Andrew Appleton Pine, Institution
Karen Moroski, Michigan State University
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The field of Writing Center Studies continues to develop new frameworks and points of entry for engaging intersectional identities like race, class, sexuality, and gender; however, the field has not yet developed a similar discourse on the intersections of disability and writing center work. This article interrogates this gap in the field’s scholarship and provides a new point of entry for writing center professionals who seek to foster access: the writing of an Accessibility Statement. Engaging in the process of creating an Accessibility Statement is an act of restorative justice because only through examining how our practices, beliefs, or research act as gatekeepers to inclusion can we truly restore dignity, community, and agency to all writers. The article contains two major sections: an overview of the critical theory and research that inform our perspectives on writing centers and disability, and then a praxis section providing guidance to those interested in writing an accessibility statement for their center. we argue that to engage the work of fostering access is a form of restorative justice; only upon examining how our practices, beliefs, or research act as gatekeepers to inclusion can we truly restore dignity, community, and agency to all writers.
Keywords: Critical disability studies methodology; writing center studies; disability studies; disability justice; composition studies
Note from Andrew and Karen:
We want to acknowledge, as this article begins, that we made several intentional rhetorical moves in the essay that you might find unusual or surprising. Some of these moves are textual: for example, we have included numerous hyperlinks in text to help readers find further information or explanation if they need it and we have broken the article into multiple headlined sections for ease of access. Some of these moves are tonal: we wrote this article believing it will have multiple audiences with multiple points of entry or reasons for reading, and we wanted to write for / include all these audiences; shifts in style and voice represent different purposes in the writing and perhaps different readers of that writing. We feel it extremely important to ensure that as much of this article’s language as possible is clear, accessible, and share-able amongst communities of readers and writers. Lastly, our audio components for this article were broken into shorter sections as well in an attempt to create ease of access.
Getting Started: An Overview
As Writing Centers are sites of restoring, engaging, or enhancing literacy, scholars in the discipline have long labored to imagine whose literacy we’re restoring, engaging, or enhancing. The field has made great strides toward restorative justice in theorizing the work of collaboration (Bruffee,1984), anti-racism (Grimm, 2009; Young, 2010), multilingualism (Garcia, 2017; Martinez, 2016; Williams and Condon, 2016), and queerness (Denny, 2019).
But what about accessibility? Tellingly, more than ten years elapsed between the International Writing Center Association (IWCA)’s position statement on disability and the publication of the first full-length collection on disability and the writing center, Writing Centers and Disability, edited by Babcock and Daniels (2017). While this work has provided invaluable insights into the lived experiences of disability in the writing center, tutor preparation, and best-practices around accommodation, more work can be done. As the various contributors to the collection make clear, practical issues such as disability disclosure, accommodation, and tutor training present serious challenges to the daily life of a writing center, and this work cannot be set aside.
How can writing centers take this internal, programmatic work and both reframe and situate it as a public-facing value? This question can’t be answered without knowing an individual center’s own identity, value system, and means of effecting change. The first step, then, toward fostering accessibility in a writing center is for the center’s community to take stock of their values and to create, together, an Accessibility Statement.
An Accessibility Statement is a public-facing document that makes visible the work of creating access within the Writing Center. An Accessibility Statement reflects the mission of an individual center and is distinct from the field-wide call-to-arms suggested by the position statement from IWCA because it makes clear an individual center’s beliefs and goals surrounding disability (whether physical, emotional, or mental disability). It asks: not “What can the field do?” but, “What can we do?”
This article has two major sections. First, it puts forth a rationale for creating an Accessibility Statement and situates such statements in larger discourses of disability theory and practice. Second, it guides writing center professionals in taking stock of the resources on their campuses (including their own internally controlled practices, such as tutor training or ongoing professionalization) to develop a statement that reflects what that individual center is willing or able to promise disabled writers on its campus. We argue that Accessibility Statements should help writing center staff practice what disability studies scholars refer to as a critical disability studies methodology—the reorientation of a center’s ethos so that it centers disabled composers rather than viewing them as problems to accommodate later (Minich, 2016, para. 6). This methodology ensures that centers become accountable to their disabled users, and to that end these statements are promissory—they are an act of restorative justice. We believe, however, that the promises should be realistic and should be seen as contracts built upon trust and a dedication to following through: what you say you’ll provide, provide.
