Braving Disability in the Writing Center: A Review

Ezekiel Choffel

        The Peer Review, Volume 1, Issue 2, Fall 2017

When I think of the brave spaces described throughout this special issue, I am reminded that bravery isn’t always a choice; sometimes it is a personal state of being. The rhetoricity of these situations is driven home by the edited collection Writing Centers and Disability. Editors Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels have brought together a series of chapters that bring the body, but more specifically the disabled body, into conversations of writing center practice.

Separated by sections, based on themes such as narratives; case studies and methods; and policies for students with disabilities in the writing center, each section provides a unique perspective on the dirth of research between the body experiencing disability and the structures of the university that are at times supportive yet unknowledgeable as to the lived experience of disabilities.

One of the more important aspects of this edited collection, as a whole, is that it doesn’t favor one kind of disability over any other. There are examples of cognitive, emotional, physical, and other kinds of disabilities discussed throughout. What this provides readers is a broader lens through which to understand both the complexity of writing center spaces, often underfunded or ill-equipped to work with the range of disabilities their consultants/clients may have, and the daily impact various forms of disabilities can have on individual people.

By situating this edited collection first by narratives of writing center employees of differing levels of experience and expertise, Writing Centers and Disability sets the tone for investigating the personal while making space for others who are experiencing similar or differing experiences. These narratives actively bring the bodies of the authors to the theories of both disability studies and writing center theory. They challenge the super-crip narrative of overcoming and forever moving forward progress by complicating what progress means. The super-crip narrative, which originated in queer theory, seeks to understand multiple postionalities (which in this case are queer and disabled positionalities) in relation to each other. Specifically, super-crip means a disabled body that posses “super” abilities to overcome any obstacle, thus rendering the disability invisible.

In a simple, but masterful way, by beginning this edited collection with narratives, both the authors and editors set a decided tone as to how and in what ways disability is related to the work we do in writing centers. I cannot stress enough the effectiveness of this approach because it positions the onus on the structure of the university by way of the writing center to do more than just accommodate students with disabilities. It pushes these institutional structures to seek to understand (in)visible disabilities.

The second section builds on the momentum generated by the narratives of the first. There are nuts and bolts decisions about representation and discussions of disabilities, as well as moves to expand the location of disabilities in the writing center beyond a U.S. context. These case studies describe and provide examples of how to engage with students with disabilities who utilize writing center (or writing center like) resources in ways that maintain student autonomy. The authors of these chapters also use self-reflective moves to maintain the integrity of the research as well as the students about whom they write. While the goal here is to provide researchers with ways to humanize conversations about disability that have often been described as dehumanizing, there is also a move being made to include the reader in the researcher’s motivations and interest, thus humanizing both the research itself and the people involved.

Within these moves, the authors describe the often dehumanizing effect disabilities have on students and provide answers as to why some students embrace their disabilities, while others choose to hide them. These studies, while case specific, are applicable beyond the simpler context of writing center research. They are active demonstrations of the myriad of barriers students with disabilities face when in university contexts that also provide ways that the writing center can intervene to reduce or remove particular barriers such as voice to text recognition, hearing impairment, and the emotional labor involved in carrying one’s disability despite it not being visible.

In many ways, as I was reading this edited collection, I began to understand the first and second sections setting up the third section, which focuses on how writing center policies and procedures can accommodate disabilities in ways that go beyond the ADA. Yet again, this collection pushes beyond a U.S. context and provides examples from the U.K. and South Africa. These perspectives are absolutely necessary because they resituate disability as more than just a U.S. issue. These chapters specifically work within the frameworks of given institutions and demonstrate how writing centers can develop policies alongside the student populations themselves, thus giving greater agency to the students as well as a pedagogical position from which the writing center can advocate. For U.S. readers, the additional international context may be especially useful to broaden the scope of what it means to be a student/client/director with disabilities.

With all of this said, I would like to specifically focus now on what makes this collection an absolute necessary read for anyone studying disabilities or writing center theory. Writing Center and Disability can be read in two ways. The first way of reading this text is as a series of articles that provide a theoretical understanding of what it means to be working with disability, both from the perspective of a student as well as a consultant/director. However, the second and possibly one of the most important inclusions I have seen in a collection like this, are the “Practical Applications” pages following each works cited. The “Practical Applications” pages move this edited collection beyond the realm of theoretical and into the realm of applicable.

While both theory and practice are necessary, oftentimes it seems articles or books cover one or the other. Writing Centers and Disability uniquely provides a series of pages that could essentially be turned into a guide manual for consultants to utilize at all times, but specifically when working with a student with disabilities. As a student who has 10 years of writing center experience, seeing a few, page long easy to follow, series of applications and questions contextually specific to the article I just read really makes the difference for me. This form allows readers to interact with this text on multiple levels and provides nearly any writing center practitioner a place from which to start engagement.

While this review may not follow the typical style of offering critiques of the contents within, there is a reason for this. Writing Centers and Disability is one of the first theory and practice collections focusing on disability and the writing center available, and the importance of this cannot be missed. Sure, some of the narratives might provide too much information about the individual, but this is an act of bravery. Sure, some of the case studies may utilize language that disability or writing center studies may deem politically incorrect, but in each case the author explains this specific language choice and more often than not, it mirrors the language used by the study’s participants and gives the participants both agency and the ability to identify themselves.

I cannot stress enough the potential impact this text will have on writing center theory in the future. The dual nature of guidebook and theoretical exploration makes this collection, and this unique situating will cause any reader to pause and reflect both on their positions as writing center practitioners and on the acts of everyday bravery our clients practice. Again, while this review focuses on the positive aspects of this collection and strays away from critique, this is because this collection exemplifies what it means to be brave. Other folks may critique this collection for what is not there, but here in this moment, I believe it is important to understand the foundation Writing Centers and Disabilities is building for anyone who comes to the center with disabilities, looking to further understand their own disabilities, or seeks to research how disabilities function within academic space.