Dis/Ability: Moving Beyond Access in the Academy

Dis/Ability: Moving Beyond Access in the Academy

Often, accessibility is—as Jay Dolmage and John Slatin have argued—a retrofit or add on. That is, it is often not an integral part of our theoretical conversations, classroom spaces, and technologies. It is this attention to technology, though, which focuses this forum and can—in many ways—begin to centralize dis/ability. For example, clear online accessibility guidelines developed by such initiatives as The Accessibility Project and WebAIM bring diverse user experiences to the forefront of web design. Assistive technologies, and even everyday technologies (like the iPad and mobile device apps), offer resources and opportunities for dis/abled users to communicate and participate in new ways. Indeed, new media seems to be invigorating academic interest in accessibility—as evidenced in articles about accessibility and the digital humanities and conferences such as THATCamp Accessibility 2012.

Converging at the intersections of disability theory, pedagogy, and media studies, this forum intends to harness both theoretical and praxical discussions. We are interested in sharing ideas about how disability theory can positively intersect with our larger understandings of accessibility and the potentiality of technologies and multimodality. We are interested in classroom practices—the practical strategies folks have developed for increasing accessibility and centralizing issues of dis/ability as both material condition and social construct. We are interested in the everyday ways that we—as scholars and researchers and teachers—take up (or don’t, for various personal or institutional reasons) the challenge of creating more accessible physical and digital spaces for learning, teaching, and researching.

  • What strategies do you use in your classrooms to increase accessibility or even to cater to or accommodate particular disabilities? What challenges have you faced making your classroom more accessible? Have some strategies backfired? Are there particular issues that have prevented you from making accessibility-related changes?
  • What technologies are people using (whether assistive technologies or broader tech like YouTube & Twitter) to meet the needs of students? What technologies are used to create and/or support online disability identities?
  • How can our own scholarly research be more accessible? I mean this both in terms of wider availability (open access publishing, perhaps) and in terms of ensuring that a range of people with various physical differences can access our new media projects. How might accessibility enhance a digital or multimodal project?
  • How does disability theory intersect with technology, particularly in relation to race & resistance studies; “assistive” technologies; innovation, hacking & appropriation; and gender & queer studies?

Video of Meryl Alper's Ignite Talk: Making Space in the Makerspace: Building a Mixed-Ability Maker Culture


Photo caption: A square image of 8 disability icons, clockwise (from top-left): wheelchair access, telephone typewriter tty service, assistive listening systems, sign language interpretation, closed captioning, Braille, low-vision access, volume control telephone.

Hosted by HASTAC Scholars:

  • Allison Hitt: Composition & Cultural Rhetoric, Syracuse University

  • Meryl Alper: Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, University of Southern California

  • Melissa Helquist: Technical Communication and Rhetoric, Texas Tech University

  • Stephanie Rosen: Department of English, University of Texas at Austin

Invited Guests:

  • Jay Dolmage: Department of English, University of Waterloo

  • Alan Foley: Instructional Design, Development and Evaluation (IDD&E), School of Education, Syracuse University

  • Mara Mills: Department of Media, Culture, and Communication, NYU

  • Cyndi Rowland: Center for Persons with Disabilities, Utah State University


I came to studying disability and technology from the field of children, digital media, and learning.  Whether it is initiatives such as “connected learning” or learning through engagement in “maker culture”, I find major gaps in the research agenda of a group of scholars actively committed to broadening participation for non-dominant youth.  I also am finding places where disability organically intersects with the past, present, and future of youth learning through media and technology.

  • How does disability studies inform our understandings of the hacking/making practices of young people with disabilities, particularly those with vision impairment and developmental disabilities?
  • How do we make the materials of hacking and tinkering with technology more accessible for youth with disabilities?

One thing that I’ve been drawn to this semester, as I teach a dis/ability-themed composition course, is how we can increase the accessibility of our own classrooms—even when we teach from a fixed curriculum. So, one of the things that’s driving my teaching is how I can hack the curriculum to be a bit more flexible, to better meet my own pedagogical goals and the needs of my students. These certainly aren’t revolutionary practices, but they’ve been working really well for me and my students:

  • Using technology: We’ve used Twitter as a way to practice condensed summary, to think about public audiences, and to allow students to compose in a medium that may be a bit more familiar.

  • Focusing on student interests and needs: Students have led reading discussions based on their own interests in the material.

  • Representing information in multiple ways: We have designated student notetakers who post their notes to Blackboard to reinforce classroom discussion and to get a range of perspectives on the materials (further emphasizing that everyone listens and understands information differently).  

  • Approaching composing through different modes: We did a version of Jay Dolmage’s “revision gallery” where students posted a gallery of their research questions, walked around the room, and offered each other feedback. This allowed them literally to see their work differently.

I’ve also been very direct with the material that we engage with in class. On our first day of class, I streamed an excerpt from the TV show This American Life. The episode, “Escape,” looks at the life of Mike Phillips, a 27-year-old man with spinal muscular atrophy. It addresses what assumptions we might have about someone with a severe physical disability, and it shows the counter-narrative of those assumptions, of the life Mike actually lives. In a short space, it addresses a lot of themes that get students thinking critically about disability: becoming independent, balancing very real physical materialities with social understandings, forming relationships, dating, sex (so taboo!). I’ve also found Ted Talks (“The Opportunity of Adversity” and “It’s Not Fair Having 12 Pairs of Legs” by Aimee Mullins, “Remaking my Voice” by Roger Ebert, “The World Needs All Kinds of Minds” by Temple Grandin, and “Deep Sea Diving … in a Wheelchair” by Sue Austin) great texts for jumpstarting discussions about disability and technology.

