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Beat the system, win the game: Response to Mooney and Cole’s Learning Outside the Lines

In their hybrid memoir/self-help book, Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution (2000), Jonathan Mooney and David Cole reflect on their experiences as LD/ADHD students who endured educational failure and went on to succeed in the Ivy Leagues, not by conforming to the mold of traditional education, but by accepting their unique strengths as atypical learners and beating the academic game. They aim their book at other LD/ADHD students who are poised to make the leap into college; using a playfully wry tone, they deflate the hype of college as a utopian environment for learning, instead calling it what it is, a landscape that can be as restrictive and disempowering as elementary schools often are for LD/ADHD students. Learning Outside the Lines offers readers a set of models for confront the challenges of being an LD/ADHD college student realistically, showing that academic success is possible and within the grasp of even people who have faced extreme educational failure in the past.

The first section of the book is the most akin to genres of creative nonfiction. The first two chapters present biographical narratives from the two authors, documenting their traumatic experiences in elementary and high school and their eventual acceptance to Brown University where they met. In both narratives, the authors recount how they were demoralized and alienated from prescriptive educational systems sadistically bent on matters like spelling, handwriting, and sitting still. Despite the authors’ considerable creative skills as storytellers and artists, they were made to think of themselves as lazy, crazy, or bad — identities they were only able to dispel as unfair later in life. Here Mooney, who had discovered his talent for English studies, finds himself once again failing under an instructor who believes spelling and handwriting trump creative skill and inventiveness:

“I wanted to tell all of [the other students] that good handwriting and spelling and following the rules of some pathetic high school English teacher did not make them smart. But the most frightening thing that I grew to understand that year is how intelligence is a construct, and the rules of that environment, where form is the gatekeeper to content, did make them smarter than I was” (42)

Thanks to the autobiographical focus of the book, theoretical observations like Mooney’s musing on the constructed nature of intellignece emerge as reflections on lived experience, rather than theory for theory’s sake. In the chapter that closes their autobiographical segment of the book, “Institutionalized,” the authors reflect on how they met at Brown university and came to recognize their experiences as indicative of skewed institutional priorities in the educational system. In particular, they characterize most elementary education as being about moral and behavioral training, wherein students are taught that whose who learn easily and behave appropriately are rewarded and thought of as good, and those who learn poorly in the received environment and disrupt the order of the classroom are punished and treated as morally bad. While diagnosis of learning disability and ADHD in some way justifies this “bad” behavior, it does not identify the problem of the system in the environment, but instead locates it in the deficient/medicalized student.

Based on this experience, the authors lay out a curriculum for self-empowerment aimed to help their readers achieve academic and personal success. The key features of their plan are as follows:

1. Confront the trauma of educational failure, including lingering psychological effects

2. Understand individual strengths and weaknesses

3. Understand the tasks and rules of academic success in this new educational environment (colleges and universities)

4. Build skills and work habits that work with individual strengths and weaknesses

5. Build a positive self-image outside of academic performance

The majority of the book is devoted to number 4. In “Schooled,” the authors break down the necessary academic skills needed for success into chapters on topics like note taking, class participation, exams, and writing. In each one, they offer multiple routes to success, each articulate to match different learning styles. Employing Howard Gardner’s model of multiple intelligence, they allow readers to mix-and-match the study habits that will work best for them, including a heavy emphasis on oral, social, kinetic, and multisensory approaches to learning. In addition to these learning and performance tips, they also advocate self-advocacy skills, such as arguing for appropriate accommodations, and also recommend the usefulness of student support services like writing centers and campus mental health services.

I was impressed by many of the recommendations Mooney and Cole make in their extended skills section. Most compelling to me was their breakdown of the difficulties LD/ADHD students face with writing. In essence, they identify writing as a constraining linear practice, which opposed LD/ADHD ways of making/thinking which tend to be visual and multidimensional. Here’s an exemplary passage:

In short, our thoughts are three-dimensional, but the medium of writing is at best two-dimensional, drawing primarily on logical and sequential skills. . . . The second reason writing is so difficult is a historical one going back to elementary school (you could have guessed that one). Those feelings of shame and emotional distress while writing come from the fact that at an early age, we learned that writing is the gatekeeper to intelligence, right up there with reading. . . . However, writing is a confused and dishonest academic discipline.” (159)

Taking this skeptical view of academic writing, the authors break down the “game” of successful performance on a large writing task into tiny parts, offering students multiple alternatives for navigating the writing process designed to suit their individual writing processes. To make the process more manageable and less anxiety provoking, they advocate a system of multiple drafts, incorporating a range of visual outlining and brainstroming practices, peer feedback, and mental focusing activities. Their suggestions strike me as pedagogically sound, and their breakdown of the specific difficulties LD/ADHD folks face in writing will be useful for me later on in my research. I could imagine assigning this chapter to introductory writing classes at almost any level.

While I’m talking about writing, I should mention a growing trend I’m noticing in these memoirs, namely the way they reference their own composition. Looking back, Harry Sylvester, who described himself as a total non-writer, made much of the dictation/peer editing process he used to compose his memoir. Similarly, Temple Grandin describes her own compositional process changing over time as she comes to understand NT and ND people better. In his foreword, Oliver Sacks comments on the licidity of Grandin’s most recent memoir compared to her earlier work, which needed editors and co-writers to be coherent to an audience.

In Learning Outside the Lines, Mooney and Cole describe their composition process in similar terms, citing collaboration as a key factor in their success. Mooney and Cole collaborated on the book’s outline, but Mooney wrote the majority of the actual content, they explain. Cole (I gather from his narrative) has more extreme writing anxiety and less interest in literary expression (he is a visual artist). Mooney, however, explains multiple times in the book that he is entirely reliant on his mother for proof reading and copyediting, and he has a practice of faxing her manuscripts for correction, including the MS for this book.

I am not sure what to make of these moments where attention is drawn to the composition process. In one sense, they are unusual only in that the authors are drawing attention to a process that is typically erased by able-minded authors. Another author might give their editor a polite thank you in the acknowledgement, but they will typically not reveal the full negotiationan and revision process the work went through: this is all erased in the process of taking on the authority as “author” of a finished work. However, in the case of these memoirs, they are speaking to an audience of ND outsiders, who might see a project like writing a book as impossible. By foregrounding the collaborative composition process that went into making the books, these authors combat the idea that one kind of mastery alone is acceptable credential for writing a book that others can read, learn from, or even love. It’s perhaps a quality that identifies these memoirs as specifically disability memoirs.

One final point I want to mention is about the presence of institutions in this work. They focus much of their attention on the problems in elementary education and how restrictive opportunities for intellectual and creative engagement often result in trauma and disengagement from LD/ADHD students. They also comment on college environments, which they claim have the ability to be more open and accessible, but often fall into the same ruts of uniformity and oppression.

One important aspect of making education more open and effective, according to these authors, is the use of multisensory, project-based learning as opposed to uniform, standardizable means. They speak to the power of experience in the learning environment, building things, epermimenting, rather than simply relying on reading and writing to conduct learning and evaluation. They claim that there is no model in higher education that would institutionalize practices of multisensory, experienced-based learning — though I can think of a few methods that I admit have not taken on massive application, like service-based learning, digital-humanities-style making and building, blog and design projects, and the like. I imagine building a stable writing program around these kinds of experiential learning styles and building the kind of institutional environement Mooney and Coles ask for.