We know this process will look different for every center and on every campus, and that is okay! We are learning this work together, both as colleagues and as scholars—you and us, we and our communities—and embracing the process of learning rather than privileging a static expertise that empowers us to do this work effectively. The purpose of our article is not to give readers a mission statement or mantra—it is to provide guidelines and ideas for how you can explore your own campus culture, resources, and intentions to draft an Accessibility Statement that reflects what your writing center can, will, or will try to do to restore justice to disabled writers in your community.
First, the Theory!
For decades, discussions about accessibility were limited to physical space and consumer products. Over time, “accessibility” crystallized into a shorthand for curb cuts, ramps, or the use of textured bar handles on doors. As Bess Williamson has explained in her recent book, Accessible America (2019), this specialized sense of the word did not enter the American lexicon until the disability rights movement rose to prominence in the 1970s, and despite the increased inclusion of people with non-physical disabilities in that movement, today the word has retained this older, more narrow connotation (p. 11). Williamson (2015) has also defined access this way:
In its most literal form, “access” describes the ability to enter into, move about within, and operate the facilities of a site, and is associated with architectural features and technologies, including wheelchair ramps, widened toilet stalls, lever-shaped door-handles, Braille lettering, and closed-caption video. Figuratively, however, it can suggest a much broader set of meanings linked to a more inclusive society with greater opportunities for social and political participation. (p. 14)
Williamson’s definition points us toward a broader and more inclusive understanding of access, one that concerns how bodies interact within both literal and “figurative” space. Whether we are talking about entering the space of a building, the digital public sphere (say, on a social media website), or the space of a conversation, a lesson, or a tutoring session, the referents remain the same: bodies and space. “Space is one of the major axioms of being and of life itself” according to Rob Imrie (2015), but this can lead us to take the design of space for granted, leading to what he calls the “absolutism of the nonimpaired body” (p. 170). This “absolutism” refers to the idea that there is, somewhere out there, a standardized “normal” body (there isn’t). While it may be tempting to see that absolutism in purely physical terms, this preference, which Aimi Hamraie (2017) has called the “normate template,” extends to the non-physical realm, as well (p. 19).
Understanding this normate template also requires us to investigate ableism more generally, which is an important part of critical disability studies, or “CDS.” As a methodology, Minich (2016) has explained that CDS “involves scrutinizing not bodily or mental impairments but the social norms that define particular attributes as impairments, as well as the social conditions that concentrate stigmatized attributes in particular populations” (para. 6). In the context of writing centers, this means exploring how social norms have led to both physical and nonphysical spaces that are designed exclusively for use by able-bodied and able-minded people. For example, providing face-to-face consultations that are conducted entirely orally has privileged writers and consultants who can 1) speak without impairment, 2) hear without impairment, and 3) navigate physical spaces/open, noisy environments comfortably.
While we appreciate Williamson’s interrogation of access in “figurative” spaces, we believe, along with Jay Dolmage, that the relationship between physical and non-physical forms of inaccessibility is real—not figurative. For Dolmage (2017), “physical inaccessibility is always linked—not just metaphorically—to mental, intellectual, social, and other forms of inaccessibility,” especially in the space of the academy (p. 9). An Accessibility Statement, then, seeks to address the kinds of inaccessibility that Dolmage names above. This means a commitment to examining the various ways that writing center services (and our scholarship) have been built upon normative tutoring techniques, which not only date all the way back to our founding, but even to North’s and Bruffee’s formative scholarship. These practices often include (but are not limited to): the choice to hold a consultation in only one mode (oral), which reflects the audist bias of in-person consultations; writing center websites that are not friendly to screen readers; the choice to hold consultations in physically inaccessible places, or the treatment of non-normative behaviors in a writing center as suspicious and deviant. This becomes especially important for those whose behaviors—like tics, or hyperfocus, or even perceived aggression—may serve as signs of mental or emotional differences and indicate a need for accommodation rather than a need for increased apprehension or surveillance on the part of consultants.