What media artifacts do you present to students to engage them in thinking critically about dis/ability? How do you try to hack your curricula in order to incorporate dis/ability or make your classroom practices (and spaces!) more accessible?



A few years ago, accessibility wasn’t even on my radar. Slowly, I’m learning more about how to incorporate accessibility into my teaching and research. Research about accessibility best practices has been part of that education, but I’ve found the best information from students who have disabilities. Their experiences and insights are invaluable and so frequently overlooked. As I’ve gotten more involved with accessibility issues, there are two key approaches that I’ve found very helpful:

1. Get people motivated. Accessible campuses/ learning spaces/ teaching practices can’t just depend on disability resources or  a few people who have connected with accessibility. Accessibility has  to have broad buy-in to work. I’m currenting working on a service learning/ crowdsourced accessibility project on my campus to try to do just that.

2. Learn from the people who are impacted most. There are a lot of good best practice guides available, but I think the best information comes from people who experience barriers in physical and digital learning environments. What’s a student’s experience as they get to campus, move from building to building, take courses on campus or online?

I’m also pretty excited about the new tools becoming available for web accessibility. There is quite a lot happening with captioning (YouTube tools, Amara), and more on the horizon for audio description (Live Describe, Descriptive Video Exchange). It’s exciting to see this mainstreaming of accessibility with tools that are available to anyone. Web accessibility is so often addressed as a development issue, and I think participatory tools like Amara send the message that accessibility is everyone’s responsibility.


Thanks to the HASTAC scholars for aggregating so many web and electronic accessibility resources: tools for making digital media accessible, and also digital tools for making classrooms and public spaces more inclusive.

Catherine Kudlick introduced me to the University of California Electronic Accessibility Initiative and I want to add that site to this Forum. The UCEAI provides straightforward advice on dozens of topics: website development; transcripts and captions for audio material; alternative text for images and charts; PDF formatting for screen-readers; etc. The UCEAI also recommends a number of free tools for testing the accessibility of websites or creating accessible multimedia; these range from screen reader emulators to flicker rate and color analyzers.

Although it can be fussy and perplexing, I don’t think of IT accessibility as a chore. Working on digital access is a way to “open the black box” of electronic equipment: to interpret values in design and understand the “human factors” integrated into technical systems; to analyze claims of transparency, intuitiveness, or usability for a given object; and to experiment concretely with multimodal interaction and sensory conversion. As one example, Georgina Kleege and I have talked about “alt text” as an understudied genre. Susan Schweik places audio description (of video and other visual material) in the tradition of ekphrasis; likewise how might alt text be theorized as a form of cross-media description? What’s at stake in the different strategies for converting electronic images into text? Regarding the alt attribute, how have descriptions for blind readers competed with keywords for search engine optimization and with alt spamming?


As our forum already attests, digital pedagogy and accessibility go together. Because the principles of accessibility are often integrated into our approaches to digital media, our digital teaching integrates accessibility. But how can these approaches inform pedagogy more broadly? I’ve found that the principles that drive online accessibility can be successfully transposed to fully analog environments. The WCAG 2.0 accessibility principles are designed to be “media-independent” and can even be shifted to analog materials or in-class strategies. For example, the well-known Guideline 1.1, “Provide text alternatives for any non-text content,” has made me rethink the way I use visual media in the classroom and led to pedagogical imperatives such as, “Text displayed at the front of the room should also be read aloud,” “Images displayed should also be described in language.” Allison’s strategy of utilizing students note-takers is another example of accessibility principles in action beyond the digital. Applying such principles, developed for digital environments, to non-digital teaching can create a more accessible classroom not only for students with disabilities but for all students, with their diverse learning styles and habits.

I am especially interested in this final point’s implications, within and beyond self-identified communities of people with disabilities. My interest in disability has developed alongside interests in queer theory’s histories of pathologization and affect theory’s accounts of embodied existence. Indeed, affect theory might teach us that we cannot anticipate anyone’s experience of dis/ability, though we might hope to describe it post hoc. A basic question, then, is how we can keep our classrooms open to our students’ diverse experiences. By incorporating student accounts of their learning? By letting literary and cultural texts determine the style of presentation?

Furthermore, I’d like to think together about “accessibility” as it applies to that other form of pedagogy, our own published scholarship. Accessibility, prestige, availability, and intellectual complexity can become competing values in the case of scholarly publishing. How are you navigating your diverse commitments as a scholar when it’s time to publish your work?


Hi All,

First impression: this is incredible.  So many ideas and resources orbiting around.

Just some quick thoughts in response to Stephanie's question about accessibility in our own scholarship.  I have always thought about this in terms of "translating" across modes -- describing all visual images and slides, captioning, repeating myself, sign-posting, and all these other things...  In my scholarly writing, in presenting my work, in teaching.  I try to universally design my "writing" as much as possible.  The book I am working on right now (Discomposition), for instance, has "plain language" sections on nearly every page, in addition to my "usual" writing voice.  The book I recently finished (Disability Rhetoric) has tonnes of visual content, so part of the work of the book is to describe that visual content as more than just translation, but also as a form of "ekphrasis."  Another goal of that book is to create usable takeaways for readers -- a 200+ page book that also has a few 2-3 page sections that I hope lots of people just photocopy or download because they sum up big points and put things in chart form.  Okay, so there's that.

