Abstract

This paper was originally presented as part of a panel on métis approaches to college composition at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Pittsburgh, PA. It explores the affordances of métis for understanding the adaptive literacy practices of college students with diagnoses of I/DD. Based on findings from a grounded investigation, the author identifies ways composition instructors can utilize métis as a lens for perceiving how students with I/DD reveal "double and divergent" (Dolmage) approaches to classroom literacy.


The past decade witnessed an unprecedented expansion in postsecondary educational opportunities for U.S. students diagnosed with intellectual/developmental disabilities (I/DD). Thanks to newly available federal student aid, increased funding for staff and program development, and the establishment of Think College, a national coordinating center for the burgeoning inclusive postsecondary education movement, there are now programs for students with I/DD at 265 colleges and universities across the country ("College Search"). Most students enrolled in such programs take classes in integrated settings, usually as auditors, and receive a certificate of completion upon finishing two to four years of study. 1 While the growth of these programs has been strong, abetted by media coverage in outlets such as Forbes, The New York Times, and The Today Show, 2 questions remain about the degree to which students with I/DD are meaningfully included in the curriculum and campus life (Freedman et al).

The arrival of learners with I/DD on our campuses would seem to have significant practical and theoretical implications for the teaching of college-level rhetoric and writing. Yet the role that the field of rhetoric and composition has to play in the expansion of educational opportunity for students with I/DD remains to be seen. How will writing teachers adapt their lesson plans, assignments, classroom policies, and course learning objectives to the needs of learners with significantly different experiences with, and orientations toward, print-alphabetic literacy?

I would argue that after roughly 25 years of engaging with disability studies, the field of rhetoric and composition is uniquely equipped to, in the words of Jay Dolmage, invite learners with I/DD "in the front door" ("Mapping Composition" 14-15). Many in our field have come to question strictly medicalized and deficit-based views of mental disability, recognizing the ways in which disability is a source of knowledge, insight, and creativity. In the early 2000s, compositionists Patricia Dunn and Linda Feldmeier White helped advance this view with regard to learning disability. Subsequent work by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Margaret Price, and Melanie Yergeau explored ways in which the embodied rhetorics of people with intellectual disabilities, psychiatric disabilities, and autism (respectively) can productively destabilize academic norms. At the same time, research on user experience and UDL (Universal Design for Learning), in both composition studies and technical & professional writing, has made accessibility a central concern of inclusive pedagogy. 3 These scholarly conversations have primed the field to consider not only how we might include learners with I/DD, but what we can learn from them about writing and rhetoric.

To that end, this essay explores how college instructors can use Jay Dolmage's work on métis to include students with I/DD in efforts to make college-level reading and writing more accessible. Sharing findings from an interview-based study of student self-advocacy practices, 4 I use métis to describe the literacy learning tactics of two I/DD-identified students whom I refer to as Jordan and Malik. At the time I interviewed them, Jordan and Malik were first-year students in a well-regarded inclusive postsecondary program at a large public university. My questions about their self-advocacy practices led to in-depth discussions of some of the challenges they have faced adapting to campus life, along with their solutions to those challenges. In particular, their solutions demonstrate ways instructors can productively challenge dominant discourses surrounding technology use and collaboration in the classroom. While Jordan and Malik would not describe their solutions using the word métis, the concept is nevertheless useful for understanding the dynamic, often overlooked exchanges of power that occur in our classrooms every day.

In the essay that follows I center over the following two questions: (1) What can instructors gain from paying closer attention to these dynamics? (2) How might student performances of métis inform our own efforts to design more inclusive classroom spaces?

Dolmage has defined métis as a "distinctly embodied" (Disability Rhetoric 152), "wise and wily" intelligence (156) and "the craft of forging something practical" out of disability's "myriad meanings" (149). In the U.S., a diagnosis of intellectual disability is usually taken to mean that a person cannot perform the intellectual tasks thought necessary to function independently in contemporary society. As a result, people with I/DD frequently confront the assumption that they need help where others (supposedly) do not, as well as erroneous assumptions about their abilities based on stereotypes of I/DD in popular culture. In the classroom, these medical and cultural meanings of I/DD mix together to form a tricky symbolic terrain for students with I/DD to navigate. Métis offers the perspective that students with I/DD can and do pick their way across this terrain with clever ingenuity, revealing new pedagogical possibilities in the process. For métis, as I understand it, isn't just about individuals surviving adverse, power-laden encounters; it's a generative and adaptive form of knowledge. By attending to student performances of métis, instructors can learn how to make their classrooms more accessible—more navigable.

Suppose a student with a diagnosis of intellectual disability who struggles to read at grade level asks a peer for an oral explanation of a challenging text, rather than struggling to read it by themselves. Depending on the circumstance, an instructor could view this student's action as unauthorized collaboration; or, they could understand it as a wily adaptation to adverse circumstances. The second interpretation is less punitive and opens up radical new possibilities for collaboration in the classroom space. The student's action reveals something that rhetoric and composition scholars have long recognized: that silent reading itself developed in response to particular material and technological exigencies (Saenger). In everyday practice, literacy is frequently cooperative and interdependent. Recognizing métis can thus reveal "double and divergent" (Dolmage, Disability Rhetoric, 151) approaches to literacy, both problematizing our attachment to sedimented practices and historical trajectories and suggesting new lessons and activities whereby students with I/DD can be meaningfully included in the writing classroom.

