This is the transcript for my conference presentation at MiWCA 2018.
Hello, and welcome to my presentation titled “Breaking Down the Myth: Accessibility in the Writing Center Community.”
To model accessibility in this presentation, I’ll be offering multiple ways for you to follow along and take information with you when you leave this session. I have printed copies of my session transcript, so you can follow along word for word with me. You can also download this transcript and my PowerPoint from the website listed on this slide: JMDembsey.com. This presentation is listed on the homepage of this site, and the materials are mobile friendly. This URL will appear at the bottom of the following slide as well, to give you more time to download any materials.
In terms of a personal introduction, I’m Jenelle Dembsey, and I’m the Coordinator for Technology and Accessibility at the Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University.
I want to begin this presentation with a short story about how I came to be in writing center work.
I first started working in writing centers as an undergraduate writing consultant. It was the first time I felt comfortable in a workplace: I felt that I could help students while still being myself and belonging to a community on campus. When I graduated, I went on to graduate school and worked in another writing center as a graduate assistant, where I was able to gain some very important administrative experience. I found that I excelled in this line of work, and I decided my very last semester of grad school that I would no longer go into editing: I would go into writing center administration. I had no trouble doing this because I had fantastic writing center mentors from my graduate school, who still give me advice today.
I also used to be very afraid of speaking in front of others. I was always nervous and anxious about doing class presentations, and I avoided conferences for quite some time because of this. But my writing center mentors encouraged me to go to a Michigan Writing Centers Association conference, and I saw that audience members were supportive and kind towards the presenters. I felt welcomed, even though I had not been in the field long and didn’t yet have much to say.
I would argue that writing centers are certainly good at welcoming student tutors and consultants to present and contribute to our scholarship and knowledge-base. People can enter our field at any time with little background in writing center work, and we welcome them to participate in our conferences, to present on their experiences, and to publish about them. I even wrote an article about my masters thesis research: it was the first article I ever submitted for publication, and it was accepted to the Writing Center Journal. So I want to strongly acknowledge that in some ways, our field is stronger than others at being welcoming.
But I am now in an administrative position where I’m responsible for the accessibility of my writing center. Specifically, I ensure that our websites and digital documents are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities and those using assistive technologies, such as screenreaders. I’ve also started to read more about accessibility and disability, and I’ve started to notice some troubling things about accessibility in our field. While these issues are obviously not unique to our field, that does not mean we should not discuss or address them within our field.
I’ve realized that I felt welcomed in the writing center community, and continue to feel so, because I am a privileged, white, able-bodied person in academia. But what about those who are not privileged, not white, or not able-bodied? What about those who do not have the same kind of access that I or you may have? Two books in particular have put words to what I’ve been thinking for quite some time. If you have the opportunity, I highly suggest reading these two books: Margaret Price’s Mad at School and Jay Timothy Dolmage’s Academic Ableism.
In this presentation, I will use these books to address just a few of the ways that our field can become more accessible, and by extension, more inclusive. Specifically, I will focus on our field’s methods of storytelling: conferences, publications, and our individual writing centers. Throughout the presentation, I will suggest specific ways that you can increase access in your own presentations or writing centers and help to increase access in our field overall.
Accessibility and Disability
I first want to briefly define “accessibility” and “disability.”
I see accessibility as having broad and narrow perspectives. The broad perspective of accessibility considers whether users have a fair and equal opportunity to obtain, understand, use, or participate in something. Something that is accessible will have high usability and account for the ways in which people need it or expect it to work. From the narrow perspective, accessibility refers to whether something works for users with disabilities specifically. In this presentation, I’ll be analyzing the accessibility of our field from both broad and narrow perspectives.
