Disability Rhetoric

disabling writing, in a good way

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.