Challenging Ableism and Institutional Barriers Through Writing Center Work

Disability and Writing Centers, Graduate Students, Higher Education, Peer Tutoring, Tutorial Talk and Methods, Uncategorized, Undergraduate Students, Writing Center Theory, Writing Center Tutors, Writing Centers / Monday, April 23rd, 2018

By Brenna Swift –

Image description: A woman with light brown hair, wearing a grey jacket, stands in front of a lake that reflects a mountain (Pikes Peak).
Brenna is a Ph.D. student in composition and rhetoric at UW-Madison who is interested in using disability studies, feminist theory, and critical race theory to challenge practices that exclude marginalized students from higher education. She works as an instructor at the writing center at UW-Madison, where she also teaches first-year composition.

Imagine for a moment that you’re trying to reach an educational goal, one you’ve had your sights on for as long as you can remember. As you move closer to the goal, you encounter barrier after barrier along the way. School culture at large, including some of your instructors, tells you that these barriers are your fault and that it would make sense if you gave up. So you’re left with two choices: listen to the messages you receive from your environment or try to ignore them and keep moving towards your goal. The popular narrative says you are solely to blame for the barriers you run up against, and if you do succeed, you’ll do it in spite of them.

This narrative is all too familiar for many of the students with disabilities I’ve worked with in writing centers over the years. Students with disabilities often arrive in college with extensive experience navigating structural barriers to the things they would like to achieve in school, and they know how to work against them. It’s also important to acknowledge that some students with disabilities do not describe themselves as dealing with barriers. But for others, the barriers feel very real.
The topic of inclusion for students with disabilities has featured prominently in discussions at the UW-Madison Writing Center this year. In this post, I hope to elaborate on our conversations by accounting for barriers to access in higher education and how we, as writing center professionals, might help students understand and negotiate them.

Prejudice against students with various disabilities remains very strong in higher education settings and is built into the structure of the university itself (Dolmage). This prejudice can take many forms, from commentary by professors and administrators about who is “college material” to the reluctance—or outright refusal—of some instructors to implement accommodations for assignments or tests. Additionally, a fair number of students with disabilities such as dyslexia arrive in college having had negative experiences with language instruction in K-12 classrooms (Madriaga). Such students have their literacies, and even their mental capacities, questioned because they process visual information differently. Their ways of knowing are stigmatized by the university at large, which punishes deviance from language norms with low grades and other markers of failure.

The Material Consequences of Institutional Barriers

Image description: The cover of Jay Dolmage’s new book, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education (2017).Jay Dolmage’s 2017 book, Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education, describes the academy as ableist from the ground up. According to Dolmage, ableism frames “disability as abject, invisible, disposable, less than human, while able-bodiedness is represented as at once ideal, normal, and the mean or default.” Dolmage argues that in everything from the structure of its programs to its ethic of academic perfection, higher education stigmatizes any deviation from normative bodies and minds. In other words, the system is premised on exclusion even while it purports to value diversity.

Ableism in educational settings has material consequences that we can be hesitant to discuss for fear of overemphasizing the challenges associated with disability—rather than its benefits as an alternate way of knowing and being in the world. However, it’s important for us to understand how powerful institutional barriers and ableism can be in the lives of disabled students. While the number of people with disabilities who enroll in college has increased in recent years, some studies have suggested that students with disabilities are more likely to leave college, or take longer to finish their degrees, than peers without disabilities (Lombardi, Murray, and Gerdes). Many students with disabilities choose not to register with college disability service offices because of the extensive documentation required. Since eligibility for formal, legally protected accommodations in college depends on registration with these offices, those who do not register may go entirely without accommodations. Furthermore, recent research suggests that students with disabilities who are members of other minority groups experience significantly higher financial and academic stressors than students who are not members of these groups (Lombardi, Murray, and Gerdes).

How do these realities come to bear on writing center work?

The cover of Writing Centers and Disability, edited by Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels (2017).In a provocative essay published last year in Writing Centers and Disability (edited by Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels), Holly Ryan, Georgianna Miller, and Shawn Steinhart point out that writing tutors see the impact of exclusionary practices in the writing classroom when students come to the writing center—often as a “last-ditch effort to pass” (257). In my own writing center sessions at various universities, students who feel comfortable disclosing their disabilities to me sometimes also share their concern that they are not doing as well in college as their peers—and, depending on their disability, their worry that they are especially unqualified for writing assignments. This can lead to a deeply felt sense of powerlessness on the approach to academic writing. Without a doubt, feeling powerless interferes with learning. By contrast, self-efficacy—defined by the psychologist Albert Bandura as the belief that one can successfully complete a task—has been shown to correlate with success in college. Research suggests that this is particularly true for students with disabilities (Lombardi, Murray, and Gerdes).

If students’ experiences of ableism and felt sense of inadequacy can converge on their writing processes, what can we as writing center practitioners do to more fully support students with disabilities and work towards equity? A number of writing center scholars have recently turned towards disability studies, a burgeoning interdisciplinary field, for some insight.

