Rebecca Klein ’18 discusses disability in writing center theory and practice.
At Oberlin, twenty percent of students are registered with the Office of Disability Services. Even more students are unregistered and undocumented. Although not everyone registered has a learning disability, any disability has the potential to affect learning. However, disability is rarely talked about here or elsewhere. The lack of conversation is antithetical to the number of students that could benefit from disability’s inclusion, and I argue there is a clear need for more discussion.
When disability is included in readings, writers often give the subject minimal space and generalizations. Chapter eight in McAndrew and Reigstad’s Tutoring Writing is called “Tutoring Different People.” Although everyone who comes into the writing center is a different person, the chapter focuses on ability levels, gender differences, multicultural and ESL students, and learning disabled students. Learning disabilities are given the least amount of space in the chapter, and there are many assumptions made such as that writers with LDs come to tutoring with a long history of frustration at low grades and low self-esteem. Although this may be true, Oberlin students are at Oberlin partly because of grades. We cannot assume students with LDs have not learned coping methods when they have already gotten into college. The second issue I take with this chapter is the singling out of students with LDs. The chapter states that “the most important step tutors can take when meeting with learning disabled students is to set up a risk-free environment that lets writers relax and rethink their ill-will towards writing” (McAndrew, Reigstad 100). I argue that this step is important for anyone coming into the writing center, and singling out students with LDs does not create a better space for everyone, which should always be the goal.
The most important assumption to be addressed in the chapter is one not specifically stated but weaved into the entire section: the assumption that a tutor will know that the student has a disability, either because the disability is obvious or because the student discloses. Many disabilities are invisible, and the student may choose not to disclose. Although this may seem like a challenge for how best to help all students, I argue that writing associates need not know whether a student has a disability to make the experience better for all students. I think that the best response to this challenge, which the chapter never addresses, is to incorporate elements of universal design into every tutoring session. Universal design is a framework to create flexible learning environments that can accommodate people regardless of ability. The possibilities of universal design are broad, but the goal is always the same: to give people opportunities to learn and work in ways that best fit their abilities, whether they have a disability or not. Many elements of universal design can be achieved by making spaces welcoming and open. If we as writing associates can incorporate elements of universal design, then students will not feel they have to disclose to get help.