Also, when I started a journal (the Canadian Journal of Disability Studies -- http://cjds.uwaterloo.ca) and I knew I wanted and needed it to be accessible, then of course I also knew it needed to be online.  That led me to explore Open Access.  That was about 5 years ago, and now the journal has been up and running for a while.  Open Access has totally transformed what I used to think of as "accessibility."  Seeing how many readers we have, from across the globe and in and outside of academia, showed me that access is something that needs to be thought of across borders and outside of the academy.  Articles also have this real "rhetorical velocity" -- I am learning so much more about how people find articles, and how they circulate them, and to what uses they are put for individuals and communities.  So I am interested to hear more from you all about your takes on how Open Access and UD should come together. 

I also have a provocation.  

Given this increase in attention and visibility for Universal Design, is it possible that UD has already been co-opted?  Might UD, like "diversity" become a mode of tokenization, of containment; might its roots in the disability rights movement be undercut and vacated?  Is it possible that UD is actually just being deployed as a cynical strategy or a zombie animation of the neo-liberal university?  How is a checklistified UD not just a camouflaged retrofit?  How are people and programs now actually using UD to sidestep (or to charge for) the legal accommodations they should already be making?  Is it possible that UD is just another form of what Lauren Berlant calls "cruel optimism"?


I've been thinking about the ideas we’re exploring in this forum, about the intersection of the theoretical and praxical. I often tend towards the practical (as evidenced in my previous comments)—maybe it’s the community college teacher in me. I want make things better,  get things done (caption those videos! tag those pdfs!).  This practical approach is valuable, of course, but I think it sometimes sidesteps the broader discussion that accessibility invites—a conversation about representation and multimodality.

Mutability of representation and mode is what really captured my attention and brought me to disability and accessibility. My interest in accessibility really began with an exploration of crochet to convey complex mathematical concepts. A little search “math crochet,” but be ready for the wormhole!).  Perhaps if I had been introduced to multiple ways to learn and express mathematical principles when I was younger, I would have been a “math person” after all.

We assume a certain way of knowing, a certain way of being, a certain way of communicating—disability/ accessibility demands that we question all of that.  How do we see sound? How do we hear images?  

Mara Mills, one of this forum’s invited guest has a great article about how accessibility disrupts our notion of what reading is (and I hope she doesn’t mind my posting this): What Should We Call Reading? The article illustrates how disability/ accessibility provide an ideal framework for understanding, challenging, expanding our understanding of the affordances of various media and communicative processes.

So, a final bit of media, a music video from def/Deaf rapper Sean Forbes.  He raps and signs and “captions” are incorporated into the visual design. It’s multimodal and accessible by design, not by retrofit.

You can explore more of his music at his website, deafandloud.com



In response to Jay’s provocation:

Critiques of Universal Design from within the disability & design world are instructive. Proponents of “inclusive design” argue that universality or one-size-fits-all design is impractical, impossible—even undesirable. The Engineering Design Centre at the University of Cambridge, which hosts the Inclusive Design Tool-Kit, opposes “naively implying that it is always possible (or appropriate) to design one product to address the needs of the entire population.” They advocate Designing With People over designing-for-others.

Staff at the Inclusive Design Research Center at the Ontario College of Art and Design suggest that “universal” has come to refer only to certain disabilities, defined by a blunt, population-scale metric. For the OCAD group, inclusive design is personal, flexible—and applicable beyond disability to characteristics like language, gender, age.

Graham Pullin’s theory of “resonant design” goes further, I think, to check socially-produced disabilities without eliminating difference (designing for/with impairment). Resonant design amplifies needs, desires, or actions that are shared between disabled and nondisabled individuals; this approach also creates unexpected resonances between different groups. Things like audiobooks or voice user interfaces can at once be “hands-free” and “eyes-free”; these tools insist on the situatedness of reading and machine interaction. Resonant design doesn’t require identification. Rather than intimate publics (Berlant) or intimate strangers (i.e. the remote and anonymous connections afforded by telecommunications), resonant media yield stranger-affinities.

Critical and Interrogative Design, while not initially conceived with reference to disability, are other alternatives/supplements to universal design. Dunne & Raby define Critical Design as a fusion of art and technology intended to “examine, expose and respond to critical cultural issues by provoking and inspiring new questions.” Interrogative Design, as formulated by Krzysttof Wodiczko at MIT, takes a more interventionist approach. Beyond critique or inquiry, his “technologies of protest and disagreement” are meant to interrupt social conventions and normative infrastructures. I’ve learned a lot about the relevance of critical and interrogative design to disability studies from following Sara Hendren’s website, Abler.


Thanks so much Mara -- this is all tremendously relevant and useful.  Have you published on these convergences and conversations?  I think it would be tremendously useful to present these possible alliances to a wide audience.  I still think we need critical tools -- and an accessible discourse -- to derail some of the branding of UD as an administrative tool, branding that is pulling it further away from disability.  

