New Directions for Disability-Studies Research: Using Mixed Methods to Appeal to Wider Audiences in Higher Education

The following is a description of my panel for the Conference of College Composition and Communication (CCCCs) in 2015. As Speaker 2, I presented the results of a study on classroom accommodation practices in online writing instruction. The full paper is available for download here: Bose Cs2015 paper.

Presenters: Margaret Price, Andrew Lucchesi, Dev Bose


Long Description

Previous disability studies (DS) research in rhetoric/composition has tended toward qualitative case studies taking place within single institutions or classrooms. (We, the three presenters on this panel, have done numerous such studies ourselves.) The mixed-methods studies presented in this panel represent a new methodological direction for DS research in rhetoric/composition. They employ larger, cross-institutional samples, and use both quantitative and qualitative methods of analysis.

By “DS research” we mean both work that centers the experience of disabled rhetoric/composition students and professionals (such as Brenda Brueggemann et al.’s “Becoming Visible,” 2001) as well as work that uses a disability lens to examine the existing structures and theories of rhetoric/composition (such as Jay Dolmage’s Disability Rhetoric, 2014). Over the past 15 years, such work has become well-known and generally persuasive within rhetoric/composition. However, larger audiences that have a stake in higher education, including administrators, faculty across the disciplines, parents, and legislators, are generally not familiar with this research. We argue that by moving toward “replicable, aggregable, data-supported” methods (Richard Haswell, 2005), DS research in rhetoric/composition can speak more persuasively to these wider, and powerful, audiences.

To be clear, we are not arguing that mixed-methods research should replace qualitative case studies in DS rhetoric/composition. Rather, we are following Rebecca Moore Howard (“Why This Humanist Codes,” 2013) and Chris M. Anson (“The Intelligent Design of Writing Programs: Reliance on Belief or a Future of Evidence,” 2008) in suggesting that a wider range of methods and approaches opens more possibilities.

Our individual presentations make this argument from three very different institutional sites: a historical analysis of disability-services offices; a study of collaboration and disability accommodation in online learning spaces; and a survey/interview study examining the process of disclosure and access for disabled faculty.

Speaker 1 will report on a historical study of disability service administration practices at a range of two- and four-year colleges in a large urban public university system. Using Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s notion that institutions, conceived as mobilizing networks, contain multiple, dynamic “sites of mobilization” (2009), this study examines the roles disability service providers have played in distributing resources, shaping culture, producing knowledge, and developing institutional infrastructures throughout the relatively brief period that they have been a part of higher education. This study employs two key methodologies: by collecting and analyzing an archival record of disability service provider discourse (including administrative documents, public disability resources, and internal ephemera) this study reflects on the roles service providers play in shaping the institutional rhetoric of disability, both in progressive and conservative ways. By conducting a series of semi-structured interviews and focus groups with past and present service providers, the study further shows how the changing standards of professionalization for campus disability service providers over the last forty years have influenced the role these often contingent and isolated staff serve in the broader administration. Based on findings so far, Speaker 1 will show how the rich history of disability service administration buried in our fleeting institutional memory can offer models for writing program administrators seeking to make their programs more accessible. This presentation will offer suggestions for integrating academic skills training with traditionally medicalized areas like student support and assistive technology training.

Speaker 2 reports on the results of a study on classroom accommodation practices at a Southwestern university. The current phase of the study focuses on use of instructional technologies to promote collaboration in an attempt to answer the following research questions: How do portals and course management systems like WordPress, Moodle, and Blackboard tackle the rhetorical challenges of collaboration, and what does collaboration imply from the vantage point of disability? Methods include anonymous surveys and interviews. Initial findings indicate the potential to promote advocacy through online portals; for example, student teams may create accessible websites as a means to pose documented solutions to complex problems. However, as one participant indicates, collaboration is difficult to achieve “when I don’t feel comfortable working with groups.” While the study is ongoing, Speaker 2 argues that accommodations for collaborative assignments are difficult to come by, possibly due to the stigma related to disclosure of disabilities, particularly invisible disabilities. By evaluating the relationship between technology and universal design theory, Speaker 2 offers suggestions for creating collaborative technological assignments with disability in mind, as well as designing curricula-based accommodations around universal design learning. The study evaluates universal design learning, and in doing so offers reflections on what it means to conduct accessible mixed-methods research.

Speaker 3 reports on an international, cross-institutional study of disabled faculty, carried out collaboratively by three faculty from different universities. (Speaker 3 is co-PI.) The study asks: How is disclosure caught up in the rhetorical process of trying to obtain accommodations, and what does “disclosure” mean from various vantage points, including those of faculty members who experience “invisible” disabilities such as mental illness, epilepsy, or chronic pain? Methods include an anonymous survey, analyzed statistically, and semi-structured interviews, analyzed via open coding. Our sample (over 400 in the survey phase, and over 20 in the interview phase) aims for maximum variation in areas including rank, institutional type, disability identification, age, race, and class. Findings indicate that disabled faculty often do not know where to go to request accommodations; Disability Services Offices sometimes serve students but not faculty. Among those faculty who do know where to go, many avoid making accommodation requests “on the record” due to fear of retaliation, instead relying on an informal network of connections. The study is still ongoing; however, in response to our initial findings, we argue that universities must move past a model of “accommodation for individual problems,” instead making their structures, spaces and policies more welcoming and accessible. This is a simple concept, but can be difficult to enact; Speaker 3 offers concrete suggestions for making university spaces more accessible, and less driven by the “individual disabled person with a problem” model.


Working Bibliography


  • An, J. (2010). Scaffolding wiki-based, ill-structured problem solving in an online environment. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 6(4), 723-734.
  • Bezemer, J., & Kress, G. (2008). Writing in multimodal texts: A social semiotic account of designs for learning. Written Communication, 25, 166-195.
  • Bizzell, P. (2003). Cognition, convention, and certainty: What we need to know about writing. In V. Villanueva (Ed.), Cross-talk in comp theory: A reader (pp. 387-412). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Haswell, Richard H. “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship.” Written Communication 22 (2005): 198-223.
  • Howard, Rebecca Moore. “Why This Humanist Codes: A Genealogy of the Citation Project.” Conference on College Composition and Communication. Las Vegas, NV. 14 March 2013.
  • Sandra Jamieson and Rebecca Moore Howard. “Take a Deep Breath and Jump: Doing Data-Driven Research When You Aren’t Trained in Data-Driven Methods.” Keynote address, Research Network Forum. Conference on College Composition and Communication. St. Louis, MO. 21 March 2012.
  • Kasworm, C.E. (2008). Emotional challenges of adult learners in higher education. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 120, 27-34.
  • Davidson, Cathy N. and David Theo Goldberg. The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. MIT Press, 2010
  • Lamos, Steve. “Institutional Critique in Composition Studies: Methodological and Ethical Considerations for Researchers.” Writing Studies Research in Practice: Methods and Methodologies. Ed. Lee Nickoson and Mary P. Sheridan. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2012. 158 – 70.
  • Atwill, Janet M. “Rhetoric and Institutional Critique: Uncertainty in the Postmodern Academy.” JAC 22.3 (2002): 640 – 45.