My final observation about institutionality is one that I noticed from other memoirs by LD educators, that is pull toward making new, alternative educational environments as the natural extension of theory based on lived experience. Mooney and Cole founded Eye to Eye, a national mentoring program that offers afterschool support to LD/ADHD children around the nation by linking them with LD/ADHD tutor/mentors at local colleges and universities. Likewise, Paul Schultz in his memoir My Dyslexia ends his narrative of self-discovery by describing how he founded an alternative creative writing school based on his insights about LD literacy talents for creative writing. This move to establish new learning spaces seems key for LD authors especially. More than simply succeeding in traditional academic environments, these authors seeks to model better environments by inventing novel systems of support and new ways to define success.

In the next few days, I will be posting some shorter blog entries on two more theoretical books I’ve been working through this week, Richard E. Miller’s As If Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education, and Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure. I don’t think I’ll have that much to say about either of them, based on the notes I have, so I’ll be able to keep the posts short and to the point.

Mooney, Jonathan and David Cole. Learning Outside the Lines: Two Ivy League Students with Learning Disabilities and ADHD Give you the Tools for Academic Success and Educational Revolution. Foreword by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. New York: Fireside, 2000.

Notes: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ekjURwMejy8CW5ggwN6fALWRaA09P0Aq_38Hw8d57nQ/edit?usp=sharing

 

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Speaking from Experience: Response to Harry Sylvester’s Legacy of the Blue Heron

It’s been another long time away, dear Reader. I’ve spent half the semester running around, giving conference talks on disability and writing studies, and this has meant sadly neglecting my orals reading and this here blog. I hope to get some video versions of those talks up and running eventually, and if I do I’ll share them here.

However, now I’m back on the righteous path, reading and writing as much as possible. I’ve resolved to take my exams in the first week or two of September, so I have until then to get through the remainder of my reading lists.

For my list with Jason, I’m spending some time with memoirs by neuro-atypical authors writing memoirs about their educational experiences, esp in relation to higher ed. For this post, I’ll discuss Harry Sylvester’s Legacy of the Blue Heron: Living with Learning Disabilities (2002). Since this is my first post back after a long break, it’s going to be particularly unfocused and fragmented, mostlikely. I’ll get back into the swing of things soon and producing more readable posts. Bare with me, please.

This slim memoir dictated by Sylvester, a former president of the Learning Disabilities Association of America, aims to show how claiming understanding and acceptance of learning disabilities can help people claim ownership of their lives and  . . . . . . .

Similarly to how Temple Grandin’s memoir alternates between following her own autobiographical narrative and focusing on topics of interest for her disabled population, Sylvester’s memoir moves through his life in major themes, each life period generating a thesis of sorts. In his chapter School Days, Sylvester describes his natural aptitude with machines, engineering, mathematics, and design–he contrast these aptitudes, for which he got parental and school-based encouragement, with his extreme weaknesses in spelling, writing, and reading. Having been educated during the 30s and 40s, there was little understanding of LD at the time, and Sylvester underwent substantial disciplining to correct the presumed “attitude problems” that were keeping him from succeeding like the other kids. As he says, “I was being punished because the school didn’t have an effective reading program for me” (8).

His experience of humiliation and punishment around literacy performance continues into his college years. While succeeding at the top of his engineering classes, he is publically chastized by his English teachers who tell him he is not suited for college because of his handwriting and spelling primarily.

The upshot of his analysis of his educational experience is that school systems tend to be designed for typical learners who can process language in predictable ways, and when students do not succeed, they are often blamed for not fitting into the system. Linguistic ability must be “explicitly taught” to students with LDs, employing multi-sensory phonetics training from an early age, he believes.

Though Sylvester leaves school successful in his degree, he takes with him the shame of his literacy failures. He describes trying to hide his spelling and reading difficulties in his work life: “I was so ashamed of my literacy problem that I did everything I needed to do to keep it a secret. I didn’t want people to know how “dumb” I was. [. . .] As I look back at all of this, I can see that keeping that secret was more disabling than the disability” (27).

At the same time that he tried to distance himself from his shame about literacy, he also recognizes his unique capacities for visual perception and its usefulness in his career as an engineer. In one passage, he describes his ability to visualize the design of a boat before he ever starts building it, a capacity that allows him to test out different designs and revise his plans based on the mental projections he generates for himself (31). He says it’s better than Computer Aided Design because he can do it freely in his mind. Temple Grandin describes a similar capacity when she talks about how she “thinks in pictures,” and how she designs prototype components of her feedlot equipment before ever drawing up plans. Both of these memoirists claim this powerful visualization capacity and apply it to the field of engineering — though their disabilities are very different. The upshot here is, of course, that LD is entirely context based, and that LD individuals can find jobs well suited to their strengths and succeed.

Throughout the narrative to this point, Sylvester has not yet been diagnosed with LD. In the third chapter, he reads a narrative by another LD writer and is deeply affected when the story he reads forces him to relive his school trauma. As he learns more about LD, he starts to reach out to others who experienced school failure like he did, and he also feels motivated to get diagnosed so that he can more fully understand his disabilities. Once he is diagnosed, he spends the remainder of the chapter explaining the specific learning disabilities he has and how they affected his experience in school and life.

This leads to one of Sylvester’s central arguments in this memoir: LD people must understand and accept their impairments in order to take control of their lives. This acceptance takes some re-thinking of central myths that affect the lives of all of us educated in an ableist system. We must admit that linguistic proficiency is not a universal marker of intelligence. We must to admit that our brains work in ways that make literacy tasks more difficult for us than for other people, and that this doesn’t make us less intelligent. Until we understand the specific weaknesses of our brains, we cannot accept them as part of us and find ways to be successful.

From this moment of epiphany, Sylvester moves on to become a full-time LD professional, leading support groups and national organizations on LD. He draws together anecdotes from the many young people and adults he worked with in this capacity to draw out a few other important issues with LD, including the social and emotional costs. He notes that an enormous proportion of people incarserated and in drug addition programs have LDs or ADHD. He also notes how social pressures in schools to perform in uniform ways can drive students to act out, close off, or become isolated.

One key tool this book offers to educators and parents is a model for LD support groups. He explains how he developed a system of emotional/social support for LD people to identify and claim their difficulties while at the same time also claiming and taking pride in their strengths. Interestingly, he offers Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence as a useful model for helping support group members start to understand their strengths and their weaknesses in context. Here’s a useful quotation (actually from the first chapter, but it pre-empts the discussion of MI theory in useful ways):

“It takes a long time to realize that there isn’t anything wrong with being learning disabled or dyslexic. It means that we have different abilities and disabilities than the norm. Some people are not musical, and it doesn’t matter; they still succeed in school and in life. Other people are not athletic, and it doesn’t matter. Unfortunately, in a society where language and math are so important, for those of us who cannot do language or math it does matter. Our differences become disabilities.” (17)

 

So, two key insights here: First, like Gardner, he argues that some capacities are more privileged in society than others. Indeed, the kinds of capacities we even pay attention to and value as intelligences are historically and culturally specific. Second, through the process of support group work, Sylvester aims to help others understand that being linguistically weak is not something to feel shame or self-pity about. It’s something to accept and keep in proportion to the strengths of each individual.

