The Writing Institute plans to develop this page of the website over the next three years. Below you will find some best practices for teachers to use in order to create an inclusive classroom for all students, including writers with disabilities. This is a dynamic area where a lot of scholars are working. We have included sources for these practices at the bottom of the page (match the numbers at the end of the practice to the source below).
Craft an inclusivity statement and position it at the beginning of your syllabus.
Crafting a thoughtful syllabus statement can set the tone for your class and let students know your attitude toward disability. It can also reveal your approach to teaching students with disabilities. We have collected some examples for you to browse. While some of the sample statements on our list reflect an approach based on Universal Design, others reflect an approach which prioritizes a one-on-one, collaborative relationship with the professor.
At the beginning of the class, encourage students to talk to you individually about disabilities and life circumstances.
By letting students know that you are open, flexible, and interested, they will be more forthcoming about their learning needs and ways you can make your classroom more accessible as the term goes on. When you meet with them, ask students what you can do instead of making assumptions about what will work best for them. Above all, listen! (1)
At the beginning of the class, make your own learning needs known.
Telling students about your learning style will create an atmosphere where conversations about accessibility are welcome. (2)
Where possible, reduce policy language on your syllabus. Relocate information that can come later in the semester from the syllabus to other documents. Use hyperlinks.
Psychologists have demonstrated that students ignore information they think they can find elsewhere, and that they pay less attention to syllabi as the semester goes on. Accordingly, the rhetoric and composition scholar Anne-Marie Womack recommends that the syllabus be “appealing, legible, and navigable.” Try to include only what is necessary. (3)
Make online chat available in addition to in-person office hours.
Some students may find the intensity of a one-on-one meeting difficult, especially if they are unfamiliar with the professor’s style. Making yourself available via chat makes it more likely that students with specific disabilities will be able to communicate with you about coursework. (2)
Offer to meet students in more accessible locations and to conference via phone, chat, or email.
Even if your office is in a physically accessible location, students with specific disabilities may not be able to process information and/or express themselves effectively in all kinds of spaces. Offer to meet students in spaces that are accessible for them. For students on the autism spectrum, for example, teachers should be aware that the level of noise and other stimuli may be distracting or overwhelming. (4)
Incorporate disability into the course content.
Consider ways to incorporate disability history or disability theory into the course content. Disability can function as a form of insight. It can foreground issues of power and privilege that often go uninterrogated. (4)
Assign readings written by people with disabilities.
One good way to make disability visible is to assign readings written by people who have disabilities. The disability movement’s slogan is, “Nothing about us, without us.” A first-person account of living with a disability can demystify that disability and make it less likely that persons with disabilities will become objects of pity or fear. By foregrounding the achievements of people who are physically and/or neurologically diverse, it can also reduce stigma. (5)
Include varied assignment genres.
By asking students to compose in different genres, you are more likely to build on their strengths, expand their rhetorical capacities, and engage their interest. Assignment genres may include book reviews, editorials, persuasive essays, research reports, public ad campaigns, journal entries, project proposals, and personal responses. (6)
Assign multimodal exercises and assignments.
Allow students to work in print, sound, or video. (2). Sweetland Center has created some useful guidelines for teaching multimodal writing. And Digital Media and Pedagogy (DMAP) at Pitt has collected a variety of multimodal assignments for you to explore.
Provide specific criteria for assignments.
Some students may find open-ended assignments vague and confusing. Try to be as specific as possible when giving instructions. Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what you want the students to do (e.g. explain, analyze, summarize, describe, compare, assess, review, interpret). Also, telling the students how the assignment fits into the class and what you hope they will learn will help motivate them. (6)
Break up larger writing assignments into a shorter, more manageable set of cognitive tasks. For example, if you are assigning a research paper, you might want to have students choose an appropriate topic, put together an annotated bibliography, write a literature review, evaluate sources, and so on. Or, if you are assigning an argument paper, you might want to have students generate a list of claims, research relevant evidence, incorporate and frame quotations, identify audience expectations, and so on. It’s important that as you design assignment scaffolds, you provide context for each of the steps and explain the relationships between them. (7)
Work with students to negotiate flexible time frames and deadlines.
Rhetoric and composition scholar Anne-Marie Womack recommends expanding deadlines through “time banks”: giving students a two-day grace period for one assignment or two one-day extensions which they can apply to different assignments. If possible, allow students to set their own deadlines. (8)
Experiment with multiple channels and modes of feedback.
There are many ways to provide feedback on student papers. Ask students what will work best for them (e.g. a one-on-one conference, typed or handwritten margin notes, a sound recording, or a video). (2)
Go over assignments using an overhead projector. Before group work, explain the instructions orally and write them on the board.
Keep in mind that some students process information aurally, while others process information visually. (7)
Articulate the norms that will govern class discussions.
For students with specific disabilities, class participation can prove daunting. In some cases, it may even be impossible. By articulating the norms that will govern class discussion (for example, the kind of language that will or will not be tolerated, how and when the students can expected you to intervene, how to disagree respectfully), students may be more likely to participate. For some students, it may also be beneficial to provide direct instruction for participation. (2)
Avoid using “bipolar,” “autistic,” “schizo,” and “ADD” as metaphors.
These are actual conditions, not ways of describing qualities we dislike in other people! Set an example for your students by not using or tolerating ableist language. (9)
1: Wood, Tara and Shannon Madden. “Suggested Practices for Syllabus Accessibility Statements.” Kairos Praxis Wiki. Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy (2014).
2: Price, Margaret. Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011).
3: Womack, Anne-Marie. “Teaching is Accommodation: Universally Designing Composition Classrooms and Syllabi,” College Composition and Communication 68 no. 3 (2017): 494-525.
4: Wilson, James C. and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. “From Constructing a Third Space: Disability Studies, the Teaching of English, and Institutional Transformation,” in Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, with Jay Dolmage, 153-158. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008.
5: Browning, Ella R. “Disability Studies in the Composition Classroom,” Composition Studies 42 no. 2 (2014): 96-116.
6: Tomlinson, Elizabeth and Sarah Newman. “Valuing Writers from a Neurodiversity Perspective: Integrating New Research on Autism Spectrum Disorder into Composition Pedagogy,” Composition Studies 45 no. 2 (2017): 91-112.
7: Neilson, Danielle. “Universal Design in First-Year Composition–Why Do We Need It, How Can We Do It?” CEA Forum 42 no. 2 (2013): 3-29.
8: Wood, Tara. “Cripping Time in the College Composition Classroom,” College Composition and Communication 69 no. 2 (2017): 260-286.
9: Pryal, Katie Rose Guest. Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education (Chapel Hill: Raven Books, 2017).