M.25: Accommodating Access: The Theory, Practice, and Pitfalls of Accommodation in Composition and Beyond
Reviewed by Matthew C. Zajic, University of California, Davis, CA (email@example.com)
Chair: Brenda Brueggemann, University of Louisville, KY, (though due to conflict, Melanie Yergeau, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, stood in as chair)
Speakers: Ruth Osorio, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, "The Syllabus Accessibility Statement as a Space to Rethink, Reimagine, and Reconfigure Normativity and Learning"
James Hammond, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, “Counter-Eugenics in the Composition Classroom: Towards a Universal Design of Writing Assessment"
Chad Iwertz, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, "Pedagogies of 'Independent Living': Bodily Agency in Disability Rights Activism and the Writing Classroom"
Bonnie Tucker, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI, "Disability Rhetoric: When Technology Is Confused with Social Justice"
I finally got around to creating a Twitter account in time for CCCC 2015; actually, I created a Twitter account during one of the first sessions I went to early Thursday. And although the session review here was the final presentation I attended on Saturday, it resulted in my highest retweeted tweet of the conference: "Are your classrooms inaccessible? Do you discriminate against disabled students?" This session produced some of the most stimulating ideas concerning disability and access in postsecondary education, which was apparent by the packed room on the final day of the conference.
Ruth Osorio began the session by leading a discussion that questioned the role of a statement we all find on our very own syllabi. Although Osorio constantly changed all other aspects of her syllabi for each class, she did not change her disability statement for two years until she came across an article that made her realize that she defined disability as a limitation and said: "I didn't do that, but my syllabus did." The syllabus acts as a legal document that also sets the tone for the class, which Osorio argued can welcome perspectives on disability, normativity, and the body in nonlimiting ways. But what are reasonable accommodations, and who gets to decide these when we have to place this information on our syllabi? In the beginning, Osorio argued, it was the courts, where the syllabus accessibility statement often worked to contain anxieties surrounding disability. These statements read as a requirement rather than an opportunity for access and for welcoming students from all backgrounds.
Osorio shared the rhetorical work being done within the disability statement within her own university, calling attention to the legality and the gatekeeper nature of who can determine disability accommodations. The statement focused on a fixed identity of disability, one that is institutionalized through assessment and diagnosis. The statement is used for protection rather than for advocacy of student learning and accessibility. Positioning the statement as a legal requirement assures that it reduces anxiety and separates rather than welcomes accessibility into the classroom. So much is being said by this section in our syllabi, a line that we often even forget about and are mandated to place there. As an example, Osorio suggested that a simple change from "you" to "we" within the language could assist in beginning to talk about inclusion and accessibility rather than legality, as it opens up the discussion for collaboration rather than for legal separation.
This first presentation brought awareness to an often overlooked part of the familiar syllabus in a way that demonstrates we are excluding people without even realizing what we are doing. In her closing, Osorio called on the action of Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) to better work with graduate student instructors and faculty instructors concerning accessibility within the classroom. Improving accessibility that can begin by simply considering the rhetorical work being done within this short statement. I cannot help but wonder what impact changing the statement has on students within the classroom. How do students with disabilities in our own courses regard and think about the language we place in this statement? The intersections between our intentions and the perceived intentions surrounding our students concerning the language we use to discuss disability could be a rich avenue for future research.
But even with an accessible syllabus, how should we begin to think about accessible writing assessment? James Hammond took on this challenge by addressing the lack of universal design within writing assessment. Hammond rooted his discussion on how to counter eugenic writing assessment by first discussing eugenic writing assessment. He described eugenic writing assessment as a fixation on error, which comes from linking the textual with the physical bodies, and much of what we know about language use comes from continually focusing on error. Large-scale, standardized assessments have tended to focus solely on teasing out these errors, while often being unable to look beyond what students are unable to accomplish. In an attempt to standardize the student body through students' textual bodies, instructors often focus on preventing a waste of instruction on incompetent persons. Hammond then linked standardized assessment back to eugenically minded psychometricians in the early 20th century, with assessments trying to tease out verbal and linguistic ability with intelligence.