Since the narrow perspective of accessibility accounts for disability, it is also helpful to define this term through disability studies. Margaret Price (2011) explained it as follows:
“[…] disability is popularly imagined as a medical ‘problem’ that inheres in an individual, one that needs to be fixed (‘cured’) and is cause for sorrow and pity. DS [disability studies] countermands this dominant belief by arguing that disability is a mode of human difference, one that becomes a problem only when the environment or context treats it as such. To take a frequent example, using a wheelchair is not in and of itself a problem unless one must navigate a built environment, such as a bus, airplane, or building, which assumes stairs are the best and only way to ascend from one level to another.” (p. 4)
In other words, people are only disabled when the environment or society they live in disables them. Thus, disability studies “shifts the ‘problem’ of disability away from individuals and toward institutions and attitudes” (Price, 2011, p. 4). One of these attitudes is ableism. Lennard Davis (2017) defines ableism as “the insistence on being normal and the accompanying conscious or unconscious discrimination against disabled people. Ableism is like racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination” (p. 3). Examples would be buildings, websites, or services that privilege the “normal,” able-bodied user, whether intentional or not.
Jay Dolmage (2017) encourages us to recognize that “ableism is everywhere. […] we are all responsible for looking for it, recognizing our roles in its circulation, and seeking change” (p. 31). This presentation is one small attempt to seek this change within our field. As you listen to my presentation, I invite you to be open-minded and to avoid “apologia,” which are “speeches given in defense […], with the feeling that the apologizer is throwing their hands up in the air and saying: there’s nothing I can do” (Dolmage, 2017, p. 35). There is always something that someone can do, to increase accessibility on broad and narrow levels.
Since we are at a conference, I will first analyze the accessibility of our conferences. Conferences are a consistent method of storytelling that happens at the state, regional, national, and international levels. Conferences are a great way to distribute information that may not take as much time, energy, and stress as publishing. For this reason, conferences are my personal favorite way of telling stories from my center and getting to learn from other centers multiple times a year.
While our conferences do cost less to attend than conferences from many other fields, they still require finances, time, travel arrangements, and physical presence, among many other factors, for people to attend and learn each other’s stories.
Broad Perspective: Physical Presence and Cost
The broad perspective of accessibility would consider whether everyone has an equal opportunity to attend conferences and receive the stories and information shared there. Physical presence and cost are two barriers impacting equal opportunity to participate in conferences. For example, this conference focuses on writing centers just in the state of Michigan. However, I doubt that every writing center in the state is represented here today, or that the writing centers who are represented were able to bring every staff member who wanted to come or would have benefited. If a writing center is unable to attend a conference in their own state, they probably have even more difficulty attending a conference in a nearby state or across the country.
If we think of our regional conferences, we usually only belong to specific regions. Michigan, for instance, is only associated with the East Central Writing Centers Association. So if you’re a writing center in Michigan, you’re probably not attending other regional conferences and so there are ideas and connections you are missing just because of your location. Now our international conference brings an opportunity for those from different regions to meet and share ideas. But this, of course, costs a lot more money and not everyone has the financial privilege to attend. Even those who could afford it may face other barriers, such as the inaccessibility of airplanes, fear of planes, inability to drive, or inability to sit for long periods of time. Our international conferences are also most commonly located in the United States, so we’re still not learning as much from writing centers in other countries.
Now you may be thinking that these limitations of conferences are just the natural result of geography and that is out of our hands. But conferences don’t have to depend on location in this way. Part of accessibility is being flexible to user’s needs, and many members of our community need affordable, online opportunities to participate in our conference storytelling. Here are two ways that could work:
- Allow and encourage virtual participation in onsite conferences, for a lower registration rate. If someone cannot attend an onsite conference, they should be able to submit materials for distribution, record their presentation ahead of time, or present in real-time via video.
- Offer more online conferences, which could be in addition to or in place of an onsite conference for the year. Online conferences can take place through technologies like Adobe or Zoom and allow one person to present their screen while attendees watch and ask questions via chat. Online conferences naturally cost less because the hosts don’t need to reserve physical spaces or provide food, which means registration for attendees would cost much less. Administrators could also register for just one user and still share the presentations with multiple members of their staff. Furthermore, online conferencing allows writing centers without much funding or physical space to be able to host a conference if they so choose.
Narrow Perspective: Logistics and Presentations
The narrow perspective of accessibility would then consider whether the logistics of a conference and its presentations are accessible to persons with disabilities.
