DSQ > Winter 2009, Volume 29, No.1

Conferences are a crucial area of professional development for persons with disabilities, but they are also among the most least accessible spaces that disabled persons may encounter. I argue that we need further research into these highly charged spaces, and I contribute to this agenda by analyzing 17 accessibility policy documents produced by 8 different professional organizations. Using critical discourse analysis, I examine the choices these documents have made, both verbal and visual, as well as possible outcomes of these choices for various audiences. In closing, I offer a list of generative questions that the authors of such documents should consider. It is impossible for a policy document to "imagine" access perfectly ahead of time; rather, we should understand and treat policy documents as part of a continually evolving dialogue.


Separation and isolation are central concerns of disability studies (Brownworth, 1999; Johnson, 2003; Zola, 1993). In counter to this isolation, conferences are an important part of life as a "disability studies (DS) person." Perhaps in part for this reason, the annual meeting of the Society for Disability Studies occupies a fabulous place in DS literature. I mean fabulous in two senses: first, in the sense of being narrated and re-narrated as part of the collective lore of DS; and second, in the sense that its more spectacular features, such as the dance, are often emphasized in such narrations (Garland-Thomson, 2007; Linton, 2006).

Researchers have recognized the importance of the academic conference as an academic space in general (McCarthy et al., 2004; Ventola et al., 2002), and as a space for disability studies in particular (Stoddard et al., 1998). Unfortunately, conferences are often among the least accessible spaces that people with disabilities encounter in the course of our work, since they combine the typical inaccessibility of public spaces with the fact that most participants are on unfamiliar ground.

In this article, I use critical discourse analysis to study one particular aspect of the academic conference: the document that explains, mandates, and in some cases enacts, its policy on accessibility.

The Conference and Kairotic Professional Space

Ventola et al. (2002) define a conference as a "social event comprising interrelated genres" which "arise[s] in a particular context" (p. 9). A conference attendee is likely to be involved in multiple kinds of events, including presentations, collaboration, relationship-forming (networking), mentoring, social visiting, and even job interviewing. Each conference has a particular infrastructure shaped by the situation (discipline, location, etc.) in which it takes place.1 The infrastructure makes assumptions about the persons who will access this transitory space, as well as what sort of activities they will engage in.

A conference is one example of a particular kind of dynamic space which I call kairotic professional space. Kairos is a rhetorical concept that is usually characterized as "the right or appropriate time." However, as a number of scholars have pointed out, kairos really goes further than this. Cynthia Miecznikowski Sheard (1992) compares it to the "scene" of Kenneth Burke's dramatistic pentad, and argues that it incorporates multiple elements of context, including not only time but other factors including situation, space, and attitudes, none of which, Sheard argues, can be meaningfully separated (p. 306). As this implies, kairos carries ethical and contextual as well as temporal implications, a point that has been made by writers including Michael Harker and James Kinneavy.

Kairotic professional spaces are characterized by all or most of these criteria:

  1. Real-time unfolding of events
  2. Impromptu communication required or encouraged
  3. In-person contact
  4. Strong social element
  5. High stakes

A conference is a kairotic professional space, as is a single panel or session at a conference. Potentially, so is a departmental retreat, a job interview, or a holiday party held at the workplace. I specify "all or most" to indicate that the boundaries of this category are neither rigid nor objectively determined. So, for instance, a professional discussion taking place via instant message, or a job interview held by conference call, could qualify as kairotic professional spaces despite the lack of in-person contact. But an informal lunch between two colleagues who have been friends for twenty years and who experience minimal risk in having lunch together might not. The key element is the pairing of spontaneity with high levels of professional impact.

McCarthy et al. (2004) have observed the inequities of interchanges in conference spaces. They argue that "opportunities for 'give and take' tend to be unevenly distributed among the conference attendees, depending on one's status in the community, level of participation in the formal conference program, and more subtle issues such as one's native language and level of extroversion" (p. 39). We can and should add "and disability status" to the list of issues that McCarthy et al. have identified, since — as is common knowledge among persons with disabilities — our attempts to access conference spaces are often fraught. This fraughtness has much to do with time and how it is perceived by different persons. "Crip time," a term from disability culture, refers to a flexible approach to normative time frames (Gill, 1995; Zola, 1993). Adhering to crip time might mean leaving more than fifteen minutes between sessions at a conference; it might mean recognizing that people will arrive at various intervals, and designing sessions accordingly; and it might also mean recognizing that a person is processing language at a certain rate and adjusting the pace of a conversation accordingly. It is this notion of flexibility (not just "extra" time) that joins kairos and crip time.