I would also be really interested in taking each of these concepts you have described, examining how disability is explicitly addressed but perhaps also strategically elided (or gradually ignored) through their development.  How is resonant design, for instance, not just a further example of what Derek Bell calls "interest convergence"?  (That is, the idea that conditions for marginalized groups only improve when they can be bundled into improving conditions for the majority -- something all of UD risks.)

And then I'd like to try them out in pedagogical settings.  That is, what are technologies for disagreement in the classroom?

Then, one more thing: if we aren't being successful at using these convergences and conversations to take some control over how UD is framed, how can we?  Because the way UD is being framed right now, institutionally, really does place it along the continuum of "cruel optimism" and "slow death."  UD has actually, in many places, popped up as something disabled students pay extra for, and in doing so they lose the opportunity to fight for the accommodations they are legally entitled to, and they enter a loop of effort even more onerous than the old rights-based one.  Online education and access to adaptive technologies -- these things are right in the middle of this problem.



This deserves a longer response than a "comment"!

Bell articulated the theory of interest-convergence in terms of legal rights: “The interest of blacks in achieving racial equality will be accommodated only when it converges with the interests of whites." On the other hand, the goals of resonant design, described by Pullin in Design Meets Disability, are enacted in the consumer market (possibly also the medical market & the art world). Resonant design operates on a smaller scale than interest convergence; it is “intended to address the needs of some people with a particular disability and other people without that disability but perhaps finding themselves in particular circumstances.” Another example of RD from Pullin is a multi-purpose tactile watch, designed not to conceal associations with blindness, but to eliminate stigma, produce shared behavior, and foreground the arbitrariness of protocols for telling time.

Is it too quixotic to imagine technology use, as opposed to communication, yielding these resonances? Or to imagine weak affinities lessening stigma? If purchasers of these objects act out of self-interest, can the artifacts themselves be such pivotal actors?

And, as the case of orphan drugs suggests, certain things will never appear in the world if their appeal seems too minor.

We should invite Pullin to weigh in...


Thanks so much, again, for all of this.  I'd love to engage Pullin on this, if possible.  I ordered the book and I am really interested in putting it into conversation with a book like Christina Cogdell's Eugenic Design.

I do think I get the dynamic now -- and I better understand the metaphor of "resonance."  Of course the argument for resonant design is something separate from the dynamic of resonant design, and the argument for it of course has aspects of interest convergence --  I borrow that term just because it seems to come close to describing the ways that people with disabilities get submerged or subordinated.  This happens with UD all the time, and would happen with resonant design too: "it's good for all students/users/consumers" or "it's just good design/teaching" becomes the driving argument, and that subsumes the agentive role of PWDs and decenters difference. In practice, however, it does seem that resonant design really does shift the framework around disability and disabling contexts in a powerful and useful way.

With resonant design, there wouldn't be the same scale, as you suggest -- but then there is the added danger that the person with a disability is just the "text" or the "test" that can be studied to make changes for others.  Resonant design does seem to focus very critically on the contextual and shifting nature of disability's social construction -- and that seems very useful.  But then the smaller scale also seems to invite the same "whack-a-mole" approach of accommodation models to disability -- create a technology to address a particular disability and make it go away (albeit, in this case, make that disability go away and also make things more accessible for some other able-bodied people too).

I don't think I'd want to say that a good way to challenge stigma around disability in our normative and ableist society is to create change only where there are resonances (or where resonances can be created) between people with disabilities and TABs.  How is this different than something like a disability simulation? I realize it is very different -- and yet I can't help but worry...  

You know what, there are some resonances with DOMA here -- but I won't get into that!

I am offering all of this up because I really want to keep the conversation going and because I feel I will be shown I am wrong about a lot of this -- 


Hi all, I am reading the forum with great interest and am very glad that Sara Hendren tweeted about it this morning! If you don't know me, my research focuses on the history and theory of Universal Design, approached through methodologies from feminist science studies and the history and philosophy of science.

I have been working on this question of whether UD decenters difference, and how that occurs in particular when UD is simply equated with "good design" or "user-centered design" without the politics or outcomes of these labels ever being assessed. In my own historical research on UD in architecture and industrial design, it appears that this most often occurs in marketing discourses, either for individualized technologies or spaces with very specific consumers (such as single-family UD homes for elderly people).

I can say a few things later about pedagogy, but on this question of decentering (and often erasing) disability, I'd like to share an anecdote from a recent digital pedagogy training I received at my university. The course was about all sorts of things--MOOCs, posting online content, running a blog, etc. One session was devoted to Universal Design, and I was eager to learn more about how folks in education and digital classroom tech were talking about it. What essentially happened was that the presenter launched into what they called "UD best practices" without even explaining what UD is or why anyone would want to do it. Disability was not ever mentioned, but what was interesting to me was the repeated emphasis that "these practices are just good for everyone." Most of the time, I was not even sure that they were, or how to differentiate them from basic conventions of good graphic design. While I was appalled at the depoliticized nature of the presentation, it also occured to me that this is what happens when UD becomes marketed as just another way of achieving "good design" (a discourse, by the way, that can and has been used to justify pretty much any kind of design).

I will write more later, but for now I wanted to let folks know about a panel/conversation that will be happening at the Society for Disability Studies (SDS) this year between Graham Pullin, Sara Hendren, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, and myself on the topic of UD and the scope of user-centeredness. I hope that folks who are able to be there will consider coming to the panel, and I am also hoping to record the session, if possible, for others to watch over the internet.



