Conference Presentation, CCCC15: Memories of “Subtle Triage”


This talk was presented at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Tampa, FL on March 19, 2015. It is part of panel E.24, titled New Directions for Disability-Studies Research: Using Mixed Methods to Appeal to Wider Audiences in Higher Education

Memories of ‘Subtle Triage’: Histories of Academic Disability and Institutional Practice

Today I will be discussing research I am currently undertaking to study the evolution of disability-specific programming and administrative work in the nineteen-campus City University of New York system. My aim in this study is to use oral history and archival analysis to reconstruct the history of disability access programming going back as far as the mid 1970s, when the first pre-Rehabilitation Act programs began.

By paying close attention to the programs developed in the name of “disability access” throughout CUNY’s history, I hope to track the ways institutional beliefs about disability as a concept or disabled students as a population may differ across different time periods and institutional contexts. I hope understanding this history will help administrators, including writing program administrators, better understand the forces at play when we confront our institutions on issues of disability.

Since I am still very much in the midst of my research process, my aims for today’s talk are fairly modest. I’ll begin by discussing my own take on this panel’s theme, discussing what makes my project disability studies research (as opposed to simply a study about disability). I will then outline my methodology and present a few early findings that are just beginning to shake loose from the data.

So, what do I mean by describing my approach as disability studies methodology? As my co-panelist Margaret Price has observed in her chapter on DS methodology (cite), there is no singular, monolithic approach that characterizes disability studies. As an interdisciplinary field, we draw together a wide range of methods and discourses.

What unites disability studies research, then, is a stance toward the notion of disability as a concept. Rather than seeing disability as a purely medical phenomenon, we in DS investigate the social and cultural factors that affect the lives of disabled people. For us who work in colleges and universities, this stance leads us to investigate the lived experience of disabled students and faculty, to better show the normalized academic practices that impose barriers for full access. In this way, we see how factors like curriculum design, technological tools, teaching practices, hiring and promotion procedures, time-to-degree schemes, even admissions policies–how all of these features built in to the institutional fabric of our colleges and universities–contribute to how accessible or inacessible these environments are.

One central aim, I hope, of DS research in higher education is to find ways to make our institutions more accessible to more people, to find better approaches to promoting access than the ones tried in the past. My aim in this study is to track back in the historical record to the first programs designed to serve disabled students within CUNY, the nation’s largest public urban university system, and to unpack the beliefs about disability and academic life central to those early efforts. By comparing these early programs with later ones, I hope to track what changed within the institution’s stance toward disability, particularly as the field of disability services in higher education gained professional ascendancy and accommodation practices became more standardized.

The main bulk of my data for this study comes from interviews with approximately fifteen disability service providers from around the CUNY system. I am speaking with providers from all three kinds of CUNY campus: two-year, four-year, and graduate campuses. I divide my informants into three generational groups. The first generation began working in CUNY in the 1970s, either before or soon after the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which actually came into force in 1978. A few members of this generation are still working in the system, but most are now retired. I am demarcating the second generation by their proximity to the passage of the ADA in 1990, so folks who started in the late 80s and early 90s. The third generation began their work in the last ten to fifteen years, including some who began only this year.

My interview process has two main stages, individual interviews and focus groups. I am using the initial interviews to discover the scope of history my informants know, but also to draw out potential topics for the focus groups.

My interviews, which last approximately 60 minutes, break into five groups of questions. The first group focuses on subjects’ professional history: when and where they started the job, their professional training, the major they undertook as a program director. This category provides me the most useful historical coverage to fill in my timeline. My second group asks about how they see the role of disability service provider working within their local institution: here I ask about how they negotiate campus politics and relations with other branches of the administration. Third I ask them to describe from their perspective the work of disability service directors–what they see as the necessary skills for a director, what are the major hurdles, and (this turned out to be a useful question) whether they see the role as primarily activist or primarily administrative. Fourth, I ask about their relations with faculty. Finally, about their perceptions of students–who their students are and what barriers they believe students face. One of the things I learn from these last two sets of questions is how faculty/student relations differ from campus to campus, as well as how different campuses have come to specialize in providing different kinds of access or access for particular populations.

