This is a full-text copy of my paper for the Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education Conference, taking place at the University of Delaware. My presentation is titled, “‘I Know It’s Touchy, But Should It Be?’: Diagnosing Students in the Writing Center.” It’s an extension of my talk at C’s last March, which I’m continuing to process.
This time last year, I was at a writing center conference, choking back tears as I walked out of a crowded presentation about the increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome who frequent university writing centers. I had been listening to a presentation about some of the telltale characteristics of autism spectrum disorders and how tutors should respond to these traits. These were things like, “Don’t encourage outlining because autistic writers struggle to connect their ideas” and, “Autistic people have bad handwriting, so you should offer them the opportunity to use the computer.”
At the end, the speaker said that AS “is an obstacle that can be overcome if the student wants,” adding that tutors can aid in this process. Much to my dismay, the Q&A quickly became a mix of whole-hearted agreement and discussion of how to identify students who seem suspicious and may become violent.
Cue my eyes welling up as I asked a question and then awkwardly walked out.
This anecdote is just one of many that emphasizes the need to diagnose students. It contributes to a larger narrative that positions disability as dangerous if left undisclosed, that encourages tutors to do the diagnosing (or to at least encourage students to self-disclose), and that contributes to the idea that the writing center is a space where students can be fixed by identifying traits of particular disabilities that contribute to “bad” writing.
The premise of my talk is that disability gets constructed as something that must be disclosed in order for consultants to feel comfortable and safe working with disabled students. This emphasis on diagnosis, however, often leads to fixed practices and reinforces the remediation model that writing centers have historically worked to position themselves against.
The questions, then, that are driving this talk, that I certainly can’t answer here but am curious if folks have thoughts on, are these: Why do we feel the need to diagnose students—or coax them into self-disclosing—before we can tutor them? Why has the writing center—as a space for one-on-one, individualized instruction that has historically fought the remediation label—become a space of remediation for disabled students?
From their inception as writing clinics—spaces to remediate struggling or deficient writers—writing centers have fought a remedial label. Nancy Maloney Grimm describes WCs as vulnerable and thus eager to check in and adapt to student and institutional needs in order to bolster the way they’re perceived. Grimm notes that when adaptive responses develop from a defensive place or a place of anxiety, “we repeat patterns rather than change orientation” (534).
And there is certainly a lot of anxiety about disability.
Writing center scholarship about disability—and attitudes about it, as well—are still deeply entrenched in medical model notions of disability. As we know, medical models insist that students must be “fixed” or “cured” of their individual deficits. In the WC, this coincides with a “remediation” model of tutoring practices that target disabled students as remedial. Although disability isn’t a hot topic, when it is mentioned, it has frequently centered on learning disabilities (LD) and how tutors can cope with LD students.
An interest in LD—at least in The Writing Lab Newsletter—began in 1984 when George Gleason’s article, “A Reader Asks…” prompted a spirited discussion about identifying LD (See Gills, Lauby, and Scanlon) that was picked up again a decade later (See Brainard, Mullin, Baker) by folks still wanting to identify, target, and treat the characteristics of students’ disabilities.
This focus on identifying characteristics has significant medical undertones that have been reified through the articles that are reprinted in guides for writing center directors and tutors.
For example, in her anthologized essay that was originally published in 1994, Julie Neff suggests practices that could help LD students but nevertheless positions such students as Other. She 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 cues tutors that they need to treat LD students differently—an idea that is emphasized in the essay through a medical discussion of the causes of LD. Though Neff is convinced that writing centers can serve the needs of disabled students, she relies on medical discourse to support that point, reinforcing the need to diagnose.
Another example is Steve Sherwood’s 1996 article, “Apprenticed to Failure: Learning from the Students We Can’t Help.” In a reflection of a failed session, Sherwood writes, “I had no training in helping students cope with learning disabilities, much less with the effects of a severe brain injury” (49), concluding that we’ll continue to encounter LD students who “despite our best efforts, we can’t help” (56). Sherwood ultimately argues that tutors aren’t trained for working with LD students and that writing centers aren’t spaces that can help them. Tanya Titchkosky identifies this as a “You can’t accommodate everybody” attitude, one that sees particular bodies as “‘naturally’ a problem for some spaces” (35).
