For many years, Praxis regularly featured “consultant spotlight” columns – brief interviews where an individual writing center worker was invited to reflect on their background as a writer, their consulting style, and their experiences in their home writing center.
In conjunction with the recent issue on “Dis/Ability in the Writing Center,” I asked the Praxis editors if they would be interested in a consultant spotlight column focused on a writing center worker who experiences disability in some way. They graciously said yes, and so a few months ago I sat down for a conversation with Lizzie Picherit, a graduate student in the department of English at the University of Texas at Austin and consultant in UT’s University Writing Center. Lizzie, who is hard of hearing, offered her thoughts on disability, writing, and consulting in this tremendously productive conversation.
Elizabeth (Lizzie) Picherit
University of Texas at Austin
How long have you worked in UT’s University Writing Center?
I’ve worked in the Writing Center for one school year. I worked at my undergraduate writing center for a school year, too – at Smith College.
What’s your job title?
I am an Assistant Instructor.
What’s your field of study?
Nineteenth-century transatlantic literature, disability studies, and media studies.
During the time we’ve spent in the UT writing center, I’ve heard you describe yourself with phrases like “hard of hearing” and “disabled” but not necessarily “d/Deaf.” Could you talk about your use of these terms and your relationship to disability?
I identify as disabled because for me disability is this wonderful, flexible term that covers not just being hard of hearing but being in the world where people expect a certain normative sensory experience, so when you don’t match that expectation you fall short.
I identify, maybe, as little-d deaf, but not capital-D Deaf. For one thing, I was never given the opportunity to be part of that community. I went to an oralist school in California when I was little. My mother’s an English professor, and she put all this emphasis on speaking and writing and I didn’t have an alternative to that growing up. I worked so hard when I was growing up to learn English. I had to go through hours of speech therapy to get to where I am now, to where I can pass. And I won’t lie, I’m pretty bitter about that. I do want to learn ASL, but I found myself resistant to that idea because I feel like I’ve already paid for entering a world that I don’t belong to. I’ve already had to work really hard to be hearing. So I feel like it’s not fair that I have to work equally hard to learn another language to learn how to be Deaf. So that’s why I identify as disabled, because it’s this nice intermediary between the two. Which isn’t to say that I disavow sign language or Deafness in any way, because I do want to make that part of my life. I just sometimes feel resistant.
I see disability as a critical framework. I use the way I hear to inform the way I interpret texts. I do a lot of work on sound studies. I see it as such an integral part of who I am that I’d much rather be hard of hearing than be hearing. I will spend time in my off time without my hearing aids on, because I like the way I hear naturally – which is muffled and low-keyin terms of volume. I find that really relaxing. When I put my hearing aids in it’s work time. I guess if you want to boil it down to glasses and 20/20 vision, when I have my hearing aids in my hearing, on the decibel level, matches a hearing person. But the problem is that I miss out on certain sounds, so I have to re-construct conversations based on context. I’ve had a lot of friends accuse me of being psychic because I could always guess what they next thing they were going to say was. It’s because I had to really learn the patterns of conversation. I’m really good at guessing what word people are thinking of because that’s what I do in my head when I listen.
Have you disclosed to students in the writing center that you are hard of hearing and, if so, how have they reacted?
At first I didn’t disclose it at all, and I figured I’d ask students to repeat things because the nature of my disability is very flexible. If I want to I could pass, because my speech is not marked in any way. I don’t have a deaf accent (at least not to my knowledge). So when I interact with someone there’s no way they can tell that I’m hard of hearing unless – and this is so loaded – I make a “mistake” or mishear something. But that’s the only giveaway. And that can be mistaken for a normative experience – I just ask them to repeat themselves. So sometimes I didn’t disclose it.
And then it got to the point where the UT writing center got more and more crowded and there was more background noise. So I figured I would just tell everyone that I was hard of hearing in order to communicate with them. I established a script that said “hey, just so you know, what this means is I might ask you to repeat yourself a few times, I’d ask you to speak up, to project your voice a little bit so that I can make sure that we’re communicating as clearly as possible.” I frame it as: if you help me, I’ll be able to help you.
Occasionally I would have a student come in and I would say “I’m hard of hearing” and the student would pause and then look around like they were disoriented. I think it’s because they didn’t know what “hard of hearing” meant. In some cases this was because English was a second language for them. So I’d rephrase and say “I have trouble hearing and you need to speak louder.” And in most cases once I explained it that was fine, but in some cases I would explain it and then the student would say “Well, just look at my paper and go over the grammar.” Sometimes I think it was just resistance to having a conversation rather than a resistance to speaking up. I never had a totally negative reaction, which is really nice because I was expecting that. I’ve occasionally had reactions from students as a teacher where students have felt like they don’t want to have a teacher who can’t hear them speak in class. That’s only happened to me a couple times but it’s been pretty disheartening. I was expecting that as a writing consultant, but it didn’t happen.
Have students ever disclosed a disability to you?
Yes, they have. And I’ve really had to scale myself down because if someone discloses a disability to me I’m like: a community member! We are together in this! Whatever you need you tell me! That’s my impulse. And I’ve had one student, recently, take advantage of that. And it made me sad. It’s made me scale back that response to maintain my own boundaries of professionalism.
I had another experience where someone came in, disclosed that they had ADD and I thought, “Oh, I’ll be able to handle this, this will go really well.” But I have no experience with ADD. It was extremely hard for me to sit there for two hours, which is the time the student required. I got tired – of listening. Just listening. Not to her – just listening. My energy went down, and my ability to interact with her effectively also went down. That was a revelatory experience.
How does your disability impact your writing center work, if at all?
It makes me really aware of clarity, both on the written level and on the spoken level. I find that, often, I have a huge affinity for people who speak English as a second language. It might be a very superficial affinity, but I had to learn English as a small child. I didn’t hear English the way everyone else did – I heard Lizzie language. In high school I spent a lot of time with a dictionary of idioms learning idiomatic English because it’s not something you have if you can’t really hear conversational English and then you’re reading a bunch of Victorian novels. So in the writing center when I talk to someone who has English as a second language I tend to be able to anticipate the idiomatic phrases that they’re not going to be able to understand.
Could you talk about your consulting style?
It’s very similar to my teaching persona, which is aggressively cheerful. I’m a very shy person and I have a really hard time introducing myself to people, and one of the things I like about teaching and working in a writing center is you have to do that so many times that it gets easier. So I guess I have a very accepting, cheerful, friendly persona. I try to make students feel comfortable enough that they can speak up with me, which is actually a pretty tall order for a lot of students. I think for a lot of students speaking softly is a sign of respect for an authority figure. I try to maintain some authority because I’m a woman and I’m young and I work in a writing center, while I also come to students as a friendly presence and hope that they can speak up and communicate with me.
How has having a disability affected the way that you write?
I’m actually in the process of learning another spoken language, French, which is a bit of a trial because I have to learn how to lip read in French. I’m watching a lot of movies and I’m reading a lot. After my speech therapy, which I did not enjoy, I basically read. And reading is silent. That’s what’s awesome about reading. The way I write is very much tied to the idea that it’s a silent activity. And the way that I write is definitely informed by the English as a second language thing. I tend to borrow heavily from styles that I’ve read rather than having my own style.
Finally, are certain aspects of writing center work more, or less, accessible than others?
I would say that writing centers need to have separate spaces where disabled people can meet and communicate, which is really useful if you haveany kind of attention deficit related disability, any kind of learning disability, or like me, a sound related disability.
Thanks to Lizzie for chatting with me! I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation.