This is a text-based version of my RSA presentation “Rhetorics of Overcoming.” My talk is part of a larger panel titled “Changing Rhetorics of Access(ibility)” with co-panelists Sushil Oswal, Adam Newman, and Dale Ireland.
I couldn’t be physically present at RSA this year, so if you’d like to listen to, watch, or read (it’s captioned!) a version of my talk in video form, you can access it here.
In this presentation, I offer a glimpse into the rhetorics of overcoming about mental and psychiatric disabilities in higher education by analyzing the #AcademicAbleism Twitter hashtag. This discourse is important not only for understanding the saturation of rhetorics of overcoming in higher education but also to better understand the in/accessibility of our curricula for students (and instructors) with mental disabilities.
I. Rhetorics of Overcoming
The overcoming narrative is a classic trope in disability studies that positions disability as something that must be overcome in order for an individual to be successful—the disability version of the bootstraps narrative. Simi Linton argues that overcoming stems from ableist ideologies that position disability and disabled groups as inferior to able-bodied groups. Linton explains, “The popular phrase overcoming a disability is used most often to describe someone with a disability who seems competent and successful in some way, in a sentence something like ‘She has overcome her disability and is a great success’” (Claiming Disability 17).
Extended to rhetoric, the ideology embedded in overcoming is one “of personal triumph over a personal condition” (18). That is, disability is an individual issue that requires individual attention. In Disability Rhetoric, Jay Dolmage explores some of the disability “myths” or tropes, including overcoming. He writes, “In this myth, the person with a disability overcomes their impairment through hard work or has some special talent that offsets their deficiencies” (39). Focusing on overcoming allows us not to focus on the complex material realities of disability.
In higher education, we are particularly focused on students and instructors overcoming mental and psychiatric disabilities because of their stigma.
As Katie Rose Guest Pryal explains, disability disclosures of mental illness are highly tenuous in academia where we are “often still devoted to the mythos of the good man speaking well, the professor as bastion of reason, the cogito ergo sum” (“Disclosure Blues”). Indeed, talking with a professor about mental illness stigma, she reports, “Although this stigma is common everywhere, she told me, ‘in academia, one’s brain is supposed to be the most essential asset one has.’” Reflecting on her own psychiatric disability, Pryal describes being fearful that people would view her as irrational and, thus, mentally and rhetorically unable to be a professor.
The mentally ill are often stripped of rhetorical significance, dismissed as rhetorically unsound. As Catherine Prendergast has argued, “To be disabled mentally is to be disabled rhetorically” (“On the Rhetorics of Mental Disability” 57). Mental and psychiatric disabilities strip people of their rhetorical ability. In Mad at School, Margaret Price writes, “To lack rhetoricity is to lack all basic freedoms and rights, including the freedom to express ourselves and the right to be listened to” (26-7).
Here, I offer #AcademicAbleism as an example of hashtag activism that illustrates the context within which we talk about, understand, and circulate rhetorics of overcoming specific to mental disability in higher education.
In April 2012, The Guardian started a series called “Mental health: a university crisis,” which featured a few articles in a two-year span about university counseling services for students struggling with mental health issues, loneliness, and homesickness. In March 2014, and The Guardian featured an article titled, “There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in Academia.” The author focuses on how commonplace mental health issues are: Ph.D. students who struggle with depression, sleep-related issues, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Later in the month, articles were published featuring tips, resources, shared narratives, and some tales of overcoming. The most notable of these is “How to stay sane through a PhD: Get survival tips from fellow students,” which explains why Ph.D. students are “sad” and why yoga may be a positive way to “stay grounded amid academic stress” (von Weitershausen). This article reduces clinical depression and anxiety to stress, while also placing the issue within the individual students rather than the larger system that perpetuates an institutional culture of depression and anxiety.