These varied forms of accessibility matter, even if they don’t always directly concern matter. Even if we think immaterial practices don’t concern the ordering of space, they do. Accessibility is about bodies and minds and whose bodyminds get accounted for; accessible writing center practices are about which bodyminds show up in the space of writing center research and practice. As a field, we’ve virtually ignored the systematic study of writing center practices that exclude writers with disabilities (other than with learning disabilities). A critical disability studies approach to the history of the field forces us to grapple with the reasons for that exclusion.
Accessibility in the Writing Center
In a review of writing center scholarship on disability, Babcock (2015) found that few of the research studies on disability in the past 40 years could be classified as evidence-based; additionally, Babcock (2017) also found that almost none of the most prominent literature on disability in writing centers features “actual research done with students with disabilities” (Babcock & Daniels, 2017, p. 337). These limitations constitute major gaps in our knowledge about the access needs of disabled writers. In addition to Babcock, other scholars have also raised concerns about a lack of research that is replicable, aggregable, and data-driven (RAD) in writing center studies. Babcock’s critiques bring disability into this wider discussion of RAD research and writing center research methodologies (Driscoll & Perdue, 2012). Given the predominance of lore in writing center studies, as well as the fraught history of academic research on disability, discussed by Oliver (1992), Linton (1997) and more recently by Dolmage (2017), the lack of research studies with disabled writers may be due to the insufficient methodological and ethical training of writing center professionals, or it may reflect larger issues with higher education’s engagement with difference.
Whatever the cause, the exclusion of writers with disabilities from writing center studies research has had a number of negative consequences for the field; for instance, in lieu of tutoring practices informed by what Aimi Hamraie (2017) called “access-knowledge,” the field has heavily relied on impairment-specific retrofits (p. 5). In her preface to Writing Centers and Disabilities, Allison Hitt called this the “diagnose-and-accommodate” model of writing center accessibility:
In response to inaccessible best practices, writing center scholarship has often adopted an impairment-specific approach to disability. This approach focuses on identifying the characteristics of a particular disability diagnosis and then developing practices that are specific to those characteristics…the development of impairment-specific practices—although well intentioned—does not honor the complexities, nuances, or strengths of disabled student writers. (Babcock & Daniels, 2017, p. viii)
When looked at as a whole, Babcock and Daniels’ research indicates that writing center professionals have taken a fractured, “impairment-specific” approach to disability over the past 40 years of writing center scholarship. At best, this approach can be thought of as a patchwork of trends and gaps created by an impairment-specific research agenda, suggesting that new disabilities get researched only when they enter the academic zeitgeist. For instance, while research on learning disabled (LD) writers is obviously important, it’s clear from Babcock’s (2015) research that this group is overrepresented in the field. LD writers, who only accounted for 9% of postsecondary students with disabilities, according to a 2008 government report, are so overrepresented in the literature, in fact, that Babcock came to the conclusion that “learning disability has almost become synonymous with disability in many writing center conversations” (Babcock & Daniels, 2017, p. 331). Of the 43 studies that Babcock (2015) evaluated, 16 concerned writers with learning disabilities—37% of the total. Furthermore, given the fact that only one of these studies suggested Universal Design as a way to better include disabled writers in writing centers, the accommodations that were invariably offered for LD writers in these studies (like writers with other disabilities) sound more like retrofits than substantive changes to tutoring techniques.
Accommodations become retrofits when they are tacked onto existing structures for individual students (Dolmage 2017, p. 70). “Like ramps,” retrofits “’fix’ space,” Dolmage claimed. Another key feature of retrofits is that they “have a chronicity—a timing and a time logic—that renders them highly temporary yet also relatively unimportant. Thus the experience of seeking a retrofit usually reveals that they are slow to come and fast to expire” (Dolmage 2017, p. 70). Importantly, the accommodation-as-retrofit is temporary and reactive, rendering “disability as something to be addressed only when it arises, never to let it extend beyond the classroom and into scholarship and service” (Dolmage 2017,p. 79). Or as Hamraie (2017) put it, the retrofit does not transform “knowledge, values, ideologies, and systems” (p. 12). We must question, then, any tutoring or programmatic prescriptions that follow the diagnose-and-accommodate model of tutoring, no matter how well intentioned. Babcock’s criticism of the lack of RAD research on disability in the writing center represents more than just a desire to inject objectivity into writing center studies; in fact, it reflects a concern that the exclusion of disabled writers from this invaluable research ensures the services provided to them never rise above the status of the retrofit.
