By Ellen Cecil-Lemkin and Lisa Marvel Johnson
As several scholars have already pointed out (Dembsey; Hitt; Kiedaisch and Dinitz, to name a few), historically, the scholarship on disability in the writing center is… not great (to put it lightly). It’s seeped in ableism by positioning disabled writers as “other” and problems that need to be solved. This framing leads to positioning disabled students “as so radically different from other students that they are beyond help—that they require too much time, resources, or special knowledge” (Hitt). This perspective, however, goes beyond ableism that occurs on an individual level. As J.M. Dembsey describes in “Naming Ableism in the Writing Center,” writing centers must grapple with ableism at the systemic level which is both the accumulation of this individual ableism and is evident in the culture of ableism that is present in common practices and policies of writing centers.
In response to this culture of ableism, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) offers writing center tutors an approach that centers the individual and their unique learning abilities. Universal Design for Learning has been defined as the “use of multiple and flexible strategies to address the needs of all students” and has a set of principles to guide this practice (Dolmage). In writing tutoring sessions, we work one-to-one with students, which means that we already have the opportunity to treat each writer individually and adapt our practices to better serve our writers. Because UDL emphasizes universality—building strategies that will meet the needs of disabled and nondisabled students alike—it is especially apt in the context of the writing center when students often do not disclose disability status or formalized accommodations. At the same time, however, this universality risks decentering disabled students. While this approach can benefit all students, Aimi Hamraie reminds us that Universal Design needs to “center disability access in order to avoid lapsing into the normate template.” In other words, UDL has the ability to serve all students, however, we need to foreground disability access and disabled writers when applying these principles in order to ensure that we’re not using this framework to reinforce ableism.Universal Design for Learning is not a new concept to writing center studies. Fourteen years ago, Jean Kiedaisch and Sue Dinitz introduced the idea in their article “Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The Possibilities of Universal Design.” Here, they argued for “developing design principles for conducting all sessions that make them accessible to the widest audience possible, reducing the need to treat any writer as having ‘special needs’” (51). To this end, Kiedaish and Dinitz identify several principles of UDL that are applicable to writing center work and discuss how they might be used in tutoring sessions. Since their publication, more writing center scholars (e.g., Daniels, Babcock, and Daniels; Hitt; Kleinfield; Rinaldi) argued for the use of Universal Design.
Offering a practical strategy for implementing UDL in the writing center context, Allison Hitt developed the concept of the multimodal toolkit. In “Access for All: The Role of Dis/Ability in Multiliteracy Centers,” Hitt claims that “Developing a multimodal toolkit involves developing rhetorical strategies that push against fixed communicative interactions and present more opportunities for students. The idea is not to max out all sensory options but to provide flexibility.” For Hitt, accessibility means maximizing all students’ and tutors’ ability to make use of both the physical and intellectual space of the writing center.
While Hitt does provide compelling reasons for adapting a multimodal toolkit approach and some useful considerations, we were left wondering, “What might this actually look like in a session? What are some of the ‘tools’ tutors might have in their multimodal toolkit?” Creating the Multimodal Toolkit
To answer these questions, we decided to develop an Ongoing Educational (OGE) workshop that included five Writing Center instructors (what call our writing tutors at the UW-Madison Writing Center): Holly Berkowitz, John Koban, Rick Ness, Kyle Smith, and Seth Umbaugh. During the workshop, we introduced instructors to the concept of the toolkit, and we reviewed core accessibility concepts like Universal Design for Learning and the social model of disability. Participants first read the Kiedaisch and Dinitz article to learn about the foundations of UDL in the writing center context and then read Hitt’s article to learn more about the specific intervention of the multimodal toolkit. We also discussed some of the social, cultural, and environmental factors that work to create barriers for disabled people. Our hope was that this knowledge would help instructors develop strategies with disabled writers in mind.
Developing Strategies to Include in the Multimodal Toolkit
Before our second meeting, participants responded to a series of scenarios by describing strategies that would be useful in these cases. We developed scenarios without tying them to particular disabilities, since scholars have argued that individual disabilities should not be linked to specific tutoring strategies (see Dembsey; Hitt; and Rinaldi). One reason for this method is that students may experience their disabilities differently and require distinct approaches. Therefore, connecting specific disabilities to fixed strategies may be disadvantageous. You can see one of the scenarios we proposed and a response from John Koban—one of the participants in our workshop—in the example below.
|Scenario||Sample Instructor Response|
|During a Drop-in Hours session, a writer tells you that she often has difficulty getting her ideas from her thoughts to her paper. What are some options you could offer the writer to help with this?||The writer might verbalize her ideas, and then I could write them down for her. Or, we might work together to evaluate the assignment sheet, and discuss some ways that we might respond to the prompt by reviewing some of her class notes or notes about the class readings.|
In our instructions, we asked instructors to be creative in identifying strategies that are different from standard practice so that we could build a diverse and varied toolkit. Many of our instructors, however, listed strategies that were comfortably within their typified approach to a writing center session. So, during our meeting, we chatted about the strategies that instructors described and thought about strategies that are outside of our typical practice in the Writing Center, like drawing, speech-to-text software, and loop writing.