In the end, Sylvester offers this model of acceptance and empowerment to anyone with an LD. To educators and parents, he argues for reform and understanding. Here’s a final quotation from his conclusion:

“We as a nation have tried to educate all of our children in language and math implicitly. It simply hasn’t worked. Those who haven’t been able to learn in this way have sat in classrooms and failed. Lack of a successful education leads to failure in all aspects of our lives, such as social interaction, emotional stability, health, success in our jobs and success in relationships. All these failures lead to low self-esteem, depression, and bahavioral problems. Even people like me, who can have a career and support a family, still pay a heavy price.” (154)

Here, as he concludes, he draws together the various parts of LD identity and locates the central problem in the educational system. I am intrigued by the relationship between the identity of LD and the specific impairments presumed to cause them. For instance, one of Sylvester’s imairments (and my own) is a weakness in processing speed for visual linguistic recognition. This in and of itself is simply a way our brains work (psychology tells us), not a disability. In restrictive school environments that expect uniform performance, people like us are unable to succeed, we fail, we are set apart from other children, and we internalize messages about our lack of worth which we carry with us through life. For some who experience extreme failures, the effects can be devastating. The impairment itself is actually responsible for only the slight difference in processing ability among a range of people: the emotional, social toll is where the disability really exists.

So, implications for my own work: I am interested in what perspectives like this do to justify making/design based pedagogies in composition. I was recently at a talk about digital humanities approaches to composition and rhetoric, where one of the speakers described using CAD or circuit boards or the like in composition classrooms. He spoke of it as another kind of rhetoric, a means of communication that didn’t rely on words. I think paying attention to the unique capacities of ND learners leads us to a new understanding of the importance of non-verbal composition, including making, building, visual design, coding, etc.

I should say a few things about the writing in this book: Sylvester and his editor both explain in their preface chapters that the book is dictated because Sylvester is a “non-writer.” Much of the work describes the strategies Sylvester uses to successfully give speeches or teach classes, ways that work well with his spoken abilities. I should think more about this model as I think about the composing implications of all of these memoirs.

 

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Machines and Mentors: Response to Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures

Temple Grandin is an extraordinary person by any measure. A world expert on animal science, industrial design, and engineering, Grandin has achieved a level of academic and professional success higher than any of us can reasonably hope for ourselves. She’s written both scholarly papers and popular books, and her designs for the livestock industry are used around the world. In Thinking in Pictures: My Life with Autism, Grandin explores how her her unique way of thinking and being in the world have helped her to understand her own successes and challenges in life.

As I read chapter after chapter of Grandin’s, Thinking in Pictures, I found myself encountering a narrative style that was unique to me. Though it’s subtitled “my life with autism,” Grandin’s own personal narrative frequently falls out of focus for long periods of the book. Indeed, rather than focusing on her personal narrative as the central structuring feature, as many memoirists would, Grandin focuses the chapters on aspects of autistic life and experience more generally. It often feels much more like a book about autism, with her own life offered as one rich example of an autistic. So each chapter contains one part Grandin’s life story, one part literature review from clinical autism research, and one part storytelling from her knowledge of autism memoirs and her personal interactions on national tours talking about autism.

One challenge of this approach is that she does not always telegraph her transition between these components very clearly–as a result, within a single paragraph she might discuss her own childhood autism symptoms, clinical studies on verbal development, and advice for teachers, all without any clear transition. The effect of each chapter is cumulative, drawing together various strands to represent an aspect of autistic life as an impressionistic whole. Because autism is so many things, and because knowledge about it comes from so many different sources, this panoramic view substitutes for declarative statements about what autism is or is universally like. The effect in the memoir is mesmerizing, and it encourages me as a reader to be pliable and to follow Grandin’s lead to more fully understand different ways of being in the world.

Thinking back to my discussion of G Thomas Couser’s work on disability memoirs, I have been trying to decide where Grandin’s memoir would fit in terms of the rhetoric of disability. What is Grandin trying to achieve in this work? Is it politically efficacious for disabled people?

It seems to me that much of Grandin’s work is aimed at helping neurotypical (NT) people understand autism in all its complexity–seeing the beauty and possibilities of autistic experience as well as the realistic challenges. She does not sugar-coat the hard parts about being autistic in a NT world. (The opposing term to NT is neurodiverse or ND.) But I am left with the feeling that the main aim of this book is to encourage NT people to embrace autistic ways of being as valuable. In this regard, Grandin must dispel prejudices against autistic people as hopeless, pitiable, and deficient. Instead, she offers ways for NT people to imagine autistic people as employable contributers to society, if only they would be adequately taught, supported, and respected for who they are (rather than rejected for who they are not).

In her chapter “The Ways of the World: Developing Autistic Talent” Grandin talks about the unique challenges people on the spectrum face in achieving academic and professional success. Again, this chapter does many things at once. It’s one of the most straightforwardly autobiographical chapters, following Grandin’s education and professional development from her when she entered formal education in a preK program for the hearing impaired and brain damaged to her present day, working as an academic, public lecturer, and freelance consultant for the livestock industry. Using evidence from her own experience, she argues for the importance of personal mentorship for autistic people, especially from those who are willing to try to understand autistic difference, rather than simply normalize it. For instance, Grandin’s high school science teacher did not discourage her fixation on cattle behavior; instead, he encouraged her to dive deeper into this obsession, to become an expert, and to pursue higher education as a way to learn even more about the topic. At the same time, this mentor helped her navigate the difficult social landscape of NT high school life: Mr Carlock’s science lab was a refuge from a world I did not understand” (107).

Grandin extrapolated this experience to talk more broadly about how autistic talent can be encouraged at school. One general principle is that fixations (a typical feature of ASD diagnosis) should not be treated as a problem to be corrected; instead mentors and teachers should try to find ways to help autists pursue their fixations in productive ways. For instance, if someone is fixated on boats, Granding thinks teachers should use the fixation to get the student interested in math, physics, design, and engineering principles. She also sees the rise of computer and internet-related fixations as a potential boon for autistic people, since jobs in the tech sector tend to accept people on the spectrum more readily than other industries, and programming skills are highly valued at the moment.

At the same time that Grandin finds rewarding intellectual pursuits to motivate her involvement in the academic and professional worlds, she also finds mentors willing to help her navigate social challenges she faces because of her autism. As she explains when discussing the rules of behavior at her rural liberal arts college, she had to learn social behaviors through explicit heuristics, making rules about what could and could not be done in a college environment. (She calls the arbitrary taboo rules “sins of the system,” for instance the high stakes rules against having sex or smoking in the dorms.)

Indeed, this is the second part of the importance of mentorship for Grandin: at the same time as good mentors are able to recognize and foster talent in autistic people, they also need to provide direct social instruction to help them understand how to interact with NT people. For Grandin, what’s important is understanding that as an autistic person who thinks in pictures rather than in verbal language, she literally thinks differently from those around her. That knowledge allows her (and other autistic people she advises) to be more cognizant of their differences and to anticipate how NT people will perceive them. Again, citing her own experience, Grandin attests to the importance of mentors who help her to understand appropriate personal demeanor, grooming, speech in school and workplace settings. If autistic people had better access to this kind of responsive and thorough mentorship, she argues, they would be more able to succeed professionally, as she has.

