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Uncanny Accommodations in Higher Education

Below thin clouds and blue-topaz sky, the sun sinks into the trees at the horizon while casting last light on grasses going to seed.

I’ll be using my blog to think through ideas and work on several projects, one of which is the uncanny accommodation: a barrier represented as access.  While I have been studying access for nearly a decade, much of my work focused on faculty development. I gave workshops on how faculty, across the disciplines, could make their classes, including curriculum, more accessible.  I also worked with students, accessibility offices, and university writing program administrators in similar ways.  My project on uncanny accommodations marks a turn in my work as I begin to enter conversations with activists, artists, and scholars in disability studies.

In this post, I’ll give a brief, very brief, explanation of what I mean by uncanny accommodations.  This is very much a work in progress.

Able bodied people treat access as a logistical interaction, rather than a human interaction. (Mia Mingus, “Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm”)

For many of us, our relationships to access, as disabled people, are contentious, tenuous, and, as Mia Mingus explains, diminished to a “logistical interaction.” How we gain access to accommodations that enable us to stay in school, graduate, or have careers in academia falls, in part, under the purview of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which delineates types of access protected by law. One way of providing access is through accommodations, which include adjustments, assistance, and modifications, for example additional time and a separate and distraction-free room for a student with disabilities taking an exam. While two years ago marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA, and we have much to celebrate in terms of access, disabled people still encounter barriers, which is the subject of this post. More specifically, I’m interested in what I’m calling the uncanny accommodation: a barrier represented as access. Although this specific type of barrier exists in many aspects of life, for this exploration I focus on uncanny accommodations in higher education.  Disabled students often receive uncanny accommodations that take many forms and include partial accommodations represented as complete, such as extended time but not the required distraction-free room, and inappropriate accommodations represented as appropriate, such as a seat in the front row of an online class.

My notion of the uncanny accommodation is, in some ways, in dialogue with the “uncanny valley,” a term that robotic aesthetics professor Masahiro Mori introduced in 1970 (“The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori”). I’ll address a problem with Mori’s concept in a future post.  Mori used the term to describe the repulsion people feel when they encounter robots that seem nearly human—something is off just enough to break the illusion of humanness, which causes revulsion in the human. This concept is helpful for thinking about the uncanny accommodation in that something is off with the uncanny accommodation as well. The uncanny accommodation seems to be a real accommodation, but when considered in context, the illusion breaks, which leads to inaccessibility and at times self-revulsion. My use of uncanny with accommodations allows for the possibility of self-revulsion by a disabled student who encounters barriers that she is told are not barriers.  The barriers impede her ability to do her scholarship, which she can internalize as her failure, when the real failure is lack of accommodations. My use of uncanny also allows for the possibility that faculty, who think they are providing accommodations, may become perplexed and sometimes feel revulsion toward the perceived under-performance of a disabled student, often labeled “laziness,” precisely because the disabled student is perceived as receiving accommodations, when in fact the student is only receiving uncanny accommodations.

As I work through my ideas, I’ll try, in part, to identify barriers created by uncanny accommodations and to explain how these barriers impede students, faculty, and administrators in writing programs. While disability studies and other disciplines continue to address the need for accommodations, these conversations do not adequately discuss barriers represented as accommodations. My goal is to use this exploration to help me define uncanny accommodations and, in doing so, contribute to what Annette Harris Powell calls the “practice of access” and what Elizabeth Brewer, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Melanie Yergeau call “a culture of access.”

Works Cited

Brewer, Elizabeth, et al. “Creating a Culture of Access in Composition Studies.”
Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 151-54. Composition Studies, https://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/journals/composition-studies/docs/WWA/Brewer%20Selfe%20Yergeau%2042.2.pdf.

Harris Powell, Annette. “Access(ing), habits, attitudes, and engagements: Re-thinking
access as practice.” Computers and Composition, vol. 24, no. 1, 2007, pp.
16-35.

Mori, Masahiro. “The Uncanny Valley: The Original Essay by Masahiro Mori.” translated
by Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki. IEEE Spectrum, 2012, (originally published in 1970) http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/the-uncanny-valley.

Mingus, Mia. “Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm.” Leaving Evidence, 2017, Leaving
Evidence, https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2017/08/06/forced-intimacy-an-ableist-norm/.

Yergeau, Melanie. “Creating a Culture of Access in Writing Program
Administration,” Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2016 conference. Composition Studies, http://www.uc.edu/content/dam/uc/journals/composition-studies/docs/WWA/Brewer%20Selfe%20Yergeau%2042.2.pdf.

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