This is the transcript for my conference presentation at ECWCA 2019.

Introduction [slides 1-3]

Hello, and welcome to my presentation titled “Evolving with Access: An Analysis of Accessibility in the Writing Center Community.” For accessibility, I will provide verbal descriptions of any images on my slides. For example, my title slide features an image of an unrolled blueprint. This same image appears in the background of my section heading slides as well.

I have also distributed copies of my session transcript, so you can follow along word for word with me. And you can download this transcript and my PowerPoint from my website:

In terms of a personal introduction, I’m Jenelle Dembsey, and I am a co-coordinator of the Online Writing Centers Community.

Progress [slides 4-5]

This year’s call for proposals talked of aviation, of soaring, and of progress. As part of this progress, we must stop and consider who is encouraged and allowed to soar within our field. For writing center members with disabilities to soar in our field and shape our progress, our conferences and publications need to be more accessible. I argue that we should look to disability studies in order to normalize accessible practices and evolve with accessibility in mind.

Accessibility and Disability [slides 6-13]

Before I continue, I first want to briefly define “accessibility” and “disability.”

Accessibility is about providing flexibility and choice. It generally considers factors that could allow or prevent someone from using, obtaining, understanding, or fully participating in something. However, when someone mentions “accessibility,” they are not always considering the same factors, so I understand accessibility as having “broad” and “focused” perspectives.

The broad perspective of accessibility considers factors such as finances, time, location, employment, personal preferences, and learning needs, among others. For instance, one way the writing center field could be more accessible, broadly speaking, is to offer fully online conferences or online participation for onsite conferences, which could reach members who do not have the resources or time necessary to travel.

However, accessibility must also take a focused perspective that considers the experiences and needs of users with disabilities specifically. For example, with a focused perspective, the writing center field would not only offer online conference opportunities, but also ensure that the design of these digital spaces can be navigated by members with disabilities.

To take this focused perspective, we need to understand disability according to disability studies. As Margaret Price (2011) explains:

[…] 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.

(Price, 2011, p. 4)

Disability studies “shifts the ‘problem’ of disability away from individuals and toward institutions and attitudes” (Price, 2011, p. 4).

This presentation will use examples from disability studies to suggest ways in which our field can be more accessible to members with disabilities specifically. I will first discuss our conferences, considering both how presenters design their sessions and how our organizations plan the conference overall. I will then consider the formatting of our publications and the problematic ways in which our field has published about disability. I will end with recommendations for more positive readings.

Presentation Design [slides 14-21]

I’ll start by discussing what conference presenters can do to be more accessible.

I’ve attended 16 writing center conferences at this point, and our presentations have a predictable design: the presenter focuses on giving information orally and either provides condensed information on a PowerPoint or reads off a paper that the attendees can’t see. This kind of design requires attendees to listen and look, which also assumes that all attendees have the ability to listen and look. Presenters usually also assume that all attendees can record notes quickly and accurately enough to remember information after the session.

Disability scholars, on the other hand, expect that some of their attendees may have disabilities and so their presentations have a more inclusive design. I once attended a session led by disability scholars that included:

  • Printed transcripts of their full talk for the session
  • A website to download electronic copies of their transcript and PowerPoint
  • Videos with closed captions
  • Sign language interpreter

These presenters gave the same information both orally and visually, which even benefitted me as a non-disabled attendee. For the first time at a conference presentation, I was able to follow along with the speaker by reading, rather than spending the whole time trying to record notes on everything they said orally. This one presentation completely changed how I design and conduct my own presentations.

Thus, one of the most important steps for our field is to make the content of our conference sessions more accessible to members with disabilities. And this change starts with us, as potential presenters or as mentors of presenters. Regardless of where you present, who you present for, or what you present on, you can take steps to normalize accessibility and model for others how they can re-design their own presentations.