“How to stay sane through a PhD” sparked a Twitter conversation that began in March 2014 and continues to produce tweets. Originally begun by university students in the UK reporting accounts of disability-based discrimination in higher education settings, the hashtag #AcademicAbleism has also been used by academics to report the multiple ways that university systems discriminate against them and their students.
The original Guardian article addressed Ph.D. students, but a mix of graduate and undergraduate students have used the hashtag to report instances—isolated or repeated—where they have experienced curricular and institutional inaccessibility. On March 20, 2014, M. Brock Moorer tweeted, “‘If you can’t cut it as a PhD student, I don’t know how you expect to get a tenure track job.’ #academicableism.” And on April 10, 2014, Norah Flowers tweeted, “#AcademicAbleism is being told you just need to pull yourself together because if others can meet the expectations, so can you.” Flowers follows up with some thoughts on disclosure, writing that it’s academic ableism when “my professor forces me to tell her about my clinical depression to explain myself, then tells me to man up.”
These tweets share the sentiment that graduate students need to pull it together and rise to the expectations and successes of others in order to succeed in academia—in essence, to overcome what is keeping them from this success.
Many of the #AcademicAbleism tweets focused on institutional accommodations and the challenges students faced trying to secure them. Emily Haislip describes the effort—and failure—of securing accommodations as a reminder of the reason why she left college. And after reading her university’s disability services website, Spoonie Princess tweeted, “‘A diagnosis of disability alone does not guarantee academic accommodations.’ At least they’re honest? #academicableism.” Both of these tweets concisely illustrate the challenges of college students trying to obtain institutional support, accommodations that would help them “meet the expectations” other students reported.
University instructors began contributing to the hashtag, too, and writing instructors in the U.S. joined the conversation about accommodations. On April 25, 2014, Catherine Prendergast tweeted, “Teaching is accommodating. Not accommodating is not teaching,” emphasizing that accommodating students’ needs is always an integral part of teaching. And specific to the writing classroom, Dale Ireland tweeted on April 10, 2014, “#AcademicAbleism is making a person who uses accomodations for timed writing to write in class w/o acc & share the writing with classmates.” Considering freewriting is a common practice, Ireland notes that this timed, in-class writing would exclude students who have accommodations for extended writing time.
Also addressing our discipline’s push toward the production of multimodal and digital texts, Ireland tweeted, “#AcademicAbleism is not teaching students how to add image descriptions to the images they create & use in their multimodal compositions.” Ireland critiques inaccessible teaching practices particularly within multimodal classrooms. Multimodality in many ways tends to increase access by affording students multiple modes through which to represent their ideas, and I argue that multimodality can be a channel through which non-normative expressions of rhetoricity are encouraged and valued. If we don’t teach students about the accessibility of multimodality, we perpetuate the cycle of creating inaccessible texts but also perpetuate values about whose bodyminds are worthy of expression and of being listened to (Price 26-7).
As a space where both students and educators met to share frustrations and thoughts about ableist institutional practices, the #AcademicAbleism conversation constructs a complex narrative of overcoming and of access.
Access is more than a legal requirement or physical action; it is a reflexive and ongoing practice. As Tanya Tithkosky notes, it is “a complex form of perception that organizes socio-political relations between people in social space” (The Question of Access 4). Our institutional structures—our university policies, classrooms, pedagogical practices—carry messages about who belongs in and can access those spaces. The #AcademicAbleism conversation calls attention to university structures that carry messages about disability as unwelcome or as a deficit that must be overcome, and the tweets identify and seek to reshape those messages.
We need to pay attention to conversations like #AcademicAbleism—and now #AbleismExists and #InaccessibilityLooksLike. But we also need to create spaces in our programmatic and classroom cultures where we can discuss ableist and inaccessible practices in order to avoid perpetuating rhetorics of overcoming. By briefly highlighting the ways in which we discuss and systematically deny access in higher ed, I hope to have illustrated the importance of reimagining the ways in which we understand accommodations and, thus, access—particularly for students and instructors with mental and psychiatric disabilities.