First, the overall logistics of a conference need to carefully consider the experience and needs of attendees with disabilities, and this goes beyond just asking for accommodations on the registration form. I recently attended a conference with several accessibility oversights: the conference program was only available online, the lunch and keynotes required a 15-minute walk, and attendees had to stand on a set of stairs for 15 to 20 minutes to wait in line for lunch. These decisions assumed that all attendees owned smartphones or laptops to view the program, could walk for long distances without tiring, could walk at the same pace as the larger group, and could stand on stairs without tiring. For one member of my group, none of these assumptions were true, and they had a difficult time at this particular conference.
Second, the information in individual presentations is often not presented in a way that is accessible to persons with disabilities. Audience members are usually expected to listen and look, which also assumes that all audience members have the ability to listen and look. As Margaret Price (2011) explains: “Information is usually delivered orally/aurally–often without the use of microphones–and alternative formats such as scripts, sign interpretation, or computer-aided real-time transcription (CART) are usually either unavailable or difficult to arrange” (p. 121).
Even though I have the ability to both see and hear, I still have a hard time following along as an audience member in many cases. I’m not an auditory person, and I obviously can’t write or type as fast as people talk, so I miss a lot of what presenters say. And if I don’t have a copy of their presentation materials, then I don’t have anything sufficient to reference or cite them after the presentation is over.
Now I have formatted my presentation a little different than you may be used to: I provided printed transcripts of my session for those in attendance today. I’ve also provided you with a website to download my PowerPoint and transcript in electronic form, for those using phones, laptops, or assistive technologies. Who here has been using any of these materials or finds them to be helpful?
Preparing a presentation for persons with disabilities can benefit a lot of other attendees as well. Some ways you can make your future presentations more accessible are to:
- Write a script and share it both in print and electronically. Scripts are especially beneficial to attendees who are hearing impaired, easily distracted, or not auditory learners. Writing a script also benefits you as the presenter: it keeps you and your presentation on track and on time, it gives you something for your portfolio, and it could turn into a first draft for a potential future article.
- Share your presentation materials online. You can create a free website through many hosts, such as WordPress, and provide a digital way for your attendees to remember what you had to say and possibly cite you down the road. This also allows those who couldn’t attend your session to still receive that information.
As I mentioned briefly, conference presentations can often turn into publications, which are another way for us to share our stories on a grander scale.
Broad Perspective: Open Access
From a broad perspective, an accessible publication is “open access” or freely available on the internet. Dolmage (2017) explains: “open access is a way of formatting and copyrighting scholarship, but it is also a philosophy: that information should be free and that if one hopes to actually engage with ideas (and have them engaged with by others) rather than simply recording them on paper, the work needs to be made accessible” (p. 33). We have several publications in our field that are open access. Some examples include:
- WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship
- The Peer Review
- Another Word
- Dangling Modifier
However, you may notice that the largest publication in our field is not on this list. The Writing Center Journal publishes some of the largest writing center research projects and has had many well-known and award-winning articles. Yet it is not open access. To read these articles, you have to either pay extra on your IWCA membership, pay for a subscription to JSTOR, or belong to an institution that has a subscription to JSTOR. This unfortunately restricts information based on finances or institutions.
Narrow Perspective: Assistive Technologies
As I mentioned, we have a lot of open-access journals that are available for free online. However, “[…] making it free is already half the battle, but it is also barely half the battle” (Dolmage, 2017, p. 33). In other words, for a publication to be accessible from a narrow perspective, it needs to be more than just free. The content of the publication needs to be accessible to those with diverse abilities and to those using assistive technologies, such as screenreaders.
Screenreaders read texts out loud and help users to navigate a document or website, which benefits those who are visually impaired, among many other users. For a screenreader to work, the first thing it needs is to be able to recognize and read all of the text present in the document. With the proper formatting, webpages are accessible ways to present the content of publications, because HTML code can communicate with screenreaders.