Later, during one of our staff meetings, we solicited strategies from all of the instructors who teach in our center. Learning from the responses during the workshop, we instructed our instructors to come up with at least one “wild card” strategy—or an approach that was well outside the standard practice and may seem completely unorthodox. After the staff meeting, we compiled strategies for working with writers and created a multimodal toolkit for instructors to use during their sessions with students.
You can find our Multimodal Toolkit here.
We’re sharing this resource in this blog post hoping that other writing center professionals and tutors might find it useful in their sessions with students.
Our Multimodal Toolkit includes a variety of strategies that tutors might employ during one-to-one meetings with students. It’s organized by a variety of topics that tutors and students might work on together during these sessions. Some of the tools listed may be part of standard practice, but others may be a bit unconventional. This is intentional. We want to emphasize that students may benefit from a variety of strategies depending on their learning styles and abilities. As Hitt identifies, these “multiple and flexible practices…allow [writing center tutors] to adapt to different communicative interactions.”
Pedagogical accessibility necessitates a multimodal approach that center students’ individual needs. And so, we imagine that this toolkit can be used best when tutors solicit information from students about the kinds of strategies that work best for them, without asking the student to disclose their disability status. We want to acknowledge that, while we believe it’s important for the tutor to reach outside of their comfort zone in using strategies that best fit the needs of their students, some of these strategies may not be accessible to all tutors. For example, one commonly used strategy for going through a student’s paper is having the student read the paper aloud. However, Ellen, who has ADHD, has difficulty processing auditory information, so having the student read their paper aloud is not an accessible practice for her. Given this, our hope is that tutors will find strategies within the toolkit that meet both their own needs and their students’ needs—even if these strategies may be outside of their standard practice initially.
Limitations of our Multimodal Toolkit
Although we are publishing our toolkit, we want to acknowledge that this is still a work in progress. We can imagine future iterations of this toolkit that include strategies for working with students that are more diverse and creative—that encourage us to productively rethink writing center pedagogy. This toolkit, in some ways, is limited by the way that instructors and staff at our writing center understand and perceive student needs. And so, as we grow as a writing center and learn from our students, we hope to expand the strategies that are listed here so that these pedagogical practices can be responsive to the needs of the broad spectrum of our students.
Another limitation of this toolkit is that there are few strategies that are specifically designed in response to specific disabilities. This is in part because there is a lack of empirical research on disabilities in the writing center (with notable exceptions, such as Rebecca Day Babcock), which has led us to be more general in the development of our toolkit. When and if more research is done by disabled scholars in partnership with disabled students, we would like to expand our toolkit to include strategies that have been developed specifically with disabled students in mind.
In identifying these limitations, we invite readers to comment below with suggestions of what we can add to our Multimodal Toolkit. Our hope is that we’re able to continue growing the toolkit so it’s reflective of a wide range of practices and is accessible to the needs of a wide range of students and tutors.
Babcock, Rebecca Day. Tell Me How It Reads: Tutoring Deaf and Hearing Students in the Writing Center. Gallaudet U P, 2012.
Daniels, Sharifa, et al. “Writing Centers and Disability: Enabling Writers through an Inclusive Philosophy.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, 2015, http://www.praxisuwc.com/daniels-et-al-131/.
Dembsey, J. M. “Naming Ableism in the Writing Center.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 18, no. 1, 2020, http://www.praxisuwc.com/181-dembsey.
Dolmage, Jay. “Universal Design: Places to Start.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 2, 2015, https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4632/3946.
Hamraie, Aimi. “Designing Collective Access: A Feminist Disability Theory of Universal Design.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 33, no. 4, 2013, https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3871/3411.
Hitt, Allison. “Access for All: The Role of Dis/Ability in Multiliteracy Centers.” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 2012, http://www.praxisuwc.com/hitt-92/.
Kiedaisch, Jean, and Sue Dinitz. “Changing Notions of Difference in the Writing Center: The Possibilities of Universal Design.” The Writing Center Journal, vol. 27, no. 2, 2007, pp. 39–59.
Kleinfield, Elizabeth. “Taking an Expansive View of Accessibility: The Writing Center at Metropolitan State University of Denver.” Composition Forum, vol. 39, 2018, http://compositionforum.com/issue/39/msu-denver.php.
Rinaldi, Kerri. “Disability in the Writing Center: A New Approach (That’s Not so New).” Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 13, no. 1, 2015, http://www.praxisuwc.com/rinaldi-131/.
Ellen Cecil-Lemkin is the newest Writing Center Faculty Associate and an alumnus of Florida State University’s Rhetoric and Composition doctoral program. Her dissertation, Including Disability in Collaborative Writing Pedagogy, explored neurodivergent students’ experiences with collaborative writing. In addition to researching ways to create more accessible environments, Ellen also enjoys learning embroidery and being a mom. Find her on Twitter or the web.
Lisa Marvel Johnson is a Faculty Associate at the UW-Madison Writing Center where she coordinates the Writing Mentorship program. Her areas of interest in Writing Center Studies are digital pedagogy, antiracism, and the temporalities of the Writing Center. She is finishing a dissertation project in English Literature which considers the queer time of waiting in the context of African American literature.