Despite their importance, kairotic public spaces tend to be under-studied. One reason for this is that it's difficult to collect data in them (Ventola et al., p. 361). Another reason may be that their impact tends to be underestimated by those who move through them with relative ease. The importance of kairotic professional spaces will be more obvious to a person who — for example — can hear only scraps of a conversation held among a group sitting at a table, or who experiences anxiety too severe to formulate a meaningful response to a question asked of them after a presentation.

Research Questions

Shalom (2002) identifies two types of conference genres: first, "research process genres" such as poster presentations and plenary lectures, and second, "social genres" such as coffee breaks and outings (p. 52). To these categories I would add a third: policy/procedure genres. Documents that should be classified as policy/procedure genres include the call for papers, instructions on registering and arranging for travel and accommodations, as well as guidance on access and disability accommodation. Policy/procedure genres should receive careful study because it is there that the infrastructure of a conference is inscribed. As Blanck (2005) observes, "emerging disability laws and policies continue to do battle with outdated social constructions of disability." In other words, when power relations are shifting, policy is often the space in which such shifts are enacted.2

In this study, I analyze 17 documents that delineate policies for disability accommodation at academic conferences.3 I began my analysis by asking the following research questions:

  • How does the document portray the conditions through which it has been created, disseminated, consumed and enacted? Put another way, according to the document, who does what for/to/with whom?
  • How does the document portray the access needs of the disabled conference participant? Put another way, how does the document imagine the disabled conference participant?

I address these questions by examining various accessibility policy documents using Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). In the next section, I argue for the importance of CDA in Disability Studies (DS) research, and explain my particular application of it.

Critical Discourse Analysis

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is fundamentally invested in the relationship between language and social context. According to Wodak (2001a), it stems from critical linguistics, critical theory, and discourse studies. Another important influence has been feminist post-structuralism (Lazar, 2005; Rogers et al., 2005). Fairclough and Wodak (1997) have outlined eight governing principles of CDA, including "CDA addresses social problems" and "Discourse is a form of social action" (pp. 271-279). Different practitioners of CDA may emphasize elements such as history (Wodak, 1996, 2001b); race, cognition (van Dijk, 1993, 2005); or visual rhetorics (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, 2001). Generally, what these studies have in common is their concern with the ways that language operates in social contexts to affect relationships of power. In a review of CDA in education, Rogers et al. (2005) offer a useful account of the roots and various theoretical alliances of CDA, and define it as follows: "Critical Discourse Analysis focuses on how language as a cultural tool mediates relationships of power and privilege in social interactions, institutions, and bodies of knowledge" (p. 367).

I argue that CDA is a theory/method particularly well-suited to DS for several reasons, which I identify here as "shared investments." First is their shared investment in recognizing social relations in terms of power and difference. Wodak (2001b) explains this investment for CDA: "Power is about relations of difference, and particularly about the effects of differences in social structures … CDA takes an interest in the ways in which linguistic forms are used in various expressions and manipulations of power" (p. 11). Like CDA, DS concerns itself with human difference, and emphasizes the ways that people with disabilities are ostracized, medicalized, heroized, and otherwise pushed out of the societally-defined space of the "normal" (Davis, 1995; Garland-Thomson 1997; Goffman, 1963; Linton, 1998).

Second, both CDA and DS intertwine theory with activism. Activism is not just part of the DS agenda; it is inseparable from the DS agenda (Charlton, 1998; Marks, 1996; Oliver, 1992; Shapiro, 1993). CDA takes a similarly uncompromising stance. As Fairclough and Wodak (1997) argue, it "intervenes on the side of dominated and oppressed groups and against dominating groups … [and] openly declares the emancipatory interests that motivate it" (p. 259).

Related to this second shared investment is a third: attention to relationships between the micro level of language and the macro level of power relations. While many disciplines of course share this concern, DS gives it an unusual depth of both theoretical and practical attention (Dajani, 2001; Linton, 1998; Longmore, 1985; Zola, 1993). Likewise, CDA understands language, not just as important to power relationships, but as a primary mechanism of them. Rebecca Rogers's (2002) case study of a student being placed and re-placed into special education is a good example of this, and is also one of the few works to date that explicitly links CDA and DS.

Fourth and finally, CDA and DS share an investment in multi-modality. DS is one of the disciplines responsible for introducing the term "multi-modal" into academic discourses, and the field continues to explore the implications of multi-modality in areas ranging from teaching to research to public policy. Earlier descriptions of CDA tend to view it as a language-based enterprise (see, for example, Fairclough, 1992, 1995), which is understandable considering that CDA arose from linguistics. Even these early iterations had multi-modal elements, however, since they often involved analysis of oral conversations as well as written texts. Moreover, Fairclough's three-dimensional theory of discourse (1992), which incorporates attention not only to the text itself, but also the conditions of production, distribution, consumption, and social practice that surround the text, insists that a text's meaning inheres in more than written/read words. Further studies (Kress & van Leeuwen, 1996, 2001; van Leeuwen, 2005) have continued to carry CDA beyond strict linguistics and into visual and aural modes of analysis.

