In Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability, Robert McRuer asks writing instructors to imagine what exists beyond standard academic writing, to make space for non-normative bodies, and to value different embodied ways of learning and composing. In many ways, composition pedagogies already push the bounds of “normal” writing through the valuing of multiple languages, literacies, and modalities. However, while these pedagogies offer different access points for students, they aren’t often explicitly crafted with accessibility in mind.
Today, I’m going to talk about how writing classes—from the course materials to in-class practices—can be crafted with attention to accessibility for both disabled and non-disabled students.
course inquiry: representations of disability
In Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Brueggemann highlight the benefits of incorporating disability in our writing classrooms. Disability raises a number of questions about critical literacy skills and how we can understand writing as embodied and value bodily difference. Perhaps the most important question is this: “How can inclusion of disability improve the teaching of writing?” (3). Lewiecki-Wilson and Brueggemann argue that disability as inquiry “makes sense, not just because students with disabilities are already present in our classes, but also because close attention to disability discourses sharpens critical thinking and improves literacy for everyone” (4).
I’ve been teaching my comp courses with a disability theme for four years. I do it because disability isn’t something that students have much exposure to in a critical capacity, and it intersects with a lot of other identity groups and socio-political issues. I anticipate a lot of pushback from students every semester that I teach it. And there are always one or two course evaluations where students mention not being interested in the topic. Surprisingly (to me), no one ever says that it’s a waste of time or unrelatable.
Some of the criticism about disability research is that it’s not relatable. Simi Linton argues that disability and disabled people are often studied “in their particularity, which is not considered generalizable or relevant to nondisabled people, or they are studied as deviation from the norm in order to increase the knowledge about and stature of the norm” (73). That is, disability is often studied in ways that further stigmatize and distance nondisabled people from disability and disabled experiences.
The first semester I taught this theme, many students admitted skepticism about it in their midterm reflections:
I never really thought about disability extensively, so I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write about it. I was relieved when I first realized it was a lot more broad of a topic than I thought.
One of my students wrote on their course evaluations that semester that the most important thing they’d learned was that disabled people are still people. This response has stuck with me, and I ask students to reflect on the course inquiry every semester.
Last semester, I asked my students to reflect on the most important takeaway from the course. Here’s one:
What I learned from this course was not just how to correctly write a paper. I learned as a whole to pay attention to my surroundings in the world. I learned to not overlook or devalue those who are disabled and that all disabilities aren’t in fact visible.
This isn’t true for all my students, for sure, but most critically examine their own assumptions about a new topic. For example, I had a student research how her religion views mental illness, and she interviewed multiple pastors, including at her own church. Disability as an inquiry encourages critical thinking and has allowed me to foreground accessibility explicitly in our course materials and class practices.
making the syllabus more accessible & inclusive
An easy way to signal to students that you value accessibility is by highlighting it in the syllabus. Tara Wood and Shannon Madden wrote a great piece about this that addresses the downfalls of accommodations statements, including outdated language (i.e., “special needs”). These statements are often placed at the end of the syllabus and aren’t the most inviting or accessible language for students. This is our policy:
accommodations. The University of Central Arkansas adheres to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If you need an accommodation under this Act due to a disability, please contact the UCA Office of Disability Support Services, 450- 3613. (http://uca.edu/disability/eligibility-for-services/)
These statements are necessary for ensuring legal accommodations, but they don’t signal that accessibility is something that I value. Accommodations also place the responsibility of ensuring accessibility on students, whereas adding an accessibility statement shifts that responsibility to a collaborative effort. This is mine:
accessibility. I am committed to creating a classroom environment that is respectful of and inclusive to different learning and composing styles. If we can work together to make the class more accessible, please let me know.
I also have a respect policy that reminds students that they don’t have to agree with someone to treat them, their ideas, and their work respectfully. Because it’s in the syllabus, we address accessibility and inclusivity on the first day, and I’ve found that more students without formal accommodations talk to me about their needs.
making participation more accessible & inclusive
Another way to crip composition is by reimagining how we assess participation, which often values normative student behaviors. Depending on the class, I encourage students to use Twitter or Tumblr to post content relevant to our readings and class discussions, which act as alternative venues for students to engage and contribute.
One of my favorite accessible activities is collaborative note-taking. I teach with Google Classroom, so I create a note-taking Google Doc that all my students have editing access, and they post notes throughout the semester. I’ve also done this using the discussion board in BlackBoard, but I prefer the real-time editing of Google Docs and that all the notes are housed in one document.
Sometimes, I make this an actual assignment, but recently I’ve been offering it as extra credit, and these are the instructions I gave my comp students this semester:
Everyone takes in and processes information differently. I may say one thing, and you all may hear something different based on your own understandings, interpretations, and beliefs/assumptions.
Note-taking is a common accommodation, and collaborative note-taking can help address that need while also making accessibility a shared responsibility. It asks students to be responsible to each other by contributing to a shared resource. Students’ notes vary from simple bullet points of what I write on the board to rich narrative accounts of who said what during class. Last semester, I had a class of first-year students who got really into it and incorporated memes and inside jokes, which motivated them to contribute more.
Often, the students who don’t talk in class are the ones who post notes: shy students, ESL and international students, students with anxiety disorders. And I think it’s useful for first-year student writers to develop note-taking skills. It’s a universally designed practice that provides access to a range of students: disabled and non-disabled.
embodied practices that are accessible & inclusive
Recently, I’ve been trying to incorporate more embodied practices, and this semester I’ve been bringing self-care into the classroom.
According to the 2013 National College Health Assessment, more than one-third of U.S. college students had difficulty functioning due to depression, and 30% reported serious considerations of suicide—up from 24% in 2010. Researchers are responding to these alarming trends by collaborating with faculty to ensure that students are “physically, emotionally and spiritually well.”
On the first day of my first-year writing course this semester, I asked my students how many of them felt run down at the end of last semester. Half of them sheepishly raised their hands. I asked how many felt like they were overwhelmed last semester and didn’t take care of themselves as much as they would have liked. More hands. So, I introduced myself and the course, and then we developed self-care plans.
This (self-care-plans) sheet asks students to brainstorm practices to nourish their minds, bodies, and spirits; to map their goals for the semester; and to reflect on what support systems they have in place to help them achieve those goals.
At midterms, we revisited these plans, and my students wrote reflective letters assessing whether they’re accomplishing those goals and how their self-care goals match with their academic goals. Many of my students wrote about going to the gym more, attending church or prayer groups, getting organized, and finding more time to relax. Many of them spoke about feeling overwhelmed. Many of them wrote about how their personal goals were helping them stay focused and motivated in their coursework.
We already ask students to engage in critical metacognitive work by reflecting on their rhetorical goals and choices. Asking them to connect these goals with their larger mind/body/spirit goals encourages students to brainstorm ways to balance their different selves and demands.
I’m trying to create an accessible and inclusive environment where my students—many who are first-generation, who come from failing public school systems, who have experienced hate crimes in our town—have space to disclose what they need and reflect how to better care for themselves. Incorporating self-care in the writing classroom gives students space to articulate and reflect on their needs and to care for themselves and each other on their own terms.
In closing, I want to emphasize the benefits of incorporating practices into the writing classroom that affirm the body—not one ideal body, but a range of messy, imperfect bodies—because writing is an embodied process. Practices like the ones I’ve talked about ask students to think critically about their goals and accessibility needs, and they normalize discussions of accessibility and mental health.
Accessible practices can benefit a range of students, including students with disabilities, students of color, first-generation students, and international students.