Disability Studies · Rhetoric

Digging in the Archives: Student Disability Organizations

One of my classes this semester is the Social History of Rhetoric. For our final project, we are writing a social history. Obviously, it will be abbreviated by time and length constraints, but nonetheless, I’m excited.

I’ve decided to do a project involving the SU archives; specifically, a project that looks at disability advocacy on campus. On paper, disability advocacy seems prominent at Syracuse. It is present within academic life—through the Disability Studies Program (the first DS program in the United States) and the Disability Law and Policy Program. Disability is also widely represented through campus and community organizations. According to the DSP website, there are approximately fourteen university-affiliated organizations and centers that focus on disability, advocacy, and disability-related issues.

Center on Human Policy (thechp.syr.edu)
Center on Human Policy (thechp.syr.edu)

It is this influx of organizations—a mix between university, faculty, student, and community interests—that I plan to explore within my social history project. Specifically, I am interested in looking at the role that students have played in supporting and advocating disability rights through these organizations. I imagine the local establishment of the Center on Human Policy in 1971 has greatly impacted Syracuse students’ attention toward disability advocacy issues. The creation of the center, however, does not itself assure a strong student interest.

How did SU students become so involved, at least through organizations, with disability rights issues? How are these student organizations working toward social change?

As I’ve learned more about disability rights and (self-)advocacy, I’ve become increasingly interested in the way disability narratives are constructed:

Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee (bccc.syr.edu)
  • Who tells them?
  • How are they framed?
  • How is the “voice” of disability manifested?
  • What do we gain from these histories?

The purpose of this project, then, is an attempt to bridge my personal interests with disability narratives with the local (and historical) establishment of student-run, disability-related organizations on the SU campus.

My research questions will depend a lot on what materials I find, but I do have some tentative originating questions:

  • In many ways, students with disabilities are Othered—low percentages of students with disabilities attend college and of those who do, few receive the “reasonable” accommodations they need. In The Practice of Everyday Life, de Certeau argues that “the space of a tactic is the space of the other” (37) and is determined by “the absence of power” (38). In what ways do SU’s student disability organizations occupy tactical spaces? How do they gain power through their institutional affiliations? How is this power negotiated?
  • In “Requirements, Problems, and Strategies: A Theory of Persuasion for Social Movements,” Simons defines a social movement as “an uninstitutionalized collectivity that mobilizes for action to implement a program for the reconstruction of social norms and values” (36). How do university-affiliated organizations complicate this definition? How do these student organizations identify with, and differ from, larger social movements (such as the Disability Rights Movement)?
  • What social, cultural, and political factors have shaped disability organizations over the years? How do these shifts relate to a larger understanding of the state of disability advocacy, both on campuses and within communities?
  • How do student disability advocacy organizations employ rhetoric to organize and enact social change? In terms of genres, how do these groups use similar or different rhetorical moves? Do these moves differ from those made by other student advocacy groups?

I recognize that, with time constraints, this is an abbreviated archival project. However, I think this will project will provide me an opportunity to learn more about Syracuse’s advocacy history and how those historical factors and events have informed contemporary understandings of disability advocacy.

Quite frankly, I’m pumped to start digging!



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