DISABILITIES IN THE WRITING CENTER

Rebecca Day Babcock
The University of Texas of the Permian Basin
babcock_r@utpb.edu

Introduction

Since writing centers serve communities of teachers and learners, they will inevitably serve people with disabilities. Ever since the 1980s, writing center workers have explored the issue of tutoring students with disabilities, people who may require different learning environments and may have learning needs that interact in complex ways with standard tutoring practices. In order to make accessing this scholarship easier, I have read and analyzed all the available articles in the literature, and have presented two tables listing the studies by method and disability (Table I), and by categorizing the resulting suggestions by disability (Table II). Articles that mention more than one disability are categorized as “various disabilities” while articles referring to individuals with more than one disability are classified as “multiple disabilities.” The synopses of the suggestions are necessarily brief. The point of this article is not to summarize or synthesize all sources, but to present a quick ready resource. Those who would like more details are encouraged to read the original articles.

I will only go into detail for those articles based on actual research rather than lore or anecdote. Scholars have argued compellingly that writing center practice should be guided by evidence gathered through systematic research. In Researching the Writing Center, Terese Thonus and I argue that writing center practice should be based on evidence gathered through systematic research rather than lore or anecdote. Other scholars have investigated the possibilities for RAD research as opposed to anecdote or lore (Driscoll and Perdue).

Lore and anecdote are based on remembering events with no documentation or guiding questions up front. With no evidence (videorecording, audiorecording, transcripts, detailed notes) memories may be faulty and even construct a rosier picture than what really happened. Of course if practitioners are going in to a tutoring session with a reflective attitude and questions to be answered, and then write in a log or journal about their experiences, they are already doing teacher-research. Their results are no longer anecdotes, but research findings. I am not advocating a strict adherence to Evidence-Based studies however. That is why I include all studies in the table analysis. Of course articles based on personal experience are valuable and offer practitioners crucial information about tutees of difference. I have chosen to go into detail about the handful of empirical studies that have been conducted simply to further the project of evidence-based practice, considering as evidence only those studies that contain systematic collection and analysis of data. Serving students with disabilities provides a challenge and an opportunity for people working in writing centers.

As for the methods represented by these studies, the most common is the anecdote, a remembered personal experience. This method consists of the reporting of past tutoring sessions but does not include systematic data gathering or research questions. Interestingly, some articles do not specify any methods at all, but rather proceed through an omniscient third-person narrator with no reference to past published scholarship nor to personal experience. For those articles that rely on years of experience tutoring the group in question, rather than a few isolated tutorials. I have classified as personal experience. First person account refers to a person who has the disability in question and reports on it. Other less common—and self-explanatory-- methods are bibliography and internet and library research. I consider qualitative and quantitative studies as the most trustworthy as to application and generalization of suggestions. Other types of studies (personal experience, anecdote) may give conclusions but may be vague about how those conclusions were reached. Qualitative and quantitative studies’ data gathering and analysis are more systematic and fit in with the new movement in writing center studies known as evidence-based practice. Properly constructed studies’ conclusions are directly linked through methods, evidence and analysis. For more on categorizing types of writing center research, see Liggett, Jordan, and Price.  

Table 1: Articles by disability, methods and suggestions

most common types of disability

According to a 2008 report from the United States Government Accountability Office, the most commonly reported type of disability among US college students was mental, emotional, or psychiatric illness or depression (24%). The second most common was Attention Deficit Disorder (19%), with mobility impairment coming in third (15%). When we compare the types of disabilities actually reported by students to the types of articles being written, we see a discrepancy. The two most common disabilities in the writing center literature are deafness and learning disability. But these disabilities accounted for only 6% (Hearing Impairment, which includes deaf and hard-of-hearing people), and 9% for learning disabilities, including dyslexia in the 2008 report. Types of disability reported do not remain static, however. In the 2000 and 2004 reports, mobility impairment was the most common disability reported among college students, with mental illnesses coming in second both years, and “health impairment or problem” coming in third. In any case, the types of articles written do not reflect the types of disabilities writing center workers are statistically most likely encounter. Out of the articles in this analysis, 37% deal with Learning Disability and 21% deal with deafness, while less than 2% (one article each) deal with mental illness or physical disability specifically. The material on mobility impairment is a paragraph from a textbook that is 25 years old. I could find no articles that made mention of ADD/ADHD², the second most commonly reported disability among college students for the last year that we have data. 

