Students Should Change the University: Disability and Difference in the Classroom - National Council of Teachers of English
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Students Should Change the University: Disability and Difference in the Classroom

July 26, 2020, marks the 30-year anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. 

To recognize this anniversary and the lives and achievements of those living with disabilities, we’re highlighting a post by NCTE/CCCC member Anne-Marie Womack which appeared first in 2018.

See also the CCCC statement Disability Studies in Composition: Position Statement on Policy and Best Practices, which was revised and approved in March 2020. 


When one of my students with autism made national news, I was interviewed about the way I teach disabled students. For the first question, the journalist asked, “Do you try to treat students with disabilities like everyone else?” It sounded like a loaded question with the only obvious answer being an emphatic “Yes!”

Indeed, if I had answered that question just a few years earlier, before I had studied disability, I would have said that disability accommodations should change the least things possible about a class, that we should try to get disabled students to learn as “normally” as possible. Treating all students the same, I had assumed, was the way to be fair and equal. Universities, too, default to this business-as-usual approach, making it difficult for faculty and students to change the system.

Students Always Change Our Classrooms

But in truth, how could a unique human being not change a class? Teachers often talk about the individual personalities of the 9 am class over the 2 pm. We have stories of uncooperative students “hijacking the classroom” or of insightful students opening up class discussion in a way we never could alone. When students visit office hours, their needs and emotions guide the flow of conversation. Our interactions with students are created based on their unique identities and abilities.

Academic studies, too, depend on the people studying the field. When women and people of color entered academia in greater numbers, we had major theoretical interventions with feminism and cultural studies. Increased visibility for individuals identifying as LGBTIQA is directly tied to queer studies, and the same is true for the growing field of disability studies that I am a part of. Difference has always changed and expanded curriculum and pedagogy. So, on this count, why would disabled people be any different?

Disability Is Commonly Seen as Too Different

Even though many scholars now believe that diversity improves classrooms, disability is often seen as a different type of difference. This difference is based on ability, and academia is about cultivating and judging abilities.

Disability scholar Stephanie Kerschbaum describes how disability is often seen as threatening in the classroom—a common view that ignores all the factors that go into displaying and judging “ability.” We wouldn’t say that a blind student is bad at interpreting texts just because they can’t read printed words; however, a classroom that conveys information only through marks on a page would, in fact, make a blind reader less able to analyze metaphors. We potentially exclude students any time we enforce normative assumptions about how students should write without providing flexibility—as in, you can only hand-write notes or you have 10 minutes to write and submit this paragraph.

Narrow views of ability, moreover, do not take into account all the ways that every body is continually culturally accommodated. We all need time to take a test, we all use tools to write, we all use certain methods to compose. When we forget that all these measures are accommodating, it’s easy for us to single out disability accommodations as the exception.

Lennard Davis, in a compelling example, explains that we tend to see handicapped parking as an exception, when really we all use transportation to arrive closer to various locations. We are all dependent on our cultural practices and spaces. Our abilities depend on having access.

Plan and Adapt for a Flexible Classroom

Many students with disabilities with whom I work already have a series of accommodations they have devised to make traditional classrooms more accessible to them. When I listen to them, they teach me ways to reach more students. In fact, disability scholar Linda Feldmeier White explains that traditional accommodations tell us exactly where we can change our pedagogy more broadly.

For example, when a dyslexic student said he studied better with videos he could rewatch, I created multimodal online lectures that all students watched. When a disabled student asked for extended paper deadlines, I considered how to create flexible deadlines in my class. My pedagogy becomes stronger when I make accommodation the default, not the exception.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean instructors should sit back and wait for a student with disabilities to request accommodations before improving a course.

As Jay Dolmage explains, we must “invite disability in the front door.” We start by envisioning diversity in the classroom, by considering not the one best way to do something, but the many possible ways to do it. We can build common accommodations directly into our course structure before students request them.

For example, I cut the timed component of online quizzes for all students and later revamped assignments designed to assess student reading into a build-your-own-textbook assignment (in any modality). Prominent disability scholars theorize inclusive practices in Multimodality in Motion, and our website Accessible Syllabus at Tulane describes strategies for instructors to make course documents like the syllabus more accessible.

To create more inclusive teaching, then, instructors both plan for diversity in the classroom and adapt to the immediate needs of students.

Institutional Change Is Essential for Inclusive Pedagogy

Though accommodations are often framed as a collaboration between the student and disability services (which is then perfunctorily approved by a professor), greater institutional support is needed for comprehensive and lasting change.

Universities and writing programs need to support—with money and labor—accessible pedagogy.

For example, writing programs might provide training on universal design for learning and evaluate how normative syllabus boilerplate affects disabled students. Universities might fund services that close-caption and describe images for class videos, bring in experts on inclusive design, and ensure that all online platforms are accessible. It’s one thing to encourage professors to accommodate students; it’s another to systematically build accommodations into the structure of the university—our legal, ethical, and educational imperative.

In light of what I have learned from disability studies, here’s what I told the reporter last year: no, I’m not trying to treat my disabled students like nondisabled students. Instead, I’m trying to treat all my students like they could benefit from the flexibility, multimodality, and accessibility that disabled students encourage in our classrooms.



Kerschbaum, Stephanie. “Anecdotal Relations: On Orienting to Disability in the Composition Classroom.” Composition Forum, vol. 32, Fall 2015, Accessed 16 July 2018.

Davis, Lennard J. “The End of Identity Politics: On Disability as an Unstable Category.” Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed. Edited by Lennard J. Davis, Taylor and Francis, 2013, pp. 263–77.

White, Linda Feldmeier. “Learning Disability, Pedagogies, and Public Discourse.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 53, no. 4, 2002, pp. 705–38.

Dolmage, Jay. “Mapping Composition: Inviting Disability in the Front Door.” Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook. Edited by C. Lewiecki-Wilson & B.J. Brueggemann, Bedford / St. Martin’s, 2008, pp. 14–27.



Anne-Marie Womack is the director of writing at Tulane University. Her work has appeared in CCC, Composition Forum, Pedagogy, and The Chronicle of Higher Education. She also runs, a universal design guide for instructors. Twitter: @amwomackdr




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