

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

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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

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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

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“ . . . 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.