Here are some ways you can make your future presentations more accessible:

  1. Write a script and share it both in print and electronically. Scripts allow anyone who can’t hear you to follow along, especially if you have headings and slide numbers that correspond with your PowerPoint. If you don’t have time to write a script, sharing an outline can also be beneficial (Composing Access Project, 2019).
  2. Design your PowerPoint with high contrast between the text and the background. And when presenting, verbally describe any images that may appear on your slides (Composing Access Project, 2019).
  3. Share your presentation materials online. This provides a way for attendees to follow along on computers or mobile devices and use assistive technologies if needed. You can create a website or blog for free and upload your materials quite quickly. If you’re concerned that attendees will later steal your work, Margaret Price described how posting her materials online had the opposite effect: she instead experienced an increase in people citing her materials and a decrease in people misrepresenting her ideas, since they had a concrete place to re-read and cite her talk (Composing Access Project, 2019).
  4. Design any online materials to be accessible to assistive technologies. There are plenty of web resources that break down the basics of accessible design, including:
    • University of Washington Accessibility Guidelines
    • Microsoft Support articles

And if you’re not presenting, you can still be an “access advocate” by avoiding fragrances, reporting accessibility issues to the conference chair, sharing accessibility suggestions on follow-up surveys, and visiting the Composing Access Project (2019) website.

Conference Planning [slides 22-29]

Now I’ll discuss some steps that our organizations can take to plan more accessible conferences at the state, regional, and international levels.

  1. Create international and local conference committees on disability. For example, the Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC) (2019b) has a Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition, led by disability scholars. Their tasks include working with conference chairs to make the conference accessible, providing a disability information table, identifying funding for accessibility support, and researching disability issues. CCCCs (2019a) also has a local accessibility committee each year that distributes accessibility information about navigating to and within the local area and conference buildings. The purpose of such committees within writing centers should be to elevate the voices of our members with disabilities and better educate everyone planning and attending our conferences.
  2. Create and distribute accessibility guides for our members. For example, the Society for Disability Studies (2016) provides accessibility guidelines on its website for presenting and designing materials.
  3. Consider “crip time” when scheduling breaks, meals, keynotes, and other group events. Price (2011) explains: “Crip time, a term from disability culture, refers to a flexible approach to normative time frames (Gill; Zola). At a conference, adhering to crip time might mean permitting more than fifteen minutes between sessions; it might mean recognizing that people will arrive at various intervals, and designing sessions accordingly; and it might also mean recognizing that audience members are processing language at various rates and adjusting the pace of conversation” (p. 62).
  4. Offer the full conference program in multiple formats, including print, Microsoft Word, and web HTML. This screenshot shows the conference website for the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). Their website provides abstracts and scheduling information in HTML for each session in their upcoming conference (AHEAD, 2019). I was happy to see this year that ECWCA placed all of their session information in HTML as well, and I hope this becomes a standard practice. A step further would be to link presenter PowerPoints and transcripts off of the conference website, as AHEAD has done for past conferences.

Publication Format [slides 30-50]

Similar to our conference programs, our publications also need to be distributed in multiple formats that are accessible to our members.

Open Access Vs. Accessible [slides 31-33]

When it comes to publications, you may have heard the term “open access.” “Open access” means that a publication is available online and for free, supporting the broad perspective of accessibility. But an open-access publication is not necessarily accessible from a focused perspective, and this is an important distinction to make.

Elisabeth H. Buck (2018) recently published a book titled Open-Access, Multimodality, and Writing Center Studies. In Chapter 3, Buck (2018) analyzed the digital histories and accessibility of the Writing Lab Newsletter, The Writing Center Journal, and Praxis. Unfortunately, Buck (2018) only considers accessibility broadly, discussing obtainability and navigability without any consideration of disability. I will attempt to fill this gap.

HTML vs. PDF [slides 34-42]

To be accessible from a focused perspective, a publication needs to be both open access and available in a format that works for users with disabilities. The publication needs to be navigable by keyboards, screenreaders, and other assistive technologies. The two most common formats for distributing scholarship are PDF documents and HTML webpages, with HTML considered more universally accessible. According to the National Disability Authority (2014), “PDFs are good for printing but poor for accessibility compared to good web documents.”