While she names the real challenges autistic people face in succeeding in the professional world, she also sees autism as a source of power:

In some ways, I credit my autism for enabling me to understand cattle. After all, if I hadn’t used the squeeze chute on myself, I might not have wondered how it affected cattle. I have been lucky, because my understanding of animals and visual thinking led me to a satisfying career in which my autistic traits don’t impede my progress. But at numerous meetings around the country I have talked to many adults with autism who have advanced university degrees but no jobs. They thrive in the structured world of school, but they are unable to find work. Problems often occur at the outset. Often during interviews, people are turned off by our direct manner, odd speech patterns, and funny mannerisms. (111)

This passage has interesting implications for my thinking about access for ND people in higher education, and it also has compelling activist overtones on the most practical level. She claims that for some people on the spectrum, the regimented social conventions of academic life provide a level of stability that is useful. However, interviews and other Kairotic exchanges (I’ll talk about this more soon when I write about Margaret Price’s book about mental disability and academic life) put ND people at a disadvantage, exposing them to impediments based on NT prejudice. Rather than focusing on autistic deficiency, however, she aims her message at her NT audience:

Employers who hire people with autism must be aware of their limitations. Autistic workers can be very focused on their jobs, and an employer who creates the right environment will often get superior performence from them. But they must be protected from social situations they are unable to handle. (114)

I want to think more about Grandin’s take on activism in this book. She herself is a highly verbal, emenently successful autistic person; and yet she speaks with great certaintly about the limitations of people on the more severe end of the spectrum, as she does in this passage. Another moment at the end of that chapter confronts this issue directly. Talking about the ND movement, she acknowledges that drives to “cure” autism would remove from the human population important forms of creativity and genius. However, she also says “In an ideal world the scientist should find a method to prevent the most severe forms of autism but allow the milder forms to survive.”  (122) This is not a stance that sits well with my perspective of disability activism or what I’ve learned from disability studies. It seems like Grandin’s activism might be limited only to the most capable people on the spectrum; that since her message is aimed at NT employers, educators, and parents, she does not have an answer for how to imagine life for severely disabled people in the workforce or in schools. I’m not sure where this observation will take me, but I don’t think I can leave severely impaired people out of my thinking. A thread to chase later.

Accessible Stories: Response to G. Thomas Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing (2010)

G Thomas Couser’s Signifying Bodies: Disability in Contemporary Life Writing documents the rise of disability life writing as a popular genre over the last thirty years. Whereas in the past the memoir market was dominated by celebrities, particular movie stars, athletes, and politicians, the last three decades or so have seen the proliferation of the disability memoir, which Couser names the “autosomatography” (11). Often written by people who have no previous claim to fame, disability memoirs present the reading public with stories about the experience of life with anomalous bodies (nobodies writing about bodies, he terms “nobody / some body memoir” [3]). These works force readers to “face the body” (5), to confront illness and disability not through cultural myth alone but also through the lived experience of those writing from the other side of culture’s heavily policed border between able and disabled.

Couser claims that all disability memoir provides a potential good because it offers “mediated access to lives that would otherwise seem opaque and exotic” to mainstream audiences. However, he is also careful to distinguish between disability memoirs he sees as politically empowering and those he sees as reifying of negative stereotypes about disabled life.

He draws connections between the rise of disability memoirs and the rise of disability rights activism across American culture. He claims that memoir has historically served an important political function across a range of civil rights movements. Analogies here are easy to come by: feminism, black civil rights, and gay pride movements have all embraced life writing as a genre in order to fight dominant cultural stereotypes that justify oppression. Utilizing the politics of the personal, memoir allows individuals to counter stigmatizing stereotypes and represent their lives as they themselves experience them, reframing the terms for what it means to be black or a woman or a person with AIDS, for instance. Life writing, as a popular genre, doesn’t tend to require the same kinds of literary conventions that novels or poetry rely on, and as a result, unlettered people with important stories to tell have had access to a reading public that would normally be accessible only to those with advanced literary training.

In these respects, disability memoir has a potential to serve a counter-hegemonic function within broader culture: the genre creates a counter-discourse, by enabling disabled people to represent their own lived experience to argue back against stereotyped myths about disability and the overall cultural imperative to deny disabled people live complex, interesting lives.

On the other hand, Couser admits that many (it seems, most) disability memoirs do not live up to this counter-hegemonic potential. In his third chapter, “Rhetoric and Self-Representation in Disability Memoir,” he presents a taxonomy of different rhetorical stances toward disability that characterize most memoirs. He charts a range of popular memoirs–stories of supercrips overcoming the limitations of their impairments and leading “normal lives”; stories of blind or crippled authors mourning and accepting their tragic impairments; nostalgic stories about pre-impairment days now gone; stories of impaired people seeking cures or enduring horrific treatments. Most of these narratives focus exclusively on the experience of impairment (the individual experience of loss or injury), rather than disability (the social/cultural experience of discrimination and inaccess). They employ rhetorics of horror, pity, inspiration, and in each case cast disability as a personal problem to be overcome by those strong enough to endure.

Opposed to these conventional images of disability as tragic or inspiring impairment, Couser offers on two categories of anti-hegemonic narratives: on the one hand, he discusses “emancipatory” accounts of disabled lives that focus on the disabled person as oppressed by medical authority and institutionalization (for example I Raise My Eyes to Say Yes, about a woman who was imprisoned in a mental institution under wrongful diagnosis); narratives like these function similar to slave narratives, Couser claims, drawing attention to unjust systems of oppression that control people’s lives.

On the other hand, he offers a range of “disability studies memoirs,” such as  Simi Linton’s My Body Politic and Steven Kuusisto’s Planet of the Blind (which I’ve read before but clearly need to add to my lists for its discussion of his college years). These memoirs are distinct in that they do not focus on the lived experience of impairment exclusively, but instead investigate the social and cultural experience of disability. They examine the effects of stigma and stereotype, often by documenting the author’s own development of a politically engaged and affirming disability identity. In this way, they bare resemblance to coming-out narratives, wherein the disabled person stops hiding her disability, rejects negative beliefs about herself, and comes to accept her disability as an important and potentially emancipating aspect of herself. These memoirs tend to acknowledge the influence of civil rights legislation on the lives of disabled people as well, connecting the personal quite explicitly to the political.

As I was reading Couser’s book, I often stopped to think about the implications of disability memoir for people with Learning Disabilities. While Couser’s main focus seems to be on disabilities written on the body–illnesses, mobility or sensory impairments, stories that make us “face the body”–he seems also to suggest that disability memoirs about invisible, mental disabilities serve important functions too. Certainly LD memoirs like Mooney’s The Short Bus take a disability studies perspective to tell stories about slow learners that fight misconceptions, and it certainly offers political context for understanding cognitively embodied differences. But there’s something unique that’s likely happening in terms of the politics of education that LD memoirs can tell us, which wouldn’t be the focus of most other kinds of disability memoirs.

Here’s an interesting passage from a comp/rhet perspective, and one that potentially has unique implications for LD:

Writing a life is an aspect of accessibility that may seem secondary, but it is pertinent here because it is peculiar to disability: despite important recent developments in assistive technology (such as voice-recognition software), the process of composition itself may be complicated by some impairments. People who are blind, Deaf, paralyzed, or cognitively impaired are disadvantaged with regard to the conventional technologies of writing, which take for grated visual acuity, literacy in English as a first language, manual dexterity, and unimpaired intellect and memory. For people with may impairments, the process of drafting and revising a long narrative may seem dauntingly arduous. (32)

Here Couser suggests that the genre of long-form memoir writing offers particular challenges to many people with disabilities. I wonder about the possibilities for other modes of life writing that employ nontraditional literacy practices, like web publishing, multimodal composing, and collaborative storytelling. This may be somewhere my own pedagogical experiments explore. I wonder, too, about the unique challenges LD memoirists face in performing literacy in this way, and how a meta-cognitive awareness of the self as an LD or dyslexic author might influence the genre. Couser’s models for disability memoir offer some useful framing for the political and rhetorical possibilities of disability memoir, but I will have to do some considerable work on my own to figure out the unique valencies of academic disability memoir. That’s my work this semester, I think.