In arguing for a stronger alliance between CDA and DS, I am pointing out not simply their compatibility, but their potential to meet each others' areas of need. Researchers in DS are in need of a clearer accounting of our own methodologies. Part of our strength, of course, comes from our ability to draw from our many "home" disciplines, so that DS research is as likely to be cognitive as literary, and it can encompass many different value systems and approaches. However, if we do not speak more explicitly about the approaches we are using, we run the risk of repeatedly re-inventing the wheel. For example, Dajani's (2001) analysis of language in mass media references to disability emphasizes what she calls "the use of adjectives as nouns." She finds many examples of this (as in the phrase "the disabled" or "the blind"), and reflects upon the dehumanizing effects of this grammatical turn. What she does not do is draw upon the long tradition in linguistics of recognizing this turn, which is called nominalization or presupposition. Instead, she draws upon Longmore (1985), which — prior to most major CDA publications — made the same point about "adjectives used as abstract nouns" (p. 419). In the years between 1985 and 2001, a significant amount of work was done within linguistics on nominalization, but Dajani's article gives no indication of it. My argument here does not aim to undercut the importance of Dajani's research, but merely to point out that it could gain greater power if it made use of the extensive work on nominalization already existent.

CDA too has a need that DS might help fulfill: namely, a clearer sense of its own "credible efficacy, on its own terms, as an instrument of social justice" (Chilton, 2005, p. 21). Disability studies, and the disability rights movement in general, have led to enormous social and political changes, not least of which was the Americans with Disabilities Act (Shapiro, 1993). Although these changes continue (appropriately) to be the center of evolving discussions, there is no question that DS research has and will continue to lead to change.

CDA is just one example of a methodological approach that would be a helpful ally in DS research. Other approaches — quantitative, qualitative, narrative, statistical, and so forth — could make as compelling an argument. My point is that we, as diversely situated DS researchers, should discuss exactly what approaches we are using, how, and why. Our research does not require a one-size-fits-all approach. But if we are more explicit about our methods, we will have a greater chance of realizing our potential for interdisciplinarity, not just multidisciplinarity.

Selection and Analysis of Policy Documents

I became interested in researching accessibility policy documents because I recently participated in the writing of two such documents for two different professional organizations — The Conference on College Composition and Communication, and the Future of Minority Studies Project — both of which are included in this study. Like Rogers (2002), I apply CDA with the assumption that I can and should intervene in the situations I study, as well as recognize my implication in systems of power. I consciously worked to avoid some of the pitfalls of CDA, including a distant, "holier-than-thou" attitude (Lewis, 2006, p. 377) or selective attention only to those examples which shore up my political stance (Widdowson, 1998). In selecting this corpus, I deliberately attempted to identify leaders in the area of academic statements on disability policy. My aim is to ask what these statements are doing well, and how they might do it better, rather than to pooh-pooh work that, as I know from experience, involves a great deal of time and effort. This study attempts a "reconstructive" form of CDA (Luke, 2004) through which I make three critical moves: identify the statements’ actions to improve accessibility; provide suggestions for their potential revision, as well as for the writing of new statements; and finally, ask what problems might inhere in kairotic professional spaces that these statements cannot address.

I gathered the corpus of documents by placing calls on two listservs, Disability Studies in the Humanities and the Society for Disability Studies, as well as conducting Web searches using keywords such as "accommodation," "access," "disability" and "policy." I included only statements that are publicly available on the Web. I did not include statements from one-time conferences, but rather from established conferences that occur regularly. The corpus represents a range of disciplines, and includes documents from these organizations:

  • American Psychology Association (APA)
  • American Public Health Association (APHA)
  • Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)
  • Future of Minority Studies Project (FMS)
  • Modern Language Association (MLA)
  • Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities (PacRim)
  • Pediatric Academic Societies (PAS)
  • Society for Technical Communication (STC)

Table 1 summarizes the policy document(s) associated with each professional organization, along with other information including year of edition/update.

