Writers With Disabilities

As researchers and teachers at the William S. Dietrich II Institute for Writing Excellence, we share Pitt’s commitment to ensuring that everyone has the chance to develop to their fullest potential. This cluster of pages is designed to support writers with disabilities, particularly individuals with mental health conditions and/or autism spectrum disorders. We understand that writers with disabilities may be undergraduate students at Pitt, graduate students, faculty, or staff. 

These pages contain information, strategies, and practices designed to support these writers at every stage of the writing and revising process. This cluster also includes an annotated bibliography of academic research and links to campus and other resources. We are planning to grow this collection of resources over the next few years.

Defining “Disability”

While disability can be defined in many ways, most definitions correspond to one of three models: the legal model, the medical model, and the social model. 

  • the legal model defines disability according to Section 12102 (1) of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which reads as follows: The term ‘disability’ means, with respect to an individual: a) a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities of such individual; b) a record of such impairment; or c) being regarded as having such an impairment.”
  • the medical model relies on diagnostic tools to define disability. For example, doctors use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to identify mental health conditions.
  • the social model defines disability as a construction. From this perspective, we understand disability as a form of difference that defies what is considered normal.  According to this model, disability is contingent on social, cultural, linguistic, and historical context.

All three of these models have been critiqued by scholars for their obvious and not so obvious limitations. Disability Studies scholars often critique the medical model for defining disability solely in terms of impairment, as a “defect” that needs to be fixed or cured. They are more likely to define disability according to the social model. However, even within Disability Studies, scholars have critiqued the social model, particularly for ignoring loss, pain, and impairment.  

Disabled Writers as Rhetors

Whether a student writer has a mental health condition or is somewhere on the autism spectrum, we think of the student first and foremost as a rhetor. The rhetorical tradition dates all the way back to ancient times, and its lineage is often traced back to Ancient Greece.  Aristotle (384 B.C. – 322 B.C.) famously defined rhetoric as the art of “discovering in any particular case all of the available means of persuasion.” Over the years, rhetoric has been theorized in many different ways by many different people, but one thing that has always characterized the art of rhetoric is its interest in language, human agency, and the particularities of our lived experience. Rhetors are people who can do many things; they can argue, persuade, debate, dialogue, cajole, convince, clarify, outwit, pontificate, and console. They are also people who can do this in various modes and genres, in their own unique ways. One of the most exciting areas of research in the field of Rhetoric and Composition Studies is about how disabled rhetors are changing the way we think about rhetoric and how we practice it.

Creating a Culture of Access

According to federal law, any student with an officially documented disability has a legal right to receive “accommodations.” This means that the student is formally registered with Disability Resources and Services (DRS), and is entitled to “reasonable accommodation.” The University of Pittsburgh has prepared a Faculty Resource Guide, which provides a statistical breakdown of the types of disabilities students at the University of Pittsburgh have, a helpful overview of how DRS defines disability, and a list of steps to take if an instructor receives an accommodation letter. In 2001, the Faculty Assembly also passed a resolution recommending that teachers include a syllabus statement about DRS.

However, creating a culture of access goes beyond complying with federal mandates and university policy. It requires professional flexibility and a commitment on the part of students and teachers to make the most inclusive, most accessible environment possible. This means that instead of considering disability a marginal concern, we should make it central to our course and assignment design. Please see our list of Best Practices for a list of sample syllabi statements designed to foster a culture of access. Studies have found that

  • Students with disabilities make up about 20% of the general student population. (Source)
  • 86% of undergraduates with mental disabilities drop out before they graduate. (Source)
  • Over 40% of graduate students suffer from severe anxiety and 39% suffer from depression. (Source)

Universal Design

In Fall 2019, Chancellor Gallagher formed a university-wide task force on inclusion and accessibility, where we established Universal Design (UD) as a shared instructional goal.  Universal Design is an approach to instruction which grew out of architecture and aims to make coursework, assignments, and classroom activities accessible to everyone regardless of ability. Recognizing that buildings were not only inaccessible but were sending a message that only able-bodied people were fit for public life, a working group of architects, product designers, engineers, and environmental design researchers established a list of UD principles.  

Taking a UD approach to a writing class means accounting as much as possible for a variety of learning styles and abilities as we design courses and assignments. For more information, please see our list of Best Practices as well as this classic article, which describes a variety of UD ideas that can be incorporated into any writing classroom: "Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space." The article is also a good resource for students writers who want strategies for generating ideas as they begin writing.