What a great discussion! Fantastic to see familiar thinkers and meet some new ones. Thanks, all, for so many possible discussion topics.

I’ll be taking notes from you all here about the rhetoric around UD and accessibility in design, something I know less about. Please continue!

And I’ll add some initial thoughts about interrogative design. I think, Jay, that there are probably some irresovable differences between, as you say, argument vs (embodied) dynamics, theoretical vs practical/iterative works. Still, it’s worth trying to explore...

I really like Graham’s “resonant” term and I’m heavily indebted to his work for my own ideas. But I find myself most drawn to “interrogative” as a posture—I’m also very influenced by Krzysztof Wodiczko—or, like Mara, Dunne and Raby’s idea of critical design or “design for debate.”

Namely: I think some of the strongest art/design-and-technology practices result in objects or interactions or performances where “use” isn’t the mandate at all—and therefore, leaving aside the creation of resonances for use, at least as a goal. Usefulness or functionality may result, but it’s not the destination, if you will, of the work. And indeed true “interrogative” works, in my estimation, are best when they suspend questions indefinitely. They press and hold two or more opposing functions or symbolic/expressive gestures together at once, without resolve.

I think that strong interrogative objects, when engaging ideas in disability studies/politics, help skirt the artificial denoument of erasing difference, a la Jay’s “whack-a-mole” analogy. That is, resisting the seduction of “solutions” in design where “problems” become invisible.

I’m thinking of Lauren McCarthy’s “Conversacube,” or Matthias Gommel’s “Delayed,” or Jennifer Crupi’s many wearable affective works. None of these makers would even place their works within a rhetorical framework of disability, but the questions are there without making any one end-user an exemplar or test-case.

To put it another way: I look for design works where popular notions of disability—purported “needs,” “impairments,” and so on, very broadly understood—are a part of the dialogue inside a work, but not their origins, their diagnostic “assignments” as in medical tools, or where “understanding” is the desired outcome. I like to see prosthetics, or performative tools, or other mechanisms of artifice deployed to create the small-scale conditions for “speech acts” that are otherwise easily shut down as moralizing/identity politics/sentimentality.

Now—in my examples, the designed objects are mostly exiting the consumer market as things, but they can be widely circulated in the digital space alongside mainstream “non-assistive” technologies, design, artworks—i.e., consumed as images, ideas, speculations, performances—for pedagogical purposes, too. But just consuming these critical tools as images has problems too...

Looking forward to any and all thoughts you have!


I composed those comments in Editorially, and I can't figure out how to get them smaller without retyping and re-linking the document. Apologies if it's inconvenient; pleased if it's more accessible.



Aimi, your experience at a UD training session reminds me of a similar one. I attended a training session on web accessibility, a major focus of which was “testing” with a screen reader. However, the time devoted to browsing via screen reader amounted to under five minutes and was not supplemented with sufficient instruction. Attendees (all sighted university employees busy managing sites on the server) learned how to build compliant websites, but not how those websites would be read. Rather, the encounter with the screen reader was so short, unfamiliar, and overwhelming that it only returned them more securely to their own modes of reading.

As a counterpoint, this week I saw an amazing mixed-ability dance performance, The Way You Move Your Body, which for me occasioned an unprecedented felt awareness of my own performance of able-bodied movement. One crucial mechanism of that effect was the temporality of the performance and its transitions. Performers did not flit sidestage in seamless, instantaneous switches, but moved there at their own pace while all patiently waited in the near dark. This unhurried slowness recalibrated my experience of my body's movement in time.

The art works in the archive Sara offers also shift spectators’ relations to their bodies—in time especially in the case of “Delayed.” But is this a kind of work that only art (or design as art) achieves? Art has time; design—like attendees at a training course—has a job to do. (It works!) Yet perhaps here lies resonant design's poltical capacity. An encounter which resounds, even in weak affinity, is around long enough to accompany a change. 

If, as Jay notes, there is a pernicious tendency in the clean justification of UD, “It’s just good design,” is there any value in “bad design” as critical design? (Does Discomposition think in this territory?) Wendy Chun’s Programmed Visions project is one example of “bad design” doing critical work. But as I write I feel this post headed towards big questions about design’s purpose. Aesthetic? Utilitarian? Pedagogical? Innocuous? What has design inherited from the aesthetic that allows claims of absolute value—“good design”—and conceals the embodied encounter at its center? Where is the line between them? Is design limited to producing affects associated with successful and unsuccessful concumption? Waiting is one of those feelings, but unhurried slowness is not.


Just a quick note Stephanie, about "discomposition" and "bad design."


I see "discomposition" as an alternative creative epistemology for composition and for higher education. I define discomposition as art or expression that challenges ableism and normativity not just through what is expressed, but also often through how it is expressed.  The subversive or resistant nature of the author's message is mirrored, amplified, reinforced, or connected to the extraordinary form of its delivery. Further, discomposition values the inherent imperfection and difficulty of any creative work – and provides opportunities to affirm this uneven and sometimes painful process of creation and communication rather than stigmatizing or erasing it.