Next up: Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures; Mike Rose’s articles on cognition, basic writing, and academic discrimination; and Howard Gardner’s theories of Multiple Intelligence.

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Writing as Therapy?: Response to Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power

Peter Elbow’s 1973 Writing Without Teachers was one of the first composition books I ever read. I carry its insights with me every time I teach or sit down to write. During the years I spent struggling through my own stuck place–when I could not write without extreme anxiety, when I piled up incompletes, when I was certain I was incapable of continuing in grad school–I took courage from Elbow’s model. This first book emerged from his close study of his own troubled writing process. Through the quotations from his own journals, we see the power of his arguments for freewriting and expressive practice. It’s a book about his own recovery as a writer, a kind of rehab-through-writing through which he discovered practices that could help other writers help themselves. He taught me to study my own writing problems, to learn from them, and to be patient with my progress toward fluency and confidence. I’m deeply grateful for that. If I get the chance to go back to this book, I want to think more about the force autobiography or auto ethnography plays in the development of his writing theories . . . and my own.

Writing with Power, Elbow’s 1981 followup to W w/o T offers something different. It’s a book jammed with short, practical essays describing in step-by-step descriptions a range of practices writers can use to free their verbal invention abilities, discover new insights about a topic, work with other writers and audiences, and strengthen their writerly voice. Theory is kept to a minimum, and Elbow’s own autobiographical comments play only a sideline role. He speaks at once to other writing teachers (who can use these techniques directly in their classrooms) and to writers themselves (who might, without teachers, use these techniques to refine and grow their practice). I assigned my own students four or five short chapters from the book this semester in the hopes that they will be able to better incorporate freewriting and other exploratory writing techniques into their developing process. I hope that reading Elbow describe writing processes unambiguously but without jargon, they will find new abilities to see their own writing processes for both the strengths and weaknesses that might be there.

As I read Writing With Power, I find myself seeking out moments where Elbow discusses either the thinking or emotional lives of writers. Unlike many writers emerging from the cognitive turn in composition whom I will discuss in my next few posts (Mike Rose, Flower and Hayes, Sondra Perl), Elbow’s interest in cognition and affect for the most part says hidden under the surface. I spot his conception of writing, thinking, and feeling blending together in a few key moments, however.

In Chapter 8, Elbow describes “The Loop Writing Process.” In essence, Elbow provides a series of focusing prompts designed to help writers explore their thoughts on a topic through freewriting. Rather than relying on completely open writing processes to explore a topic, Elbow provides a list of prompts to guide creative exploration: write first thoughts and impressions; write prejudices you hold about the topic, or make some up pretending you hold a more extreme view than you really do; tell stories about the topic, or tell lies; pretend to speak to vastly different audiences, or in different registers as you write. All are meant to be exploratory and to help the writer discover new possibilities for future drafts on the topic.

By indulging in these focused loops, Elbow claims “you are letting goals, meanings, and end-products slip partly out of mind in order to allow for restructurings of your mind and new points of view that would be impossible if you kept your eye on the goal all the time” (75). At the end of the process, he discusses “the voyage home,” the turn wherein the writer sets aside these playful redirections and points back to the real task at hand, the essay draft or report or other audience-centered piece he’s really trying to produce. Elbow calls this process a “return . . . to full consciousness of what your goal is” (ibid).

I am struck here by the way he describes the mind here. Though he describes the loop techniques as a sort of game, he claims that employing the approach allows writers to restructure their thinking processes, to take over their cognition and make intentional decisions about how it will be employed, to do the steering, and to choose to steer ones consciousness away from the obvious goal of writing for an audience. I think about Rose or Perl who studied disruptive thought processes in the writing process, and who developed techniques to help writers NOT think about certain things (like rigid genre expectations or premature editing needs). The element of cognitive training that’s going on here makes me think of the kind of cognitive training people with LD sometimes undergo as they learn to understand their own cognitive processes and to come up with metacognitive strategies to make the best of their capacities. Even if the particular prompts Elbow includes in his list of loop writing techniques do not all appeal to writers or teachers, I think there must be substantial benefit in simply helping writers make conscious choices of some kind about how they use their writing and thinking processes. I wonder what techniques like loop writing could provide Learning Disabled (LD) people who have serious troubles with connecting their ideas to writing.

In addition to exploring the cognitive aspects of writing practice, Elbow also investigates the affective connection–what feelings have to do with writing. His sixteenth chapter, “Nausea” focuses on the experience of anxiety that writers feel when confronted with their own writing in the drafting stage: “revulsion” “disgust” “The feeling that all this stuff you have written is stupid, ugly, worthless–and cannot be fixed” (173). This discussion gets me thinking about students with testing anxiety or other psychological impairments that interfere with their ability to work efficiently in high-stakes academic settings. It also makes me think of myself, and my own habit of dismissing my writing in its early stages, the shame and anxiety I feel at having produced shitty writing, how paralyzing it is.

I’ll quote Elbow’s advice at some length:

[. . . ] I have finally learned that nausea need not ruin everything. If you are a victim you can learn to fight it in various ways. First of all, recognize it for what it is: a stupid game you play with yourself, a sneak attack by demons, a bad habit. Gradually you will learn to see the pattern in it, a trick your feelings play on your as they try to keep you from being effective.   [. . .]

Once you come to understand the pattern of this recurring nausea, you can deal with the feelings: do a freewriting in which you let go and tell how disgusted you are by everything you’ve written and how worthless it all is. When you give the feelings full rein, it’s easier to see them for what they are. Or you can scream or cry the feelings out to a friend or a mirror or a closet. And it may help to turn back to some already completed writing of yours that you know is good–to reassure yourself of your powers.

[. . .]

Finally, learn to be prident about what you do to your writing during these attacks. Acknowledge that when these feelings are upon you, you are in an intellectually and emotionally wakened condition.”  (173 -74)

I’ve been seeing therapists long enough to recognize what Elbow’s doing here. First, he identifies the source of the anxiety in the writer–it’s something you do to yourself for reasons that might not be conscious to you, perhaps relating to your fear of failure, your doubts about your abilities, or your memories of being judged negatively by others in the past. Though these aren’t consciously in your mind, the feelings of distress are getting in the way of your ability to work on your writing. So Elbow advises using writing to help expose these demons and see them for what they are–disproportionate responses to the challenge at hand–which is that you’ve produced a draft that might not be ready to turn in yet. If I knew more about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, I could probably identify what he’s doing here more accurately, but I feel a deep familiarity between his approach to what I’ve experience in therapeutic settings. (Indeed, if I do end up talking about Writing Without Teachers later, I should think more about how he models his practice after group therapy approaches, which he claims.)

