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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: C 9, E 28, F 33: Intersections of Access: Disabilities and Varieties of English
Reviewed by: Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, slkerschbaum@wisc.edu
Posted on: April 7, 2004

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Writing in Nonstandard or Nonmainstream Varieties of English (C.09)

Making Bodies Matter: Disability, Experience, and Accessing the Writing Classroom (E.28)

(Re)considering Disability (F.33)

In this review, I discuss two sessions addressing disability studies alongside a session dealing with nonstandard or nonmainstream varieties of English. In these three sessions, the speakers showed that encounters with others in our field, classrooms, and conferences must continually be enlarged and enriched by intersections with many various axes and dimensions of difference that emerge.

But before I begin talking about the sessions, let me introduce myself and situate my own perspective on these talks. For me, as a deaf academic (and for many others attending, for many diverse reasons) conferences, particularly large ones such as CCCC, are infused with the question of access. How well am I able to access the spoken presentations? How well do I advocate for myself and my rights to make requests of presenters and audience members (e.g., to bring hard copies of presentations that I can read; to speak slowly and clearly, to stand up when asking a question, to repeat questions at the beginning of answers)? And perhaps because of my conscious need to fight for access in many situations, I am deeply committed to issues of access—generally, and in a variety of ways—to higher education.

The panels I review here provide one way for me to investigate relationships between identities, learning, and language use, asking: who has access?  how is access controlled or regulated? and how does attention to difference both enrich and complicate questions of access?

Access to Perspectives

One cluster of papers addressed access through identities in relation to particular discourse communities. Margaret Price ( “‘You Can’t Imagine How Big a Star Is’: Disability and Experience in the Writing Classroom,” E.28)  discussed how one of her students in a disability studies course was initially frustrated by access to a disability studies mindset because she did not identify as a disabled person. Through an analysis of Tara’s use of pronouns in a paper, alongside interview data, Price showed that while Tara did find a way to enter into the disability studies discourse, writing about access to various physical spaces—TJ Maxx, a campus classroom, and a dormitory—her language still displayed the sense that Tara was not fully comfortable with talking about disability because of her identity as a non-disabled person. Drawing on this conflicted engagement with disability studies, Price argued that we should turn questions of “access” not only towards those with disabilities but towards all people wishing to enter into the disability studies discourse. This argument complicated for me the voices we use to speak for and about disability, as well as understanding how closely tied our identities are to the positions we are able to articulate

In a different session, (“Of Cockroaches, Metamorphoses, and the Female Body: Identity Challenges for the Disabled Educator,” F.33) Nancy Reichart also showed me how identity and disability come together in our language practices. She fleshed out a “cockroach” metaphor (drawn from Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis) to depict coming to identify as “disabled” and the subsequent set of language practices she developed in order to talk about that identification. As Reichart proudly proclaimed her identity as a cockroach, she shared a spell-binding narrative of her growth and adaptation to a new identity—as a woman with severe onset MS. Most importantly, for me anyway, Reichart demonstrated a tension often felt by disabled academics—who may feel as if they live in a perpetual liminal zone, always trying to prove themselves “able” enough even while asking for accommodations. Reichart’s cockroach metaphor engaged the undesirability of claiming a label as disabled while at the same time enabling her to challenge boundaries that have been constructed around the disabled person/cockroach.

Linguistic Access

While Price and Reichart played with issues of identity and disability, raising questions about access to the discourse of disability studies, the speakers in session C.09, “Writing in ‘Nonstandard’ or Nonmainstream Varieties of English,” each addressed how access to writing in composition classrooms is marked by linguistic difference.
Peter Elbow (“Should Students Write in Nonmainstream Varieties of English?: Using Orality to Reframe the Question”), raised the problem of linguistic access to academic English prioritized in many college classrooms. Pointing out that he finds it very difficult to write in languages he isn’t familiar with—as he put it, he doesn’t feel he’s expressing his best thoughts—Elbow explained why he encourages his students to experiment with their written discourses. He invites students to make a choice about what linguistic dialects they write in for his class. Noting that most people speak in a different voice than the one they use when they write, Elbow asks his students to “speak onto the page”—i.e., to use the voice they use to talk to themselves with in their heads. As he put it, “no one’s mother tongue is perfect, polished English prose.”