Discomposition thus demands changes in pedagogy. Teaching can and must be discomposed through disability studies content as well as universal design.  Discomposition also challenges the ableist structures of institutions, and offers new forms of community, collaboration, interdependence, and engagement. Discomposition opens up the possibility that students with disabilities won't just be accommodated towards processing and producing normally, but that disability reshapes possibilities for process and production.  Finally, discomposition argues that teaching, like composing, is difficult embodied work, especially when we teach to challenge ableism and normativity.  

Discomposition channels the concept of "decomposition," invoked by McRuer as a crip, paradoxical, resistant form of writing, the very opposite of the clean, straight, able pedagogies of composition (234).  Discomposition also disarms taken-for-granted values and power dynamics and unsettles the traditional histories and spaces of writing. Likewise, discomposition marks what Berlant calls a "decompositional" impasse – highlighting the ways that disability is contained and constrained, suppressed and depressed (434).  Importantly, thedis of discomposition makes spatial and temporal moves not just of resistance but also rearrangement: decentering normate bodies and minds, remixing traditional narratives of progress and promise.  The dis of discomposition also harnesses the logic of "exnomination" that has traditionally defined disability (see Barthes, Fiske, Williams).  As Canguilhem wrote, the normal is "a polemical concept which negatively qualifies: the abnormal, while logically second, is existentially first" (243). Likewise, ability is defined only by reifying an elaborate taxonomy of disabilities. Thus the prefix dis has always played a role in maintaining the "phantom materiality" of ability, as Mitchell and Snyder suggest (374). Discomposition asks what happens when disability ceases serving to reinforce fictional norms of ability and begins to not just resist but also to rot and to rotate norms.


But that is a long and windy explanation and it doesn't exactly get at where this thread is going, I think.

Instead, I think I am learning most about the dynamics of design from you all -- for whom an idea like "discomposition" likely seems very familiar and not that interesting!  For instance, I feel like I don't have answers for exactly how design sets up expectations and sets of values in practice, though I can often see how bodies are scripted for movement within those values.  I know that I care who designs, and I care where and how aesthetics and ethics collide. But I don't know exactly how we discover or predict those things. Maybe those are all unanswerables.  Maybe I am being monumentally unhelpful.  But Universal Design, for me, has been most useful as a heuristic for asking those questions over and over again.  I don't care what we call the design so long as it keeps helping to ask those questions.  It also matters to me that what we do connects to disability rights and advocacy -- I am explicitly thinking against ableism, and that keeps me suspect.




Thank you so much for this summary of the concept you are thinking through in your new project on Discomposition. I second your sentiment about learning so much here from everyone’s work, but I also find your analysis of discomposition very helpful. Your focus on mediation obviates tricky distinctions between art and design or even text and analysis. Personally, I am interested in modes of mediation which, as you say, value the “inherent imperfection and difficulty” of the work. Specifically, I’m trying to mine poetic works for their own phenomenology of ability, to guide new forms of mediation—rather than subjecting the media to predetermined demands of accommodation or even UD. From what I gather, you are applying discomposition especially to practices of pedagogy and writing/rhetoric, in order to create learning environments that center capacities and debilities usually associated with “disabled” bodies.

This reminds me of the mixed ability maker culture Meryl imagines above in the video presentation. I appreciated, Meryl, how you cite a history of people with disabilities as early technology users and innovators (often through hacking). I would also be interested in your thoughts on how mainstream hacker or coder identities combine “freakish” capacities with social debilities or anti-social behavior. This seems like another intersection of ability and maker culture, and points up the different codes of ability within this particular community. If maker culture has always been “mixed-ability” in these several ways, what do you see as important barriers to access now, and do they fall along different lines, such as gender for example?


(Preface: As I go deeper into dissertation work, this forum, months later, is still proving immensely helpful.) Stephanie, you're definitely on to something with your provocation about the representation of "hackers" in mainstream media and the realities of hacker practices.  For my dissertation, I'm planning for one of my chapters to investigate these different codes of (technical and communicative) ability/disability in relation to hacking, autism, and children.  Autism tends to be associated in dominant media discourses with technological proficiency and males, which ultimately reinforces gendered notions of technical mastery.  The idea that all kids with autism are "techy" (something that's quite problematic based on my ethnographic work thus far) potentially creates unintented barriers for young women on the autism spectrum.


Hi everyone, Thank you for this really provocative and important conversation.    And in case you haven't seen it, there is a parallel one going on about sensory integration issues between Mechelle de Craene Gilford (a long-time HASTAC network member and a high school teacher who teaches, using Papert and Dewey and others,  kids with many kinds of learning disabilities, including autism spectrum, nonverbal, and others ) and a brilliant recent college graduate Evan Donahue, who was once a HASTAC intern, and then was a HASTAC Scholar working with Wendy Chun, when he was at Brown, and  who self-identifies with sensory integration issues (as does Mechelle).   I will also let them know about this HASTAC Scholars Forum.   


That conversation is happening here:  http://hastac.org/blogs/mechelle-decraene-gilford/2013/03/24/sensory-integration-and-learning-frequencie


There are several really important conversations happening in both forums, but I'm especially interested in Evan's observation about  the difficulty of hearing while also looking someone in the eye.    We're finding that many people find facial movements and eye flickers very distracting while other people literally do not notice them.  We do not even have a category for this but it is important since autism-spectrum kids are often taught they must look people in the eye in order to be sociable---but of course not listening is not considered "sociable" and rarely do educators or researchers pay attention to this cross-sensory connection.