Now, it’s important to acknowledge two things here. First, both of these articles are from the mid-1990s, and writing center scholarship has certainly progressed since then, so at the outset, it may seem unfair to point at them as representative texts about disability. Second, positioning disability as individual deficit is common in a lot of early disability scholarship in any discipline. Comparatively, it’s rare to find texts that position disabled students as completely beyond the help of tutors. This is possibly because of writing centers’ historical attention to alternative modes of knowing, composing, and learning. It’s also possible that a resistance to pathologizing students is reflective of the larger resistance to the “remediation” label that writing centers fight.
That said, I wanted to highlight these two articles because they’re from well-respected writing center scholars who’ve made a significant impact on the discourse and values that circulate in the discipline. Neff’s article has been reprinted and anthologized. These articles both reflect outdated notions of LD students, yet they’re consistently given as examples of disability scholarship and taught in tutor training classes, extending the influence of such attitudes to contemporary times.
Shortly after my trip to the writing center conference last year, I participated in on an online discussion about working with students with disabilities through PeerCentered, which is an online space for folks interested in writing centers to talk about issues they find important.
The conversation ranged from topics like how writing centers work with campus disability services and how to make spaces and resources more accessible to whether or not it’s the role of tutors to diagnose students.
Forum participants expressed anxiety about being able to successfully work with a student (and to meet that student’s needs) if they didn’t know what disability the student had. This concern comes from a good place: the desire to meet the needs of students. However, it’s tricky (or “touchy”) for a number of reasons.
First, there’s the idea that we’re not qualified to work with disabled students, so there’s a desire to refer them to disability services. Then, there’s the idea that if we are qualified to work with disabled students, we can only do so if we know or can determine their diagnosis. This assumes not only that a diagnosis is vital to working with the student but also that particular disabilities benefit from particular practices. There are instances, of course, where this is true and some scholars have picked up this idea in responsible ways—for example, Rebecca Day Babcock’s scholarship on working with deaf students. The issue emerges when we assume that all students with a particular disability are a homogenous group who benefit from the same practices.
Although some in this online discussion did argue that the writing center isn’t responsible for diagnosing students and that students should self-disclose only if they choose, the insistence on diagnosing and disclosing was overwhelming.
Now at this point, it may just seem like I’m saying writing center practices are completely out of hand or that disabled students are always targeted and treated poorly. This isn’t the case. I’m not trying to vilify writing centers, directors, or consultants. As I mentioned before, writing centers have a rich history of fighting against the label that they are sites for remediation, focusing instead on individualized instruction, alternative pedagogies, and creating inclusive spaces.
There is tension, though, because current conversations about disability don’t often mirror the push against remediation for which writing centers have historically advocated. There’s tension with giving all students who frequent centers one-on-one attention but not feeling qualified to do that with particular student bodies. There’s tension with feeling like we need to diagnose students or make them disclose to us before we can help them learn.
I think about this every time a colleague tells me they have a disabled student, lists the characteristics of that student, and then asks me what I would do to address those issues. I think about it when colleagues ask if they can refer their disabled students to me in the writing center—as if I’m the only one who can assist them. I think about it when I sit in on conference presentations, participate in online discussions, and read scholarly articles.
And I certainly don’t have easy answers to this because—again—I know these come from places of good intention. My colleagues want to help their students succeed; writing center consultants want to help students with their writing.
As Laura Hershey reminds us, though, good intentions aren’t always quite good enough. She writes, “It is an uncomfortable truth … that actions which are intended to help a certain group of people may actually harm them. By harm, I mean—among other things—that these actions may reinforce the already devalued status of people with disabilities in this society” (230)
No one wants to hear that their good intentions are harmful, particularly not in a highly public situation or context with unfamiliar people like a conference or discussion forum.
So while I don’t think this is the solution, I think one way to address these tensions is on a local level. Motivated by my less-than-pleasant experiences trying to grapple with the desire to diagnose students last fall, I spearheaded an online reading group this past spring for other folks who work in our university’s writing center. It was voluntary, of course, but about 10 people volunteered to participate, which is a good number considering professional development isn’t required.