This is not all to say that there has been no worthwhile work on disability in the writing center; work on multiliteracies, Universal Design (UD), and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) represent bright spots in our research. We recommend that interested readers look at the work of scholars such as Allison Hitt (2012), Anglesey and McBride (2019), Annika Konrad (2016), and Babcock and Daniels (2017) because they have made important interventions in writing center pedagogy by calling for accessibility to be a foundational part of writing center theory and practice (rather than a retrofit). Hitt and Konrad, for instance, have each theorized how Universal Design for Learning and multiliteracies can make writing center consultations more accessible. Privileging one mode in our consultations (oral) limits writers’ and consultants’ means of representation, engagement, and acting—key elements of UDL (CAST, Universal Design for Learning Guidelines section). Furthermore, knowledge of and practice with multiliteracies is a key way consultants can build access in the writing center, according to Hitt (2012):
If students with disabilities are limited to particular modalities—e.g., a blind student who relies on auditory or sensory modes to write or a deaf student who relies more heavily on visual modes—a multimodal pedagogy more easily adapts to these needs, incorporating rather than accommodating them. (Universal Design for Learning and Pedagogical Accessibility section, para. 2)
In general, we urge readers to look for and study writing center research that incorporates rather than accommodates. This is critical, we argue, to enacting a restorative justice mission within the writing center because it doesn’t merely provide disabled writers a seat at the table—it also asks us to rethink the nature of tables and seats.
Accessibility as Restorative Justice
Earlier we stated that accessibility, broadly defined, is the ability to enter into literal (and figurative) space(s). While this is surely a good place to start thinking about accessibility, it doesn’t go far enough. After all, access should be a “way to move,” as Dolmage (2017) has put it in his discussion of Universal Design (p. 116). We think that Accessibility Statements are a good first move toward writing centers enacting restorative justice. However, an Accessibility Statement that merely seeks to create equal physical spaces for disabled writers while stopping short of creating equitable points of entry into public and academic conversations becomes a roadmap to retributive (rather than restorative) justice. In this section we outline transformative access and disability justice, two related ideas that are critical to crafting the kind of Accessibility Statement that moves toward restorative justice.
Recently, disability activists and teacher-activist-scholars have complicated overly simplistic notions of access that do not transform environments and the social structures that create inequality for disabled people. Instead, these activists have called for “transformative access,” which transforms spaces by changing their structure, not just their entry points. An easy way to understand the difference between transformative access and other forms of access can be found in Williamson’s (2015) definition, provided near the beginning of this article, which gives both the literal and “figurative” definitions of access. Williamson’s “literal” definition of access limits access to physical spaces, while her figurative definition states that accessibility is about creating equal opportunities for disabled people to enter into and engage in the public sphere, thereby transforming all spaces. Brewer et al. (2014) have contrasted transformative with “consumptive” access: “The former involves allowing people to enter a space or access a text. The latter questions and re-thinks the very construct of allowing” (p. 154). In other words, it makes us question the very idea of seats and tables. When accessibility is about making better disabled consumers, not disabled creators, it can be considered consumptive, not transformative. Consumptive access, then, focuses on making goods and services more accessible to consumers rather than making tools accessible for creators (or composers) who can transform the world. And where is the experience of the creator or composer more central than in the writing center? It is transformative access that must be at the core of an Accessibility Statement, not consumptive access. In turn, an Accessibility Statement must represent a rhetorical and material commitment to enacting what activists call “disability justice” within the writing center.