So, while Elbow doesn’t focus this book on studying the mind in the same way that Perl, Flower & Hayes, or Rose do, his practical writing techniques employ a deep attention to both the cognitive and emotional lives of writers: a close knowledge of what it means to think and feel while writing. For students with LDs and psychological impairments–for whom thinking processes and emotional states might be especially disruptive–Elbow’s approach might be especially useful. I could imagine service providers teaching students with LDs and psychological disabilities to develop meta-approaches like Elbow’s to help them better understand and manage their difficulties–at the same time providing useful writing tools for use in their classes.

The main criticism of process scholarship was that it was too clinical in its focus. But it’s this aspect of clinicalitly that appeals to me most. For some students, the university and the clinic are not such different institutions. Maybe folks like Elbow can help us better understand the role writing can play in bridging the institutional and philosophical gaps between these spaces that disabled students routinely inhabit.

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Reflections and Plans: 3 week check-in

 

I’ve been working on my lists for three weeks now, and I thought it felt about time for a checkin and self evaluation. I’ve written seven reading response posts and tried a few different formats, with differing results. I have also dealt with a range of text styles which have challenged me, including multimodal webtexts, philosophical lectures, and an enormously wide-ranging subject reader. There have also been new developments, like getting my proposal accepted for CCCC, which are making me think about where my next moves will be on my lists after I get done with my current pile.

In this post, I want to evaluate my progress so far and lay out my strategy for the next month or so of work. I mean this to be helpful to my advisors–Mark McBeth, Joe Straus, and Jason Tougaw–as a way to get a sense of what I’m working on and what I’m thinking without our having to find time to meet too frequently. I know how time is for all of us.

First I reflect on the texts I’ve read and the challenges I ran into (probably most relevant to Joe). Then I talk about my ideas for my essay project on LD identity and dyslexia memoirs, which is relevant to my next reading steps for Joe and Jason’s lists. Finally, I talk about my disability service provider research project that just got picked up for CCCC, and how I can use Mark’s list to get me there. I welcome feedback of any kind, on any part, from any audience.

1) Reflections:

I have been relatively happy with my pace. Since starting my reading/writing schedule three weeks ago, I have gotten through one book (Austin’s How to Do Things With Words), nine new chapters of the Disability Studies Reader, and an eight-author webtext that was about equivalent to an entire journal article worth of articles, Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces. I also wrote a new draft of my complete orals lists, including a draft of the list rationale statement that must accompany the lists when I submit them to the department. You can see the lists, which are broken down into sub-topics, here.

All this, and I lost an entire week, nearly, conferencing with my students for their start-of-term writing consultation. (40ish in a week–draining but effective). Now that that’s over, I should be able to concentrate more on my reading.

I faced a few research challenges in this first push. First, I had to figure out how to reflect on something so large and abstract as Austin’s speech act theory in a single post. I ended up providing my own practical testing ground by imagining the pedagogical applications of Austin’s theories about performatives. This helped me extract what I really needed from Austin, I think.

My next problem was one of medium, figuring out how to consume, interpret, and reflect on a multi-part webtext about “access studies,” an emerging discourse in composition disability studies that employs some language and concerns from outside wheelhouse. While I’m interested in technology and access, it’s really not my primary interest in thinking about disability issues in higher education. So discussions about screen reader technology or image captioning were informative, but not alluring.  It is, however, an important strand of the new composition/disability discourse I’m exploring on Jason’s list. In the end, I did a scattershot approach here, summarizing all the pieces of the webtext rather than synthesizing them together. I led a talk on this webtext for our GC Comp Rhet area group meeting shortly after writing my post. I think I was able to do some of that synthesis there.

Finally I had my first anthology battle. I’d read about half of the Disability Studies Reader (4th edition) for Joe’s class last Spring, but I knew there were quite a few articles in it I wanted to get to. Many introduce key disability studies terms of discourses that I simply don’t know much about. And while they’re not central to my dissertation project, I would like to be able to teach disability studies classes someday, and this will require me to be somewhat conversant in issues like prenatal testing or the history of the ADA. So, I wanted to use the text to give me a general overview in the field before I dive in to specific discourses. However, I also didn’t want to get bogged down in the scope of the reader, which at over 500 pages could easily keep me still for the whole month if I let it. In the end I decided to try these things: (1) skip chapters that are by authors whose books I’m reading later (i.e. Davis’s chapters which are also in his books, Siebers’s, Garland-Thomson, McRuer); (2) write mostly about the ones with relevance to my dissertation work, but take good notes on all of them; (3) leave some to come back to later if I have time. I have three more chapters to go, and I’m looking forward to digging in to a single author for a while.

2) New (revised) DS seminar paper idea

I feel like the project I’ve been working on for my incomplete Disability Studies seminar paper has finally died for good. I went through many, many drafts of that thing and still couldn’t find my way to an argument. I feel I had so many disparite topics I wanted to weave together, I couldn’t actually find something definite to say. I think it’s time for me to set that project down and consider other options. Looking backward worn’t help me move forward on these lists.

One option I’m pursuing is using this blog to generate an essay, rather than planning the argument in advance based on texts I’ve already read. By directing my reading choices based on the themes and ideas that emerge from one text to another, I can gather multiple responses on a general topic, perhaps allowing an argument to emerge and develop over a number of posts. This will help me take some of the pressure off of needing to have every move of my essays planned from the get go. Also, because I’m following leads as I go, the writing will likely have an exploratory quality and energy to it I often lost when fiddling with the old drafts.

But that’s all about method, what about topic? I think the best thing I wrote for Joe’s class was my essay about LD identity and Tobin Sieber’s notion of disability as masquerade. I was able to take his model for disability performance and use it to establish an argument for learning disability as performance, and literacy as the controlling ideological force governing the performance. I also got to draw examples from my own experience, Mooney and Schultz’s dyslexia memoirs, and some pop culture representations of dyslexia I’m interested in, especially The Cosby Show. You can see the original essay here: Learning Disability as Masquerade

I think it would make sense for me to direct my immediate reading efforts on my disability studies list toward the goal of fleshing out and developing this paper. My next stop will be, I think, Siebers’ Disability Theory, which should give me a more contextualized version of the theory I was responding to in that draft. That will be my only theoretical apparatus for this project (I hope!), and the rest of my efforts will be spent on drawing examples from a small archive of the LD texts with which to test the fit of Seiber’s theories for LD. In addition to the memoirs and the Cosby episodes about Theo’s dyslexia, I’ve also discovered a fabulous after-school special about dyslexia starring Jaquin and River Phoenix called Backwards: The Riddle of Dyslexia (1984), which will match with the other texts very well I think. I will also, as before, draw from my own anecdotal experience to fill in whatever research gaps remain between me and a finished seminar paper. Once I get through these initial texts, I can ask Joe where else I could look on my lists to develop my thinking on the topic, and use his suggestions to guide my next steps in the reading and writing process. And so, in little steps forward, I might actually write a seminar paper.

3) Disability research in CUNY for CCCC talk

The second hopeful development is that I got a proposal accepted at this year’s Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in Indianapolis. I missed the message for several days as it sat in my spam box, and I’d assumed I hadn’t gotten in. I was bummed: I had proposed to discuss the initial results from a series of interviews with disability service providers around CUNY and a preliminary analysis of CUNY institutional documents about disability, including DSO websites and public resources. Getting in was to be my motivation to actually conduct those interviews and start my analysis in a timely fashion, forcing me to have something to show by March. I used the CWPA talk in July for the same purpose, as a motivation to revise the research project I began in Mark’s class and sketch out the scope of the next step in my research.

