Connecting Writing Programs and Faculty with Disability Services

Contributors: Jay Dolmage, Melissa Helquist, Tara Wood
Affiliations: University of Waterloo, Salt Lake Community College, Rockford University
Emails: dolmage at uwaterloo.ca, melissa.helquist at slcc.edu, twood at rockford.edu
Released: 22 November 2019
Published: Spring 2020 (Issue 24.2)


Writing programs and classrooms often bring together the most diverse groups of students from across a campus. Our teaching may be on the cutting edge, student-centered, multimodal, progressive. Too often, however, we fail to communicate with disability services offices about the unique nature of our teaching and learning. We rarely lecture or set tests and exams. Yet the vast majority of the “accommodations” offered to students with disabilities focus on these facets of higher education. As Laura Sokal and Alina Wilson (2017) have shown, extended testing time accommodation (ETTA) is the most common accommodation assigned to post-secondary students with disabilities, "assigned in over 70% of cases” (p. 28). In writing courses, testing is rare. This means that disability services offices might have very little to offer to our students. The result is that writing teachers could be out of sync with what can best help students; we may be creating new forms of discrimination and obstruction, all while congratulating ourselves because the accommodation process seems to only apply to other classroomsand other teachers, those using what we may see as outdated forms of teaching.  Exempting ourselves from the “conventional” accommodation system, or just going with the flow and offering mismatched accommodations, evades the complexities of what accommodations may look like in the unique context of a writing classroom. In turn, we create what Stephanie Kerschbaum (in Yergeau et al., 2015) called “inhospitality,” when we “persistently ignore access except as a retrofit” ("Modality"). Or we may offer what Dale Katherine Ireland (2016) called an “uncanny accommodation” (n.p.) when accommodations may be designed to meet a legal standard, but actually can make an environment more inaccessible. As Sushil Oswal (in Yergeau et al., 2015) argued, these processes create a situation in which access for disabled students remains “intrinsically inferior to the primary access available to the able-bodied because such an access sets the disabled apart in a separate category. It says to the world, it’s okay for the disabled to wait a bit longer. It says that it’s alright if they get a little less” ("Ableism technologies"). In this webtext, we will discuss opportunities for engaging with students, disability service offices, and the accommodations process more fully to ensure that our teaching practices provide equal opportunities for our students.

Writing courses enroll hundreds of thousands of students in North America. They form a core requirement for so many students and schools. We cannot allow the accommodation process to bypass our classrooms. Instead, we need to work with offices of disability services to show how teaching and learning happen in our discipline, and work with them to create a new, broader range of accommodations that fit our pedagogy and students’ needs (Dunn, 1995; Helquist, 2016; Price, 2010; Wood, Price, & Lewiecki-Wilson, 2014; Yergeau et al., 2015; Vidali, 2007). If we don't make these changes, then we can be certain that disabled students will struggle not only in our classrooms, but also throughout their academic careers. Conversely, if we can make these changes, then we can also set an example for the accommodation of writing across the curriculum.

Writing and Assistive Technologies

Technological tools used by people with disabilities are typically labeled “assistive” technologies. However, as designer Sara Hendren (2014) noted, “All technology is assistive technology” (n.p.). Writing is always mediated through technology of some kind (a pen, a keyboard). By engaging more thoughtfully with the accommodations process and collaboratively seeking adaptations with our students, we can gain a more capacious understanding of available writing technologies and the multimodal opportunities they provide. The following video, a discussion between Melissa Helquist:  Director, SLCC Community Writing Center and Associate Professor of English at Salt Lake Community College (left) and Candida Darling: Director, Disability Resource Center at Salt Lake Community College (right) offers further contextualization of these ideas. (Closed captioning is available for this video. Click on "CC" in the video frame.)


Video 1: Accessibility and assistive technology provide opportunities for innovation
in the writing classroom and enhanced learning capacity for all students.
Melissa Helquist and Candida Darling talk about writing and reading with assistive technology.

Accommodation Letters in the Writing Classroom

Working to integrate the accommodation process more fully into the writing classroom often requires careful political work, as does any movement to cultivate real change. Measures to address this difficult political work are well on their way in many venues, including efforts to reshape disability services (e.g. Refocus) and to write more inclusive disability syllabi statements (Wood & Madden, 2013). We aim to extend that work by focusing on the possible range of accommodations that might work best in the writing classroom, as well as the avenues for advocacy available to teachers and program administrators. Working in consultation with the Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition, we have designed an addendum letter to supplement the conventional accommodation letter offered via campus disability services. This addendum is designed to address the pedagogical context of the writing classroom, but is by no means static across institutional contexts. We suggest that teachers and program administrators can draw on this document to initiate a conversation about accommodations in writing classrooms. The addendum letter is loosely based upon the principles of Universal Design for Learning. Specifically, the letter focuses on:

  1. multiple means for student engagement in and out of the classroom;
  2. multiple means for delivering educational content to students;
  3. and multiple means for assessment and for students to show what they know, what they’ve learned, and to express their ideas.

For more specific suggestions about Universal Design, visit Jay Dolmage, “Universal Design: Places to Start” and the accompanying WIKI of Universal Design ideas.

We use the accommodation letter “addendum" as a means of moving the discussion forward. It is unacceptable to continue to bypass or opt out of the accommodation process, and it is unethical to allow an ineffectual process to continue. The addendum is meant to be flexible, adaptive and context-specific. We promote the addendum as a template of sorts and hope to get more writing programs to create their own versions of this document. 