The disability justice movement is a response to both the disability rights and Independent Living movements, which culminated in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The ADA expanded civil rights protections to disabled people. Despite these gains, the disability justice group Sins Invalid (2019) argued that the disability rights framework has most benefited disabled people “who can achieve status, power and access through a legal or rights-based framework,” which “is not possible for many disabled people, or appropriate for all situations” (p. 15).
In the context of higher education, we know that not all students who need accommodations actually receive them: according to Dolmage (2017), as many as two-thirds of disabled college students may not be receiving the accommodations that they need (p. 22). Dolmage (2017) has built on Joe Stramondo’s work on “reasonable accommodations” by arguing that in order for most students to receive accommodations on U.S. campuses, they must first seek out onerous medical examinations in order to prove their disability status through medical diagnoses (p. 80). Stramondo noted the irony in this process: the legal impetus for such accommodations came from the ADA, which was once viewed as the triumph of the social model of disability, and yet the process for acquiring such accommodations is firmly based on a medical model that places the epistemological and moral burden of disability in the individual, not in disabling systems (2015, para. 4). This burden is onerous, period, but it may be especially so for students with “invisible” mental disabilities, whose accommodations are often deemed “unreasonable” and “unfair” because they aren’t considered “real” disabilities (Dolmage, 2017, p. 102). While we’re not discounting the important protections provided by the ADA, it’s clear that writing centers cannot rely too heavily on this rights-based framework because it actually excludes a large percentage of disabled students on college campuses.
The disability rights movement has also ironically further entrenched the view that the unfavorable aspects of disability are located in individuals (rather than in an ableist society), a view which is known as the medical model of disability. When we think disability is located in individuals, then it makes sense that the best way to include disabled people in society is through a patchwork of retrofits, rather than through making fundamental changes to the way environments and structures are designed. Logically, this can only lead to the mainstreaming of disabled people into an ableist society, not to “dis[abling] the very design of cultural and institutional spaces,” which Brewer et al. (2014) claimed is the goal of transformative access (p. 151).
In contrast to how the disability rights movement has approached accessibility, a disability justice framework centers identities that are intersectional, communities that are interdependent, and access that is collective and transformative—values or intentions that the field of writing center studies claims to share. In turn, these commitments are used to liberate disabled people and to fight against ableism. Because an Accessibility Statement is an act of restorative justice, it should seek to uphold the values espoused by the disability justice movement. That means that writing centers need to adopt a radically different approach to understanding how disability affects writing. Impairment-specific approaches that ignore writers who are multiply disabled, or ignore how disability intersects with race, class, gender, and other identities, do little to change ableist structures. Similarly, a disability justice informed approach to writing center work calls for us to find new ways to value and practice interdependence. This means seriously reimagining, or even doing away with, many of the nondirective tutoring practices that center the individual writer and have been used to form the pillars of our field’s praxis.
Writing center scholars such as Nancy M. Grimm (2011) have already made the case that when tutors use non-directive tutoring strategies, which since Stephen North have been used to make “better writers, not better writing,” they may inadvertently perpetuate racism and white supremacy because they make the assumption “that all writers…already have in their heads what they need” (p. 84). Now, writing center scholars like Babcock (2011) have also begun to critique non-directive tutoring as a way of upholding ableism within higher education, as well (p. 111). On a practical level, this means that tutors should embrace directive tutoring strategies, such as sometimes framing feedback in the imperative, rather than interrogative mood (Johnson, 1993, p. 39).
Finally, in a disability justice framework, access in the writing center should be collective and transformative. Collective access, according to disability activist Mia Mingus (2018), “demands that the responsibility for access shifts from being an individual responsibility to a collective responsibility” (Liberatory Access and Interdependence section, para. 3). This means not waiting to think about disability until the very last minute, when some thing or service has been pointed out as inaccessible by a disabled person. It also means not relying solely on the accommodations for an individual disabled student provided by disability services. Collective access is mixed-ability, proactive, and communal: it requires all members of the writing center community to continuously work together in order to build (and rebuild) an accessible writing center. A commitment to collective access requires accountability from able-bodied allies and institutional partners, and in this sense an Accessibility Statement is perhaps one of the most important ways that a writing center can enact restorative justice.
