Category Archives: for writing instructors

Thinking About the Needs of Disabled Folks in Classrooms & Workplaces

As someone who teaches rhetoric, I am always noticing how the ways we talk about something shape the ways we think about that thing. I recently discovered The Squeaky Wheelchair, the blog of Kathleen Downes, a woman with cerebral palsy, and found myself nodding emphatically to every sentence of her post “It’s Your Job Too: Dismantling the Myth of Specialness and Making Inclusion a Community Responsibility,” in which she argues against using the word “special” to describe the needs of disabled people.

Downes notes that

Calling our needs special isolates them from the rest of human needs, and in the process shrouds them from the body of general knowledge. When needs become special, they are tucked away in special departments run by special people who specialize in specialness. Disability becomes its own hidden corner of the universe as it is implied that only those with a related job or a family member with a disability should ever bother to explore the issues that come with living a disabled existence. The responsibility to learn about and be aware of our lives is seemingly confined to the world of specialists and people who “have experience with those kind of people.”

https://www.thesqueakywheelchairblog.com/2014/10/its-your-job-too-dismantling-myth-of.html

She goes on to explain that the needs of disabled people are not “particularly special . . . We need to eat, sleep, get dressed, bathe, go to the bathroom, breathe, and a whole bunch of other painfully ordinary things.” As both a disabled person and the caregiver of a disabled person, I can attest that it’s true: our needs are pretty mundane. Most of our needs can be met by almost anyone. For example, I’ve written before about how one of my needs is to have someone read a hotel room number to me—no special training needed, no special skills, nothing special at all.

In academia, we adapt things for able-bodied people all the time. My faculty colleagues often brag in their retention, tenure, and promotion applications about how willing and even enthusiastic they are about meeting the needs of a diverse group of students. But those same colleagues can also often be heard complaining about the “special needs” of students registered with our disabilities services center. When faculty think of students having diverse needs, they take pride in meeting those needs. But when they think of students as having “special needs,” suddenly those needs become above our paygrade.

The truth is, the needs of those students are often the same needs of any other student: being able to read the slides or the assigned reading, being able to hear the professor and peers, being able to sit comfortably in the classroom, having enough time to process instructions and follow them. The needs themselves are not special, and even the ways those needs can be met are not special. Switching from a low contrast to a high contrast slide template isn’t special. Giving everyone in the class two hours to take an exam instead of one isn’t special (your class is only 75 minutes long? Then put fewer questions on the exam).

When I informally polled a class in fall 2019 (pre-pandemic) about their ideal testing situation, more time, a distraction-free environment, and no fluorescent lighting were the top three requests of the students, regardless of disability status. The only request on this list that was the least bit surprising to me is the one about lighting, and I realized that I could easily make a fluorescent lighting-free environment available to my students by making all exams take-home (this is hypothetical—I don’t actually give exams in my classes), allowing students to take the exam outside, at the library, at home, etc. Although these requests are not at all strange or exotic, think about how differently these two sentences strike you:

  • “Susan needs extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”
  •  “Susan has several special needs: extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”

Susan sounds like a fairly typical student in the first sentence, but in the second sentence, she sure sounds high maintenance, doesn’t she? Simply by calling needs “special,” they become more exotic, more inconvenient to provide, and potentially even unreasonable.

We could play further with the sentence. What about this one?

  • “Susan performs best with extra time on tests, a distraction-free testing environment, and no fluorescent lighting.”

Now Susan sounds pretty unremarkable.  

You may be thinking, well, none of this matters much for me, I don’t work with disabled students or colleagues (or students/colleagues with “special needs”). Not so fast. Because of issues I’ve recently discussed, including how exhausting it can be to ask for accommodations and how expensive, difficult, and time-consuming it can be to get documentation of disabilities, you likely have more disabled students in your classes or colleagues in your workplace than you realize. Why wouldn’t you want everyone to be able to perform at their best?

Downes argues that because of the way we talk about (and thus think about) the needs of disabled people as “special,”

the responsibility of people outside of the direct disability community to include and think seriously about access issues is shifted away based on the belief that “special services” will deal with it.

https://www.thesqueakywheelchairblog.com/2014/10/its-your-job-too-dismantling-myth-of.html

But it is actually everyone’s responsibility. And it isn’t difficult most of the time. The suggestions I’ve offered for making classrooms and workplaces accessible aren’t hard to put in place or particularly “special.” For many people, implementing my suggestions simply means being deliberate about things you may already be doing. My suggestions aren’t that you do anything “special” for “special” people with “special” needs, but that you think about making your classroom or workplace accessible. Not special, but accessible. Or even inviting, or responsive. Play with words you like until you find one that resonates with you and your teaching practice and then aim to make your classroom [whatever that word is].

Welcoming Folks with Disabilities versus Allowing Access to Folks with Disabilities

Last weekend, I had an experience that highlighted the difference between accommodating disability to comply with the law and designing for equity in accessibility. Now that we are both vaccinated, my husband and I belatedly celebrated our anniversary by spending a couple nights in a nice hotel and going out to eat in restaurants. Our experiences getting into those two restaurants couldn’t have been more different.