At this point, I am a bit more than halfway through my interview process. I’ve spoken with ten informants representing all three campus types and all three generational groupings. There are still some folks central to the history who I haven’t been able to get ahold of yet, but I’m optimistic.

In the rest of my time today, I want to give a quick taste of what is emerging from my interviews and how I am deriving the topics for my focus groups. If time allows, I will also discuss my archivization process and some quick impressions of where textual analysis fits into this study.

The first service provider I spoke with was a person I’ll call for now Subject 1, a first generation service provider who began her work who in 1976. Coming with a background in social work, she administered a grant-funded program at Queensborough community college called the “homebound college program,” a distance learning program for people with severe mobility impairments. Since she began in the system before Section 504 came into effect, she witnessed the formalization of the disability service director role and the formation of the cross-campus disability directors collaborative, COSDI, the Committee on Student Disability Issues, which engineered many of the programs over the last four decades.

Subject 1 had a particularly strong response to my question about whether she identifies as an activist and how that perspective comes out in her work. She identified strongly as an activist, noting that she had been involved in the independent living movement in Queens for many decades. In explaining how she sees her work as activist, she told stories about efforts she and other COSDI members made to lobby the state legislature to secure a stable funding line for disability services in CUNY during the 1980s, which to that point had only been funded by temporary grants. She described the way she and her first generation colleagues helped form student disability activist groups, which could agitate for change on campuses in ways the service directors couldn’t, for example when the group S.O.F.E.D.U.P. at Brooklyn College filed a civil rights lawsuit over inaccessible buildings. When Subject 1 claimed the title of activist, she spoke of direct action work to change policies both inside and outside the university, and she spoke of the importance of activist techniques, including public organizing and deft use of legislative bureaucracy to enforce change.

I want to compare Subject 1’s perspective to a second-generation service provider. In the early 1990s, Subject 2 was a student at Queens College, a four-year college closely connected with Subject 1 Queensborough Community College, and an activist in one of the disabled students groups Subject 1 generation began. When he graduated in 1993, the disability services director position at the college was empty, so he took it as his first job out of his undergraduate sociology program.

His work as a student disability advocate led him to receive special training in ADA issues in higher ed, and he brought this expertise to developing new programs at Queens. Six years ago, however, he left Queens College and became the director of disability services for the CUNY Central Office, and now he oversees policy and initiatives for the entire system.

Obviously, Subject 2 spoke about the importance of student advocacy groups. However, he had a strong aversion to aligning disability service provision with activist work. In his view, service providers’ position in the institution forecloses an activist alignment. I quote:

There are moments where you assume the mantle of activist. If you look at the way in which the role is best situated, best positioned, you’re striking a balance between advocating for students in terms of removal of barriers and level playing-field, but also advocating for the rigor of academic standards. So I guess if you’re activist, you have to be activist for both. If you’re activist too much for one or the other, you’re not doing your job well.

I heard in Subject 2’s interview a real ambivalence on this point. As a central administrator, his job is to ensure stability of services and to maintain the support of the broader administration for his work in access programming. And under his directorship, the Central Office has instituted some impressive CUNY-wide programs, including a job mentoring program for disabled students that has been nationally recognized. However, he admitted a little later in the interview that if I’d asked him the same question about activism a few decades earlier, when he’d started as the director at Queens, he probably would have answered very differently.