Well, since I have gotten in after all, it looks like the research plan’s back on. I’d love to start by trying to get a meeting with Chris Rosa, the Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at CUNY central. I met him when I was putting on the English program graduate conference two years ago with Emily Stanback and Marrisa Brostoff. (Check out the conference website here.) Dr. Rosa has been a driving force in disability policy and discourse within CUNY since he himself graduated from the GC–not to mention his influence and contributions as executive officer of the Society of Disability Studies.

He would be in a unique position to help me access whatever documents or data or stories exist that would help me construct an institutional history of disability in CUNY. He would also be in a position to help me understand the logistic and legal terrain I’m getting into by asking questions about disability services at CUNY. Perhaps he could point me toward particular people at campuses who would have further leads, or be good interview subjects. This assumes, of course, he’s not too busy to see me and actually sees merit in my research. I’ll do as much research on these questions as I can alone first, of course.

I’m essentially planning to steer my reading work for Mark and Jason over the next one or two month push toward supporting these two projects. I’ve already talked through my plan for linking Joe’s list to the dyslexia masquerade essay. Jason’s list contains a number of the foundational dyslexia and LD works I’ll need to be able to draw upon to write that piece as well, and these should give me some ways to crack open that list on academic disability in a real way. I can do Dunn’s Learning Re-Abled, which gives an excellent overview of the various strands of LD scholarship (including neuroscience, literacy studies, and composition discourses around the topic); my work will be responding to Dunn’s pretty directly, I think, and my lists draw heavily from her own bibliography (with my spin, of course). She will remind me of the lay of the land and help me plan my next moves. Those next moves might take me to the LD memoirs, but I’m not committed to that yet. I may also want to spend some time with the early cognitive comp folks (Rose, Flower, Elbow).

For the moment, I’m working to finish up Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg’s The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2010), the second monograph I’m tacking on Mark’s list. I bumped it to the top of the pile because Dr. Davidson is coming to the GC in two weeks to give a job talk, and I’ll get the chance to meet her. Obviously, I’m eager to get a good understanding of her work before she gets here. I should be done with Future of Thinking by Monday so I can go on to Now You See It, which I understand more directly addresses issues of ADHD and new literacy.

Once I get through Davidson’s work, I want to direct my reading on Mark’s list toward supporting my CCCC research project. Since my main concern in this draft of the project will be sketching out an institutional history of disability administration at CUNY, I will want to get some models for other institutional histories. I’ll look at George Otte and Rebecca Mlynarczyk’s Basic Writing (2010) as well as some texts I poached from Mark’s archive class about basic writing and Open Admissions history. If I can narrow down any texts that will model interview-based research methods, that would be nice too. Suggestions are very welcome. Perhaps the texts on institutional criticism methods will be a nice place to go next.

To anyone who made it this far: thanks for reading. I welcome your feedback or encouragement either in comments or in an email to me at a.j.lucchesi@gmail.com

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Ableism, Retrofits, and Impediments to Access in Academic Spaces: Yergeau et al., “Multimodality in Motion: Disability and Kairotic Spaces”

This webtext brings together the work of eight scholars exploring various perspectives on multimodality as it and its relationship to ideas of disability . Much of the content was derived from a 2011 Computers and Writing panel featuring these authors, and throughout the piece C&W readers are identified as the primary audience.

On the design of the webtext: I have little experience working with webtexts as a reader. This one is broken into multiple mini-sections listen under each author’s essay–though any section can be explored independently of the overall essay into which it falls. While these mini-sections can be read linearly by clicking “next page,” the texts themselves are rich with links to other sections of the webtext, encouraging the reader to jump from author to author (or to the glossary section, which is not part of the linear progression of the essays). Each mini section is accompanied by a banner image that is not directly linked to the textual content, though many of the images, in focusing on archetecture, stairs, signage, and technology, resonate with the discussions in the main text. All in-text images are captioned with full visual descriptions.

Upon entering the webtext, I am met by a spalshpage that asks me to choose between entering, or accessing the document. This leads to an abstract and philosophical alignment with access.

Distinguised digital compositionist Cynthia Selfe, along with graduate student Franny Howes offer a general introduction to the webtext that justifies the relevance of disability to a non-specialist audience who might feel disconnected from the topic. Arguing that we are all only temporarily able bodied (if that), they assert an ethical imperative for all compositionists to examine how our work has ignored the experience of an entire class of individuals, an omission that has not only harmed our field, but also done real harm to those individuals we’ve simply forgotten to think about. For them, attending to disability pushes teachers and scholars outside of their “normal” ways of operating, allowing us more diverse “intellectual positions” from which to understand the potential work of composition. To not attend to disability is to accept our field’s ignorance about disability as natural and to perpetuate the continued exclusion of disabled people from our ranks on the basis of that ignorance, or worse, on the basis of a naturalized belief that disabled people simply don’t belong in universities.

Margaret Price’s essay, “Space/Presence” examines the notion of “kairotic space” and the normalized rules about presence and absence that tend to exclude disabled people from full participation there. Synthesizing work she published in her 2011 Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, Price defines kairotic spaces as spaces within academe where “knowledge is produced and power is exchanged” in real time– spaces like academic conferences, department meetings, faculty social events, or electronic job interviews. Within kairotic spaces, high-stakes professional interactions occur in real time and these interactions rely on pervasive (though often occluded) social conventions that tend to assume an able-bodied participant. Price focuses especially on the social conventions surrounding “presence” that govern kairotic spaces, observing how we assume as natural the superiority of face-to-face instantaneous interaction when, in fact, this mode of engagement allows participation only for those who are able-bodied enough to (say) fly to MLA or keep up with a skype’d job interview. We can think of an analogy between the professional kairotic spaces Price examines –which have a baseline expectation of normative “presence”–and the kairotic space of the classroom–which uses naturalized notions of “participation” that reward the ways some students participate in class (big talkers), but not others (perhaps they’d be better if they could tweet their comments?). Price argues that while we are willing to include disabled people in these spaces, we tend to forget that the ways we expect people to work in these spaces may put some people at an unacknowledged disadvantage; so, when a meeting or a panel discussion only employs sonic modalities, deaf people may be “present” in the room where the conversation is happening, but they are simultaneously absent from the conversation itself, invisible within the kairotic space. Price wants us to recognize and question the hidden normative assumptions that govern conduct in kairotic spaces and to more thoughtfully explore ways of employing multimodality and technology to render these spaces more accessible to disabled people.

Stephanie Kershbaum’s essay, “Modality” centers on the notion of “multimodal inhospitality,” which results when the the modes of communication employed in either a multimodal text or a multimodal space (like a classroom or a website) do not offer full usability to a user. She argues that compositionists have been quick to explore the ways added communicative modes characteristic of multimodality benefit  able-bodied users, while the experiences of disabled users have been largely ignored. For instance, in conference talks where some information is given visually, the primary mode of communication remains sonic, and thus inaccessible to deaf participants. Kershbaum argues that designers of multimodal texts and spaces rarely think to build redundant primary modes of communication, instead only adjusting their inaccessible designs after the fact, in the form of a retrofit to an already created artifact. Indeed, Kershbaum questions why it is not seen as a design flaw when a text employs only one primary mode of communication. Rather than advocating multimodal designers to try to accommodate for each possible impairment they might imagine in their users, Kershbaum insists that they must design in a way that allows users to adapt the text to their own needs and preferences.

