Universal sign for access of person in wheelchair created in blue neon in a window.

Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and “Accessibility”

Adam Hubrig | Sam Houston State University

One simple truth: when you build disabled accessibility in to your events as a non-negotiable, from the start, bottom line, you get it done.”
The Radical Access Mapping Project
“in order for us to ethically engage the question of “accessibility” we must be conscious of the bodies whose movements have, throughout the history of rhetoric and composition, been rendered immobile under the weight of discourse and inaccessible spaces.”
—Cody Jackson, “How Does it Mean to Move

Can I share a secret with you? I loathe having to ask about access needs—I doubly loathe having to inquire when it’s my own access needs. I hate it so much, and I feel like a terrible disabled advocate because of it. I get anxious making those calls or sending those emails to the point of being sick to my stomach. 

Yet, for the third time in as many months, I call the same event coordinator. They seem irritated that I’m calling—again—to ask about access. And then comes their accusation: “All you want to do is complain about access.”

Hard nope. I’d rather be doing almost anything else. As Annika Konrad has recently argued, “People with disabilities are often encouraged to advocate for their own access without con-sideration for the mental and emotional labor required to do so.”

Because—too often—how we think about access is reductive. It’s exhausting to have to keep insisting that disabled and otherwise marginalized people should be included. But still, at many American colleges and universities, composition instructors might be tempted to think of our courses as “accessible” because we’ve put an institutionally mandated Accessibility statement in our syllabus—often waaaaay at the back—to prevent the institution that signs our checks from getting sued for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (2). 

Disabled people notice these things. And disabled students at your institution definitely talk with each other about what professors roll their eyes at us when we inquire about access needs or ask us if we “really need” whatever accommodations we’re requesting—I have been one of them.

I want to talk about access as disability justice advocate and scholar Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha describes it, not just as “the same article that many sick, disabled, Deaf, and mad/neurodivergent folks before me have written to the abled—asking the abled to get it the fuck together and stop ‘forgetting’ about access and disbaled demands” which Piepzna-Samarsina also identifies as necessary work. Rather, I want to take part in conversations and projects that recognize that access is only the first step (Piepzna-Samarasinha 129) in an ongoing process of challenging institutional oppression.

And, mirroring work in disability studies (see Erevelles, Minich, Hamraie), discussions of access in writing studies are moving away from what some of my nondisabled colleagues seem to interpret—usually some version of accessibility as an abled prof doing some disabled student a huge favor by meeting the low-bar legal requirements (See Wood et al. and Brewer et al.). Instead, the evolving conversation on accessibility have us resituating that moment, considering how disabled students are doing us a favor in pointing out how our pedagogy, our curriculum, our institutions are ableist and how we can do better—for disabled students and all students—by dismantling the capitalistic, colonial, white-supremacist, and patriarchal ideologies that prop these systems up.

Importantly, as Sins Invalid reminds us through disability justice frameworks, disability never exists apart from other identities—such as race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and many other positionalities. Following the work of disabled activists, disability studies (see Bell, Dunham et al., Erevelles, Schalk) and composition (Cedillo; Del Hiero et al.; Ho et al.; Hubrig and Osorio; Jackson and Cedillo; Manivannan) are also expanding how they understand disability and accessibility to center intersecting identities, as well as multiple forms of disability including mobility impairments, blindness/visual impairments, Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing folks (3), chronic illnesses, madness, mental disability, pain conditions, neurodiversity, sensitivities to fragrance, and many other disabilities. 

And as a multiply disabled scholar, I have at times been approached by well-meaning nondisabled colleagues with requests for an accessibility checklist or other labor relating to disability access. While I will point to some more immediately pragmatic accessibility advice in this post, I echo Wood et al. in insisting that checklists are often reductive, “locat[ing] disability over there” (147), rather than engaging disability with nuance and complexity, asking how disability might inform writing studies, writing pedagogy, and our composition processes. 

Writing alongside disability scholars in writing studies, rather than providing a checklist—which would inevitably be reductive and leave people outside—it’s my intention for this post to point to ongoing conversations and invite those conversations to guide accessibility efforts in your classroom and pedagogy and in your/our institutions and scholarship. To make this post more navigable, I have arranged them by rough categories—expanding access, access for students and access for colleagues, but the conversations about access in each space certainly overlap. 

