Tag Archives: disability

Workshop: Universal Design for the Writing Classroom

I designed this workshop for the CUNY Graduate Center’s English program orientation for new teachers, held on August 25th, 2015. It was designed to give a 50-minute introduction to the principles of Universal Design for Learning and to help first-time teachers think about how they apply to their writing-intensive humanities courses. Please feel free to use it and adapt it as you see fit. And, of course, comments are welcome either in the box below or by email.

Part 1: Confronting our beliefs about ability, inclusion, and access

I want to start our conversation today with some guiding questions.

  • What do we expect our students to know when they arrive in our classrooms?
  • What do we expect them to be able to do? Do we imagine “baseline abilities”?
  • What aspects of our courses do we expect them to find challenging?
  • What aspects of our courses do we expect them to find impossible?

Prompt: Freewrite for five minutes in response to the following question. Andrew will keep track of time, just follow the ideas wherever they take you, even if it takes you off topic:

What do you believe about these things that students find challenging or impossible? When do we recognize a shift between challenging students and shutting them out? 


Part 2: Universal Design for Learning

Universal Design (UD) describes an inclusive design movement originated in fields of architecture and consumer product design. The idea is that when most people sit down to design a building or an object, they start by imagining a typical user, often a user very similar to the person doing the designing.

Image shows a row of a typical economy class airplane seats. Leg room is cramped, arm rests divide the seats. No humans are present.

How do our design choices reveal our beliefs about the abilities of our end users?

Think about airplane seats. The designers of most airplane seats, throughout the history of that technology, have put strict constraints on the shape and size of their designs. We can look at the seat and imagine, with some surety, who the designers envisioned as their end user–what abilities and personal needs they would be expected to have.

The UD movement approaches design anticipating, at the onset, the widest possible range of users. This requires designers to anticipate what aspects of their design might impose barriers for full participation. 

Image shows the approach to an Oslo train station. In the background are shallow stairs, marked with reflective borders and textured grip. In the foreground is a shallow ramp to the same level

Notice the design elements included in this Oslo train station. What choices were made to invite a wide range of users? (Taken from the website for Zero Project, a UD initiative in Norway)

While so far I’ve been talking about UD as an architecture and design movement, UD has become a motivating imperative in the areas of web design, information design, and, of course, classroom design. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) describes an approach to classroom and pedagogical design that attempts to anticipate and invite the widest possible range of students into full and equal participation.

The UDL approach boils down to three main principles (all of which are covered in great detail, and for a range of educational settings, by the National Center for UDL):

  • Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
  • Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know,
  • Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation. (Dolmage 2015)

The goals of these three principles are to create classrooms and pedagogies that work equitably for all students. In a moment, we’ll think more closely about how these principles apply to our work as writing or humanities teachers.

Part 3: UDL in the Writing and Humanities Classroom

Think about these components of your class:

1. How do you communicate with your students?

  • What kinds of texts are they required to read?
  • What kind of multi-media texts are they required to read?
  • How, other than “reading,” can students learn important ideas from the class?

2. How do you expect students to demonstrate what they know?

  • What kinds of assignments are students doing for a grade?
  • How are you evaluating their success on these assignments?
  • What alternatives are you offering in terms of using other media or literacies?
  • How are students expected to understand the criteria for evaluating the success of their products?

3. How do you allow for multiple kinds of engagement?

  • What avenues of “participation” are open to students who are shy, asocial, or uncomfortable in class?
  • What options do you give students to choose their work based on their interest and abilities?
  • What opportunities do you give students to tell you how they learn best?


In the time that remains, I want to get us brainstorming and problem solving together. Take the notecard I provided and write on it a question that you want answered about UDL and how it might apply to your work in the classroom this semester. Once you have written your question, you will work in small groups to crowdsource answers and compare your concerns with others. The most pressing questions will come back to the full group for a final wrap-up Q&A

Prompt: What do you want to know more about from this discussion of UDL and teaching? Do you want concrete examples of one kind or another? Do you want to pose a scenario or problem for us to talk through? What do you need before you walk out the door today?