Continuing the discussion of distinctions between spoken and written forms of English, Robert Eddy (“Writing about Malcolm X in ‘Nonstandard’ Dialects: Alternative Discourses and Alternative Futures”) drew on Walter Ong’s “secondary orality” to show what students are facing in writing academic English. Eddy asks his students to become aware of linguistic variety as a way of preparing them for more diverse futures. As he pointed out, language reflects culture and culture affects language, and we all have “multiple identities” in a global society. His pedagogy asks students to become “well-informed travelers,” experiencing the power of discourse alongside other varieties and forms. Students in his classes perform their own ethnographies and become, like Shirley Brice Heath’s students, linguists looking at language variety.

Taking a different approach, Janet Bean (“Investigating Voices of the Self: What African American Students Can Teach Us about the Languages of Home, Community, and School”) focused on how students educate her—and themselves—about linguistic variety. She shared a student narrative about an uncle who expertly code-switched in different situations, moving fluidly from a raucous exchange with friends to a more formal encounter with a bank teller. Bean went on to say, “If we spent as much time explaining how dialects work as we do explaining how commas work, black students wouldn’t have so much trouble.” In advocating for deeper connections between school environments and home environments, Bean argued that both “school” languages and “home” languages must be home languages, asking the audience, “how many of us consider the university our home away from home? Students must feel this way, too.” She concluded by urging members of the audience to ask our students about the linguistic choices they make, and to educate ourselves about the choices students have.

While there are certainly a wide range of linguistic practices involved in “nonmainstream” or “nonstandard” discourses, we need to continually expand our awareness of those who have (or don’t have) access to “standard” or “mainstream” discourse. Elbow addressed native Hawaiians while Eddy and Bean focused on African-American students in their classes. I wondered, too, about other kinds of linguistic access that might complicate the arguments made here—particularly with respect to disability studies. For instance, how might deaf students approach this question of linguistic access to writing classrooms? How might we, by expanding our understanding of different axes of diversity, continue to develop arguments regarding students’ identities, linguistic patterns, and access to classroom experience?

Expanding Rhetorical Access

Indeed, these discussions of linguistic access help us see that a large part of the power inherent in language involves its ability to regulate entries into discourse communities. The speakers I discuss in this next section engage issues of access on the part of institutions and speakers whose language—by virtue of who and where it comes from—wields particular power.

Both Amy Vidali and Deb Martin’s presentations engage questions of institutional access for students with disabilities—and more importantly, in my mind, raise questions about how our rhetorical practices make our classrooms and language practices accessible.
Amy Vidali (“Rhetorical Access for Students with Disabilities: The Unembodied Undergraduate Admissions Application,” E.28) analyzed admissions applications to 28 large public universities to answer the question, “What do these applications and their instructions say about disability?” While the short answer was, “not much,” she displayed examples from applications which might allow students a chance to talk about their disability. In these statements, disability was usually constructed negatively—as something to explain away. She juxtaposed a standard university application statement giving students the chance to “explain away” disability alongside a statement asking students to talk about how their racial or ethnic heritage has played a role in shaping their view of the world. Vidali’s juxtaposition between a request for a diversity statement alongside a space giving students the opportunity to explain any adverse circumstances showed one of the ways that disability has not yet been brought into a larger discourse about difference and diversity in university environments.

In “The (De)composing ADA Statement: Investigating Social and Pedagogical Attitudes in Composition Course Syllabi” (F.33) Deb Martin explored rhetorical access to classrooms through a look at disability statements in course syllabi. She argued that university-authorized statements “(de)compose” the intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The statements, rather than showing the university as considering ways to act so as to prevent discrimination of students with disabilities, emphasize the student’s responsibility to “avoid” discrimination by disclosing their disability to course instructors or to disability support offices. Martin concluded her presentation by pointing out a good model for a statement of disability and arguing that disability statements should use invitational rhetoric to encourage students to come forward to discuss any accommodations they may need, and focus on how accommodations can help student success.

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