Table 2: suggestions by disability

suggestions in table 2 represent all those mentioned in more than one article or for more than one disability

tutoring suggestions in detail, based on research

The suggestions above, in Table II, are a mixture of methods. Below I enumerate in detail the suggestions based on qualitative and quantitative studies. These discussions are limited to the research available. For instance, I do not discuss hard-of-hearing tutees in the section on deafness, simply because studies of this population have yet to be conducted.

Deafness

Rebecca Babcock studied D/deaf⁴ students in the writing center (“Research-Based”; “Interpreted”; Tell) using a grounded-theory approach including qualitative methods of observation and interview. All the tutoring sessions with D/deaf tutees she observed took place through an interpreter, and she found that attention to this dynamic is important. The tutor should address the tutee, not the interpreter⁵, and the tutee should be consulted about the ideal seating arrangements In other words, ask the tutee where she prefers everyone to sit. The results of this research also show that D/deaf tutees may need more help with reading, paraphrasing and summarizing than hearing tutees. Also, Deaf culture finds indirectness rude, and some Deaf people may be confused or frustrated by non-direct tutoring techniques. Although it may seem obvious, there is no need to read aloud with D/deaf tutees. If you want to read together, read the paper with a pencil in your hand and develop signals to point out errors, confusing parts, etc. If you want to tell the tutee something while you are reading, direct her attention to the interpreter before you begin speaking. She can’t read and “hear” at the same time, since she does both with her eyes. If you are interested in Deaf culture, get a book on the topic such as Inside Deaf Culture by Carol A. Padden and Tom L. Humphries or Introduction to American Deaf Culture by Thomas K. Holcomb rather than wasting the tutee’s tutoring time with questions about deafness. Attend to grammatical concerns to the extent that the tutee is interested. The difference between D/deaf and hearing students in this regard is that D/deaf students may work more on the type of descriptive grammar usage—things like verb tense and article use—for which hearing students have native speaker intuition. 

Dyslexia

Jennifer Wewers conducted a qualitative study at Oberlin College where she surveyed an unspecified number of writing tutors and five dyslexic students. She was an undergraduate peer tutor at the time. She asked the tutors what they knew about dyslexia and asked the dyslexic students how tutors could best help them. Wewers found that tutors knew little about dyslexia except for folk knowledge gleaned from the media, most of it stereotypical and unscientific such as dyslexics switch letters around when reading. In fact, dyslexic tutees may have trouble decoding words and be more reliant on context when reading. When writing they may have trouble both at the mechanical and discourse levels. Based on the interviews with dyslexic students, she suggested that tutors be flexible: “certain assumptions about how we expect a tutoring session to be conducted may need to be revised” (p. 233). For instance, tutors reading the paper aloud to dyslexic writers may not work since they may have listening comprehension issues. In addition these writers may need more time to answer questions and tutors should rephrase their explanations if the tutee does not seem to understand. Tutors may also need to deal with dyslexic students’ lateness or disorganization. The dyslexic writers suggested that tutors meet their problems head on—but with tact. If a writer was comfortable talking about ideas, the tutor could take notes for the student as ideas emerged. Tutors could also point out specific places where the paper seemed disorganized or incoherent. Tutors could also analyze a model paper along with the tutee. As for grammar, spelling and mechanics, dyslexic students needed specific help. Tutors can ask if they would like specific errors pointed out and then give direct advice on how to correct them.

Learning Disability

Kiedaisch and Dinitz (“Learning”) did a quantitative study of tutoring sessions and collected 376 post-conference surveys of tutors and tutees in their writing center. They found students with learning disabilities rated their sessions lower than any other group. The writers wished that they had more time in each session; the tutors of students who didn’t disclose their disabilities reported feeling frustrated, while their tutees reported the need for more precise assistance, such as, “pointing out more specifically the structure changes needed” (91-92). From this study, we learn the importance for students with learning disabilities to disclose their conditions. Kiedaisch and Dinitz advocated more training to allow tutors to identify these individuals and to that end invited a panel of LD writers to speak to their tutor-training classes and recommended that other writing centers do the same.