Here's a quircky anecdotal tendency I have noticed that makes me more sensitive to how differently people process gesture and facial expression (in particular).  I personally have a family (and Italian) tendency to open my eyes wide as I'm talking and I'm always surprised that while most people I talk to (except when I'm in Italy) do not mirror what is now an involuntary facial expression when I talk, for some it is clearly a major component of conversation with me and I can see how they mirror my facial expressions even when they do not widen their eyes on their own.  I would say it happens about one in 50 times, rarely enough that I find it distracting!      The point here is that when Evan talks not about disability and liminalities but differences, I agree---and think we do not even know what those differences are except in a relatively few cases where they have been DSM'd or otherwise defined.   It's certainly an exciting area for future research.   As someone whose dyslexia as not diagnosed until I was 27 and already had had a postdoc and a year or two in a full-time teaching position, I am fascinatecd as much by diagnostic relief as by diagnostic-obliviousness----and as much by the shortcomings of our diagnostics as those of our so-called abilities and disabilities.


Hey Everybody!

This is a great conversation! I'm learning so much! Cathy, thank you for sharing about eye contact! That is really interesting! In my English Language Learners class we were learning about culture and eye contact. It is really fascinating!

You all are sharing so many rich ideas and perspectives!! I'm reading this over a couple of times before I respond more. But just wanted to say thank you for sharing your wisdom. Some of the experts work quoted here I haven't heard of before. I'm embarrassed that I don't know who they are. I have to read up and then respond. Thank you all again for sharing! Have a great day and Happy Autism Awareness Day! : )


Anonymous (not verified)

It is so good to read a great conversation, it gives us opportunity to be better people!



Hi Meryl, I am a special education teacher and really like your research! Can you elaborate more on your findings with special education teachers?


Also, regarding the questions, “What strategies do you use in your classrooms to increase accessibility or even to cater to or accommodate particular disabilities? What challenges have you faced making your classroom more accessible? Have some strategies backfired? Are there particular issues that have prevented you from making accessibility-related changes?”


Regarding challenges, as a special education teacher it is really challenging sometimes because often district offices will discourage us, actually telling us not to put technology on the IEP (Individualized Education Plan). We are told that the schools don't want to pay for the technology. So then we are caught in the middle because those of us special ed teachers who are fluent with technologies want the very best for our students and know which kinds of technologies would really benefit our students can't tell the parents what we recommend. I've gotten in trouble for that once when I was explaining to a parent about technologies. For example, I really wanted one of our students to have access to a DynaVox, but was told not to put it on the IEP. There is even a saying in Special Education with regard to technology why give them a Cadillac when a Ford will work. With students with severe (dis)abilities the assistive technologies are sometimes provided through Medicaid or health insurance.In general though, the schools are responsible for providing assistive technologies. It is especially tricky to advocate for our students when we are not tenured teachers. Teachers are released from their jobs and school districts do not need to provide a reason until they are tenured. So, we try to find creative ways to make due. It is really frustrating though. I want to do so much more and provide more technologies.


Also, I've noticed gender differences with regard to technology at schools. Often male teachers have better access to technologies than female teachers. They literally have more computers in their classrooms too! I should count one day and do an informal study. We do go to the computer lab a lot, but it is really frustrating with regard to the differences in computers in the classrooms. Additionally, I've been in a teacher workshop before where teachers were fumbling with a technology and asking what to do and then all while looking at the male teachers. I tried to make a suggestion but was ignored, so I just stayed quiet. It is really challenging to advocate for technologies when there is gender bias with regard to technologies and most special education teachers are female. Are you noticing gender differences with regard to advocating for your students to have access to technologies at the college level? When I taught college, most of my students already came in with their technology. Is this what you are finding as well?


Also, we need to consider outside factors that influences K-12 school policy. In one case when things backfired was when I advocated for a student to get an assistive listening device and the students mom pawned it. From then on at that school no students were allowed to take home any assistive technologies. Rarely, do schools look at the successful situations.


Jay, how is Special Education PK-12 in Canada? Also, at the college level, do the colleges provide assistive technologies or are they provided with through the medical system or your students purchasing them?


Regarding (Dis)ability Theories, this is new to me and awesome to learn. Even though I have a grad degree in Special Education we did not study disability theories. We studied developmental psychology, but not theories of disability so I am looking forward to reading about the theories of disabilities. Who do you recommend to read first?


Oh, I just remembered another point I wanted to mention, Phones! Thank goodness for smart phones! I used them a lot with my teaching and every student has one. At first I got in trouble because it is district policy that no phones are allowed to be out during school hours. Then I talked with one of the school administrators, a vice principal who is really cool and he advocated for me to be able to use phones in class with my students. That has helped a lot because even though I teach in Silicon Valley I only had 3 working computers in my SpEd classroom at the beginning of the school year. Then I got 1 more computer as the school year progressed! I am thankful for phone and apps. A lot of my family members are teachers and we share information on apps. There are a lot of wonderful apps for Special Ed that don't cost a lot.

We just gotta get around archiac rules. While technology resources are limited at the schools, many students have access right in their backpacks!



Touching on a few of the threads in this conversation, let me add that as part of a collaborative webtext forthcoming this summer in _Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy_, I make the argument that multimodality as it is currently valorized in rhetoric and writing studies tends to ignore the fact that if a user can't access one or more of the modes comprising the multimodal text, the entire text is inaccessible. Michael Salvo, in a response, draws on Pullin's work on resonant design to talk about how we might reconceptualize this work, and I really appreciate that it is coming up in this conversation, too.

