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Zdenek, Sean. Centering Disability Studies in Composition and Technical Communication. CE, May 2020. Posted 08/28/2020.

Zdenek, Sean. “Transforming Access and Inclusion in Composition Studies and Technical Communication.” College English 82.5 (2020): 536-44. Print.

Writing in a special edition of College English on “Transdiciplinary Connections in Composition Studies and Technical and Professional Communication,” Sean Zdenek argues for the transformational effects of disability studies on issues of access and inclusion in both fields. Zdenek cites scholarship from both composition studies (CS) and technical and professional communication (TPC) to argue that they share the goal of moving beyond both “add-and-stir” methods of addressing disability and the view of access as synonymous with “consumption” (537, 539). Central to both areas, Zdenek proposes, is disruption of norms in which disability is the marked condition to be accommodated as an individual problem.

Central to critiques in both CS and TPC is the common practice of dealing with disability as an “add-on” or “afterthought” rather than as a basic foundation for access. Rather, in this view, disability should be a governing principle addressed “from the start” (537). Scholars cited by Zdenek see inclusion of disability studies as a “bridge” between TPC and CS because it speaks to crucial concepts inherent in rhetorical interactions, such as “adaptation, creativity, community, interdependency, technological ingenuity and modal fluency” (Tara Wood et al., qtd. in Zdenek 538).

Zdenek finds “theoretical foundations” for centering disability studies in the work of CS scholars who focus not just on the need to improve inclusion but more importantly on the importance of reimagining the “norms” and assumptions governing questions about access (537). Brewer et al. advocate for “a culture of access,” citing the Computers and Composition Digital Press and the Composing Access Project as examples of how such a culture could develop (538). TPC, Zdenek writes, can provide “practical interventions” and “expertise in workplace practices and interface design” (536), which he believes should align with CS’s values as the field moves beyond the classroom and embraces understandings of communication beyond the “printed page” (538).

Both fields, he argues, can find transformation through centering disability studies; for example, TPC, he says, tends to imagine “users” as able-bodied and to tacitly endorse an untenable “hierarchy” separating “‘normal’ and ‘assistive’ technology” (539). Zdenek quotes Jason Palmeri to argue that in fact, “all technologies are assistive” (qtd. in Zdenek 539).

Zdenek traces extant “overlap” between TPC and CS on issues of more inclusive access and encourages collaborative research into these topics (539-40). Important to both fields is the “consumer/producer binary” in which enabling participation is overshadowed by strategies to facilitate passive consumption. A disability-centered focus, in this view, would foreground the need to make communicative action easier for all users. Zdenek contends that TPC can offer CS effective critiques of technology as well as “interventions grounded in rhetorical and design principles that strive to build more accessible digital media and user experiences” (540).

In Zdenek’s view, disability studies has resisted critiquing “computer technology” (540). He suggests practices in TPC that further such critique while building the culture of access, such as “perform[ing] usability studies with diverse users” and “interven[ing] . . . through web accessibility audits and digital retrofitting,” among other practices (540-41). More inclusion of people with disabilities at all levels of research and participation, in Zdenek’s view, is essential to these efforts (541).

As an examples of an area he sees as a space for research and collaboration, Zdenek cites “caption studies,” which he argues “cuts across and unites our diverse fields” (541). Similarly, he proposes attention to the challenges of producing adequate “alt-text” and “image recognition projects,” which he sees as driven by the “values of automation, efficiency, surveillance, profit, and ableism” (541).

Ultimately, he contends, critical disability studies should be a “methodology” that is “not (exclusively) a study of disabled people” (Sami Schalk, qtd. in Zdenek 542), but rather a theoretical approach that centers the reduction of stigmatization and bias. CS and TPC, Zdenek writes, “are more alike than different” in their commitment to this goal (542).