I turn now to my analysis of Jordan and Malik's access tactics and discuss how these tactics productively challenge common yet problematic classroom practices. To keep up with his assigned reading, Jordan utilizes two forms of accommodation: an education coach who sits by him in class and helps him with his notetaking, and two speech-to-text/text-to-speech apps (Siri and Read & Write Gold). While these accommodations help Jordan access the gen ed curriculum—specifically, by enabling him to decode long sequences of printed text—they also mark him as disabled, potentially interfering with his ability to blend in with his classmates. Put another way, Jordan's assistive technologies signify liberally, generating "myriad meanings" and interpretations of his abilities that work against his desire to present himself as a competent communicator. While he could attempt to mitigate these meanings using institutionally sanctioned self-advocacy discourse, Jordan goes a step further, using embodied rhetoric to craft a tech savvy persona and positive disabled identity. As we talked, I watched as Jordan used Siri for a variety of literacy tasks—setting reminders, checking his calendar, looking up information online. I listened to him describe how he regularly uses creative software like Logic in his job as a professional musician. Jordan's disability leads to an intimacy with technology that gives him access to, in the words of Cindy Selfe, "a full palette of rhetorical and semiotic resources on which to draw" (645). By claiming this intimacy as part of his identity, Jordan crafts a practical response to his new campus environment, where tech savviness and the ability to communicate using new media are highly prized. Classrooms with overly restrictive technology policies don't just thwart Jordan's ability to flex and develop these skills; they suggest that certain ways of accessing information are more valid than others.

Like Jordan, Malik gets assistance in the classroom from a peer education coach who helps him with notetaking, classroom participation, group work, and, when necessary, advocacy. In high school, Malik's education coaches helped him both in and out of class, including with homework. When he got to college, Malik was understandably puzzled when his education coach refused to help him with his take-home assignments. He soon learned that his college program did not provide this kind of dual support, and that he would need to get homework help from the volunteers in the tutoring center, who were not always as familiar with his assignments. The semester I interviewed him, he had recently petitioned his support staff to consider a rule change that would allow him to receive extra, out-of-class support from his education coach. While I do not know whether Malik's self-advocacy led to any rule changes, at minimum, it exposed problems with the supports his school had in place to facilitate his access.

Institutions grant faculty and staff considerable authority in determining the "reasonableness" of requests like Malik's. Education coaches are student volunteers with their own busy schedules. Perhaps the staff were concerned Malik's request would put too much strain on the system or interfere somehow with his learning. A perspective informed by métis apprehends the value of including Malik in this decision-making process, specifically because he brings a wealth of knowledge to this situation from his prior experiences in high school special ed. As Malea Powell explains, in Lakota, métis means "interpreter's son, "signifying a kind of "cross-breed or hybrid" orientation to power (8). By requesting extra help from his ed coach, Malik interprets between the disconnected domains of special ed and college. His métis invites us to consider how instructional techniques used in special education classrooms could be used in college. Deeper still, it prompts reflection on why we authorize certain forms of collaboration in the classroom and delegitimize others.

Reading these accounts as stories of métis has many affordances. It situates Jordan and Malik's actions in an alternative rhetorical history, one where the power of their words and symbolic performances can be more fully appreciated. It reveals double and divergent approaches to literacy, technology, and collaboration. By reimagining our students, colleagues, and ourselves as métis-performers, we gain the gift of double vision: the ability to see the classroom as a space where multiple, equally valid approaches to access are playing out simultaneously and where access is always already contingent and "in motion" (Yergeau et al). Finally, attuning to métis can amplify the rhetoricity of individuals for whom direct speech/writing might not always be the most effective means of navigating academic space.

To be sure, métis has theoretical limitations as well. When speaking of métis, there is a tendency to idealize, even fetishize, the tactics of the disempowered. This can lead to overstating the transformative potential of métis. Tactics are only one form of agency, with limited power to alter the larger systems that contribute to the ongoing marginalization of disability in academia. That said, recognizing student métis is one way to work against the ableist discourses that construct learners with I/DD as people with 'special needs' who have limited communication skills and little to contribute to their campus communities. The field of rhetoric and composition is in a unique position to join with those in the inclusive postsecondary education movement in rewriting this narrative by promoting new, inclusive methods of literacy instruction that build upon disabled students' knowledge, experience, and preferred modes of expression, forging a more accessible future in the process.

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Endnotes

  1. See Grigal and Hart, chapters 3, 5, and, 7, for a taxonomy of program options and description of their requirements.
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  2. See Nietzel, Spencer, and Abrahamson, respectively.
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  3. Dolmage ("Disability, Usability, Universal Design"), Meloncon, and Hitt offer examples of how scholars in rhetoric and composition have taken up UDL methods in their teaching and researching to make their practices more accessible. This and other recent work on UDL in rhet/comp takes a critical stance toward UDL's claims to universality, building off of critical historiographical work that explores the role of disabled designers in UD's evolution (e.g., Hamraie, chapters 4 and 7). Dolmage's work on métis aligns in many ways with critical efforts to focus our attention on how UDL processes are inflected by shifting, localized power dynamics.
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  4. This study was IRB-approved in fall, 2017 and is ongoing. Participants were recruited from a specialized program for I/DD-identified students. To protect participants' anonymity, I've chosen not to disclose the name of the program or that of its home institution.
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