At one restaurant, I pushed his wheelchair up to the entrance and saw only a revolving door which was not wheelchair accessible. I also cannot imagine a person managing it with a cane, walker, or any other type of mobility assistance. I looked all around the entrance and didn’t see any kind of alternative entrance or sign. Finally, I left my husband in his wheelchair in front of the restaurant and went in to speak to a host. The host apologized and said someone would be out shortly to escort us to the accessible entrance. We waited a few minutes, and then the host came out and led us all the way around two sides of the very large building that the restaurant is part of to another entrance that requires a keycard, and then escorted us through the building to the restaurant. The trip around the building might have exhausted someone using a cane or hemi-walker, and with no way to get into the restaurant without assistance, someone alone would have had to knock on the window to get a host’s attention.

At the other end of the accessibility spectrum was our experience at a restaurant that at first seemed completely inaccessible. While we were able to get into the restaurant without a problem because of the wide double doors, from the host stand I could see that all the tables were down a half-flight of stairs from the entrance. We were amazed when the host showed us the open elevator lift just to the side of the stairs—not tucked away in a shadowy corner or down a long hallway, but right there, in view just like the stairs. We took that down to the level with the tables, where we were greeted by another staff member. We were further amazed when our server brought our food and asked my husband, “Is there anything I can do to make your meal more accessible to you?” (Shout out to Denver’s amazing Blue Agave Grill on the Sixteenth Street Mall!)

These two restaurant experiences illustrate the differences between designing to comply with the law and designing for access equity. Although the first restaurant did have a way for us to enter, it was complicated, time-consuming (for us and the employee who had to escort us), frustrating, and inconvenient. It was clear that my husband was not the guest they anticipated. Had we arrived during the dinner rush, I imagine the host would have had to decide whether they were going to seat able-bodied customers already in the restaurant or attend to getting the guy in the wheelchair outside into the restaurant and leaving the host stand unattended for ten minutes, potentially making the host feel resentful toward my husband for putting them in that position.

On the other hand, the second restaurant made us feel warmly welcomed. The placement of the elevator lift right next to the stairs meant that we didn’t have to travel further than any other customer to get to a table, and the fact that the lift was open meant that for once, we weren’t made to feel like using the accessibility option was something to hide or be embarrassed about. No staff member had to spend extra time to get us seated. When we stepped into the elevator lift, I said to my husband, “It’s like they were expecting us.” That kind of reception is rare for folks with disabilities.

I think it’s also important to note that at the second restaurant, folks who don’t need the elevator lift don’t lose anything by its presence. Ableism assumes that providing equitable access for disabled people means able-bodied folks lose something or that something unfair is happening, but the conveniently-placed elevator lift doesn’t deprive folks who can take the stairs of anything. I also want to point out the particularly cruel irony that at the first restaurant, only the people most likely to have limited mobility need to make the long trek around the building.

Academia (and most everything else) is designed like the first restaurant. My husband in his wheelchair can get into the buildings on campus, but it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. I, with my vision impairment, can get a $35 lamp for my office or a classroom with good lighting, but again, it’s complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient. A student can get extended time on tests or to work on assignments—if they have the proper documentation, and that documentation can be complicated, time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient, not to mention expensive, to get.

In architectural terms, the second restaurant is an example of Universal Design (UD). In teaching and learning, that type of integration of accessible elements is called Universal for Learning (UDL). When faculty implement UDL, the student with a disability that requires extended time on tests or to work on assignments wouldn’t need to get documentation of their disability and then explicitly ask for an accommodation; like the second restaurant, accessibility would be baked right into the assignments. Considering that one in four people has a disability, and that people with disabilities show up on campus as students, faculty, staff, and administrators, it would make sense for buildings to be designed according to UD and classes to be designed according to UDL.

The two different restaurant experiences also offer a great illustration of the social model of disability, which recognizes that disability is a fluid concept and that a person using a wheelchair, for example, may be able to get around just fine in a setting designed for them, but they become disabled when their setting is designed ONLY for folks who do not use wheelchairs. You can see the disabling function happening when you compare my husband’s entrances into the two restaurants: same person, same wheelchair, but at one restaurant, he had to put in significantly more time and effort to get in, whereas in the other restaurant, he sailed in and was seated quickly just like anyone else. He was the same person with the same capabilities in both scenarios—the restaurant designs account for the difference. My husband got around just as well as anyone else in the second restaurant but the first restaurant’s inaccessible entrance disabled him.

The social model of disability locates the problem in the setting that is designed to exclude people who are not able-bodied. Using the social model, we can see that if different design choices are made, a space can be made less disabling. The same concept can be applied to course design: if different design choices are made, a course can be less disabling. UDL is all about designing instruction to be less disabling.

Want to learn more about UDL?