Pragmatic Impairment

Babcock (“When”) studied a tutoring session in which the tutee appeared to have pragmatic impairment.⁶ People with pragmatic impairment tend to not understand the unwritten rules of conversation, such as if a tutor asks about a story the tutee has read, the reason is to generate ideas for the paper, not because the tutor is interested in the story. PI is not a disability in itself, but is found in association with various conditions and disabilities including, but not limited to, Asperger’s syndrome, autism, learning disability, traumatic brain injury and attention deficit hyperactivity disorders. Tutors can be on the lookout for pragmatic impairment by observing if tutees take statements and questions extremely literally or use words in ways that seem wrong or strange from a semantic or syntactic standpoint. An impaired person may frustrate the tutor, or even appear sassy or give odd answers to questions. It’s important to remember that the person is not trying to be difficult or resistant but simply has difficulties communicating. With an impaired person, you need to be more direct in your explanations of what you want the tutee to do and why you are asking particular questions. Some people with PI have trouble with words, with retrieving them or sometimes they use an incorrect word or use a correct word incorrectly. In this case the tutor should offer up the word the tutee is looking for or reformulate the utterance correctly. You can also try using an Illocutionary Force Indicating Device (IFID; a type of metadiscourse). If you are offering a suggestion, say, “This is just a suggestion.” If you are asking questions to help the tutee revise the paper, say, “I am asking you these questions to help you think of ideas of what to put in your paper.” This may seem obvious, but to a learner with PI it is not.

General Comments

I invite the reader to consult the tables I have concocted for specific advice and practices. Here are some general comments, gleaned from both types of studies, the empirical and anecdotal.

  • Due to mobility and accessibility issues, disabled students may be late for tutoring sessions or may need more time. Try to be flexible.
  • Disability is not a secret or a shame. You can talk about it freely and comfortably while maintaining appropriate confidentiality.
  • Ask all tutees if they have any special learning or communication needs or preferences.
  • For LD and dyslexic students, lack of information and disclosure appear to result in frustration for both tutor and tutee.

Needed Research

As can be seen from the above tables and commentary, there is a true need for more research on disabilities in the writing center. There are no articles at all on the third most common disability among college students (ADD), and articles on the two most common disabilities (mental illness and physical impairment) are scant and far between. Empirical research needs to be done in the writing center context with all these populations, but specifically with mentally ill students, blind students, or autistic students, just to name a few. And while it’s important to study tutees, there are no published studies whatsoever about tutors or directors with disabilities. I encourage members of the field to take what I’ve found and use it as leverage to propel ourselves forward into this crucial topic.

Notes

  1.  Faerm and Weaver both call their method “case study” but these do not actually qualify as formal case studies since they did not begin their investigations with specific research questions. They are more accurately classified as anecdote.
  2. Dyslexia is one sub-type of learning disability, as are similar disorders of writing, math and “learning disorder not otherwise specified.” All these are now categorized under Specific Learning Disorders rather than learning disability in the DSM-5 (“Highlights”).
  3. Please note that according to the DSM-5, ADD is no longer a diagnosis. AD/HD is classed in a new category called “Neurodevelopmental Disorders” (“Highlights”).
  4. In the literature, deaf is used to represent auditory deafness and Deaf to represent cultural deafness. D/deaf is used to include both, and here I choose to use deaf as a neutral term. Although many scholars and Deaf people see the Deaf as a cultural and social minority rather than a disabled group, they are covered under the ADA.
  5. Since no sessions in the study were conducted without an interpreter I am not able to comment on this practice; it is an open avenue for future researchers.
  6. The student was not diagnosed with pragmatic impairment but rather with a learning disability that “…In the DSM-5…is called ‘social (pragmatic) communication disorder’” (“Highlights”).

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