Disability Studies

On Rhetorical Agency & Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing

The last dissertation chapter I wrote was a qualitative one, and as I was drawing connections across different student and instructor responses, I kept coming across discussions of disclosure: students choosing not to disclose disabilities, students feeling like they need to disclose in order to get institutional support, instructors hoping students will disclose so they can better meet students’ needs. I’ve been interested in disclosure specifically in writing center settings, but this is the first time that I’ve really tried to untangle the politics of disclosure from both the instructor/consultant side and the student side.

While working on that chapter, I came across this great article by Stephanie Kerschbaum (how did I miss this?) and thought I’d share some brief notes from/on it.


I suggest that disability disclosures manifest within a complex system influenced by myriad factors, including circulating narratives of disability and able-bodiedness, relationships among interlocutors, and institutional and environmental contexts. Over time individuals learn ways of managing disability discourses, motivated by past experiences as well as by their short- and long-term goals for identity construction and social interaction. In this way, disability self-disclosures can be understood as the culmination of recurring processes in which past experiences are brought to bear on a present moment as individuals recognize opportune moments for action. 63

In “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing,” Kerschbaum explores how agency operates through the rhetorical performance of disability disclosures. This isn’t agency in the way that we might immediately assume—as “something that is purposefully or consciously wielded” (57). Instead, Kerschbaum draws on theories of rhetorical agency that position it “as a kind of kinetic energy that is actualized in rhetorical performance (Miller), as a ‘negotiation of subject and effect’ (Lundberg and Gunn 88), or as ‘an emergent property of embodied individuals’ (Cooper 421)” (63). She pays particular attention to Marilyn Cooper’s articulation of agency “in terms of a ‘perturbation and response’ as individuals participate in a never-ending series of feedback loops” (57).

Thinking of agency in this way, disclosures aren’t always purposeful, nor are they inherently empowering—a term I tend to associate with agency and claiming an identity. Disability disclosures are never static. They’re not always one thing, nor can they be reduced to binaries (empowering/disempowering, forced/voluntary, good/bad). They’re used to assert identity claims, to defend, to build community, to gain legitimacy. They’re contested. They’re consequential even if met with undesirable reactions.

Disability disclosures are situated and always negotiated between author and audience.

Kerschbaum argues, “Claiming a particular disability identity requires not only that speakers and writers assert it in interactional space but also that other interlocutors and audiences acknowledge that identity” (62). To claim and disclose a disability identity is a rhetorical act wherein the person disclosing makes an argument about herself that she hopes will be received well by the intended audience. People make sense of the different disability discourses that circulate around them in relation to their own experiences and goals for how they want to identify themselves and be identified by others.

This is true not only in the many everyday real-time interactions we have with students, instructors, colleagues, friends, and strangers, but also in asynchronous forms of communication. Kerschbaum focuses on disclosures in writing, arguing, “Written disclosures function kairotically as individuals face the moment of writing disclosure, and pieces composed at different times and in different places reflect not only the author’s imagining of an audience but also the circumstances surrounding the genesis of that text. Thus, over time, authors may differently address the function of disclosure” (65).

This was important for me both in thinking about the data I collected for my dissertation (Why were students disclosing to me but not to their instructors? Why did students choose not to disclose in an anonymous survey but opt to disclose in follow-up interviews?) and for my own work. I think sometimes these different disclosures are read as inconsistent, competing…why not disclose the same way each time? But, as Kerschbaum points out, there are consequences to disclosing, they are shaped by contexts, and—particularly if disclosure is a way to assert and shape identity claims—identities are dynamic. Sometimes I choose to disclose, and sometimes I don’t.

As I read through hundreds of student responses, I thought that this must be particularly true for students who disclose disabilities but are unsure of their audience’s positioning toward disability, who experience unintended consequences when they disclose, whose needs are potentially only met if they do disclose because institutional accommodations require formal disclosure and often make explicit that instructors themselves can’t make disability-related accommodations.

If we think of accommodations as written disclosures, we should also think of them as rhetorical. Often, accommodations are for fixed practices (e.g., a note taker) and maybe don’t apply to the writing classroom at all (e.g., more time on a test). But if we think of them as rhetorical, accommodating students becomes more of a negotiation of practices, a dynamic process rather than a static product—a conversation that is maintained throughout the semester rather than addressed in the first couple weeks.

For me, understanding disclosures as rhetorical means understanding that students disclose to us for particular reasons and that we should take the time to listen to and actively engage with students to develop classroom practices that are inclusive and accessible.



Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing.” Rhetoric Review 33.1 (2014): 55-71.


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