When I first began working in the Writing Center, I was pretty astonished at the “types” of consultations that begin to appear over and over again: the brainstorming consultation, the revision consultation, the personal statement or application consultation, the ELL consultation, and finally the disability consultation. Every type seems to have its own unique mood and methodology, and now I find myself stepping into the rhythm of each writing project with a sense that I’ve heard this melody before. This is perhaps because I myself, like all other writing center consultants, have also experienced the writing process over and over again at each of its stages. But I also have experienced a different process, separate from writing, which is nonetheless deeply ingrained into my own writing center rhythms. My process is the process of requesting disability accommodation, not for my clients, but for myself. “Hello,” I say, “welcome to the writing center. Usually we go ahead and ask you where you would like to sit. But I do things a little differently. I am hard of hearing, and I need a more quiet space so that I can hear you and help you. Would you mind following me?” The students are always very accepting – they smile, they say, “that’s okay,” and they usually take the trouble to speak up when asked. I’ve never had trouble with this step in the process— each student I’ve worked with so far has been as eager to help me as they were eager to be helped.
So when I had my first real “disability consultation,” a meeting with a student who also has a disability, I decided to imitate my past clients. I smiled, I said simply, “that’s okay,” and I did my best to accommodate her. But here’s the thing: she had no smooth, practiced rhythm in which she could ask for help, and as a result I had no easy way to respond to her. She came into the writing center talking a mile a minute, visibly nervous, embarrassed, and perhaps even mildly contentious. After expressing her frustration with the assignment, she winced, and spoke even faster than she had before. She named her disability so quickly that I didn’t quite catch what she had said, and asked for extra time. I explained that she had to arrange a special appointment in advance to get the extra time. She appeared even more distressed. Nothing was going right.
At this point I reminded myself how much time it took me to be comfortable with admitting to my own disability, with asking for accommodation in an academic setting, let alone with a stranger in a writing center. When I went to the writing center at my undergraduate institution, I never admitted to being hard of hearing. Speaking disability out loud was an act of bravery on my client’s part, from my perspective, so I tried my best to reward her and turn this into a positive experience. I told her she was accommodating me already, since she was speaking at a nice clear volume. I requested that she slow her speech a little to help me understand her, and in return I would do my best to work with her for 45 minutes, and after that I would take her to the front desk myself so that she would know how to make arrangements in the future. I said that I was happy to be working with her. And I was— she was a smart, imaginative, hard-working student, whose disability appeared to be masking a run-of-the-mill mishandling of paragraph structure. Once we got over the difficult process of requesting accommodation, and once we each had our disability cards out on the table, it was a consultation much like any other, albeit one that clearly needed additional time. I told her she should feel free to ask for an extended consultation, and that I would be happy to work with her again. I genuinely hope that I get the chance to do so.