— Write your question on your note card

— On the other side of your card, write your name

— When you are done, raise your hand or catch Andrew’s eye so he knows

[Full notes from this workshop session are available on this google doc, or for download as a Microsoft Word document]


Part 4: Conclusion and Further Reading

Many disability studies scholars have pointed out that the phrase Universal Design sounds utopian. There is no way to truly anticipate all possible users and their unique abilities, vulnerabilities, and needs. Jay Dolmage has described UD as an approach, “[a] way to move” (2015). In that light, I encourage you to continue thinking about the ways your course design might invite the widest possible range of users. Try experiments in flexibility and multiplicity in your assignment design, course policies, and communication practices. Below are some useful resources to get you started.


Jay Dolmage, “Universal Design: Places to Start,” Disability Studies Quarterly 35:2 (2015): http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4632/3946

This short article defines UD approaches and imagines how they apply to our roles as college-level instructors. It also includes a 20+ page appendix of “places to start” for implementing universal design in a wide range of classes, including lecture, discussion, seminar, and lab-based classes.

Patricia Dunn, Talking, Stretching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing, 2001

This book includes excellent assignment ideas for engaging students in diverse learning practices, including play-acting, analysis using picture drawing, hands-on rhetorical outlining, and other techniques that help students with a wide range of cognitive skills succeed at writing. Good to get from ILL, copy out a chapter or two, and try out experiments during the term.

Disability Rhetoric, www.disabilityrhetoric.com

This website serves as a network for composition/rhetoric scholars who work in disability studies. It contains bibliographies, sample syllabi, and a wealth of other resources.


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Diversity for Sale, Difference in Action: Stephanie Kerschbaum’s Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference

Summary and Response

Stephanie Kerschbaum’s Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference (2014) represents a turning point in disability studies research for writing studies. While the monograph–published by CCCC and the NCTE and recently chosen to receive the 2015 CCCC Advancement of Knowledge Award–clearly claims disability studies its topical home, it is not primarily a study of either disability as a category or disabled students as a population. Instead, Kerschbaum applies a disability studies mentality to the study of difference across identity categories, especially racial/ethnic categories associated in higher education institutional discourse about diversity.

Kerschbaum analyzes a range of institutional documents from a large midwestern university (MU) to show how the university imagines diversity as a purely quantifiable demographic feature, measurable by the number of racially/ethnically marked bodied admitted and retained on campus. Within this model, diversity is valued for the marketability it provides both the university and the white students who learn about difference by virtue of their campus encounters with diverse others. She contrasts this static, determinist view of diversity with a recognition that difference is neither static nor inherent in bodies. By analyzing transcripts of students interacting in the writing classroom, Kerschbaum identifies how interlocutors experience difference as a rhetorical phenomenon, marking and negotiating interpersonal differences in worldview and identity in flexible, moment-by-moment interactions. Rather than fixating on rigid, determinist ideas about difference and diversity, Kerschbaum models a de-essentializing process of “flexible listening” that invites all classroom participants (instructor and student alike) to reflect on the effects of interpersonal difference for rhetors, learners, and instructors.