Access for Writing Students
Many of my nondisabled colleagues first become interested in accessibility when trying to make their classrooms more accessible for disabled students. If that’s what brought you here, welcome and thank you for taking this first step. A number of resources and scholarship exist to help address accessibility in our classroom spaces. Anne-Marie Womack pushes teachers to challenge how we think of accommodation, and has created Accessible Syllabus, with important information on crafting more accessible syllabi and advice on making images, text, rhetoric, and policies in our syllabi more inclusive. 

And, as Womack’s Accessible Syllabus details, how we frame our policies—as listed on our syllabus and in practice—is an important site of accessibility. Other composition scholars have taken up these issues as well: Melissa Nicholas describes how our policies reflect our orientation to disability, and how class considerations like attendance can make our classroom inaccessible.  Considering other temporal policies like due dates, Tara Wood describes how nondisabled conceptions of time create barriers in the composition process, offering suggestions on how instructors can crip their conception of time in the composition classroom.

Conversations around access are becoming more inclusive of neurodiversity as well: Remi Yergeau’s Authoring Autism: On Rhetoric and Neurological Queerness takes up Rhetoric and Composition’s dismissal of autistic ways of being. Cody Jackson presents several strategies for making our classroom spaces more accessible to neurodivergent learners and argues the most important step in that process “is [to] ask, listen, and reciprocate the intimacy of disclosure.” Similarly, Amy Gaeta argues for access by challenging ableist ideologies connected to composing and how we can better respect neurodivergent composing methods.  Ellen Cecil-Lemkin explores how neurodiversity shapes collaborative writing experiences, challenging assumptions about collaboration in composition.

Taken together, these scholars establish that accessibility is more than minor tweaks to a powerpoint slide, but that accessibility must challenge our pedagogical assumptions and institutional orientations. In “What Does it Mean to Move?: Race, Disability, and Critical Embodiment Pedagogy,” Christina Cedillo writes:

If we continue to base our composition practices on normate assumptions rather than the embodied experiences of people most in need of access to voice and space, our praxes can and do become part of a racist, ableist apparatus that promotes other -isms, tools of ‘social hygiene.’

Cedillo’s work is accessibility writ large, arguing for pedagogies based in critical embodiment rather than retrofitting to accommodate disability—or adding a single BIPOC author to the reading list as “diversity,” for that matter. Cedillo instead suggests thinking through how a multiplicity of embodied experiences challenge and improve our pedagogy and writing, while making our classrooms and our field more inclusive. 

Access for Writing Teachers and Scholars
Like conversations on access for students in writing studies, conversations about accessibility for teachers and scholars in the field—not limited to Tenure Track Faculty™, but NTT, contingent, and graduate student teachers as well—are not only about naming and identifying ableism (though that work is necessary, too). These scholars move the conversation to how disability challenges the systemic inequalities of academic work. For example, in “Faculty Members, Accommodation, and Access in Higher Education,” Kerschbaum et al. describe their own experiences as faculty with disabilities, exploring issues of access, accommodation, and the material realities of their embodied experiences. 

Interwoven with issues of faculty accessibility and accommodation, there is important work by writing studies scholars happening around disclosure— so much that disclosure deserves its own keyword blog post, particularly at the intersections of disability and other marginalized identities—but here I point quickly to Stephanie Kerschbaum’s article “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing,” which thoughtfully explores faculty disclosure. The way conversations about disclosure are moving to include not only students but faculty is an important development: Price et al. also explore disclosure, specifically disclosure of mental disability by faculty, finding few faculty with mental disabilities were familiar with possible accommodations, suggesting institutions haven’t made accommodations clear. They suggest discussions between faculty and administration about accommodations must become “clearer and less risky” as well as the need to destigmatize mental disabilities. 

Reflecting the move from accessibility as gift to accessibility improving the field as a whole, Ho et al. establish how, for disabled teachers and scholars, “neutrality is a form of oppression” (129) that ignores how academic institutions are designed for nondisabled people, and how tending to disability can foster deeper discussions on equity in the field. Other scholars have taken up issues of inaccessibility. Rottier, for example, points to how the existence and persistence of autistic academics in the face of ableist policies is an act of resistance, and challenges nondisabled people to push for more accessible institutional policies and spaces. 