I think universal design is rightly critiqued for making teachers feel as if the goal is to anticipate EVERY POSSIBLE adjustment or potential student who could enter their classroom space (however configured).

Instead, I would suggest that we think in terms of the means by which we (teachers) can reflect upon our teaching, be welcoming, responsive and attentive to students' needs/discourses about their own access preferences, and incorporate as much flexibility as possible in the way students can negotiate class, texts, and other materials.

A concrete example of what I mean can be thought of in terms of the kind(s) of repetition we offer to students. For example, I hear colleagues talk a lot about how they have to tell students things over and over anything that is really important (e.g., class is in the library on Tuesday afternoon)--so that information not only appears on the syllabus, is verbally announced at the beginning or end of class, is available via recorded class lectures students can re-listen to after class through a university interface, is written on the board, is posted on the class course management system, etc.

In some ways this is a lot of redundancy, but it ensures that the message gets through, right? and it's now common practice for not just big announcements like when class will meet in an alternative location, but also for all homework assignments which are listed in *all of* these locations for every class meeting.

I also think in terms of flexiblity of information. a PDF is not typically flexible/manipulable (unless you have advanced versions of Adobe Acrobat, I think) but students can manipulate a word document to meet their preferences, so I generally try to make all my handouts and materials--where available--in formats that are designed for maximum, rather than minimum flexiblity, And I talk to students about that flexiblity, so that they start to play with what they can/can't do--I think they already do this to some degree but I like to make explicit that customization which I think likely enhances some of their engagement with course materials and assignments.



I’m so glad you joined this conversation, Stephanie! I’ve been thinking more and more about how we give students multiple means of representation & expression & action, and I feel like there are really productive overlaps between this and multimodality that aren’t actualized either in practice or in theory. I was just talking to Jason Palmeri about this because he talks about multimodal pedagogies in his new book, and I know he’s interested in access and disability studies in UD, but that doesn’t directly get taken up in the book. And I wonder if it’s because it’s not the connection people necessarily want to make because, as you said, UD has the burden of feeling like too much if we think we need to account for everything all the time.

I’m teaching from a standard curriculum this semester where the final project is a translation of the previous argument essay. It’s the first “multimodal” (read: digital) assignment that appears in the curriculum, and it’s only 3-4 weeks at the very end of the semester. I wanted to make it more accessible and, although I got a little bit of resistance for this idea, totally scrapped the digital requirement (which is then usually narrowed into 2 or 3 media that students can choose from). It felt weird to put those constraints on the assignment, particularly because our course inquiry is about dis/ability and limiting students’ modes of expression seemed contradictory. I also added an “accessibility” component to the guidelines: “Your translation should be accessible to diverse audiences—videos should be captioned, images should be textually described, and one mode shouldn’t be totally relied upon.” I asked them all to find tutorials that help explain best practices that they can share with each other because—like you mentioned—though it’s overwhelming as teachers to account for every single possible thing, it is important when we teach those assignments to also teach accessibility as an integral component to the project so that students can think from the beginning how to make multimodal and digital projects accessible, rather than creating a project and then going back and making it accessible (or refusing to make it accessible at all).



Thank you, Allison, for sharing your accessibility requirement with us. Having students work in multimedia can be intimidating in itself, so I am inspired by the fact that you have them think about accessibility as a primary concern of the project and not as additional work after the fact. As others in this forum have mentioned, accessibility practices like captioning and textual descriptions offer alternate modes of expression for students, and for those unfamiliar with multimedia, they can help contextualize the work among more familiar text-based practices as well as get the students thinking about how their projects are functioning rhetorically for multiple audiences. In short, I think your requirement addresses one of the most important issues of digital and multimodal work in a way that foregrounds the complex but exciting possibilities and responsibilities of authorship.

I have yet to build accessibility into my own courses to the extent that I’d like, but I have had the great fortune of working on The Journal for Multimedia Projects (TheJUMP) for the past few years, and much of our time has been devoted to getting students more actively engaged in making their published work accessible. Since the journal’s focus is pedagogical (i.e., every project is accompanied by the assignment description, student and instructor reflections, responses from editorial collective members, etc.), we’ve tried to move toward a pedagogical approach to accessibility as well. Unfortunately, we don’t have control over what the original assignment requires of the student. We also don’t require students to contribute all accessibility materials, because many of them are already out of the class where their project originated by the time it’s accepted for publication. But we do strongly encourage students to contribute audio and textual descriptions along with captioning and transcripts, and we provide them models for how that work can be accomplished.

We’ve had a lot of success getting students to prepare thoughtful and detailed descriptions of their visual and audio components, even in complex projects that include a lot of interactive elements or mixed media on multiple pages. We see this often in Wix-based projects, for instance. The shift really came when we began talking to students about accessibility as an opportunity rather than an obligation (not that it’s not also that). If the journal’s editors do the work, then students miss an opportunity to articulate not only what each image is, but what it communicates in the context of their project. In other words, when students take the lead on accessibility, they can interpret their choices to themselves and to their audience through accessibility materials. It’s also a nice way to get them to think about the life of the work they publish online beyond the confines of the classroom or the semester.