Table 1: Summary of Accessibility Policy Documents
Organization / sub-organization Document title Document type (sub-genre) Year published or updated Format(s) available
APA Full Participation for Psychologists with Disabilities General 1997 HTML or PDF
APA Persons with Disabilities Conference-specific (San Francisco) 2007 HTML
APA / Disability Issues in Psychology Office Convention Resources Conference-specific (San Francisco) 2007 HTML
APHA Eliminating Access Barriers in Public Health Meetings General 2000 HTML
APHA Accessibility Policy Conference-specific (Washington, DC) 2007 HTML
APHA Accessibility Guide Conference-specific (Washington, DC) 2007 HTML, PDF or DOC
CCCC A Policy on Disability in CCCC General 2006 HTML
CCCC Information for Attendees with Disabilities Conference-specific (Chicago) 2006 PDF
FMS Feedback requested on accessibility guidelines. General 2007 HTML
MLA Access Guidelines for MLA Convention Session Organizers and Speakers Conference-specific (Chicago) 2007 HTML
MLA Guidelines for Speakers and Session Organizers Not specified Not dated PDF
PacRim Accessibility Guidelines for Presenters [1] Conference-specific (Honolulu) 2007 HTML
PacRim Accessibility Guidelines for Presenters [2] Conference-specific (Honolulu) Not dated PDF
PAS Attendees with Disabilities Conference-specific (Toronto) 2007 HTML
STC STC Diversity Policy General 2007 HTML
STC AccessAbility General 2007 HTML
STC / AccessAbility SIG Accessibility Guide Conference-specific (Minneapolis) 2007 PDF

My analysis of these documents incorporates the three major dimensions of CDA outlined by Fairclough (2003): genre, discourse and style. Rogers (2002) offers a helpful explanation of what each of these dimensions implies: Genres involve "coordination of activity"; discourses involve "how texts are represented through production, consumption, and distribution of texts, as well as what perspective(s) they represent"; and styles involve "how text informs the identification of people involved in [a] practice" (p. 221). Analysis of the three dimensions was recursive: that is, I examined the texts with attention to how each dimension shaped the others, rather than analyzing one dimension one at a time.

A complete critical discourse analysis of all these statements could occupy a book. By necessity, I limited the number of textual elements I studied, focusing on those which most directly inform my research questions, including intertextuality, interdiscursivity, use of pronouns, nominalization, modality, dialogicity, and legitimation. (Each of these elements is explained in more detail in the sections below.) My approach to each element draws primarily from Fairclough (1992, 1995, 2003) and van Leeuwen (2005; Kress and van Leeuwen, 1996). In addition, to mitigate the concern of selective representation of data, I relied on Barton's (2002) criteria for rich feature analysis: all elements identified in this analysis, except where explicitly noted, exhibit linguistic integrity (frequency and/or emphasis of use) and contextual value (significant role in the text's overall meaning) (p. 24).

As I analyzed the documents, I found that they fall into three distinct sub-genres. First are documents that set general policy for disability-related access within a given professional organization. These often take the form of position papers, as with CCCC's "A Policy on Disability in CCCC." Second are documents which outline policy for a specific conference taking place in a particular location and time. These generally combine policy statements with guidelines and information for conference participants, as with the APA's "Persons with Disabilities" (San Francisco 2007). Third are documents published by sub-groups such as special-interest groups, within professional organizations. Documents in this third category generally suggest rather than set policy, as with the guidelines provided by the "AccessAbility" Special Interest Group from the Society for Technical Communication. Table 1 identifies which of the three sub-genres each document represents in the column headed "Document type (sub-genre)."

In order to make the discussion of this analysis accessible to readers in a variety of disciplines, I have organized the results, not by units of analysis or genre, but in terms of more general themes: justification; authorship/audience; and enactment. These themes emerged during analysis, and each turns a different but important lens upon the two main research questions:

  • How does each document portray its own creation, consumption and enactment;
  • How does each document imagine the disabled conference participant?


All of the documents offer some justification for their existence, whether implicitly or explicitly. That is, they explain to some degree why they are needed, and/or how they came to be written. The variety of justifications offered indicates that the documents are drawing upon different underlying discourses. My analysis here draws upon the concept of interdiscursivity, explained by Fairclough (2003) as "the particular mix of genres, of discourses, and of styles upon which [a text] draws, and of how different genres, discourse or styles are articulated (or 'worked') together in a text" (p. 218). In contrast to intertextuality, which attends to language that is closely replicated between texts, interdiscursivity attends to replication of larger formations. For example, a newspaper article that uses the word "afflicted" to refer to a person with cerebral palsy is drawing interdiscursively upon a tragic and medicalized discourse of disability.