Link to the Addendum

Collaborating with Disability Service Offices

In the scope of this webtext, we cannot explore the full legal, ethical, and practical ramifications of relationships with disability service officers. We do know that, altogether too often, one of these three angles predominates and demands that we not consider the other ones: a legal fear precludes an ethical consideration and a practical hurdle cuts off other forms of deliberation. For these legal, ethical, and practical issues, we offer a short series of questions to consider and discuss with both writing program and disability services colleagues. Further, while we cannot provide specific guidance about how to create relationships with disability services offices, which are vastly different from campus to campus, we offer the following conversation between a writing instructor and a disability resources director as a model of productive dialogue. (Closed captioning is available for this video. Click on "CC" in the video frame.)


Video 2: Melissa Helquist and Candida Darling talk about adapting accommodations in the writing classroom.
  • If a professor/instructor gives this document to a student who has received official accommodations, is that instructor then obligated to adhere to the offered suggestions (according to the ADA)?
  • Is it legal for an instructor to assign an accommodation without the sanction of an official disability office?
  • Is it possible to use language (like “addendum”) to demarcate that this process is additional to the standard accommodations process?
  • Is it possible that there need not be an “addendum” at all, but that the disability services office simply extends its repertoire of accommodations following consultation with writing teachers and administrators?

We do not offer this document as additional bureaucratic oversight, but rather as a conversational, negotiable starting place for imagining accessibility specific to the context of a writing classroom. The language of the letter itself conveys this tone of conversation with its use of language such as “you and your teacher might” and “consider.” Instructors have the authority to determine the standards of participation, performance, and production in their classrooms. Work with your colleagues to determine how such language can be used in your context.

Ethical Issues to Consider and Discuss

  • Does it matter that this addendum is coming from individuals who do not work in disability offices and who are not credentialed in accommodations services? Will it challenge the authority and autonomy of disability centers/staff?
  • Is it ethical for an instructor to offer additional accommodation strategies (other than those officially prescribed by disability services)?

Arguing that such negotiations for access are ethically beyond the expertise of the instructor relies on an especially problematic assumption that may only serve to further marginalize students with disabilities. Linda Feldmeier White (2002), for example, wrote that “Most composition specialists see LD (learning disabilities) as the province of experts whose special training enables them to diagnose and treat the condition and whose judgments should not be questioned” (pp. 706-707). But we agree with her that “deference to medical constructions of learning {is} problematic: If we think that students with learning disabilities are beyond our expertise, then we marginalize them as essentially different from ‘normal’ students” (p. 707). As writing experts, we are especially well positioned to think through what accommodations (or access more generally) might look like in a writing classroom. The reference list for this essay can also be mined for further research that can be used to support your conversations.

Practical Issues to Consider and Discuss

  • Who will give this letter to students? Will professors simply deliver the letter to students when they receive an official accommodation request? Will instructors work with campus disability offices to advocate for this addendum (or an institutionally-specific version of this addendum) to be attached to official accommodation letters delivered to any instructor of a writing or writing intensive course?

Again, we imagine this addendum as just one way to communicate to students about the possibilities for accommodations within the context of a writing classroom. How the document is adapted across contexts, as well as how the document is disseminated, will necessarily be diverse. We imagine people using this letter as a starting place, as an alternative to stock accommodations. We have to figure out what access looks like for students in our contexts and our classrooms. The addendum letter is one way of starting that imaginative, inventive process.


Dunn, Patricia Ann. (1995). Learning re-abled: The learning disability controversy and composition studies. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook.

Dolmage, Jay. (2015). Universal design: Places to start. Disability Studies Quarterly 3(2), n.p. http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/4632/3946

Helquist, Melissa. (2016). Disabling assumptions: Exploring assistive technology. English Journal 106(2), 96-98.

Hendren, Sara. (2014, October 16). All technology is assistive: Six design rules on "disability." Wired. Retrieved Aug. 22, 2019, from https://www.wired.com/2014/10/all-technology-is-assistive/

Ireland, Dale. (2016, April 16). Disabled students and the rhetoric of verification in online writing classes. Conference on College Composition and Communication. Houston, TX.

Price, Margaret. (2010). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Refocus: viewing the work of disability services differently. (n.d.). Institute for Human Centered Design. Retrieved Aug. 22, 2019​, from http://exploreaccess.org/projectshift-refocus/index.htm

Sokal, Laura & Alina Wilson. (2017). In the nick of time: A pan-Canadian examination of extended testing time accommodation in post-secondary schools. Canadian Journal of Disability Studies 6(1), 28-62.

Vidali, Amy. (2007). Performing the rhetorical freak show: Disability, student writing, and college admissions. College English 69(6), 615-641.

White, Linda Feldmeier. (2002). Learning disabilities, pedagogy, and public discourses. College Composition and Communication 53(1), 705-738. 

Wood, Tara, Jay Dolmage, Margaret Price, & Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. (2014). Moving beyond Disability 2.0 in composition studies. Composition Studies 42(2), 147-150.

Wood, Tara & Shannon Madden. (2013). Suggested practices for syllabus accessibility statements. Kairos Praxis Wiki 18(1). http://praxis.technorhetoric.net/tiki-index.php?page=Suggested_Practices_for_Syllabus_Accessibility_Statements

Yergeau, Melanie et al. (2015). Multimodality in motion: Disability and kairotic spaces. Kairos 18(1). http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/18.1/coverweb/yergeau-et-al/index.html


Created by matthew. Last Modification: Tuesday September 15, 2020 19:15:51 GMT-0000 by cheryl.