For an example of using web documents to distribute scholarship, we can look to Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ) (2019), which is “the first journal in the field of disability studies.” This journal has published every issue for free in HTML since 2000. The image on the screen is a screenshot from DSQ’s (2019) website that shows the table of contents for their most recent issue. Each article has its own webpage, and users can browse articles by author and by title.

Several of our more recent writing center publications are open access and offer issues in HTML, including Praxis, The Peer Review, Another Word, and the Dangling Modifier. However, the Writing Lab Newsletter and Writing Center Journal, which have the longest publication histories in our field, still distribute issues through PDF documents, many of which are scanned versions of print issues. Adobe (2019), the company behind PDFs, explains that “Unfortunately, scanners only create an image of text, not the actual text itself. This means the content is not accessible to users who rely on assistive technology. Additional modifications must be made to make the document accessible.”

A scanned PDF is inaccessible if either of the following is true:

  1. You can’t select text with your cursor, and/or
  2. You can’t use the “find” feature to search the document

I’d like to note here that even PDFs that allow for selecting and searching can still be inaccessible, if not tagged appropriately. But for the sake of time, I’ll apply only these 2 criteria to the PDFs in the WLN and WCJ archives.

Writing Lab Newsletter [slides 43-44]

The Writing Lab Newsletter (WLN) (2019), or now WLN: A Journal of Writing Center Scholarship, was started in 1976. The image on the screen shows the WLN archives where past issues are available as PDFs for download. Buck (2018) had concluded that WLN’s content was “almost wholly accessible” (p. 60) due to the availability of these PDFs, but herein lies the problem with labeling things as “accessible” without accounting for users with disabilities.

Of the 366 PDFs in WLN’s (2019) archive, 165 (or 45%) are unmodified scanned documents that are completely inaccessible to assistive technologies. These scanned PDFs also contain 46% (18 out of 39) of WLN’s articles on disability, meaning that scholars with disabilities cannot access scholarship on disability. Thus, the kind of research that Buck (2018) did for her book may not have been possible for a scholar with a disability, without outside assistance.

The Writing Center Journal [slides 45-47]

The Writing Center Journal (WCJ) (2019) was started in 1980. Unlike WLN, WCJ does not provide any issues on its own website. Instead, its full archive is available through JSTOR, which requires users to pay for a subscription or have access through an institution. A partial archive is also available through IWCA to those who pay extra on their yearly membership. As this screenshot shows, however, the IWCA (2019) archive contains only 21 issues, barely 29% of WCJ’s publication history.

Thus, WCJ poses an additional accessibility issue in that it restricts information based on finances or institution affiliations. Because of these restrictions, I could not analyze their full archives for scanned PDFs, like I did with WLN.

Restricting information in this way poses additional barriers for members with disabilities, in that they have to navigate multiple additional websites that may or may not be accessible in their own right, to finally find an article that may or may not be an accessible PDF.

Future Steps [slides 48-50]

Thus, we as a field need to move all of our publications towards distributing content for free in HTML. This move would:

  • Be less expensive for distribution.
  • Be less time intensive to make accessible.
  • Still allow for print and PDF options.

Past issues of publications need to be transitioned into HTML as well. For those that find this impractical, the National Disability Authority (2014) suggests starting with content that is most frequently visited and allowing users to request content to be made accessible.

Other steps forward include:

  • Encouraging members with disabilities to be editors and reviewers for these publications.
  • Insisting that all writing center publications have revolving editors, so that different perspectives can provide oversight for accessibility and inclusivity.

Problematic Literature [slides 51-62]

In addition to the formatting of our publications, the literature itself has been problematic. If you’re looking for readings for your staff, you need to be aware of 3 common problems in writing center literature on disability:

  1. Use of negative language
  2. Encouragement of diagnosis
  3. Impairment-specific practices

Negative Language [slides 53-56]

The first common problem is using negative language either in describing people with disabilities or in describing the act of working with them in a writing center. Negative language “others” students with disabilities, portrays them as problems or inconveniences, and encourages consultant anxiety about working with them.