But academic institutions frequently push disabled people out: consider accessibility in conference spaces. Importantly, Price—who also has examined the language and policies of conference documents—chairs Composing Access: An Invitation to Creating Accessible Events, which has many contributors. Composing Access includes helpful information on accessibility for conference organizers as well as for preparing conference presentations. A recent College Composition and Communication Symposium explored issues of access in our conference spaces, including: addressing institutional critique and responsibility (Simpkins); the misuse of quiet rooms (Anglesey and Cecil-Lemkin); exploring access needs—specifically for Deaf scholars—as transformative rather than transactional (Fink et al.); how alcohol makes our conferences spaces inaccessible and dangerous (anonymous); as well as accountability in disability research and accessibility efforts (Jackson and Cedillo). If you are hosting an event, I also point you to Sins Invalid’s event accessibility suggestions.

But considering accessibility is also about methodology: tending to disability can and should transform our scholarship and ways of knowing and center the work of those most impacted (Cedillo, Jackson). This is the work that Price and Kerschbaum take up in “Stories of Methodology: Interviewing Sideways, Crooked, and Crip,” exploring how disability should inform methods and research.

And this iteration of accessibility—accessibility that not only pushes for disabled inclusion but aims to restructure the institutional biases that make them inaccessible in the first place—is taken up in areas that connect to and overlap with writing studies, like Writing Program Administration (Nicholas, Vidali 2015), writing centers (Hitt, Rowan), open access scholarship (Dolmage 2018, Rice Evans), graduate education (Obermark), Rhetoric (Cedillo, Dolmage 2014, Maier et al., and Yergeau) Technical Communication (Browning and Cagle, Colton and Walton, Jones, Meloncon, Palmeri, Zdenek), gender and sexuality (Smilges, Yergeau), community literacy studies (Hubrig), basic writing (Vidali 2008), and I am excited to announce I’m guest editing a special issue of Teaching English in the Two-Year College centered on disability and accessibility in the Two-Year College, coming 2022. 

Moving Toward a Conclusion, though Access is a Process with No End
At the College Conference on Composition and Communication in 2019, a large sign proudly proclaimed CCCCs is Accessible!

The original CCCC sign, a red sign with white letters, that reads: “The CCCC Convention is accessible! The CCCC Convention has accessibility guides for the Convention; Quiet, lactation, and family rooms at convention sites; Childcare grants; Gender-neutral bathrooms; Interpreters" has dozens of sticky notes with messages written on them.
Figure 1. The original CCCC sign proclaiming accessibility is covered with sticky notes from conference participants pointing out ways the conference failed to provide access. Photo Credit: Ruth Osorio

In response, many conference attendees posted—literally, with sticky notes—their/our own responses to the sign, highlighting multiple ways in which the conference was quite inaccessible—to disabled people, to parents and others with caregiving responsibilities, to many LGBTQA+ Folks, and people excluded or marginalized because of whiteness.

What I hope writing studies understands from the sticky note moment is that access isn’t a project that can be completed: it’s not a checklist or a bulleted list, but ongoing conversations and actions that address the systematic inequalities and institutional barriers that exclude disabled and other marginalized bodies. I ask you to take part in these conversations by engaging with this scholarship and connecting with other disabled scholars. To join these conversations, I recommend the resources I’ve outlined here, as well as the Anti-Ableist Composition Collective (created by Cody Jackson), the College Composition and Communication Disability Studies Standing Group, as well as learning from the work of disability activism like Sins Invalid and the Disability Visibility Project.

Notes

  1. I (Adam) would like to thank Ellen Cecil-Lemkin, Ruth Osorio, and Katie Bramlet, as well as FEN Blog Co-Editors Megan Von Bergen and Lauren Fusilier for their thoughtful reading and feedback on earlier drafts of this post.
  2.  ADA laws are typically only enforced through lawsuits, meaning many disabled people without financial resources to take legal action often have little to no recourse. I echo Wood et al. in suggesting it is important for educators to be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, including the 2008 amendments as well as Section 504 of the rehabilitation act. But meeting the legal requirements is a first step, not an end goal of accessibility.
  3. Many Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Humans do not consider themselves as disabled, but rather recognize the importance of Deaf culture. By including Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing folks in this discussion of accessibility, I do not mean to undermine how they identify in relation to the disability community (for more information, see Monts-Treviska in Skin, Tooth, and Bone)
  4. A list of works consulted is linked in a Google doc here. I welcome suggested additions to better represent the range of accessibility work being done in composition and rhetoric and related fields.

 *Featured Image on this post created by Henry Faber.

1 thought on “Access from/as the Start: On Writing Studies and “Accessibility”

  1. Pingback: CFP for FEN Blog Special Issue on Actionable Change, Summer/Fall 2021 | Composition Studies

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