Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Teaching Is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi

Article excerpt

Accommodation is the most basic act and art of teaching. It is not the exception we sometimes make in spite of learning, but rather the adaptations we continually make to promote learning. Accommodation often has a more narrow definition in the academy, appearing notably in the syllabus. In required disability policies, universities often state that students can request "reasonable accommodation," drawing from the legal language of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This article takes up these intersecting issues: academic accommodations, disability, and syllabi. The first section of the essay discusses contemporary theories of disability to retheorize accommodation as the process of teaching itself. Disability studies provides a key lens through which to view accessibility, which is the precondition to all learning. In the second section of the essay, I apply my reasoning to the syllabus as a specific example. By using disability as the starting point for course and document design, I pose strategies for universally designing writing classrooms.

Moving from Accommodation as the Exception to Accommodation as the Rule

Disability law first began affecting American universities in the late twentieth century with Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and its expansion by the ADA in 1990. Before these statutes, a small number of the three thousand US colleges provided support for students with disabilities: a few were dedicated to disabled students such as Gallaudet, a few dozen developed services for students with disabilities due to the influx of disabled World War II veterans, and a handful like Berkeley created accommodations in response to student activists (Lissner). Under the new legislation, students with disabilities could not be barred or discriminated against based on disability, and today, 11 percent of students in the United States undergraduate population report having a disability (US Department of Education).

Legal backlash to the broadened access offered by the ADA has been so strong, though, that Congress passed the 2008 Amendments Act to stop courts from drastically limiting the scope of the ADA and the term disability, a trend described by legal scholar Elizabeth Emens ("Disabling"). In addition, the law's protection from explicit discrimination does not mean people are fully accommodated. The ADA states that disabled people can request "reasonable accommodation," if modifications do not "fundamentally alter the nature of" the program or impose "undue hardship" on the organization (ADA). The language focuses on the effects of accommodations for the institution, not the individual, and hardship andfundamental alteration underscore the threat they are seen to pose. Sushil Oswal notes that "reasonable" does not amount to "equal," and Amy Vivaldi argues that the law is treated "at best as minimum requirements" (Kerschbaum et al.).

Students today must pass substantial hurdles to qualify for accommodations, initiating a medical and bureaucratic process, undertaking extra steps throughout their educations, and possibly outing themselves as having a disability. Once they receive accommodations, they face considerable social stigma. Ramona Paetzold et al. studied students' perceptions of disabled people, specifically those taking longer test time, and found that "granting an accommodation was seen as less fair than not granting one" (27). Many instructors view accommodations negatively as well. Disability scholar Linda Feldmeier White explains her initial attitude toward accommodation: "Before I had read much about learning disabilities . . . I couldn't see what might constitute reasonable accommodation . . . since learning is the work that college students do"; she soon realized "this argument depends on a too-narrow definition of learning and intelligence" (Brueggemann et al. 372). Before I was exposed to disability theory, I saw myself as the pedagogical authority in the classroom, and making changes felt threatening to my too-narrow definition of best practice. …

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