What I’m trying to show here is the way my exploratory interview process is helping me develop the focal points for my eventual focus groups. Activism, or the providers’ beliefs about how activism works in relation to disability services, is emerging as a powerful problematic for this population, an issue that divides their perspectives–sometimes along generational lines, but perhaps according to other factors I will discover in the focus groups. A third generation disability director at a community college in the Bronx, for example, whose background was in business administration, hesitantly claimed the activist title, but in describing the work she considered activist, mostly discussed disability cultural programming she had developed–film series and disability awareness events. Others see the role they play in getting faculty to accept student accommodation requests as their primary form of activism. Some don’t claim the title at all.

Other key themes are emerging as possible topics for further analysis across generation and campus affiliation: The role of technology for disability services is obviously key. Likewise, I’m finding interesting divided opinions on issues related to academic standards and testing, which is a contentious issue given CUNY’s history of open admissions and legacy of high-stakes gatekeeping literacy tests.

Before I close, I’d like to briefly outline how I am using archival research and textual analysis in this study. Since the history of disability programming in CUNY is so scattered and so poorly recorded in authorized archives, much of my materials are coming from the service providers themselves. Many of the first generation have maintained small private collections of documents from their work, and they’ve been generous enough to give them to me for my study. (I should say here that one key reason why this study is working at all is that the CUNY disability services community is actively interested in getting this history documented before it’s forgotten.)

Like my focus group methodology, the archive process tends to feed back through the initial interviews. In every interview I do, I learn about two or three now defunct CUNY programs I wasn’t aware existed, which I can then follow up on, both with my informant in followup interviews and in the local campus archives, if any evidence exist there.

Based on what I’ve found so far, I am in the process of developing a taxonomy of the kinds of texts these service providers have produced as part of their role. In one sense, these documents help me reconstruct the details of the history overall, but they also help me understand the ways service providers use rhetoric to achieve their ends. Especially interesting to me is how they justify the value of their services to different stakeholders, and the ways they leverage established beliefs about disability to get their way. In my taxonomy, I try to group together different rhetorical situations:

First is performative institutional discourse: things like grant proposals, programmatic assessments, funding requests, and other texts that show DSPs using rhetoric to work within bureaucratic systems. These are the most common texts I have access to, often because they’re kept as public record.

Second is dialogic administrative discourse: these are things like correspondence between DSPs on different campuses, minutes from COSDI meetings, conference proceedings, and other texts that show service directors sharing practices and debating ideas about disability and access among themselves.

Third is informational public discourse–materials the DSP produces to provide information to the public, to students, to faculty, to parents about disability and access. This is by far the most prolific kind of discourse, but it also tends to be ephemeral. Examples here are pamphlets, flyers, websites and the like.

Finally, performative pedagogical discourse–this category attests to the fact that many service providers have developed unique curricular programs on their campuses. A compelling example I am trying to find more evidence about is a program developed by a LD specialist at another community college that ran a two-semester (credit bearing) academic skills and self-advocacy training course for at-risk students with disabilities. The program is now defunct, but I’m curious to see how its approach to literacy skills training and disability advocacy might align with work in our own field toward disability studies inspired writing courses.

It’s too early to tell what kinds of questions I’ll be able to ask of these texts once I’ve got them. One key question pertains to the ways disability programing is justified. When speaking to different populations and in different political climates, how likely are DSPs to invoke the legal mandate for access, as opposed to invoking a value-added justification for disability inclusion? How likely are they to invoke rhetoric of diversity? Likewise, I am deeply interested in how questions of academic standards are policed in these documents.

I will end there. I would love to talk more with you all after the panel if anyone has ideas or questions about my project. I look forward to reporting more as things continue to develop.

Works Cited

Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference. Carbondale, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2014.

Price, Margaret. “Disability Studies Methodology: Explaining Ourselves to Ourselves.” Practicing Research in Writing Studies: Reflexive and Ethically Responsible Research. Ed. Katrina M. Powell and Pamela Takayoshi. New York: Hampton Press, 2012. 159 – 186.

—–. “Access Imagined: The Construction of Disability in Conference Policy Documents.” Disability Studies Quarterly 29.1 (2009).



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