Disability, Accessibility, and Writing Instruction

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Nearest accessible entrance by Paul Wilkinson on Flickr, used under a CC-BY licenseAccessibility is critical to success in the writing classroom, both for students and teachers. It’s not just a matter of meeting laws and guidelines for required accessibility and support for accommodations. It is also about making sure that we out disability in the classroom, making a safe space where anyone can find a welcome space to think, collaborate, and write.

Two resources that I have revisited recently have reminded me of the importance of talking about disability and accessibility openly in the classroom. First, I reread Amy Vadali’s 2015 WPA article Disabling Writing Program Administration, which was awarded the 2015 Kenneth A. Bruffee Award at last month’s Conference of the Council of Writing Program Administrators. Vidali explores the ways that disability is absent or discussed in stereotypical ways in accounts of writing program administration.

Her piece helped me recognize that I rarely talk about my disabilities with students. Sometimes, when physical issues make it necessary, I admit my arthritis and bursitis, usually when I cannot walk around the classroom. Very occasionally, I will mention my diabetes, when my blood sugar is off and I am feeling dizzy. In both cases, I’m reluctant because I fear they will judge me by quickly, connecting my disabilities to the fact that I am overweight. Even worse, I recognized that I never talk about my struggles with depression and anxiety. Fearing that I will be written off as insane, I only disclose my mental health if a student discloses her mental health first, in situations where I want to connect and convince her that I understand her needs. I need to be more open with my students, if only to be a role model by making disability visible.

Second, I returned to Melanie Yergeau’s luncheon plenary from the Council of Writing Program Administrators Conference in July 2016 when I was editing the video recently so that it could be published online. The video, shown below, captures Yergeau’s search for support on her campus. The script, slides, and resource list are available online:

Video Link : 2055

Yergeau’s account focuses on her own search. When I consider the many roadblocks Yergeau—a smart faculty member who knows the support she is entitled to—encounters, I worry for the undergraduate students who struggle to find resources on campus and those who do not even know what resources they should be provided with. I have written in the past about work to Improve My Accessibility Policy, but Yergeau’s account reminds me that I need to do more to advocate for my students and others like them.

I invite you to consider these two resources and think about your own support for disability. Tell me what you are doing, and how these two pieces effect your teaching. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

Credit: Nearest accessible entrance by Paul Wilkinson on Flickr, used under a CC-BY license.

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.