RSA 2012

This is the paper I delivered at this year’s RSA conference in Philly. It is largely influenced by the article I wrote for Praxis.

“Disability and the Multiliteracy Center: Reframing the Rhetorical Space of the Writing Center”

If you’ve worked in, visited, or even heard about writing centers, you can likely imagine the typical writing center space: often located in a basement, often a bit too small. If well funded, there are a few computers or even an entire lab. There are tables and chairs, clustered to create conversation spaces. The arrangement often reflects the standard model: talk. Consultant and student discuss the students’ concerns and goals, one of them reads the student’s text aloud, then they discuss the text together. This is standard practice, but two factors complicate this model: disability and multiliteracy.

Spaces that privilege the read-aloud model also privilege the able-bodied student—a student who speaks and hears, who can sit and focus for 30- or 60-minute sessions, who learns best through dialogue. In the early 2000s, the New London Group recognized and articulated multiliteracies as an opportunity to move beyond the limitations of print- and word-based literacies, to value other modes of communication, such as the visual, aural, gestural, spatial, and multimodal (28). Kress argues that these modes are embodied, that “[h]uman bodies have a wide range of means of engagement with the world” that occur in various and multiple ways. Writing centers that support these multimodalities are reframed as multiliteracy centers, spaces that David Sheridan argues…

  • are equal to the diversity of semiotic options composers have in the 21st century;
  • are staffed by consultants who have the rhetorical, pedagogical, and technical capacities to support this diversity; and
  • facilitate the competent and critically reflective use of technologies and other material, institutional, and cultural resources. (“Introduction” 6-7)

In 2000, John Trimbur observed that writing centers were starting to support oral presentations, online tutorials, and workshops in evaluating web resources (30). Trimbur argues that this multiliterate shift is an opportunity and “a challenge to develop more equitable social futures by redistributing the means of communication” (30). I want to emphasize these “equitable social futures” because as writing center spaces shift, it’s important to consider rhetorical implications from a disability perspective: how the physical spaces change, what social practices occur within them, and which bodies can access them. For this talk, then, I want to address the following questions: How is disability currently framed in writing center discourse? How do shifts to multiliteracy centers work to reframe disability? What role does the physical space of the multiliteracy center play in shaping both rhetorical practices and constructions of disability?

How is disability currently framed in writing center discourse?

Like the first-year composition classroom, writing centers must potentially serve all university students regardless of their disciplines, expertise, or abilities. As the number of students with disabilities increase, whether their disabilities are (un)documented or (in)visible, writing centers must be better prepared to serve them. Writing centers haven’t historically supported students with disabilities, despite emphases on individualized instruction, alternative pedagogies, and creating inclusive spaces where students feel comfortable. Indeed, students with disabilities are often treated differently within these spaces. This rhetorical construction of disability as Other can be seen most clearly in writing center scholarship.

The two main models of disability are the medical and the social. The medical model defines disability in terms of individual deficit that requires some sort of rehabilitation (Little). Within writing center discourse, this often coincides with a “remediation” model of tutoring that constructs students with disabilities as individuals who need “cured” of their bad writing. Often, the medical model manifests in notions that students with disabilities cannot be served—or remediated—within these spaces, that they are somehow beyond the expertise or qualifications of tutors. This can be seen in the scholarship from the mid-1980s, such as “How Do Others Deal with Such Special People?” and “Understanding the Dyslexic Writer,” and from the 1990s, such as “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can’t Help.” Such scholarship constructs disability as something that cannot be addressed within the writing center, what Tanya Titchkosky calls a “you can’t accommodate everybody” attitude that sees particular bodies as “‘naturally’ a problem for some spaces” (35). Generally, though, few current writing center conversations situate disability this clearly into a medical model.

This could suggest a social turn. The social model defines disability as a “social construction in which disability results from the interaction of impairment and the social, political, spatial, architectural and cultural environment” (Little). Yet despite the great work done by writing center scholars such as Jean Kiedaisch & Sue Dinitz about universal design, and Rebecca Day Babcock’s careful qualitative work with deaf students, writing center conversations are not quite at this social level. Many still retain remnants of the medical model through a focus on individual deficit. Heavily influenced by Shannon Walter’s articulation of an “impairment-specific” model that targets particular disabilities and creates particular solutions (429), I see writing centers operating within an accommodation model—a well intentioned approach to disability that seeks to meet students’ needs yet still rhetorically constructs disability as something different that is particular to individual students rather than to writing spaces and practices.

A classic example of the accommodation model is Julie Neff’s anthologized essay, “Learning Disabilities and the Writing Center,” a resource used by both directors and tutors. Here, Neff writes, “Although learning-disabled students come to the writing center with a variety of special needs, they have one thing in common: they need more specific help than other students” (382). This specific help comes in the form of treating students with LD as “the intelligent, resourceful persons they are” (382) yet asking them “seemingly obvious” and “simple” questions (385) to trigger ideas. This cues tutors that they need to treat students with disabilities differently from “normal” learners. This is emphasized by the fact that the essay begins with a medical discussion of the causes of LD and a translation of medical knowledge to proposed practice. Though Neff is well intentioned, convinced that writing centers can meet the needs of students with disabilities, she relies on medical discourse and stereotypes to support that point.