This group gave us a chance not only to read some of the medicalized discourse that circulates but also check out some of the more progressive texts that address disability. We read three texts over the course of the semester: Neff’s anthologized article that I referenced earlier and two articles about universal design (Kiedaisch & Dinitz, Dunn & Dunn de Mers)—one focused specifically in the writing center and the other expanding to the composition classroom, too.
I didn’t want to dictate our conversations because I wanted to have a genuine dialogue. We started with the Neff article, and I posed a number of discussion questions ranging from what we can gain from thinking about the “causes of LD,” what assumptions are made about the abilities of LD students, and the benefits and dangers of attempting to identify LD characteristics.
The responses to these readings and the ensuing dialogue were both critical and nuanced. My colleagues pointed out the things that obviously date this text and were quick to note that LD students not only are adaptive but that the tutor can help not by diagnosing but by adapting her techniques to deliver information and feedback in different ways, something Shoshona Beth Konstant advocated for as early as 1992 when she wrote, “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).
There was also attention in these responses to disclosure, perhaps because I specifically asked about the politics of trying to identify disabled students. What I found really interesting about this conversation is that even though everyone agreed that the article was dated, that Neff didn’t give LD students enough credit, and that the tutor’s role should be to adapt with the student (rather than attempting to diagnose and fix the student), this undertone that disclosure would help the session persisted.
A similar persistence occurred in the online PeerCentered forum. When I asked another participant why we needed to know the diagnosis as long as we knew how best the student learned, they responded that disabled students don’t know how they best learn. Although my experience is limited, I’ve found that the students I work with who self-disclose are also the ones who can consistently communicate what does and doesn’t work best for them. Try as I might, we just danced around this issue with others jumping in to agree/disagree.
In the more local context of my writing center’s online reading discussions, though—perhaps because we know each other and all work in the same place—there was more space to put pressure on these ideas. One person wanted to know how we create environments that are safe for disclosing yet immediately followed up with a question of whether we need to know specifics about particular disabilities or whether our standard student-centered practices are sufficient.
This private, local environment fostered much more critical discussion to the desires for diagnosing and disclosing. Working at this local level might be more useful for addressing attitudes about disability as they manifest within our actual writing center spaces, on the level where students are. Being self-reflexive, reading current scholarship, and offering a safe forum to discuss scholarship and our practices are small yet productive ways to address these desires.
I imagine one takeaway from my talk today is that I’m against students disclosing in the writing center. And this is both true and not true. I’ve had many students disclose to me, and it has been useful, but it has been useful specifically because they disclosed in order to direct our time together. I’ve presented about this before, but we often default to practices framed for students with particular abilities. The standard read-aloud model, for example, privileges able-bodied students who hear, speak, and can focus for long periods of time.
Even as someone who does not claim a processing or auditory disability, I hate reading students’ papers aloud during a session because then I have to skim them quietly in order to take in the information. When students disclose to me, it’s often in the context of “I have [insert disability.] It would really help me if we did [this thing]. Can we do that instead?”
Students who don’t respond to our standard practices are frequently positioned as different, dangerous, beyond the help of peer and professional consultants. I feel like desires for students to disclose largely hinges on our desires to know whether or not they will react to our standard practices, which has significant overlaps with accommodation. That is, we agree to change our standards only once a student presents us with formal notice.
When we focus on diagnosing students (or getting them to disclose to us), we assume that we know what is best for them. We also assume that, once they have disclosed, that we will know what to do with that information. Unfortunately, what seems to commonly happen at this step is either a one-size-fits-all approach that assumes all students with “x” disability learn “y” way or a referral to disability services, which positions the student as unable to be helped in this space.
My questions for you all, then, are about how we address these desires for disclosure:
- Why do we feel responsible—as instructors and as consultants—to diagnose students?
- How do we take our good intentions and channel them into good practices?
- And though I’ve mainly focused on the reasons why disclosing may not be in students’ best interests, what are the benefits to creating writing environments that encourage disclosure? How do we do this in ways that don’t alienate students?