The most criticized example of negative language is an anthologized article from 1994 that describes students and their learning disabilities with the following terms:

  • “trouble”
  • “problem”
  • “malfunction”
  • “defect”
  • “debilitating”
  • “failed”
  • “unable” (Neff, 1994)

The article also compares students with learning disabilities to “normal learners” and describes working with them as “sometimes difficult” (Neff, 1994). Despite the overuse of negative language, this article was anthologized at least 3 times by the St. Martin’s Sourcebook for Writing Tutors, from 2003 to 2011.

Other examples from our literature include associating mental illness with violence and shootings (McDonald, 2008) and describing a visually impaired student as “masterful at manipulating” (Sisk, 2001, p. 7).

Diagnosis and Impairment-Specific Practices [slides 57-62]

The second and third problems in our literature often appear together: encouraging diagnosis and suggesting impairment-specific practices. In her foreword to the Writing Centers and Disability anthology, Allison Hitt (2017) stated:

In response to inaccessible best practices, writing center scholarship has often adopted an impairment-specific approach to disability. This approach focuses on identifying the characteristics of a particular disability diagnosis and then developing practices that are specific to those characteristics. […] [T]he development of impairment-specific practices—although well-intentioned—does not honor the complexities, nuances, or strengths of disabled student writers.

(Hitt, 2017, p. viii)

In contradiction to Hitt’s (2017) foreword, one of the articles from Writing Centers and Disability lists “key warning signs in student behavior and suggested strategies to address such behavior” (Jackson & Blythman, 2017, p. 245). Another article from this anthology insists consultants “need to be able to recognize when students’ cognitive functioning has been impaired” and then provides impairment-specific practices for depression and anxiety (Stevenson, 2017, p. 83). And yet another article from WLN lists signs for recognizing clients with “severe mental disorders,” including paying attention to the cleanliness of their clothing and hair, before listing potential responses (McDonald, 2008).

I like Kerri Rinaldi’s (2015) call for action:

Instead of relying on scholarship that offers reductive tips written by able-bodied researchers, we need to prioritize literature that provides a treatment of disability as a cultural identity, critical analysis that thoughtfully examines how we’ve been socialized to accept disability as a medical deficit, as well as personal narratives written by disabled tutors and tutees themselves.

(Rinaldi, 2015)

Suggested Readings [slides 63-69]

On this note, I’d like to end by suggesting some positive readings on disability in the writing center. Here are 3 of my favorites:

  1. Allison Hitt’s (2012) “Access for All: The Role of Dis/ability in Multiliteracy Centers.” Hitt (2012) is a disability scholar who explains how a multimodal and flexible consultant pedagogy can be more accessible for all students. Her article can encourage conversation about what it means to be flexible and who is excluded when we choose to be inflexible.
  2. Kerri Rinaldi’s (2015) “Disability in the Writing Center: A New Approach (That’s Not So New).” Rinaldi (2015) is a deaf writing center consultant who discusses issues of disclosure, and her article can foster discussion about asking all students what they need to best communicate and learn in a session.
  3. Rebecca Day Babcock’s (2008) “Outlaw Tutoring: Editing and Proofreading Revisited.” Babcock (2008) explains how no-editing and no-proofreading policies are problematic for students with disabilities, and she challenges us to consider who we exclude with such stances.

A longer list of suggested readings is available below.

Reading List [slides 65-69]

Babcock, R. D. (2008). Outlaw tutoring: Editing and proofreading revisited. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 38(2), 63-70.

Babcock, R. D. (2008). Tutoring deaf college students in the writing center. In C. Lewiecki-Wilson & B. J. Brueggemann (Eds.), Disability and the teaching of writing: A critical sourcebook (pp. 28-39). Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s.