What Disability Studies Can Teach Us (And Our Students) About Barriers

One of the early contributions of disability studies to our understanding of difference was the development of the social model of disability, a term first coined by the disabled scholar Mike Oliver in 1983. The social model holds that individuals may be born with, or acquire, specific bodily or psychological impairments. But it is not the impairments themselves that constitute disability. Rather, it is the way society is structured to exclude people with those impairments. An example from education might be found in the use of American Sign Language (ASL) in schools for deaf students. In American society at large, I—as a hearing person—am not considered disabled or unable to communicate. But at a school where many students and faculty members use sign language, it would be me and not deaf students who might be considered “disabled.” In this line of reasoning, the responsibility for having a disability lies not with the individual but with the structures around them. Structures that exclude people with impairments, such as buildings with wheelchair-inaccessible doorways, are disabling. It is not the impairment that is the problem. Instead, disability is created by the environment. Like other identities, disabled identity is socially and discursively constructed (Garland-Thomson).

A computer keyboard with white keys sits atop a desk calendar.
If institutional barriers impact the writing process, how can writing center tutors help students understand and navigate them?

In their 2017 essay, “Informed Practices: Destabilizing Institutional Barriers in the Writing Center,” Ryan, Miller, and Steinhart apply an understanding of disability as discursively created to the work of writing center instruction. They argue that this framework can help writing tutors “interrogate their own abilities” (267) and “validate” students in their adoption of writing techniques that suit their own learning needs.

But what if we took it further? What if we shared insights from disability studies directly with students who come to the writing center having difficulty with assignments because of their rigid emphasis on rules and the surface-level features of written discourse? I envision writing centers as a space where tutors might help students question the structures that create disability and analyze how ableism permeates the university. These conversations would be about helping students understand, in Dolmage’s words, that ableism has supported the existence of “steep steps” limiting access to the academy for those with disabilities. Those steps are not a given. There are other, more inclusive ways to structure higher education. In the writing center, we must work to move beyond what Dolmage has described as the “retrofit”—a temporary measure taken to accommodate students with disabilities that does not really address the deeper structural issues that exclude them from full participation. I see the possibility of bringing disability studies into our conversations with students as a productive step beyond the retrofit model.

Steps lead up to Memorial Union, a large campus building with an ivory-colored exterior and ornate entryway. Other campus buildings are visible in the background.
Steps leading to the Memorial Union building at UW-Madison. The composition scholar Jay Dolmage has used “steep steps” as a metaphor for barriers to access, comparing these steps with the metaphorical image of a ramp leading up to the front door of the academy.

To be sure, talking with students about the college curriculum as structurally disabling would be a bold move inconsistent with many established tenets of writing center pedagogy—including the caution against asking students about their disabilities and the equally justified admonition against challenging the policies of professors in our sessions. However, I would argue that when a student has been open about their disability with us and is also experiencing access barriers or discrimination, we can and should initiate a dialogue with them about how they are not the problem.

We can engage these students in conversation about how college has traditionally been set up to exclude those who process language differently and how these structures reflect deeply seated biases that have no place in universities that claim to embrace diversity. And we can, covertly or overtly, encourage our students to enact this disability studies insight by refusing to back down when professors deny their accommodations or tell them they “can’t write.” We can shift our gaze away from individual “faults” and towards the broader institutional forces that create disability. In doing so, we might help students develop a critical consciousness that resists stereotyping and prejudice.

This is asking a lot of us and our students, many of whom have just arrived at college and feel intimidated enough by academic culture without being encouraged to defy it. But the costs of avoiding these conversations are high. We, as writing center instructors, occupy a space far enough outside the traditional structure of the academy that we can call out its disabling norms. As Ryan, Miller, and Steinhart point out, the student-centered and collaborative nature of writing center instruction lends itself to providing holistic support for students with disabilities. Why not continue to work for accessibility in our own sessions—but also take access a step further by helping students interrogate the ableist structures around them?

The discussion about disability studies and writing center sessions was brought home to UW-Madison in an insightful chapter by Sarah Mucek in Writing Centers and Disability. Mucek discusses UW’s writing fellows program as a space in which tutors with disabilities might begin to “re-construct selfhood” in the face of exclusionary academic structures and claim empowered identities in writing conferences (105). But I agree with Mucek that “a great deal more research is required to fully explore this particular intersection of writing center and disability studies both in theory and in practice” (121).

A blank notebook sits atop a table in front of a stack of books and a coffee mug.
Writing and learning processes, as well as the preferred tools for writing, vary across all individuals. How can writing center practitioners help change the culture of higher education to better accommodate this variation?
The Challenge of Interrogating Barriers

The challenges to bringing the radical insights of disability studies into the writing center are manifold, and I would like to acknowledge that I am still considering their implications for individual writing center sessions. How would we initiate these conversations? What should we do if the interrogation of institutionalized ableism and barriers brings us directly against the policies of individual professors? What if students are confused or alarmed by how hard disability studies pushes against traditional academic structures? What if they hesitate to engage with a theory that so directly names disability as a subject of consideration? What if they simply want to address the assignment in front of them? These are all legitimate concerns, and I don’t have easy answers. But I will acknowledge that I do think conversations about ableism are best had with students we’ve built strong, ongoing relationships with and who have openly shared their experiences of disability and writing with us. I see many of these students as ready to engage in, and apt to benefit from, more nuanced dialogue about the disabling structures of higher education.