  • CAST’s guidelines for UDL design (CAST stands for Center for Applied Special Technology, but they don’t actually ever use the full name anymore and are officially knows simply as CAST)
  • DO-IT’s explanation of Universal Design of Instruction (UDI), a closely related and somewhat overlapping concept (DO-IT is an acronym for Disabilities, Opportunities, Internetworking, and Technology, an office at the University of Washington)
  • MSU Denver’s archive of weekly SIPs (Strong Instructional Practices)

Responding to Student Writing

Responding to your students’ writing is one of the most important responsibilities of a writing instructor. Thoughtful, specific, and focused instructor comments can help students improve their writing as much, if not more, than your lively, engaged presence in the classroom.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Consider your commentary part of your teaching practice. As such, it should be consistent with your classroom instruction. For example, if you tell students in the classroom that they should prioritize higher order concerns, such as focus and development, over surface features, such as grammar and punctuation, then you should make more comments about focus and development than you do about grammar and punctuation.
  2. Time your feedback so that students receive it in time to process it and apply it to their next piece of writing. To make this work, you’ll need to take into account your response time when scheduling due dates for assignments.
  3. Limit your comments to no more than two—or at most three—significant items so that students will not be overwhelmed and discouraged. Research shows that most students cannot prioritize instructor comments, so that a comment about typos gets the same amount of weight as a comment about an unclear thesis statement; limiting your comments to no more than two or three significant items helps you focus on the most important features that need your feedback, and this in turn makes it more feasible for students to process and use your feedback. Nancy Sommers recommends that instructors ask themselves, “What are two things I can teach this student in my comments on this paper?” Think of your comments as “teaching moments” rather than “corrections” or merely grade justifications. To do this, you’ll need to first skim the paper in its entirely before writing anything.
  4. Restrain yourself from editing the student’s paper. Most students learn very little—if anything—from having their papers edited. Instead, edit one paragraph and write a comment in the margin about the patterns of error you’ve noticed. Avoid simply labeling errors as most students don’t know what our jargon means. Remember that the audience for your feedback is students, and use language they can easily and quickly comprehend.
  5. Make your comments specific, descriptive, and clear. The irony of the marginal comment “be specific” (without any explanation) is not lost on all students. Once you begin to see your comments as part of your teaching practice, you’ll want to make your comments more closely mimic the kind of conversation you would have with a student during office hours about a piece of writing. It’s easier to write fuller, more specific comments when you comment on fewer things, too.
  6. Create a handout for the entire class that comments on features that the class as a whole did very successfully or less than successfully. This will help you reduce the amount of time you spend writing the same comments on each student’s paper. This is tip that can only really work if you first skim the entire batch of papers without writing any comments.
  7. Reframe how you think about responding to student writing. Instead of thinking of it as “grading” (which foregrounds grade justification) or correcting (which foregrounds student errors), think about it as “reading,” “responding,” “giving feedback,” or another more positive term. You may be surprised to see what a difference this small shift can make in your attitude toward responding to student writing, which will likely make it feel less like a chore and more like another part of your teaching practice.

For more ideas, read Traci Gardner’s “Ten Ways to Respond to Student Drafts.” 

How to Read Student Writing for Content

I encourage instructors, tutors, and education students to train themselves to read student writing for content (or Higher Order Concerns) rather than error (or Lower Order Concerns). After reading Joseph Williams’ “The Phenomenology of Error,” in which he observes that “if we read any text the way we read freshman essays, we will find many of the same kind of errors we routinely expect to find and therefore do find,“ they usually agree with me that reading for content is a good idea–“But how can I do that when there are so many errors?” they ask.  

You have to train yourself. This is something I learned from Janice Neuleib, who told me to learn to read at two levels, which she called “ground level” and “25,000 feet.” Ground level is where you notice the grammar, usage, mechanics, etc. and 25,000 feet is where you notice the big picture stuff. As I’ve trained myself to read at these two levels, I’ve added a third, which I call “10,000 feet”; at this level, I notice stylistic aspects of a piece of writing, such as sentence structure (not grammar! I mean aspects such as whether or not sentences are hypotactic or paratactic, running or periodic, noun-based or verb-based).

Here are some steps I suggest you take if you’d like to train yourself to read at Neuleib’s two levels or my three levels:

  1. Begin by asking students to format their writing in a way that suggests it should be read for content—i.e. single spaced.
  2. Think of what you are about to do as “respond to student writing” rather than “grade papers” or “correct papers.” Frame the task in terms of responding rather than fixing or judging.
  3. Read student writing under conditions that are similar to those in which you read for pleasure. For me, this means at a coffee shop or at home in a comfortable chair.
  4. Read the paper once for each level you are reading at, so that your brain can focus on one task—reading for content or reading for surface error (or reading for style, if you add the third level). For the 25,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, picking up ideas and concepts and noticing how they are developed throughout the piece of writing. For the 10,000 foot reading, I read fairly quickly, stopping at a random point on each page to read sentences carefully. For the ground level reading, I read one page carefully (yes, only one page, because I am looking for patterns of error to highlight for the student, not proofreading—which, after all, is the student’s job, not mine).

If you try to build this habit into your practice, give it at least 30 repetitions before it feels even remotely natural. Like all habits, it takes time to make it feel “normal.” (And by 30 repetitions, I mean responding to 30 sets of papers).