Talking Disability and Accessibility in the Composition Classroom

Like many instructors, my composition students generally finish the semester making a multimodal/multimedia presentation of their topics to the rest of the class. I love this assignment; it’s creative, it’s real-world, it’s student-driven, it’s everything I love in an assignment.

Let me explain the assignment a little: my students deal with “local” issues in their composition projects, defined for my classes as something that affects a community they identify as members of. This definition generally results in more specific and interesting topics. The students do research, make arguments, and write papers about their chosen issues throughout the semester. Then, toward the end of the semester, I have them pitch a “real world” multimodal project that can “get something done” about the issue to the rest of the class. They then choose groups according to which project ideas they want to work on for the rest of the semester. It’s chaos, but it works. Then, they make their projects in their groups, and on the last day they present the results to the rest of the class.

Screenshot of closed caption settings in the YouTube app.
Closed caption settings in the YouTube app
Screenshot by the author.

Many choose to make YouTube videos, podcast episodes, or other audio/visual material. This is all very well and good, except (as I point out to my students) their instructor is hard of hearing and relies on captioning or transcripts to accurately understand recorded audio.

This week in class we were talking about effective presentation strategies. They had a chapter from their textbook, which gave some perfunctory discussion of accessible design strategies. But as I thought about how to teach this, one phrase was echoing in my head:

Accessible design is good design. Good design is accessible design.

There is, honestly, no difference between good design and accessible design, especially in a class that focuses on rhetoric. If the goal of rhetoric is to reach an audience effectively, accessible design is necessary. Not an afterthought, not an accommodation to make when and only when you’re made aware of a need, but a core tenet of rhetoric and a necessary consideration at every stage of the composition process.

But most people don’t think about or are even aware of the kinds of considerations that people who are differently abled than themselves might need, simply because they’ve never had to. And I do mean “differently abled” here, not as a coy politically correct term, but as an accurate and precise term, because I’m not talking about a divide between disabled and not disabled (do such people actually exist?), but the actual diversity of ability. For example, obviously, given my hard of hearing status, I tend to focus on design features that accommodate my own disability and privilege text or visual modes over auditory; however, I should be (and on good days I am) aware that for some people processing auditory information is preferable to visual or textual material.

My teaching advantage here is this: I’m comfortable talking about my disabilities. I recognize in part this is a function of privilege, because I don’t really suffer any discrimination from them (except by medical insurance companies, who frequently don’t cover my needs), and most of the time I can pass as “abled” and not have to ask for any accommodations, so it’s not really taking any risk for me to talk openly about them. But it’s also something I can use to my (and other people’s) advantage.

Photo of hearing aids
The author’s hearing aids
Photo by the author

So, during our discussion of inclusive, accessible design in class, I demonstrated how my disabilities might affect a class presentation. I started with a simple question: Do I look like a disabled person to you?

“But of course I am,” I explained, having obtained the expected answer (as I said, I pass as abled). I took off my glasses and stood at the back of the room and attempted to read the board, a task at which I failed marvelously (the chalk boards looked like mere smudges to me–I couldn’t even tell anything was written on them). I took out one of my hearing aids and showed it to the class. I explained to them that it is, at its core, just a microphone (two, actually, for directionality) and a speaker. I asked them about the sound quality they might expect if they used their cell phones to record audio off a television–this made sense as to why I might need captions on recorded media even though most days I can understand their speech in class (with some embarrassing exceptions).

I followed my demonstration of my own disabilities with some questions about how my students benefit from the accommodations that I require to fully participate. I asked them: “By show of hands, how many of you prefer to watch things with captions on?” In each of my four sections, it was at least a third of the class; some, merely by the question, volunteered reasons that have nothing to do with disability, thus demonstrating the universal benefits of accessible design (I deliberately did not actually follow up with “Why?” unless they started to answer unprompted–that would be Not Ok). What is necessary for me to participate is beneficial for others as well.

Photo of the author's glasses, an example of assistive techology
Some disabilities, like the author’s nearsightedness, are so common that we don’t even think of them as disabilities. But they still require assistive technology and some consideration for accessibility–even if that technology and those considerations are so mundane we don’t even see them when they’re, um, right in front of our faces.
Photo of the author’s glasses, taken by the author.

Take-aways

1) We need to be comfortable talking about disability in concrete, lived experiences in the classroom, because our students have lived in a culture that views disability as just things like wheelchairs or that hides disability as a separate space of “accommodations”. How you reach that comfort zone depends on the resources you have available to you based on your lived experience, including emotional resources (don’t out yourself if you don’t want to–for instance, I chose not to disclose that I also have mental health stuff going on, since that wasn’t useful to the discussion and is a more sensitive thing for me). To become better, more compassionate and circumspect people, we all need contact with experiences different from our own, and as instructors that is exactly what we can do for our students. But make sure you aren’t requiring students to share their experiences if you don’t want to.

2) We need to accompany our discussions of design and composition with discussions of accessibility. We need to be building it into the assignment from the start, including it in the rubric, whatever it takes so that accessibility isn’t an afterthought but a deliberate design consideration as much as other constraints like time limits. We shouldn’t accept a podcast assignment without a transcript or outline to accompany it, for instance. Accessible design shouldn’t be added in when we are made aware of someone in our audience needing an accommodation, but rather it should be included in the planning stages before we’ve even met our audience, and we need to model and require that for our students too.

One thought on “Talking Disability and Accessibility in the Composition Classroom

  1. The place I work at has hired interns with the task to transcribe content. I’ve jumped in as well to transcribe 17 videos after 1 day of interviews with business leaders.

    Granted, it is a constant fight over “what looks better?” or “Why do it at all?”. Very staggering. Great post, hope they learn a lot out of it.

    Like

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