Those not already familiar with disability studies might miss how much Kerschbaum’s approach draws from the field’s central tenets, especially the relational model of disability. The most obvious moments where DS scholarship and perspectives enter the study appear in her second chapter, “Marking Difference: The Emergence of Difference as an Interactional Phenomenon,” where she contrasts two understandings of embodied difference that relate to disability. First, she summarizes work by Ann Juracic, who published two articles about presumed-autistic students in her writing classroom. Juracic drew criticism from DS scholars for “diagnosing” the student in her study with Asperger’s Syndrome and seeming to base her perspective on autism in the classroom purely on the medical-pathology model. Kerschbaum contrasts this approach to embodied difference with DS perspectives, which deny biological determinist definitions of difference (i.e. you are different as a result of your autism); rather, DS scholarship shows that that difference emerges in interaction among diverse individuals, and is thus and experience shared by everyone involved in a particular rhetorical act. This insight emerges in part from DS perspectives on communication across disability lines: whereas mainstream, ableist perspectives might hold that Deaf or hard-of-hearing people bear the burden of getting by in “normal,” auditory communication, DS asserts that the hearing person shares an equal responsibility to participate in accessible communication. This does not mean that hearing people should become experts in Deaf communication (as Juracic advocates writing teachers becoming experts in Autistic communication), but rather that they approach communication as a mutually-negotiated act, where they adapt to the needs of all parties on a case-by-case basis.

Kerschbaum, Stephanie L. Toward a New Rhetoric of Difference. Urbana, IL: Conference on College Composition and Communication/National Council of Teachers of English, 2014.

Reflections for my own dissertation work: diversity discourse vs disability discourse? 

Like other recent work on disability in higher education–I’m thinking of Margaret Price’s work here–Kerschbaum uses a critical discourse analysis (CDA) methodology throughout her study. It is in this respect that her study offers a useful model for my own project on disability services and institutionalized discourse about “disability” in the CUNY system. Kershbaum’s first chapter shows a detailed analysis of a set of institutional documents from MU, including public reports and diversity initiatives penned by the administration. She uses CDA to unpack the ideology embedded in these documents, especially focusing on what we learn by the use of pronouns us, we, our. This approach inspires me to examine the rhetoric about disability inclusion put out by the CUNY administration–I may find it trickier to come up with prominent public texts to analyze. A few possibilities: each of the issues of CUNY’s internally published guide for faculty, Reasonable Accommodations, includes forewords by university chancellors and other administrators, often summarizing college attitudes about disability access or describing goals for the future. These might prove fruitful. Likewise, in the past, I have also examined the language used to address students and faculty on disability services web pages from across the system. I am still in the process of gathering artifacts that document institutional discourse about disability access: Kerschbaum’s work provides a useful model and a possible point of comparison for this work.

I am also interested in reflecting further on Kerschbaum’s analysis of the way college diversity rhetoric reflects values of neoliberal market awareness, framing the accumulation of difference as a valuable asset for the university. It strikes me that disability is rarely described in this way, but instead (this is a hunch that I need evidence for) described as a moral obligation for the system or as a disruption imposed from the law, rather than from the market. This question about marketability leads me to ponder two loose ends that have emerged recently from my interviews with disability services directors from across the CUNY system.

Strand one–Rebranding disability as diversity. A few of the disability service directors I interviewed discussed the desire to re-brand disability inclusion as a diversity issue. While CUNY markets its racial/ethnic diversity very strongly, they didn’t see disability being included in the diversity conversation. They discussed how diversity potentially provided a more positive, stigma-free connotation to the work, which could draw more students to seek out services. I wonder if one way to track this re-branding of disability might be to track the shift from calling them “disability services” offices toward more neutral-sounding names like “access-ability” offices.

Strand two–marketing disability in the workforce. Recently, I learned about the CUNY LEEDS program, which provides career counseling and job mentorship for disabled students, especially aimed at getting them good employment after they graduate. This program seems to be unusual on the national landscape of disability work in higher ed. Speaking with one of the program’s director, I learned that in March 2014, amendments to section 503 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 came into effect that established a benchmark for federal contractors that 7% of their workforce be disabled people (http://www.dol.gov/ofccp/regs/compliance/section503.htm). The program director suggested that this change in the law, essentially, provided a new opportunity for marketing disabled students following graduation, and potentially provided new leverage with the institution for justifying the work of the program.

These leads might not take me anywhere particular, but they both shook loose as I thought through Kerschbaum’s excellent study and how it might influence my own dissertation project in progress.

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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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