Now, the Practice!
How Will I Know If I Am Not Meeting the Needs of Disabled Writers?
As with any type of assessment, you can only assess the folx you’re able to find to assess, and we already know that disabled students have been historically underrepresented on college campuses—and that when students must “prove” a disability to receive an approved accommodation, many students who can’t/won’t prove their status go unaccommodated (Dolmage, 2017, p. 22). How many writers would our centers serve if more writers had access to university life or to our programming? How many times have our institutions (or even we ourselves) looked around, said, “Well, it’s really rare that somebody needs X, Y, or Z so I guess it’s okay that we don’t have it,” or “We’ll build it when they get here” (there’s that retro-fitting again!), and then gone about business as usual?
Assume that there are disabled writers on your campus who might be more comfortable visiting your writing center if you dedicated time and resources to creating an environment where they might be supported during their visit. When your writing center community provides more points of access for disabled writers, your center will also have more points of access for assessment.
What Does It Mean to Make Something a Public-Facing Value?
Often, offices that support students (like, for example, writing centers) assume that their values are implicit in their existence or in their field’s lore or in the nature of the services they provide. The field of peer tutoring espouses power diffusion, collaboration, and the dignity of student-writers; these threshold concepts, however, still require ongoing interrogation and reflection to be meaningful—and while many of us share these concepts in our envisioning of our work, many of us have yet to articulate how our values inform that vision.
There is a difference between a “vision” and a “value”—a vision is a broad picture of where you want to go; a value is a guidepost and leading intention on how you’ll get there.
For example, your vision might be that your writing center is a place where all writers feel respected and included. The values that underpin your vision, then, might be accessibility, or antiracist pedagogies, or intersectional ways of knowing, learning, or engaging identity within the center. In short, a vision might indicate the environment or impact you hope to create—but your values describe how you’re going to make that happen. It follows, then, that being transparent about your values (and how those values inform your practices) represents an opportunity to foster a greater understanding of and engagement with your vision! In sharing or representing your values—in making them public-facing—you are making visible the rhetorical and programmatic work you’re doing to create your program and to welcome writers into it. This process of “making visible” also enacts a sense of accountability.
In writing an Accessibility Statement, you are making it public that your center is doing the work of creating access, and that you value both the work itself and the writers it serves.
What Is an Accessibility Statement? What Isn’t?
We think it’s most helpful to begin by straightforwardly telling you what an Accessibility Statement isn’t. In our research on writing centers and disability, the most common type of accessibility shoutout we’ve seen is when a center mentions accessibility as Very Important, then says little more about it aside from a link to campus disability services. While it’s savvy to avoid reinventing the wheel and while nobody aside from disability experts need to be expert on all accessibility accommodations, we feel it’s a little like passing the buck to tell writers that you care about their experiences but that someone else should help them navigate your programming. Instead, an Accessibility Statement should make clear that your center seeks to develop partnerships—you know, where both sides have work to do—with both the offices who support disabled students and with disabled students themselves. To put it simply:
An Accessibility Statement is a public-facing declaration of engagement and intention in creating programming, media, and practices that center the needs of disabled writers.
An Accessibility Statement should make clear the authors’ valuing of accessibility and of disabled writers, and should exhibit an ongoing, accountable commitment to learning how best to foster access both through collaboration with disabled persons and the knowledgeable campus partners who support them through assessment, reflection, and actionable growth.
What Are the Benefits of Writing an Accessibility Statement?
When you issue a public statement of intention, you signal your values and your ethos to those who encounter your statement. Say for example that you write your Accessibility Statement and then place it prominently on your writing center’s webpage—by publicizing the statement, you tell writers that they are valued; you tell faculty members that they can collaborate with you in accommodating writers; you tell student support offices on your campus that you are an intentional and engaged program seeking to do the hard work of learning and then learning anew how best to serve students.
By curating campus and off-campus resources to pull from in considering your own programming and structures, you can help foster a campus culture of access where conversations about accessibility, disability, and equity are seen as central to the mission of your institution and to the retention of students.