Cobrin, P., & Quinby, S. (2017). Project OWL (Options in Writing and Learning): Exploring attitudinal, programmatic, and physical access for students with disabilities. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 277-304). Fountainhead Press.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Elston, M. M. (2015). Psychological disability and the director’s chair: Interrogating the relationship between positionality and pedagogy. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Greoneveld, S. (2011). It begins with a mentality: Disability and the writing center. Another Word.

Hitt, A. (2012). Access for all: The role of dis/ability in multiliteracy centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 9(2).

Hitt, A. (2012). #iwca 2.0: The need to diagnose.

Hitt, A. (2017). Foreword. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. vii-x). Fountainhead Press.

Kiedaisch, J., & Dinitz, S. (2007). Changing notions of difference in the writing center: The possibilities of Universal Design. The Writing Center Journal, 27(2), 39-59.

Kleinfeld, E. (2018). Taking an expansive view of accessibility: The writing center at Metropolitan State University of Denver. Composition Forum, 39.

Konrad, A. (2014). What I’ve learned from working with blind and visually impaired writers. Another Word.

Konrad, A. (2016). Access as a lens for peer tutoring. Another Word.

Mucek, S. A. (2017). Identity and disabled tutors: The possibilities of reconstructing selfhood in peer writing conferences. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 105-128). Fountainhead Press.

Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Ryan, H., Miller, G. O., & Steinhart, S. E. (2017). Informed practices: Destabilizing institutional barriers in the writing center. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 257-276). Fountainhead Press.

Yabe, M. (2018). The journey of a deaf translingual writer. Writing on the Edge, 28(2), 73-85.

References [slides 71-75]

Adobe. (2019). Scanned document accessibility.

Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD). (2019). 2019 concurrent sessions.

Babcock, R. D. (2008). Outlaw tutoring: Editing and proofreading revisited. Journal of College Reading and Learning, 38(2), 63-70.

Buck, E. H. (2018). Open-access, multimodality, and writing center studies. Palgrave Macmillan.

Composing Access Project. (2019). Composing access: An invitation to creating accessible events.

Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC). (2019a). CCCC conventions and meetings.

Conference on College Composition & Communication (CCCC). (2019b). Committee on Disability Issues.

Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ). (2019). Archives.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Hitt, A. (2012). Access for all: The role of dis/ability in multiliteracy centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 9(2).

Hitt, A. (2017). Foreword. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. vii-x). Fountainhead Press.

Jackson, S., & Blythman, M. (2017). “Just coming in the door was hard”: Supporting the writing of students with mental health difficulties in the UK. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 233-256). Fountainhead Press.

International Writing Centers Association (IWCA). (2019). Writing Center Journal archives. Retrieved from

McDonald, M. M. (2008). Assessing and responding to clients with severe mental disorders. Writing Lab Newsletter, 32(10), 8-9.

Neff, J. (1994). Learning disabilities and the writing center. In J. A. Mullin & R. Wallace, Intersections: Theory-practice in the writing center (pp. 81-95). Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

National Disability Authority. (2014). DEV 4.3 Provide accessible alternatives – don’t rely on PDF/Word.

Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. University of Michigan Press: Ann Arbor, MI.

Rinaldi, K. (2015). Disability in the writing center: A new approach (that’s not so new). Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, 13(1).

Sisk, K. (2001). Assisting the visually impaired in the writing center. Writing Lab Newsletter, 25(7), 6-9.

Society for Disability Studies. (2016). Accessibility guidelines for presentations.

Stevenson, M. (2017). Clearing the traffic jam: Enabling higher education students with depression and anxiety disorders to complete written assignments. In R. D. Babcock & S. Daniels (Eds.), Writing centers and disability (pp. 79-103). Fountainhead Press.

Writing Center Journal (WCJ). (2019). The Writing Center Journal: The official journal of the IWCA.

Writing Lab Newsletter LLC. (2019). WLN archives.

Cite This Presentation

Dembsey, J. M. (2019, April). Evolving with access: An analysis of accessibility in the writing center community. East Central Writing Centers Association. University of Dayton. Dayton, OH.