This historical framing of scholarship speaks to larger representations and conversations, showing how the WC community values (or doesn’t) disability. What the overview shows—that conversations are largely focused on targeting and accommodating particular disabilities rather than changing systemic practices—is as important as what’s left unsaid. Absent in these discussions about disability is the role of space. Nathalie Singh-Corcoran and Amin Emika write that “No conversation is more pervasive [in WC discourse] than writing center space: where a center is located, what a center should look like, what a center should feel like, what should happen in the space, and what should be the uses of the space.” Yet, conversations about disability and space don’t intersect. There’s a lack of discourse of how space functions rhetorically to grant or deny access to particular bodies, how space accommodates needs, and how space is deeply interconnected with accessible practices.

How do shifts to multiliteracy centers work to reframe disability, and how do these new spaces shape both rhetorical practices and constructions of disability?

A writing center, or a multiliteracy center, is a social space. Henri Lefebvre proposes a useful spatial theory for thinking about this space—a conceptual triad consisting of spatial practice (or perceived space), representations of space (or conceptualized space), and representational space (or lived space). This triad is important not only for understanding how space and practice are connected, but also for thinking about disability’s construction within the space. For example, if the writing center is conceived as a space that values able-bodied practices, then students with disabilities will be perceived as radically different from other students and will be represented differently, Othered. If, however, a multiliteracy center is conceived as a space intended to support a diverse range of composing and learning needs, and all students are perceived as having a variety of abilities, then students with disabilities will be represented within the larger context of twenty-first-century learners with diverse needs.

Let’s return to that original image of a writing center: a one-room center with chairs and tables clustered to support talk, to support able bodies and able-bodied forms of communication. What happens to this social space when it becomes a multiliteracy center? James Inman argues that multiliteracy spaces must be inclusive to print, oral, audio, video, and webtext composing and multiple interactions with texts (24). At the end of his chapter on space, Inman turns to disability, writing, “A final, but vital, consideration should be the accessibility of any zoned space for individuals with disabilities. In this pursuit, the idea is not just to make spaces minimally accessible, but instead to consider how the disabled may be able to most fully participate in the uses for which the spaces were designed” (Inman 27). Here, Inman conceives of disability as integral to spatial considerations, yet the brief mention at the end of the chapter represents disability as a rhetorical afterthought instead of a leading concern of spatial equality.

Syracuse University Writing Center, cubicles
Syracuse University Writing Center, individual cubicles in the front room

Spatial equality necessitates a removal of features that could disable users from interacting within that space. Bertram Bruce and Maureen Hogan note that physical environments construct disability because, as tools, technologies, and practices become naturalized, people who cannot use them are represented as disabled (297). This aligns with Lefebvre’s theory. If we think of chairs as a natural part of the writing center environment, then they disable students who are unable to use them (Hitt 3). Similarly, Cathy Davidson argues that we are more likely to label a student as LD if she is unresponsive to our dominant pedagogical practices (10). If we think of talk and the read-aloud model as standard practices, then, students who don’t engage with them are disabled. The shift toward multiliteracy centers presents an opportunity to place disability and space in conversation and to more fully consider what accessible spaces look like.

When a multiliteracy center creates spaces for different composing practices, it becomes more accessible to students with disabilities and to a wide range of diverse learners and composers. Multiple and flexible spaces create more possibilities for all students. For example…

  • Cubicles designed for small group work could also benefit students with ADD who may be distracted in larger settings or students with autism-spectrum disorders who may prefer to be in less populated spaces.
  • Computers stations benefit students working on multimodal projects while also benefiting students who use or prefer technologies to communicate.
  • Spaces with manipulatives that students can physically arrange encourage brainstorming, aiding kinesthetic learners or students who need to move or play to stay focused.
  • Whiteboards and areas where students can storyboard can also help students brainstorm and visually map their ideas, which can be useful for visual learners and students with LD who may struggle with writing and need an opportunity to visually develop and connect their ideas.
  • Finally, spaces with mobile furniture to encourage collaborative work can be useful for students with physical disabilities who may have difficulty navigating a center where the furniture is grounded and grouped closer together.
SUWC, main room with tables, computer stations, and chairs arranged for collaborative work
Syracuse University Writing Center, main room with tables for consulting, computer stations, and chairs arranged for collaborative work

What does this mean for our one-room writing center with tables and chairs? A shift in space that better conceives of different learning and composing needs. For some centers, this means a total redesign to support multiple rooms and new technologies. As Sheridan reminds us, though, sometimes a center doesn’t have the funds, resources, or space to build a center from scratch, and it’s important to recognize that a center doesn’t need to change completely to implement accessible practices (Hitt 3). What makes a multiliteracy center accessible is not necessarily the space, but a dialogue between space and practice.


Lefebvre reminds us that the physical spaces we inhabit affect our actions within those spaces; in turn, our actions and social practices impact those spaces. When we talk about practice, then, we should also be talking about space. And when we talk about either of these, we should be talking about accessibility. Just because a multiliteracy center has multiple rooms and resources and supports multiple and flexible practices does not mean that the center will be accessible to all students. Even within these spaces, explicit conversations about disability are necessary to ensure that the needs of all students are met. Such conversations must move away from historical and current conversations about disability that target particular disabilities, identifying characteristics and assuming that students with disabilities are a homogenous group that must be treated a particular way. Instead, multiliteracy encourages us to think more inclusively about students’ learning and composing needs, to recognize that all students can benefit from engaging with texts in different ways in different contexts. All students have a variety of rhetorical, intellectual, and physical abilities, and multiliteracy centers must be ready to adapt not only their physical spaces and practices, but also the way they construct disability and the needs of all learners (Hitt 6).

Works cited info is available upon request.


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