Reflections · Writing Centers

#iwca v.2.0: The Need to Diagnose

I’ve done a lot of tracing in the past year of WC articles that address issues of disability, and though it is unlikely that I’ve uncovered all relevant articles, I have found quite a number. As many in DS know, there have been waves of disability scholarship that reflect different understandings of disability, largely conceived within two main models: the medical and the social. I’m partial to Deborah Little’s definitions:

The medical model of disability defines disability as a chronic pathology or impairment linked to functional limitations. It is seen as an individual problem that requires a medical cure, rehabilitation, and/or compensation and assistance. In contrast, the social model of disability defines disability as a social construction in which disability results from the interaction of impairment and the social, political, spatial, architectural and cultural environment.

A medical model of disability positions students as individuals that must be “fixed” or “cured” of their individual deficits. In the WC, this coincides with a “remediation” model of tutoring practices that targets students with disabilities as remedial—something often contested in WC scholarship. In medical-influenced scholarship, disability is positioned that tutors must cope with and that, often, cannot be helped at all.

DS rejects medical models, moving toward social understandings of disability. Though there is not a lot of WC scholarship that has adopted this critical lens, what exists can be used as models for future work. As early as 1992, Shoshona Beth Konstant advocated for accessible tutoring practices: “Use combinations of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic techniques—the multisensory approach. Say it and draw it; read text aloud; use color to illustrate things” (7). Here, Konstant suggests a number of tutoring practices that can be adopted for meeting the needs of all students—a universally designed approach to tutoring.

One of my favorite approaches is articulated by Jean Kiedaisch and Sue Dinitz in “Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The Possibilities of Universal Design”—a useful model for applying DS to writing center training and theory. And Rebecca Day Babcock’s work with deaf students and students with pragmatic impairment provides useful models for tutors to rethink inaccessible practices. Though few, these examples of social scholarship broaden the scope, and value, of thinking critically about disability.

Although the medical and social are the two predominant ways that disability has historically been theorized, they don’t tend to account for current discussions in WC scholarship, which I like to refer to as the accommodation model (influenced greatly by Shannon Walter’s articulation of the “impairment-specific” model that targets particular disabilities).

The accommodation model is a well intentioned approach to disability that seeks to meet students’ needs yet positions disability as something different, particular to individuals rather than writing spaces and practices. It is also the approach that I saw at the sessions on disability that I attended at IWCA.

There is little WC scholarship from the past twenty years that explicitly argues that students with disabilities cannot be helped. However, remnants of the medical model surface in the form of focusing on deficits of students with disabilities. Often, this scholarship focuses on accommodating a particular type of disability (a la the impairment-specific model) or on a particular student rather than addressing larger, systemic issues.

At IWCA, the particular type of disability in need of accommodation seemed to be Asperger Syndrome. For anyone who follows disability discourse, this may not be a surprise. Autism and ASDs are the latest “epidemic” and the familiar warning (1 in 110 people in the US are affected by autism) from autism advocacy organization rang in my ears as I listened to folks discuss AS. There was so much focus on diagnosing students and fixing students’ issues. I even heard an argument that AS “is an obstacle that can be overcome.”

An overwhelming statement on its own (to think that students can and should overcome their disabilities), the most staggering part was that all were in agreement.

My issue, here, is the grounds of my own IWCA presentation. It is unethical to try to diagnose students who come to the writing center and ableist to assume that students with any disability have the same “symptoms” and thus benefit from the same diagnoses and practices. All students who enter the writing center are different­—they have different cultural backgrounds, personal experiences, levels of literacy, physical abilities, learning needs. What makes a student with a disability so radically different from other student writers? Why do we insist that student writers have the same abilities, composing processes, final products? 

Why do we need to diagnose?

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