Shaping the Rhetoric: Disability Accommodation Practices, Letters, and Performances

The following is a description of my panel for the Conference of College Composition and Communication (CCCCs) in 2014. As Speaker 4, I presented the results of a small-scale heuristic study on mental disorders in academia.

Shaping the Rhetoric: Disability Accommodation Practices, Letters, and Performances 
Discussions about creating access by accommodating disability often begin with statistics (how many students, which disability, etc.), but typically fail to address whether such accommodations are appropriate and/or successful, or how disabled students engage in the rhetorical process of obtaining accommodations. This panel speaks to this research gap by presenting on how faculty perceive the accommodations letters they receive (Speaker 1), the utility of traditional disability accommodations in the writing classroom (Speaker 2), the rhetorical performances required by students with “invisible disabilities” in obtaining accommodations (Speaker 3), and the particular accommodations required by those with mental disabilities (Speaker 4). This research is situated in the rich research on Disability Studies and rhetoric and composition, particularly work on accommodations and universal design (Dolmage; Dunn), and mental disability in higher education (Price). Each speaker presents findings shaped by Disability Studies methodology (Price; Lewiecki-Wilson), which emphasizes inclusive research practices.

Legal Obligations and Rhetorical Failures: How College Faculty Perceive and Use Disability Accommodations Letters (Speaker 1)
To receive university-sanctioned disability accommodations, students typically disclose their disabilities and provide medical documentation to designated university offices, who generate letters to faculty about legally-required accommodations. Speaker 1 focuses on responses to a survey on how these letters are perceived and used by faculty, revealing faculty to be accepting of the letters despite unclear understandings of how to operationalize accommodations for students. Respondents’ qualitative descriptions of these letters typically fail to mention facilitating student learning, and instead focus on legal compliance and fears; these results are troubling as surveyed faculty indicate getting the information they need to accommodate disabled students “solely” or “mostly” from these letters (67%).

Speaker 1 suggests that better attention to audience in crafting these letters would result in more successful accommodations (further explored by Speaker 2), but questions if energy should be devoted to revising these letters if they are potentially counterproductive in realizing full inclusion, particularly because disabled students have been critical of these letters.

Writing Accommodations: Student Perspectives on the Limitations of “Conventional” Approaches to Access (Speaker 2)
The role of conventional disability accommodations – such as extended time on tests and distraction-free testing environments – is often unclear in writing classrooms. These accommodations are often a retrofit to the college classroom environment (Dolmage), and are an especially poor fit for writing classrooms that are student-led and lack lecture. Rather than adding accommodations after the fact, proponents of Universal Design advocate for classrooms that are useful to the widest range of bodies, minds, and abilities. Yet, because this pedagogical approach is slow to take hold, some scholars in rhetoric and composition have argued for writing teachers to contribute to the conversation regarding accommodations (White; Dunn).

In this vein, Speaker 2 presents findings from a qualitative study that analyzes the perceived benefits and limitations of “conventional” accommodations in college writing classrooms. Three themes emerge from the data, including the ways access leads to inclusionary/exclusionary pedagogical practices, how issues of representation in the accommodations process can increase stigma, and the tension between conventional and unconventional accommodation practices. Focusing on more than 30 hours of interviews, Speaker 2 suggests that while conventional accommodations may be preferred by some students as an authorized place in the teacher-student dynamic to negotiate meaning, many report dissatisfaction with instructor investment in enhancing access.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Rhetorical Challenges of Invisible Disabilities (Speaker 3)
While the Americans with Disabilities Act has provided much needed access and legal protections for disabled people, it has also created a “culture of confirmation” in which people with disabilities are only provided accommodation if the proper paperwork is procured. In university contexts, this places a burden on students whose disabilities lack the kinds of bodily signs or culturally recognizable labels that signify a need for accommodation. For those who have “invisible disabilities” – defined here as diseases or disorders whose effects are not as visible or well-recognized as most – the accommodation procurement process becomes more onerous and dependent on the rhetorical skill of the disabled person.

Speaker 3 explores how such rhetorical skills are developed and deployed in the university accommodation process, through the lens of someone who suffers from an “invisible disability” and is newly labeled as “disabled.” In particular, Speaker 3 addresses the difference in how others read bodies, and how disabled students attempt to reconstruct those readings through rhetorical performances.

Mental Disorders in Academia: A Small-Scale Heuristic Study (Speaker 4)
This paper presents preliminary results from a small-scale heuristic study on academics’ observations about accommodations for individuals with mental disorders, with attention to pedagogical changes in writing classrooms. Speaker 4 analyzes data from interviews and surveys with faculty and students with mental disorders, in an attempt to understand more about obstacles to academic and professional success. Based on study findings, Speaker 4 explores modifications to teaching and research schedules, as well as classroom/office spaces and assignments.

Findings from the in-process survey will likely suggest rethinking promotion deadlines, travel requirements, and impediments to practice. This speaker argues that some academics with mental disorders have an especially difficult time participating (for someone who can’t get out of bed), being productive (for someone has difficulty processing linear order necessary for academic writing), or being perceived as coherent (for someone rendered immobile by environmental stimuli). Speaker 4 challenges disciplinary scholarship in light of these individuals’ needs. In doing so, it is not just a question of acquiring the accommodations required by individuals with mental disorders, but of working to reshape the environment so this population can be included.