Documents from the first sub-genre (general policy or position statements) were most likely to contain explicit justifications for their existence. These justifications drew upon a range of discourses. For example, the general statement from the APA, "Full Participation for Psychologists with Disabilities," sets forth 16 clauses that begin "WHEREAS" before stating "THEREFORE, be it resolved, that," which is in turn followed by this relatively brief declarative statement:

APA reaffirms its continued support for full compliance with the provisions and principles of the Americans with Disabilities Act and all other relevant statues and pledges to meet the reasonable requirements of its members with disabilities when providing the services and benefits to which all members are entitled.

Clearly, this document is drawing upon legal discourses, both in its "whereas / therefore" framing, and also in its references to legal statutes, as well as the ADA phrase "reasonable requirements." However, the list of "whereas" statements draws upon other discourses as well. One is a utilitarian discourse: When people with disabilities are excluded, according to the APA policy, this "depriv[es] society of a very valuable resource pool." This utilitarian logic provides what I call the value-added justification. Further along, the policy adds a social-justice justification when it declares that the APA "has historically taken a proactive position in opposition to discrimination against minority groups." At first glance, then, this statement hews closely to legal discourse and the APA, but closer analysis shows that it in fact draws on a mix of discourses in building its justification.

Another position statement that resembles the APA's in its conspicuous reliance on legal discourse comes from the APHA. This statement, titled "Eliminating Barriers in Public Health Meetings," sets forth eight remarks as givens, each beginning with "Noting" or "Recognizing." However, this statement differs markedly from the APA's in that, after its logical turn ("therefore"), it offers a long list of specific recommendations for public-health organizations. These include "Select accessible sites," "Provide personal assistance for meeting site orientation," and "Ensure that persons with disabilities have an equal opportunity to participate in all governance functions and decision-making."4 Thus, although this document, like the APA's, postures as a legal statement, it morphs after the logical turn to become a statement on specific procedure as well as abstract policy.

Like the APA's and the APHA's, the general policy statement from CCCC ("A Policy on Disability in CCCC") begins by naming a series of postulates about this organization: "CCCC recognizes …", "CCCC understands …" etc. In addition, the CCCC policy offers what I call the diversity justification: "CCCC affirms that people with disabilities bring a valuable source of diversity to college composition classrooms, university communities, and to our professional organizations." This justification draws interdiscursively upon a belief system which takes diversity as an a priori good. As Powell (2004) has shown, because notions of diversity have become so manipulable, it may be invoked for reasons of expediency rather than justice (p. 451). For this reason, academic discourse is now gravitating toward the term difference instead. At the same time, the importance of drawing upon the interdiscursive power of diversity cannot be disregarded, especially when some organizations fail to recognize disability as a "diversity issue" at all.5

One such statement — or rather, group of statements — is from the STC, whose policy documents, when analyzed as a whole, effect a strange uncoupling of disability from diversity. The closest thing I could find to a general accessibility policy was a brief text titled "STC Diversity Policy." However, this document does not mention disability at all. It begins:

As an international professional organization, we recognize that the membership of STC includes individuals representing different faiths, religions, beliefs, and lifestyles. STC aims to make its services and benefits available to all members while respecting their differences.

The next two paragraphs, also brief, invoke "the sensitivities of members" as well as "national or religious holidays." Analyzing the interdiscursive echoes here, I find that STC's conception of diversity primarily involves religious and national difference, with a possible faint echo of attention to sexuality ("lifestyles"). However, disability, as well as other major markers of difference, such as gender, are absent.

STC does have an extensive policy on disability, but interestingly, this policy is maintained, not by the organization itself, but by one of its special interest groups, the AccessAbility SIG. It is unclear who authored the document that explains the justification for AccessAbility's existence; titled simply "AccessAbility," it is framed as an informational statement about the SIG and contains a fairly extensive explanation for the SIG's existence. This policy gestures toward the value-added justification, saying that its purpose is to help disabled STC members "achieve their potential." However, more prominent is a medical discourse which relies upon the concept of disability as a "special needs" issue:

The AccessAbility SIG serves as a focal point both to help members with special needs achieve their potential and to help ensure the accessibility of technical communication products to end users with special needs. … Examples of "special needs" include speech recognition software, Braille keyboards, improved wheelchair access, a Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) business line, and Section 508-compliant Web site design.

Invocation of "special needs" draws interdiscursively upon the notion of disability as a medicalized, individual problem. Drawing on Barton (2001), I call this the charitable justification. It also sets up an implicit separation between those with "special" needs and those with "normal," unmarked needs, a tendency that has drawn criticism from within the discipline of technical communication (Palmeri, 2006).

