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CCCC 2004: Review

Review: E 28 Making Bodies Matter: Disability, Experience, and Accessing the Writing Classroom
Reviewed by: Gary Sue Goodman, gsgoodman@ucdavis.edu
Posted on: April 29, 2004
Updated on: May 2, 2004

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Unequal access for people with disabilities, like racism or ethnocentrism, is one of those nasty things that Others do.  In the CCCC, a number of sessions addressed disability issues; parts of three of them (C.9, E.28, and F.23) were already reviewed by Stephanie Kerschbaum. 

Identifying as a “deaf academic,” Kerschbaum begins by defining her standpoint, admitting her personal concerns about access to CCCC presentations, as part of the audience and participant in discussions afterwards.  Having had “to fight for access, in many situations” Kerschbaum is “deeply committed” to the on-going struggle.  She takes the high road in her review, focusing on the theoretical issues of linguistic power and access to discourse communities that the presenters explored.

As a myopic academic with what I call feminist hearing loss (I have more difficulty hearing lower voices), having attended my first CCCC session on disability issues,  I’m struck by Kerschbaum’s kindness.   She does not remark that Amy Vidali and Margaret Price presented to an audience of nine, including at least three interpreters.  Price noted at the beginning of her presentation that she knew almost everyone in the audience from previous disability sessions; I was the lone interloper in this discourse sub-community, attracted primarily by having just read a draft memoir by a colleague who is “blind.”  Far more than her academic work in disability studies, Cathy Kudlick’s memoir about “blind boot camp” made me sense the world with new senses, recognize anew my over-reliance on vision and inattention to other sensory data, and begin to plumb the depths of my ignorance about the variety of experiences disguised by words like “deaf” or “blind” and about the ubiquitous signs of social stigma that encourage people to try to “pass” as “normal.”

Price introduced her exploration of such “absolutist categories” by noting how frequently she is asked, as an apparently non-disabled person, how did you get interested?   And not asked the underlying question: why?  Her own struggle to find an appropriate identification, given the absolute boundaries that sustain cultural denial, lead to her central question: can disability studies foster critical thinking?  And her answer: yes, in different and complicated ways.

Kerschbaum recounts Price’s analysis, focused on a particular student who entered her class without having questioned her identification as “normal” and struggled throughout with the fixed categories and rigid boundaries that the course’s explorations of disability blurred.   Clearly, analyzing the constructed categories of disability may arouse resistances similar to students’ defenses against complicating their notions of race, gender, sexuality, and class; however, I wonder if concepts of disability may be more effective ground for teaching critical thinking, because less familiar, perceived as less political, and perhaps less likely to induce obstructive guilt among the non-disabled students who predominate in most of our classes.

Why we encounter so few disabled students in our classes was partially explained by Amy Vidali, reporting her research on “Rhetorical Access for Students with Disabilities: The Unembodied Undergraduate Admissions Application.”  Vidali had examined admissions forms from 28 states and their use by applicants — the latter causing her very different problems of access due to liability-conscious admissions officers.  Analyzing how the forms constructed disability and whether or not they provided adequate rhetorical space for applicants to identify as disabled, Vidali found that the medical model of disabilities as deficit, tragedy, and burden typically prevails, encouraging disabled applicants to try to “pass” as normal and to admit “special circumstances” only on appeal, after their initial applications fail.

While both were fascinating presentations, what stuck me most was that these presenters were the only ones I encountered who had worked to make their presentations accessible, with large type transcripts and handouts, room arrangements accommodating to wheelchairs and interpreters,  and attention throughout to the interpreters’ challenging task.  Before their talks, Price and Vidali gave the interpreters transcripts with technical terms highlighted and Price encouraged them to signal her if she talked too fast.   The interpreters were visibly pleased — and surprised.  Afterward, they remarked that nobody else had supported their work like this.  And I realized that I had not seen a single presenter, including the keynote, attend so thoughtfully and consistently to issues of access.

All the presenters at CCC 2004 received handouts in advance, “Making CCCC Effective for All Attendees, Including members with Disabilities,” but how many followed its guidelines?  I know that I didn’t — the all-day assessment workshop in which I participated was informal; my remarks were impromptu; no way to prepare a typescript in advance, I told myself.  A friend confided that she had ignored it, too, because she had only finalized her presentation the day before.  How many of us blithely ignored the guidelines and the presence of colleagues struggling for access?

I didn’t attend the critique of the CCCC (H.27), which I heard slammed the “featured talks” as elitist, raising a few celebrities above the rest and compounding the problems created by scheduling so many competing presentations in each time slot.  But here’s a thought: next year, how about featured sessions that highlight lesser-known scholars and emerging areas of research that would help us all become better teachers?  How about a featured session that models techniques of improving access, not only for the variously abled, but also for students with varied learning styles?

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