In short, the gesture of writing a public-facing Accessibility Statement invites your consultants, your writers, your faculty, your staff, and your administrators into a conversation about how best to support all writers, including disabled writers.
What Are the Challenges of Writing an Accessibility Statement?
Of course, challenges exist in the work of fostering access. It might feel, at first, like making a public-facing statement on accessibility is a commitment to becoming an expert on the topic—but you needn’t be an expert. Disabled persons themselves are experts on their own needs and experiences—through assessment, you can ask writers what they need and you can take action to develop programming that meets those needs. Additionally, connect with your campus experts: build partnerships. As Dolmage (2017) reminds us, a communal and recursive environment is necessary to create productive, welcoming environments (p.151). You aren’t doing this work alone; there are folx on your own campus and beyond it who can be resources for you as you foster access.
Too often, student support services—including writing centers—are unsure of how much responsibility they bear in creating accessible programming. And much of this uncertainty comes from fears of what just “can’t” be done. These fears include but aren’t limited to: budgetary concerns about technological accommodations, a learning curve for understanding how your university engages accommodations, a need to reconfigure training and staff development to center accessibility, and a need to audit your center’s materials and presences to ensure accessibility. While these concerns are valid, so too is the need for this work to be done. Having conversations with disabled writers to learn their experiences or needs costs nothing. Developing professional relationships with campus offices who support disabled students costs nothing. Becoming more knowledgeable and fostering conversations about access with your consultants costs nothing. You can start this work today.
We urge you to begin this work with the intent to create better than the bare minimum of access/accommodation. We urge you to move beyond passing students off to other offices, waiting until problems (really, inequities) arise to think about changing your programming, possibilities, or points of entry. Too often, we create physically accessible spaces or adjust the font on a document and consider the work of access done. We can do better than doing the very least required of us. In the same way writing centers have worked tirelessly to reconsider pronoun use, develop antiracist tutoring strategies and position statements, and dismantle colonial power structures in our work, we can work to center access with the same enthusiasm and urgency.
Writing an Accessibility Statement is not the same as writing a pledge to have unlimited resources to reconfigure your training, programming, or technology; it is, instead, a commitment to doing the work you can do, now, with the resources you do have, to listening to disabled writers and really hearing their experiences and needs, and then to meeting the needs of writers head on instead of passing off disabled writers to other offices or leaving them without resources.
Before You Begin Writing…
Before making a public declaration of your commitment to accessibility, take an inventory of— and adjust, when necessary—the following items (keeping in mind that any static inventory—even this one—reflects a tempting desire to see a process as “done” or “complete” instead of alive and changing):
- Are the fonts and colors on your website accessible?
- Do you provide alt-text for images on your website or visual materials?
- Are you relying on flyers for advertising?
- If yes, are you including in each flyer a link to an accessible text version?
- Did you know that screen reading software can’t read flyers? Well, now you do! To ensure that visually impaired readers can access the content of your media materials, make sure you provide a secondary, more accessible format that’s easy to find.
- If yes, are you including in each flyer a link to an accessible text version?
- How accessible are your appointment scheduling practices?
- What forms of accessibility are you already considering in your consultation practice?
- Have you considered how you might address emotional or mental disabilities in your space? Or how you will address disabled persons themselves?
- Have you considered how to better converse with your consultants about the needs of disabled writers?
These are just questions to get you started. They represent a very basic inventory of items to consider before you begin writing an Accessibility Statement. If you want your statement to hold water, you’ll need to have considered the above—because implicit in each item is your commitment to (or disregard of) accessibility. (And how narrowly or broadly you’ve defined disability—checklists or audits tend to favor physical disabilities while ignoring the access needs of people with mental or emotional disabilities, such as quiet rooms for those with anxiety or overstimulation issues). For example, if your website’s font isn’t screen-reader friendly and its colors are low contrast, and if your scrolling images of happy consultants have no alt text, and if your scheduling link is buried under several cumbersome navigation click menus, and if the flyers you’re using to market your services can’t be read by the visually impaired, and if your only provided services are in-person, oral consultations in a noisy room…how seriously can you say that you value access? How do you think these oversights feel for writers who can’t access your services? How many writers haven’t come to your center or ours—because of ableist gatekeeping in the most mundane of our practices?