It is important to note that the interdiscursive echoes in the policies' justifications do not necessarily cohere around one discourse or another. More typically, each document presents a mash-up of various discourses, some of which conflict. Adding to the complexity, one professional society may produce multiple accessibility documents, each forming an interdiscursive web of its own. Returning to Fairclough's three dimensions of discourse, then, we must recognize that every text — including one that initially appears quite autonomous, like a position statement — is in fact situated within an overlapping set of con/texts. The relationships between these con/texts are explored at more length in the section "Enactment."


My analysis treats the notions of author and audience as interdependent, and focuses particularly on the ways that the policy documents imagine their diversely situated readers and those readers' roles in the future situations the documents describe. The particular linguistic features identified in this phase of analysis were pronouns, nominalization, modals, and dialogicity.

As a feature of discourse, pronouns are especially significant in analyses involving disability (Price, 2007; 2009). Because so much of disability identity, as well as DS theory, relies upon the highly active borderland between dis and abled, pronouns provide a useful window onto the processes of these negotiations. Fairclough (2003) argues that, in addition to being "usually worth attending to in texts" (p. 149), pronouns tend to work in conjunction with other linguistic elements, such as the use of passive voice or nominalization, to effect relations of power.

The Modern Language Association (MLA) does not have a general policy or position statement on accessibility. Nor does it have publicly available policies or texts produced by sub-groups within the MLA. Its accessibility policy is re-inscribed each year on the section of the MLA website which gives information about that year's annual meeting.6 This policy, titled "Access Guidelines for MLA Convention Session Organizers and Speakers," sets up "the MLA" as author, and opens with this declaration:

The MLA is committed to making arrangements that allow all members of the association to participate in the convention. Therefore, the MLA requests that all session organizers and presenters review the following information and take the necessary steps to make their sessions accessible to attendees with permanent or temporary disabilities.

Here, the document uses no pronouns. In fact, in this document of 478 words, only 5 pronouns appear altogether. To avoid pronouns, the document relies heavily on nouns or noun phrases ("speakers," attendees with disabilities"), as well as passive constructions ("the guidelines listed below have been designed," "space has been left"). These linguistic strategies construct an author who occupies a distantly powerful and unmarked position — what philosopher Thomas Nagel (1986) has called the "view from nowhere." In this way, the MLA document takes on the powerfully impersonal stance of most formal professional documents. Reinforcing the power of its authorial position, "Access Guidelines" uses imperatives to direct its readers' actions, as well as repeated use of the modal verb "should," as in the statement "Speakers should bring five copies of their papers."

These strategies — lack of pronouns, passive voice, imperatives, use of modal verbs — are frequently used in formal professional documents to reinforce the dominant paradigm. However, one could also argue that in the case of the MLA accessibility policy, these strategies are being used in order to subvert that paradigm, that is, to avoid the ossified "us/them" binary that governs so much discourse on disability. Analyzing further, I found that the significance of the "author" position in the MLA document cannot be fully understood without also paying attention to the way that the document's language positions its invoked audience.

"Access Guidelines" addresses itself explicitly to "MLA convention session organizers and speakers," reaffirming throughout that its concern is with those persons' actions. Thus, it works against the traditional habit of addressing such documents to disabled people. Instead, it indicates that if one is presenting information, one is responsible for attending to accessibility. A contrasting examples comes from the 2006 CCCC convention program, which includes a section titled "Information for Attendees with Disabilities." This implicitly encourages readers who do not have disabilities to skip past this section and to assume that access is not their responsibility. Similarly, while the accessibility document from the Pediatric Academic Societies for their 2007 (Toronto) meeting is ambiguously titled "Americans with Disabilities Act Information and Accommodation," its first line leaves little doubt as to what audience is being addressed: "The PAS welcomes those that have disabilities and will work with you to ensure you have a pleasant experience at the PAS Meeting" (emphasis added). To reiterate my point about the aim of this analysis, I do not wish to attack the CCCC or PAS guidelines here, but to point out that very few nondisabled readers are likely to proceed past the title or first line of their statements.

The MLA's document makes its point implicitly; another, the in-progress accessibility guidelines currently under discussion by the Future of Minority Studies Project (FMS), does so explicitly.7 Although the FMS's document is something of an outlier in my sample, since all others are publicly available, it merits consideration because it makes an unusual rhetorical move: it states first and directly that responsibility for access must be shared by all members of that professional society. The draft FMS statement begins with three "guiding principles," the first of which reads:

Accessibility must be a collaborative (and on-going) effort that draws on the different experiences and knowledges of all FMS participants (and so helps us all develop new understandings that we can take into the other organizing work we do). Everyone has a responsibility for insuring access for conference participants.

