Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy

There's a true story Nora Ellen Groce tells that can help us frame our approaches to teaching writing: For centuries, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, in the small town of Chilmark, many individuals who could not hear lived side by side with friends and relatives who did not think of those individuals as disabled. Everyone in the community spoke sign language, so no one was excluded or thought of as not "normal," as Groce explains in her study of this community, Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.

Long before the phrase "universal design" was coined, these Chilmark residents were living by some of its most basic principles of equality and flexibility. The hearing members of the community did not think of themselves as "accommodating" the "disabled." They simply grew up in a community that had been bi-lingual for centuries. It was taken for granted that the community needed the contributions of all its members. Chilmark's bi-lingualism was not a result of a hand-wringing public debate about the letter of the ADA law regarding accommodation, nor a mean-spirited harrumphing about "special treatment." Everyone in Chilmark simply learned sign language from birth because their parents knew it, as did their grandparents and great-grandparents before them. They weren't trying to being noble or generous or accommodating. It was how they did things.

We envy those Chilmark residents their world view. In the 21st century, in our schools and colleges, we have a world view we must overcome if we are to even approach the Chilmark villagers' taken-for-granted idea of community. We have a long way to go. However, if we can think of that island society as a metaphor, perhaps we can think more creatively and inclusively as we design writing pedagogies and Web sites.

Before, during, and after we write, we need to generate ideas, and to select, analyze, and evaluate our own writing and that of others. Sometimes we need to respond to a text before writing about it formally. In addition to using written words as an invention tool for the many tasks involved in writing, we can also use sensory pathways and other representational systems to spark the intellectual play and growth involved in writing and revising: sketching, role-playing, talking, graphing, literally moving pieces of an argument around on a table, interviewing each other, etc.

But these suggestions just scratch the surface of what is possible. Coming up with alternate strategies that simulate (and stimulate) the complex brain work involved in writing is very difficult - partly because we're so steeped in "writing" as a heuristic for other writing, and partly because in this society we're so steeped in a narrow view of what is "normal."

 Universal design can help us break out of these limiting word-based pedagogies and assumptions. Universal design focuses on environments, calling on designers to make those environments "usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design." With its focus on environments, universal design has a philosophical link with Disability Studies, which, like universal design, examines and critiques not individuals, but disabling environments and the assumptions behind them.

In the next section, we explore multi-modal ways of responding to reading before writing, generating ideas for a draft, talking a draft, and revising.


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