Beginning the Writing Process
Your statement doesn’t need to be more than a short paragraph, but that doesn’t mean it won’t take time or hard thinking to write! Here are some ways to get started in writing your statement.
- Reach out to campus or community resources and identify readers or resources for your statement.
- Consider that various offices or organizations may have different definitions of or ways of committing to access, and that you may experience conflicting opinions or values amongst readers. This is part of the challenge of building access.
- Create an Accessibility Group whose members will form a community to write the statement.
- Strive for diverse representation in this group, including disabled writers when possible.
- Allow all members of the group opportunities to define, shape, or rephrase the statement.
- Once you have a draft, share the draft with your campus and community partners, as well as disabled writers (if possible) on your campus.
- Seek input through assessment and other means, and adjust the statement accordingly.
Sample Accessibility Statement
The Writing Center at ABC University is committed to fostering accessibility in our consultations, in our tutor training, and in our engagement with campus writers. Working closely with the Campus Office for Disabilities, we want to ensure that all writers in our community have the accommodations and support necessary for a successful writing experience. We are dedicated to listening to disabled writers and centering their needs. If we are unable to immediately address a need, we will support our writers in locating the resources they require. We remain invested in the process of learning accessibility, and if you notice a lack of accessibility in our programming, website, or marketing, please let us know by submitting an anonymous form to us at insert link here.
Tips for Publicizing the Statement/Making Accessible Marketing Materials
- Make sure the statement is visible or easily accessible on your website – don’t make website visitors need to click three different pathways to find it. Remember: This is a value that you’re trying to make visible, not a policy you’re burying away. Plus, multiple clicks and obscure link pathways are burdensome for folx using assistive technology to navigate your website.
- Provide an easy-to-use, anonymous reporting structure in case someone notices inaccessibility in your materials. A link to a submittable form that will send to your writing center’s official email works well!
- Provide an email address for a contact person, like a director or associate director, so that folx with questions can easily ask them.
- Include a QR code that links to a document with accessibly formatted text if you plan to use flyers or visual media to publicize your statement.
- If you send a visual material like a flyer via email to publicize your statement, include a word document attachment of the text of your flyer or put the text in the body of the email so that visually impaired readers aren’t burdened by extra steps or lack of access.
Steps We’ve Taken
Like all of you, we’re in the process of learning. At Michigan State University, where Andrew earned his MA, and where Karen is an Associate Director of the Writing Center, here are some of the concrete items we’ve undertaken to foster access in our writing center:
Established and Ongoing
- Form an Accessibility Task Group
- Formalize relationship with campus disability services
- Provide professionalization and funding for center administrators and consultants to focus research and program development on accessibility
- Develop conference presentations on accessibility
- Apply for (and receive) grant money to fund a speaker series centered on accessibility and writing scholarship
- Create a credit-bearing course on writing centers and accessibility, to be taught by an associate director of the writing center
- Drafting the MSU Writing Center accessibility statement
- Auditing our website and media materials
- Developing assessment materials to foster conversation with disabled writers
- Developing guidelines for future flyers and media materials
- Establishing a standing committee in the writing center to address accessibility
- This committee includes directors, staff, consultants (both graduate level and undergraduate level), and faculty
We hope we’ve persuaded you to consider engaging with access within your writing center, and we hope you’ll write an Accessibility Statement so that your campus community can see that work articulated. Thinking about accessibility invites us to combine the theoretical and the practical in ways that make real change in the lives of our writers—and in the perspectives and future practices of our consultants and fellow campus colleagues. There’s much more to be said about accessibility in writing centers—whether it’s reconsidering appointment scheduling mechanisms, or seeking funding for distraction-free consultation rooms, or working with faculty on student writing accommodations, or any number of other things—but those are articles for another day! We encourage you to begin at the beginning, taking inventory of your writing center’s daily practices, making them accessible, and then telling your community the most important thing for them to hear: that you’re committed to this work, that you’re committed to fostering access, and that you’re going to keep learning.
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