Most of the policies studied here do make some gesture, however faint, toward the importance of shared responsibility for access. However, the FMS policy alone chooses to state this responsibility so explicitly and to place it first in its policy. Other policies, by addressing individual constituencies within the organization, imply that access is the responsibility of some but not of others. For instance, a policy that addresses conference presenters implies that access is important for the conference's formal exchanges (what Shalom calls "research process genres") but not for its many informal and unplanned, but no less professionally significant, exchanges ("social genres").

Author and audience, in the case of accessibility policy documents, cannot be adequately analyzed without attention to the question of how the two entities interact. In part this is a question of enactment (the topic of the next section); however, it is also a question of what Fairclough (2003) calls (drawing upon Bakhtin) "dialogicity." Fairclough defines dialogicity as "a measure of the extent to which there are dialogical relations between the voice of the author and other voices, the extent to which these voices are represented and responded to, or conversely excluded or suppressed" (p. 214). Dialogicity according to Fairclough is a function of attention to difference: the less evidence of difference apparent in a text, the less it exhibits dialogicity "in the richest sense of the term" (p. 41). Intertextuality is an example of "dialogicity"; so, for instance, when the APHA general policy document cites 23 references, this is a dialogic move. However, as Wodak (2000) observes, policy documents usually tend to efface difference in their final (and public) versions.

All of the general policy documents include some evidence of dialogicity in the form of references to other sources. However, they do not manifest much evidence of attention to difference, nor do they include invitations for interlocution. In fact, each general policy document includes a date of adoption, indicating that these documents are meant to behave as events rather than conversations. They are what rhetoricians and linguists would call performative utterances — that is, statements which construct truth as it is spoken. (The classic example of a performative utterance is "I now pronounce you husband and wife.") The CCCC policy makes a subtle mention of forthcoming discussion by ending with the sentence "The Committee on Disability Issues in College Composition looks forward to sustained dialogue on these issues," but this is more a general exhortation than an invitation, as it does not specify when, how, or with whom.

By contrast, the other two sub-genres (documents created for a particular iteration of a conference, or documents created by a sub-group of a professional organization) are more often presented as being in progress in some way, and more often include explicit invitations for contact. The imagined or invoked recipient of such invitations varies: some of the documents invite persons in general, or presenters in general, to make contact, while others extend their invitation only to persons with disabilities. The APA's convention-specific document ("Persons with Disabilities"), for example, makes it clear that it is addressed only to persons with disabilities, not only through its title, but through its invitation for contact:

[T]he Board of Convention Affairs asks each person with a disability who is planning to attend the convention to identify himself or herself and to provide information on how APA can make the convention more accessible for him or her. Please check the appropriate box on the Advance Convention Registration and Hotel Reservation Forms if you are disabled and would like assistance in facilitating your attendance at the convention. (emphasis added)

This statement, by inviting dialogue only with attendees with disabilities, implies that accessibility is their problem, and not anyone else's. However, another APA document, this one produced by the sub-group Disability Issues in Psychology, addresses speakers in general, and splits its invitation between groups:

For more information: If you are a speaker with a disability and have access or special needs, please notify Candy Won, Director of Convention and Meeting Services, so that she may assist you. For general questions, concerns, or comments, please contact: Disability Issues in Psychology Office [street address, voice phone number, TTY number].

The APHA's conference-specific statement ("Accessibility") is addressed to readers in general, and exhorts all readers to make contact regarding accessibility; twice in three paragraphs, it includes a request to "let us know of ways in which we can better respond to your needs," then "let us know of ways in which we can better address issues of accessibility in the future." The mode of contact offered in this case is an email address.

The mode of contact is important to notice, since this in itself is an accessibility issue. By offering only a voice-phone number, or only an email address, a document forecloses the option of contact for some readers. The MLA's guidelines are an example of a multi-modal invitation: they offer an individual's name, her email address, street address, fax number, and TDD number.


I analyze enactment in two ways. First, I examine how the documents themselves enact accessibility. In other words, how are they presented to the reader, not only in terms of language, but in terms of format, layout, and modality? Second, I look at the ways that policy documents imagine their own enactment in concrete spaces and times. In other words, once people begin arriving at (or trying to get to) the conference, how might the terms of the policies play out?8

As noted above, with the exception of the in-progress FMS guidelines, this study samples policy documents which are publicly accessible on the World Wide Web. In examining each document's accessibility, I drew upon the coding protocol used in a detailed study of Web accessibility policies and their enactment in public documents (Klein et al., 2005). Klein et al. suggest examination of elements including abundance of descriptive data, use of alternative formats such as ALT tags, and accessibility of Adobe Acrobat (PDF) files. I also drew upon van Leeuwen's (2005) application of CDA to Web-based texts.