The cover of DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Higher Education, edited by David Connor, Beth Ferri, and Subini Annamma (2016).What about writing center tutors? Here, I want to acknowledge that many of our students with disabilities are already painfully aware of institutionalized ableism and know far more about structural barriers than we do. They may not want to educate us about their experiences of these barriers. This is all the more reason for writing center tutors to become familiar with disability studies in the course of tutor education. I would argue for the foregrounding of disability theory and books like Writing Centers and Disability in tutor training. Disability studies has productive overlap with critical race theory (as exemplified by the scholarship in DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education, published in 2016). This intersection suggests that including disability studies insights in tutor training could open up discussion about how to best serve students from a range of marginalized groups. In changing the conversations we have among ourselves and with our students, we might slowly but surely help change the culture of higher education itself.

What do you think of the idea of incorporating disability studies insights directly into our conversations with students and other writing center instructors? Have you already done this in your sessions, and what was it like? I’m eager to hear your thoughts, concerns, and ideas for further exploration.

Works Cited

Connor, David J., Beth A. Ferri, and Subini A. Annamma, editors. DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education. Teachers College Press, 2016.

Dolmage, Jay. Academic Ableism: Disability and Higher Education. University of Michigan Press, 2017.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” Feminist
Disability Studies, edited by Kim Q. Hall, Kindle ed., Indiana UP, 2011.

Lombardi, Allison R., Christopher Murray, and Hilary Gerdes. “Academic Performance of First-
Generation College Students with Disabilities.” Journal of College Student Development, vol. 53, no. 6, 2012, pp. 811-826.

Madriaga, Manuel. “Enduring Disablism: Students with Dyslexia and Their Pathways into
UK Higher Education and Beyond.” Disability & Society, vol. 22, no. 4, 2007, pp. 399-412.

Mucek, Sarah. “Identity and Disabled Tutors: The Possibilities of Reconstructing Selfhood In Peer Writing Conferences.” Writing Centers and Disability, edited by Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels, Fountainhead Press, 2017, pp. 105-128.

Ryan, Holly, Georgianna Miller, and Shawn Steinhart. “Informed Practices: Destabilizing Institutional Barriers in the Writing Center.” Writing Centers and Disability, edited by Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels, Fountainhead Press, 2017, pp. 257-276.

8 Replies to “Challenging Ableism and Institutional Barriers Through Writing Center Work”

  1. Thanks for this smart and generous post, Brenna. I really enjoyed reading it. Something I think a lot about is how to support students struggling with mental health, both in the Writing Center and in my classroom teaching. Even just based on my limited experiences, so many students face mental illness without formal accommodations. When I was an undergraduate about ten years ago, one additional barrier to accessing support for mental illness (above and beyond the bureaucratic challenges you mention) was the fear of being deemed an institutional liability and being forced to take a leave of absence. I would like to see mental illness destigmatized so students can get the accommodations and services they need without such fears of triggering an automatic institutional reprimand.

    1. Thank you so much, Erica! I think that you just brought up a really important point regarding mental illness. I agree that students with mental illness face some of the harshest stigma of any group. Oftentimes, as you noted, they often also face the added threat of being placed “on leave.” I think writing center instructors need to talk more about how to support students facing these institutional barriers. The Writing Centers and Disability book is a good place to start. Thanks again for responding. 🙂

  2. Hello from Seattle! This post is AMAZING. I identify as a queer disabled writing tutor and am in the process of creating an annotated bibliography of disability studies resources for consultants (and clients) and, from there, proposing a working list of best practices regarding disability in the WC that our writing center can continue developing (since we currently have no written guidelines aside from the cursory “we don’t discriminate!!” policy). Your article has been incredibly helpful in its analyses, references, questions, and all too real narratives. I’m so happy to know that there’s a whole community of here-and-now scholars working on these issues FINALLY. Thank you so much for being motivated and brave enough to do this hard, grueling work–it means so much to me and the disabled community at my writing center. Hope to read more of your blog posts soon!

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Thank you very much for reading my post and for your kind words! I’m so happy that the post has served as a useful resource for you. I echo your thoughts about how grateful you are to have a community of scholars finally working on these issues! For far too long, the writing center literature on disability has been both sparse and deeply problematic. I’m excited that disability studies and a critical understanding of ableism have prompted writing center scholars to take a more activist approach to the discussion of disability. Disability is not a deficit or a “problem” for writing centers! I would absolutely love to hear more about your work someday. For now, I send warm vibes of scholarly support! 🙂

      Brenna S.

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