Of the open-access publications I listed earlier, WLN is the only one that doesn’t provide articles in HTML format. Instead, they provide all of their articles as PDF documents, which are difficult to make accessible. For example, at my university, we cannot put any PDF on our website until it has been professionally remediated, which can be very expensive. In WLN’s case, they have many scanned copies of old, physical newsletters. A scanned copy essentially turns a document into an image that provides no code or other information as to the content shown in that image, making them completely inaccessible to screenreaders. As a result, many of WLN’s older articles are inaccessible to those using screenreaders, and ironically, some of these same articles focus on the topics of access and disability.
So if you are ever working for a publication or looking to start one, keep these things in mind:
- If a publication has the staff, time, and money to continue publishing, then they have the means to make their current and future publications accessible to everyone.
- It takes far less time to make a publication accessible from the beginning than it does to go back in time and “remediate” older issues. Even still, remediating older issues should be a long-term goal.
- HTML-based publications cost less money and take less time to publish and make accessible than PDF-based publications, which need to be designed and then professionally remediated.
Individual Writing Centers
Lastly, I’ll discuss storytelling within individual writing centers. We share stories of writing center work in the form of training, workshops, staff meetings, and the information we share with students. In many cases, the traditional ways of discussing and seeing writing center work are not accessible to all who participate in our centers. This topic is a whole conference presentation within itself, so I will just give 3 examples that I’ve seen or experienced over the years.
My first example is from my own training as a consultant. I was taught that reading out loud was the strategy for discussing writing in face-to-face consultations. I don’t remember being taught or encouraged to use other methods. And this method actually never worked for me as a consultant, because I need to read quietly in order to really grasp what a writer is saying. I realize now, from an accessibility perspective, that reading out loud doesn’t work for a lot of people. In particular, reading out loud is not a helpful strategy for students who are deaf. It also wouldn’t be helpful for consultants or tutors who are deaf. But I don’t remember having these types of conversations in my consultant training classes.
My second example is from the writing center listserv. Not too long ago, someone shared that their center had obtained additional resources, and they were looking to increase the number of video blogs they created every month. They were looking for potential topics they could blog about as part of this expansion. A disabilities scholar replied to this question and informed the poster that her video blogs did not have closed captions and were thus inaccessible to those with hearing impairments. The disabilities scholar recommended that instead of spending the extra money on making even more inaccessible videos, the poster should use that money to make the videos she already had accessible to anyone who might want to watch them.
My third and final example is from one of my conference presentations. I was discussing 6 effective practices for synchronous consulting through video or text-chat. I explained that we use Google Docs as a text-sharing platform, and this allows both consultants and students to highlight and insert comment bubbles, among other features. One audience member said that they purposely didn’t use Google Docs because they didn’t want the consultant to do any of the work for the student. Instead, their center used Adobe Connect to share texts through screensharing, which is essentially sharing an image of the paper that the consultant cannot type on or directly interact with in any way. I had to inform her that if a consultant is viewing the text as an image, then that technology is not accessible to screenreaders, which can’t see or read images. Thus, in her attempt to force her consultants to be minimalist and hands-off, she made her online consultations inaccessible to students and staff with disabilities.
So I leave you all with these final thoughts today.
- If something works well for you, don’t assume that it also works well for others, whether that be students, staff, faculty, or fellow members of the writing center field. Invite the feedback of others who have different perspectives than you and don’t forget to prioritize the feedback of those with disabilities.
- Pay attention to things that don’t work well for you. Because if something doesn’t work for you, then it probably doesn’t work for a lot of other people as well. Sometimes we think that things just are the way they are, but they don’t have to be. Through methods of storytelling, you can challenge yourself or others to change the way things are done.
- And lastly, make an effort to start looking for areas of inaccessibility: you will find them everywhere. You will find it in the conference presentations you attend, in the way we talk about pedagogy, and in the design of this building and this campus. If you see something inaccessible in your own writing center, try to do something about it. And if you serve or may serve on a board or organization in this field, bring up accessibility concerns whenever you can.
Davis, L. (2017). Introduction. In L. J. Davis (Ed.), Beginning with disability: A primer. Routledge.
Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.
Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.
Cite This Presentation
Dembsey, J. M. (2018, October). Breaking down the myth: Accessibility in the writing center community. Michigan Writing Centers Association. University of Michigan—Flint. Flint, MI.