One academic space in which we often find uncanny accommodations and a diminished culture of access is the online class. For the sake of transparency, I’d like you to know that I am someone who loves teaching online. I can run into access barriers as a disabled instructor, but I’ll address that another time. When online instructors receive accommodation letters from accessibility offices that list accommodations unrelated to online classes, such as specific seating and a distraction-free space, many instructors have an understanding similar to this: “These accommodation don’t apply here, e.g., there is no front row–it’s an online class online–and students can work wherever they want to work. Our class will not be a problem for this student.” In this scenario, one in which accommodations are framed and understood as a checklist, faculty often disengage from Harris Powell’s practice of access. Harris Powell “argue[s] that access is a practice and that if we examine the ‘practice of ‘access’ in our classrooms and in our research, we look not at the technology but the practices—what gets reinforced, valued, and rewarded by local communities” (16). Students with disabilities in online writing courses are left with a suggestion of accommodations that do nothing to create access for the students or to help the teachers trying to provide access for their students. What is valued in this system of uncanny accommodations?
When access is represented as options on a standardized list, it is easy for faculty to grant, and students to receive, uncanny accommodations. Disability Rhetoric scholar Jay Dolmage critiques this checklist approach to accommodations, advocating instead a dynamic practice of Universal Design (UD), which sets accommodation as the norm, not a special circumstance:
Moreover, turning UD into a checklist defeats so much of the rhetorical purpose of UD, as what I have called a ‘way to move’ (15), or as what Aimi Hamraie has called ‘a form of activism’ (n.p). That is, UD should be registered as action — a patterning of engagement and effort. The push towards ‘the Universal’ is a push towards seeing space as multiple and in-process. The emphasis on ‘design’ allows us to recognize that we are all involved in the continued production of space (and that students should be agents in this negotiation). (“Universal Design: Places to Start”)
What happens with the uncanny accommodation is that thoughts of access are frequently shelved and no practice of access is taken up. In this model, faculty may miss opportunities to remove barriers for disabled students. For example, when we require students to engage with and respond to one another’s work, we have an obligation to teach them how to make their work accessible, e.g., adding captions to images and not using jpegs of text (such as screen shots), which are inaccessible to screen readers, without transcriptions of the text in the jpeg. In this way, we begin to approach what Brewer et al call a culture of access: “To put it simply: There is a profound difference between consumptive access and transformative access. The former involves allowing people to enter a space or access a text. The latter questions and re-thinks the very construct of allowing” (153). The idea of “allowing” suggests an afterthought because we would not need to make an allowance, an accommodation, if we had imagined the different bodies accessing a space, a curriculum, and students’ work from the start. There is so much more to say about “allowing,” but, again, that will come in future posts. This after-thinking of access fosters the uncanny accommodation because access is created out of context, creating what Dolmage calls the retrofit: “we retro-fit our structures for access, we add ramps at the sides of buildings and accommodations to the standard curriculum—still, disability can never come in the front door” (CCCC, 2012).
Dolmage, Jay. “Universal Design: Places to Start.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 35,
no. 2, 2015. Disability Studies Quarterly, http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4632.
—. “From Retrofit to Universal Design, From Collapse to Occupation:
Neo-Liberal Spaces of Disability.” Conference paper, Society for Disability Studies, 2012. Academia, http://www.academia.edu/1244157/_From_Retrofit_to_Universal_Design_From_Collapse_to_Occupation_Neo-Liberal_Spaces_of_Disability_.
Harris Powell, Annette. “Access(ing), habits, attitudes, and engagements: Re-thinking
access as practice.” Computers and Composition, vol. 24, no. 1, 2007, pp.