Unlike the first two articles, which discussed multimodal inaccess mostly using examples related to sensory impairments, Elizabeth Brewer’s “Community” essay focuses on psychiatric disabilities and the unique access issues that arise with this population. Not strictly an issue of access (of “getting in” the door), Brewer addresses how “fitting in” to academic spaces is especially difficult for psychiatrically disabled people because of persistent and pernicious biases within academia against so-called mental illnesses. She advocates a practice of social reform wherein instructors are taught to rethink prejudiced language and beliefs about mental illness while at the same time working to establish “safer spaces” on campuses to provide non-academic support for people with psychiatric differences. Brewer bases her model of support and advocacy on the peer-support systems used within the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement.

In “Reason,” Melanie Yergeau extends the attitude-level intervention Brewer proposes by reflecting on the attitudes surrounding the notion of “accommodation.” She observes that accommodations tend to be granted only once normate authorities judge the accommodation is no threat to the community and the perceived rigor of the institution. She claims that this dynamic produces an environment in which disabled people feel shame at asking for “special help” to fix the perceived deficiency located in their (and only their) bodies. As Yergeau writes, “Within disability contexts, much of our scholarship positions access(ibility) as a project of rehabilitation. That is, there is a set of able-bodied us’s eagerly waiting to rescue a few, rare disabled thems who are in dire need of help.” This essay veers strongly toward the polemic, especially in calling for a politics of mutually supported self advocacy, a position that would work against the commonplace of “access” discussions that imagine using technology to “[reconfigure] disabled people, dismantling their ways of being and knowing and reinventing them, as best we can, into normate clones.” She calls for further attitude shifts related to disability, namely that we should see fighting disability stigma as a long-term project for the field.

Sushil K. Oswal’s essay, “Ableism” addresses the effects of retrofit-style technological designs for the disabled, examining in particular two real-world scenarios in which retrofits leave blind people at a disadvantage because their experience was not included in mainstream considerations. Drawing from U.N. and E.U. resolutions, Oswal defines “ableism” as “a form of discrimination based on the perception that being able-bodies is the normal human condition” (qt from Hehir); this bias toward assuming that all audiences and users are able-bodied unless otherwise stated, Oswal argues, allows designers to make products for “mainstream” audiences that later must be adapted for use by a minority of Others who lack the capacities to engage with the product in the intended way. Oswal examines an example from her own experience where, as a junior faculty, her department chose to take on a new courseware that at time of launch was inaccessible to those who use screen readers (like herself). While omissions like this seem minor by the department administration and publishers, Oswal argues that they create an unacknowledged burden for disabled people who must do extra uncompensated and unrecognized work to access materials not made with them in mind. Because departments tend to think of accessibility as a secondary concern, it falls on disabled individuals themselves to advocate for less ableist policies, often putting junior faculty in difficult political terrain in kairotic spaces like department meetings. Oswal argues that it is the designers of mainstream technology who are deficient, not the disabled people, because when they design they are incapable or unwilling to imagine that their user might be blind or deaf. Oswal wants deaf and blind people to have a “full place at the table in this new media feast,” which remains impossible as long as designers and administrators segregate their needs as special, minority, or low priority.

Michael Salvo concludes the webtext with “Over Here,” an essay that echoes Selfe and Howes’s introduction in emphasizing the the importance of disability concerns for all of us who may be temporarily able bodied. He rejects top-down models of accommodation, insisting that in their insistence that accommodation be “reasonable,” these models operate within a matrix of able-bodied privilege wherein the able-bodied authority judges the value and risks of including disabled concerns in his considerations. Rather, Salvo draws on the work of Graham Pulman (Design Meets Disability, 2009) as he advocates a practice of “resonant design,” a practice of creating artifacts that are “responsive, use-centered, stake holder involving, and context-sensitive.” He believes that this practice of design is the only sure way to create a world in which disability is respected as a natural part of the human condition and where disabled people are truly included as full participants in our academic communities.

 

***

This webtext seems to be speaking primarily to those who hold optimistic beliefs about the benefits of multimodal and new media practices for disabled people. The overall aim of this webtext seems to be to effect an attitude-level shift in designers of multimodal technology and advocates of multimodal practices within composition. While the pieces do offer some examples of moments when inaccess occurred with specific texts or technologies, the main work of the webtext is to help readers unfamiliar with disability theory to understand the stakes and scale of access problems that emerge from naturalised ableist assumptions held by tech designers and academics alike. Most of the suggestions the pieces make boil down to calls for those who don’t care or think about disabled perspectives to be more critical about their assumptions, and to understand the stakes for disabled people if they do not.

Another key move this webtext makes is shifting the conversation about disability and access from being focused on undergraduate students toward an analysis of access as an issue for graduate students and faculty as well. Key to this move is Price’s notion of “kairotic space,” a label she gives to informal environments where high-stakes interactions occur in real time, such as department meetings, conference presentations, and job interviews. Within these spaces, as the testimonies in this webtext show, disabled people are required to emulate the naturalized professional behaviors of non-disabled people or else be rendered absent. For instance, when the business-as-usual structure of department meetings relies exclusively on sonic modes of interaction, deaf colleagues are forced to find ways to participate up to the normative standard. While this notion of kairotic space has direct implications for teachers to think about the occluded ableist expectations they employ in their classrooms, the focus here is on professional access–on uncovering the impediments to participation that have become normalized within academic culture.

A second trend across these pieces relates to the connenction between ableism as a cultural bias and the continuing design of multimodal spaces, technologies, and texts that prioritize only the needs of “normal,” able-bodied users. Many of the authors argue that designers must start assuming disability as a reality for their end users, taking on design philosophies that prize adaptability, flexibility, and modal redundancy as ideal qualities in their products. The authors universally reject any kind of “retrofit” or any perspective that approves of leaving disabled experiences to be dealt with as special cases after the mainstream population has been served. The practice of retrofitting, for them, is evidence of the kind of internalized abelism that breeds inaccess in the multimodal spaces this webtext discusses.

One section that offers potential overlap with my interests is the piece that doesn’t directly address “access” in its traditional sense–that is, Brewer’s argument that social advocacy and support for students with psychiatry disabilities should be a long-term concern of compositionists. Unlike most of the essays, Brewer looks at disabled students’ experience, rather than larger professional ones. Interestingly, she argues that access discussions are insufficient for truly integrating these students; instead she pushes academics to think about issues like the presence and accessibility of counseling services–issues that are not strictly academic. In doing so, she argues that thinking about access will require those of us who work in writing programs to widen our view of how we should support the participation of disabled people on our campuses, even if it means getting our feet wet in issues we’d usually feel more comfortable leaving to professionals in disability services. This kind of re-focus seems like a hard sell to faculty professionalized as writing teachers, who might see emotional support for students with psychiatric disabilities as beyond their purview.

I’m not sure Brewer presents a convincing argument for why compositionist should care about creating safe spaces and eradicating offensive language about mental illness. Indeed, most of these pieces aim their critique at broad, abstract targets–biased priorities held across academia, abelist design or administrative practices carried out every day in large and small ways. The main argument for why we should care about these concerns remains that a) we all agree that it’s a problem if an entire class of individuals is disadvantaged by our pedagogical or administrative practices, and b) that working for access for the disabled benefits everyone who might one day become disabled. While I understand the importance of this universalizing move, I feel it perhaps dulls the real insight of these pieces, which I feel rests in the ways they lay bare the stakes and scope of inaccess faced by disabled people.

 

 

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