This semester, the Undergraduate Writing Center at UT Austin has introduced a series of workshops designed to help consultants better address the needs of our university's diverse student body. I attended the first workshop, the disABILITY Advocate Program administered by Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD).
SSD is currently housed in UT’s Division of Diversity and Community Engagement rather than in an academic or medical division. This residency reflects a growing trend in accommodation services—the determination to understand disability through a minority model. This newer model contrasts older medical perspectives, which considered disability a problem that needed a cure, or even slightly more recent social models that encourage changes in environment to make spaces more accessible. In disability advocacy today, the question is no longer just how to make classrooms, campuses and centers accessible. Instead, experts focus on accommodation and INCLUSION, practices that welcome all forms of diversity by fostering what SSD calls “meaningful participation and a sense of belonging” for each student.
SSD Assistant Director Emily Shryock helped participants to become better informed and to develop strategies to facilitate inclusive environments for students with disabilities, whether in the classroom, at the writing center, or around campus. She suggested that we might advocate best by becoming more aware of the variety of forms students with disabilities might encounter. She also urged adoption of more careful language for describing or asking about these experiences. Emily reminded us that students may have received diagnoses at birth or just in the last few weeks; accommodations may be provided for mobility, psychological, medical, and learning disabilities, among others. As a result, disability is not always visible in ways we come to expect from accessible parking signs, Paralympic athletes, or sensationalizing media narratives. In fact, about three-quarters of the students with disabilities that the university accommodates have ADHD or a psychological or learning disability, all conditions that are not immediately visible. Students may also have disabilities that are more fluctuating, causing them to have different needs at different moments in time. Advocating for students with disabilities requires instructors, consultants, and peers to be more attuned to these specificities of experience.
After the workshop, my head was brimming with ideas for how to implement some of these strategies in my own classroom. There, I have the benefit of a full semester to develop and sustain relationships with students who may need accommodations. But how do we incorporate this training into the world of the writing center?
In fact, the Center’s non-directive approaches are especially well situated for students with disabilities. At UT, the writing center operates under the assumption that students are the experts on their own writing processes; we ask them to clarify these processes and to identify strategies that work best for them, and then we offer them tools to complement their own approaches. This questioning is not just a Socratic exercise. I believe strongly that our best tool as consultants is not our extensive training in writing, editing, and pedagogy (although those skills certainly come in handy!). We are the best at what we do when we take seriously the notion that we actually know very little, that we need to continue asking questions of burgeoning writers to assist them as they become their own critical thinkers and communicators.
Similarly, one of Emily’s key suggestions was that we should always ask students with disabilities “how, not if” they accomplish a particular task. When visitors to the writing center choose to disclose disabilities or request accommodations, our first instinct needs to be asking a version of the questions we should already be asking all students: “What revision strategies work best for you?” “How would you feel most comfortable approaching this revision process?” “How can I best help to facilitate your work here?” This practice takes any accommodations a student might need seriously while remaining convinced of the student’s ability to guide the consultation.
My workshop peers and I were not meant to leave our two-hour training as experts in disability advocacy. Instead, we received a valuable reminder that our task as consultants and would-be advocates is to root our contributions in non-directive approaches that grant all students agency over their own intellectual development.