My dissertation examines the ways in which composition pedagogies have, both in theory and in practice, systematically worked to exclude individuals with disabilities. Persisting in composition studies is the ideological belief that traditional writing and intelligence are somehow inherently linked, that traditional literacy is central to defining one’s intellectual worth. This privileging of composing as print-based, I contend, masks the notion that writing is simply one among many systems of making and conveying meaning, that among our readers are those who cannot always access the messages delivered within print-based texts.
I argue that disability studies can enable us to reconceive the rhetorical triangle and what it means to compose. Disability studies allows us to perceive the ways in which traditional writing—and composition studies’ investment in traditional writing—normalizes and has been normalized by our understanding of “the” rhetorical triangle. But disability studies also allows us to regard the ways in which multimodal composing normalizes and has been normalized by our understanding of “the” rhetorical triangle. In order to create the inclusive, radically welcoming pedagogy that so many teacher-scholars strive for, I suggest that we disable composition studies—what we think we know about composers, composing, and composition(s).
Disabling Composition presents three case studies in which we can re/vision this disabling move. In the first case study, I interrogate new media conceptions of synaesthesia, which, in current scholarly literature, has become synonymous with multimodal composing and has been separated from its original, pathological position as a sensory impairment. This configuration of synaesthesia as a non-severe, non-pathological heuristic, I argue, embodies what I term the “rhetoric of shininess”—a concept that sounds wonderfully robust and inclusive in theory, but is often empty and exclusionary in practice. In the second case study, I use critical discourse analysis to explore how two recent usability-centric articles from Technical Communication Quarterly and Computers and Composition assume an able-bodied audience and segregate disabled users into “accessibility” clusters. In the final case study, I analyze literacy narratives of three autistic writer-activists. These individuals, I argue, serve as one example of disabling composition at work, and they have much to teach us about our conceptions of audience.
In my final chapter, I consider universal design and how its principles of flexibility and equitability work in service of disabling composition. Here I emphasize the importance of accessibility to composition studies, of the ways in which our choices—at conferences, in our syllabi, in our scholarly work—reflect who it is we value as audience members.
Finally, my dissertation is a born digital project. Though it is by no means fully accessible, it experiments with universal design and accessibility in its very form. I recognize that my audience likely contains individuals who work best with print-based texts, as well as individuals who work best with other modes of expression. Individuals who in other contexts might be considered able-bodied may, at many points, feel disabled as they encounter this dissertation.