However, assessment does not need to remain eugenic-minded. Hammond described three separate registers that have been used to counter the eugenic mindset: narratively (i.e., disability serves to destabilize narratives of normativity), epistemologically (i.e., understanding new experiences to explore new ways of understanding), and ethically (i.e., conservation of disability underscores human diversity and allows us to escape the idea of human perfectibility). Viewing disability through these registers can refocus students’ representations of themselves and their experiences while allowing for embracing new approaches to knowledge and knowledge understanding. Although Hammond was unsure of the final form these new assessments would take, he acknowledged the need to reimagine assessments to improve our own understandings of access and belonging.
As someone who continually questions how writing is assessed for students with disabilities in the elementary and primary education levels, I found myself constantly agreeing with Hammond’s discussion of assessment at the postsecondary level. Reframing assessment and the purpose of assessment could be a powerful tool in the future, one that can be used in meaningful ways once the notion of error can be overcome.
Although both previous presentations focused on in-classroom concerns, what happens when looking to agency outside of the writing classroom? Chad Iwertz took on this task by addressing how independent-living pedagogies can enact bodily agency within the writing classroom. Iwertz began by presenting the presence of a more technically focused document on Connected Community that would provide the foundation for the accessible talk he would give. To begin, Iwertz defined independent living as being able to control and direct one’s life by being able to exercise the greatest choice over where and how you live. These facets of independent living were contrasted with institutionalized living, or having little to no control over one’s life. As an example, Iwertz offered the story of Ed Roberts, a UC Berkeley student with polio who required an iron lung at almost all times during the day. Although he was intellectually capable of attending UC Berkeley, he had to fight constantly with the institution for the support he needed. Roberts’ activism was a major contributor to the disability rights movement that emphasized giving full control to individuals with disabilities rather than dictating institutionalized living situations.
So why should independent living matter when we think about our writing classrooms? Within the context of the writing classroom, Iwertz argued that we are not necessarily thinking about independent living, but we are thinking about universal design as a facet of independent living. However, we can use independent-living pedagogies to better understand how to implement universal design principles into our own writing classrooms, placing an emphasis on providing increased agency to all students. Limiting it only to agency does not do this movement justice, as a more radical approach to providing students with more options within their learning and to what they are receiving from their educational experiences is necessary.
The final speaker, Bonnie Tucker took us through another area often thrown into the conversation when talking about disability: technology. Tucker began by addressing the two conflicting ways that technology functions: materially providing services and rhetorically limiting agency. What this means is that technological advancements can be quite beneficial, but the rhetoric behind this technology often casts disabled people as broken. Tucker argued that simply throwing technology into the classroom could sometimes do more harm than good.
The rhetoric behind technology can often hurt the disability rights movement and set the wrong rhetorical voice behind what people perceive to be powerful technological improvements. Tucker shared an example of what this looks like from a highly visible context: a 2014 Microsoft Super Bowl advertisement. This one-minute-long advertisement displayed a slideshow of different events displaying supposed technological victories regarding making society more accessible for physically disabled individuals. The most amazing part to me was the focus on the technology giving voice to the voiceless, which creates assumptions that those unable to speak verbally lack a voice to begin with. The technology empowered disabled individuals through technological advancement by constructing ableist imagery alongside a political movement. As Tucker described, imagery such as this creates the disabled person as a test site, which places technology within a capitalist marketplace rather than an accessible one. However, framing the disability rights movement solely in terms of accessibility places the focus on the wrong area. The disability rights movement entails more than adding technology and stirring.
So what are the consequences for writing instructors? Tucker suggested making our classrooms accessible by using technology, but throwing technology in will not immediately address possible hidden discriminations within the technology itself (as seen in her example above). We need to consider that the difficult work of social justice within disability advocacy begins after accessibility, not before. We writing instructors need to be aware of the rhetorical exigence behind our own actions in working with disabled students and how our seemingly beneficial actions may further foster stigmatization. We need to consider who joins into the conversations of making our classrooms and our instruction more accessible for all individuals, and we need to think about the ramifications that may happen if we adopt inclusion practices that actually serve to further segregate. By this, I mean that we need to think about not only how we are accommodating or changing our teaching practices but also how we can address the unintended consequences that come from well-intended modifications (such as the underlying message of saying we are giving voice to those unable to communicate). I wonder what this would look like within Tucker’s classroom with actual students rather than commercials and hypothesized concerns. How do students regard technology within our classrooms, and what issues come up when thinking about how students are asked to navigate through these spaces?