Computers & Writing 2012

This is the paper I delivered at this year’s C&W conference at NCSU.

“Unlearning Accommodation: Universal Design for Learning and Multimodal Pedagogies”

Disability diagnoses are steadily rising. According to the CDC, one in six children has a developmental disability, such as autism, ADD/ADHD, cerebral palsy, or an intellectual disability (Boyle et al.). And in her 2010 report, “Accommodating College Students with Learning Disabilities,” Melana Zyla Vickers claims that 2% of college students have a documented learning disability, which doesn’t include students with intellectual disabilities, autism, or other severe diagnoses (3). Of course, this also excludes undocumented disabilities. It is estimated that only half of college students report their disabilities, and many forego accommodations for fear that they will be treated differently by their instructors and peers (Walters 427). These numbers have significant implications for the composition classrooms that must serve all university students regardless of their disciplines, expertise, or abilities.

At the same time, these numbers may not be particularly significant other than to indicate what Cathy Davidson argues is an increase in labels. We are more likely to label a student as learning disabled (LD) if she doesn’t fit into our educational system or doesn’t respond to our pedagogical practices (10). Davidson asks, “What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?” (101). This question points to an interesting tension: What if our writing pedagogies, and not our students, are at fault? What if, instead of limiting our classroom practices and providing accommodations for students who can’t succeed within those limitations, we create more accessible writing pedagogies? Can a multimodal pedagogy ensure this accessibility?

In many ways, a multimodal pedagogy supports accessible practices through its attention to multiplicity in various modes and media and in its focus on flexibility in processes and products. Disability studies also offers a valuable lens for supporting pedagogical accessibility: Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Adapted from Universal Design (UD), the idea that all spaces must be physically accessible to all people, UDL focuses on creating equitable and flexible pedagogies for all learners. I offer UDL as an opportunity to include disability as a critical modality and to unlearn current notions of disability and accommodation, which position disability as an individual issue, ignoring larger pedagogical inaccessibility. UDL offers a framework for identifying such inaccessible practices and crafting multimodal pedagogies that do more than offer a retrofitted model of accommodation.

Unlearning Accommodation

Jay Dolmage writes, “For all students to have access to those things composition has to offer—literate ‘skills,’ a voice, the words to write the world—we must ensure that disability is recognized and respected” (15, emphasis added). Others, too, have called for recognizing dis/ability as an academic inquiry. Brenda Jo Brueggemann argues that comp classrooms have a “long, proud history of making the invisible visible and of examining how language both reflects and supports notions of Other” (370). James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson argue that disability is both a social construction and a critical modality (301), arguing for including not just disability but also disability studies. As writing instructors, we work to develop students’ critical thinking and writing, and according to Margaret Price, pedagogies that incorporate DS are necessarily critical because the DS discipline is founded on the critique of social and political assumptions (57). Incorporating Disability Studies into our multimodal pedagogies is a step toward increasing accessibility and respecting disability.

Respecting disability requires moving away from the ideas that disability is a student deficit and that university-sanctioned accommodations are the only support for students with disabilities. These notions position students as subjects who must be “cured” of their individual deficits in order to succeed within our classrooms. Linda White argues that this understanding of disability as an individualized issue allows education systems to frame disability as an “unexpected” failure that doesn’t require systemic change (726). While accommodations are important for providing students with academic support, the accommodation process emphasizes disability as something that students must take responsibility to support.

  • First, the student must self-disclose, pay for a diagnosis, and follow up with documentation.
  • Then, an administrator or committee decides whether she qualifies for services.
  • If so, a coordinator meets with the student to discuss and determine services.
  • The office then sends the student’s relevant professor(s) a note for accommodations needed on a certain day or certain period of time.

Even if a student successfully acquires accommodations, Kimber Barber Fendley and Chris Hamel remind us that accommodations rarely apply to writing classes:

  1. Accommodations attend predominantly to product-based changes.
  2. They are top-down policies that are the same nationwide, which means they often can’t take particular student needs into consideration.
  3. They do not explicitly support the work promoted within comp classrooms.
  4. And, as mentioned, accommodations require student-initiated change—emphasizing the idea that disability is an individual matter. (528-29)

Then, there is the reminder that most college students don’t request accommodations, so many students don’t even have this basic level of support.

The question remains: How can we meet the needs of all students without relying solely on accommodations for some? Linda White argues that including DS in our pedagogical considerations, in crafting assignments and assessments, can allow us to examine “whether teaching practices that require accommodations are really necessary” (728). Not without its own faults, I offer UDL as an opportunity to include DS in our pedagogies. UDL does not replace accommodations because, even in a universally designed class, some students will need more specific support. However, a multimodal pedagogy that applies the principles of UDL better recognizes and supports students’ different physical abilities, types of knowledge, and modes of learning. Then when students do request accommodations, it’s not an Othering process because a universally designed class acknowledges the different learning and composing needs of all students.

The Three Principles of UDL

The National Center of UDL’s website states, “UDL provides a blueprint for creating instructional goals, methods, materials, and assessments that work for everyone—not a single, one-size-fits-all solution but rather flexible approaches that can be customized and adjusted for individual needs” (CAST). Such curricular practices are equally important overlaps to multimodal writing pedagogies. For the rest of this talk, I want to focus on these overlaps between UDL’s three principles—multiple means of representation, action and expression, and engagement—and three multimodal practices: teaching, composing, and learning.

