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Examples of Uncanny Accommodations

A day lily, in striking hues of magenta, orange, and yellow is decorated with rain drops after a summer shower. The background is a blur of greenery.

A day lily, in striking hues of magenta, orange, and yellow is decorated with rain drops after a summer shower. The background is a blur of greenery.


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).

Works Cited

Dolmage, Jay. “Universal Design: Places to Start.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 35,
no. 2, 2015. Disability Studies Quarterly,

—. “From Retrofit to Universal Design, From Collapse to Occupation:
Neo-Liberal Spaces of Disability.” Conference paper, Society for Disability Studies, 2012. Academia,

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

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,

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

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)

Mingus, Mia. “Forced Intimacy: An Ableist Norm.” Leaving Evidence, 2017, Leaving

Yergeau, Melanie. “Creating a Culture of Access in Writing Program
Administration,” Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2016 conference. Composition Studies,

Thoughts on “Sick Woman Theory” by Johanna Hedva

Those parallel circumstances and kindred images to which we readily conform our minds are, above all other writings, to be found in narratives of the lives of particular persons; and therefore no species of writing seems more worthy of cultivation than biography, since none can be more delightful or more useful, none can more certainly enchain the heart by irresistible interest, or more widely diffuse instruction to every diversity of condition.  (Samuel Johnson, Rambler 60, 1750).

While debate continues for some as to the utility of life writing and what it should and should not be, such as whether or or not it is or is not meant to be truthful[1], the stakes are even higher for some life writing authors, especially those with disabilities. We are not meant to take up space in the world or page. Our spaces are often temporal, e.g., a bus sign that reads, “please give up this seat if . . . .” Recently, author and self-described “anticapitalist psychonaut sorceress,” Johanna Hedva, wrote a blog post titled “Sick Woman Theory,” in which she holds space and a protest.

We are not meant to survive, notes Hedva, as she explains, “For those who, in Audre Lorde’s words, were never meant to survive: because this world was built against their survival,” and this also means we are not meant to take up space. Holding space can be a form of protest. Hedva holds a writing sit-in. She literally holds space in her piece with autobiographical writing. She has already told us that she is unsure of how to protest with her illnesses—going into the streets is something she cannot do—before she holds her sit-in, which helps frame her autobiographical writing as a political action. Her autobiographical narrative of what has come to her (I love how she framed this!), her illnesses, is a form of protest.

Some have expressed concern about her autobiographical content because, in part, they read it as an unnecessary ethos move, in which she shows she is part of the community about which she writes. I have heard these concerns, but I have not heard these concerns about her images in her piece, which are also autobiographical—representations of her autobiographical narrative. It is important to ask why one’s holding space with one’s voice is so uncomfortable for people, even affronting for some, and why, detailing disability is not accepted as holding space by a marginalized community.

[1] Jerome Bruner, in Acts of Meaning (1993), discusses autobiography as a process in which the teller resolves the non-canonical occurrences so that the teller can fit into the teller’s non-canonical narrative, which makes the emphasis on truth secondary to the process of the work of resolving, e.g., how to make non-canonical events such as a sudden loss of a friend or family member, an injury, and the like fit in the daily canonical.