Principle 1: Multiple Means of Representation
Principle 1: Multiple Means of Representation via

The first principle of UDL is Multiple Means of Representation, which is useful for thinking about teaching and how we share information with students. The guidelines for this first principle are 1) to provide options for perception, 2) to provide options for language, mathematic expressions, and symbols; and 3) to provide options for comprehension. Here I see perception and comprehension as very interconnected concepts that we can apply to the multimodal classroom.

To reduce barriers to learning, it’s important to provide the same information through different modalities. Even in a multimodal classroom, it’s easy to default to talking as the major mode of communication. Students can perceive the same information in a number of different ways, and it can be useful both to share those perceptions and to switch up the privileged modality. One way to do this is a class blog where different students take notes and post them on the blog in whatever mode they think is most useful—textual, visual, etc. This provides students with the opportunity to perceive the information differently while also aiding in comprehension. The CAST website states, “The purpose of education is not to make information accessible, but rather to teach learners how to transform accessible information into useable knowledge.” Our practices are inaccessible if students can’t take that information and usefully apply it. Providing time to supply background knowledge and to demonstrate or model new modes is important for ensuring that all students have equal opportunities to create knowledge with the information we share.

Principle 2: Multiple Means of Action & Expression
Principle 2: Multiple Means of Action & Expression via

The second principle, Multiple Means of Action and Expression, emphasizes this creation of knowledge through students’ composing processes. Multiple means of action and expression include 1) providing options for physical action, 2) providing options for expression and communication, and 3) providing options for executive functions. This principle links directly to the work that happens within multimodal composition classrooms, and it provides an opportunity to reflect on what exactly we mean when we say “multimodal.”

Pedagogies that encourage the use of technology to compose and learn create opportunities for students who don’t engage with traditional teaching and composing practices, but they also exclude students who don’t have the tech savvy to think rhetorically about how to use technology to create meaning. They also exclude students who may benefit from physical engagement. Because of this, it’s important to remember that multimodal pedagogies do not necessitate digital tools and media, even though both multimodality and UDL often rely on technology. Jody Shipka, for example, has argued for a broader understanding of multimodality that includes print and digital texts, performances, photographs, and intact or repurposed objects (300). This understanding is more accessible: if students want to compose essays, collages, videos, or webtexts, these all fit within the framework of multimodal pedagogies.

This broadening of multimodality emphasizes that we cannot just simply shift from one mode to another. Sometimes, multimodal pedagogies replace alphabetic print and textual practices with a particular modality, such as sound or visuals. I worry, though, that such one-to-one replacements are not truly multimodal or accessible. CAST warns against offering only one mode or media because “it is important for all learners to learn composition, not just writing, and to learn the optimal medium for any particular content of expression and audience.” Allowing students to choose from a wide range of modalities—rather than delineating one—provides more options for students who may not have access to particular modalities. It also allows students to develop a wider range of expression and to make more informed decisions about using particular modalities in particular rhetorical contexts.

Principle 3: Multiple Means of Engagement
Principle 3: Multiple Means of Engagement via

This development of critical skills leads to UDL’s third and final principle: Multiple Means of Engagement, which connects to students’ different approaches to learning and processing information. This last principle’s guidelines are 1) to provide options for recruiting interest, 2) options for sustaining effort and persistence, and 3) options for self-regulation. Interest, in particular, can teach us a lot about unlearning perceptions of disability, and I return to Davidson who claims that students are failing because school doesn’t interest them. As an example, she cites ADD: “ADD almost never applies to all activities, only those in which the child is not interested. This isn’t a disability (a fixed biological or cognitive condition) but a disposition (susceptible to change depending on the environment). Keep the kids interested and ADD goes away” (80). This echoes the idea that students are labeled as failures or as LD if they don’t respond to our pedagogies. We live in a world with multiple modes—digital, non-digital, and always embodied—and our pedagogies must reflect that if we want to engage students.

Multimodality can help to increase interest by supporting students’ values in both individual and collaborative contexts. Students can often pursue their own topics in comp courses, but, as I’m sure we all know, that isn’t always enough to sustain interest. Multimodality adds an extra element to interest, encouraging autonomy and value through choices in mode and media. If a student has personal interests in music, she can focus on music as a content inquiry and make a music video or recording for her project. When students’ values are supported and students are given responsibility for their own learning, they can learn more about the rhetorical choices of processes and methodologies, technologies and materials, and how product(s) will be delivered and received by an audience (Shipka 287).

Finally, supporting students’ values allows us to better support differences. Here, I think again of Davidson and “collaboration by difference,” which entails a level of unlearning, of seeing opportunities for collaboration when others may see shortcomings of difference. Davidson writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (100). Positioning difference as deficit risks students’ disengagement from the class. Collaboration by difference, however, recognizes that all students have particular strengths and expertise that add value to their group and, ultimately, to the class.

UDL and multimodality have a lot of intersectional value. I see UDL’s potential for incorporating Disability Studies into the composition classroom, not only as a critical modality, but as a way to recognize that all students have particular abilities and needs. I see opportunities for extending the great work that many multimodal composition instructors already do to further reduce learning barriers. Finally, I see potential for beginning to unlearn some of the limitations of accommodation—not the good work that accommodations do to support students—but the constraints that accommodation policies place on this support and the individual stigma that they often associate to disability.


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