Unsurprisingly, the STC's AccessAbility SIG is a leader in the area of Web accessibility. Its home page's first line, for example, gives the user a choice of formats including text, large-print text, aural, standard contrast, and high contrast. It explains its use of multiple formats (PDF, HTML, etc.), includes links for downloading free software when needed., and explicitly discusses how to access its PDF files with a screen reader. Among the documents in its archives is an article, part manifesto, part how-to, titled "Conforming to Web Site Accessibility: By Law or By Choice?" Other policies include less accessible elements such as unmarked PDF links (in other words, links that appear to lead to HTML documents but which in fact lead to PDFs, in some cases in outdated versions) or untagged images. Palmeri (2006) argues that web pages should use what he calls a "participatory" approach to design — in other words, an approach that treats access as "a source of transformative insight" for all rather than "a concern particular to a subset of users" (p. 57). Most of the policies' attempts to enact access in this sense were limited.

A thorough analysis of each policy's Web accessibility is beyond the scope of this paper; however, I pay special attention to one element of analysis, highlighted both by Klein et al. (2005) and by van Leeuwen (2005): linking. Van Leeuwen argues that, through its structure, a Web-based text "controls meaning just as much — maybe even more — than other, more linear texts" (p. 93). This was especially evident in the cases where one professional society provided several different policies on accessibility. If we focus on the meaning constructed, not just within each document, but in the linked relationships between the documents, it becomes evident that the person attempting to navigate these paths may find them torturous, and in some cases almost nonexistent.

For example, if a potential conference-goer — let's call her Margaret — were to browse the APA's site for accommodation information on the 2007 convention (San Francisco), she would probably find the general convention page fairly quickly, since it links directly from the organization's main page. However, to find the "Persons with Disabilities" page, she must first click on "Housing and Travel," then on "Persons with Disabilities." In other words, the linked relationships between these documents defines disability access as a matter of housing and travel (rather than, say, "Registration" or "Programming," which are two of the other nodes offered within the convention website).

The path to full information on access is even more convoluted than this, however. Returning to the APA's main page, Margaret can click on "Association Info" and then "Public Interest Directorate," at which point a link labeled simply "Disabilities" will appear. Clicking this link leads her to the highly detailed and informative site for the APA sub-group "Office on Disability Issues in Psychology" (ODIP). Unfortunately, this rich site is not only difficult to locate, but cannot be reached from the APA's general conference page. In other words, although the ODIP does provide a direct link to the APA's conference page, there is no corresponding link in the other direction. This might not be a problem, except that the ODIP's page offers a large amount of detailed and important information on conference access, including the fact that a Disability Resource Room will be available, its location, its hours, and what resources it offers. Even more ironically, the "[Accessibility] Guidelines for APA Conference Speakers" appears on the ODIP's site, but neither appears on nor is linked directly to the APA's general conference site. Therefore, according to the logic of this system, persons who are specifically concerned with disability access are reasonably likely to see the guidelines, but — barring some miracle — the general presenting population is not.

Linking is significant not only in terms of where the links lead, but also how the links themselves are arranged on a page. An example of this is the "General Information" page for the Pediatric Academic Societies' Annual Meeting. On this page, the links titled "Attendees with Disabilities" and "Wheelchair or Scooter Rental" are given equal standing, in terms of size and position on the page, as other sections such as "Abstracts" and "Message Center." As Kress and van Leeuwen (1996) point out, visual texts tend to be read topologically, that is, such that spatial relationships take on presumptive value. On the PAS Annual Meeting page, then, policy regarding disability access takes on a value at least approaching, if not equal to, the value awarded to presentation abstracts.

Now to the second dimension of enactment — the documents' attempts to imagine how access will play out in a particular kairotic professional space. My analysis begins with the acknowledgement that real-time enactment of accommodations rarely operates in just the way we anticipated or were promised. Recognizing this is one way to center a disability perspective in research: intentions, however good, often have only a passing relationship to how accommodations play out in real time/space. It is also why I argue that attention to kairotic space is so urgent in DS research: too often we are barred from spaces due to snags that turn upon seemingly tiny details. To solidify this argument in material experience — to enact it, as it were — I offer the example of a recent problem that a friend and I encountered as we waited for transportation from the San Diego airport. We were attending a conference that was highly concerned with disability issues, both theoretical and practical, and an accessible van had been arranged in advance. However, when the "accessible" van arrived, it turned out that it was not accessible for a motorized wheelchair, which my friend uses; it was "accessible" only in the sense that it had a trunk and a large backseat. My friend and I ended up waiting over two hours on the sidewalk, in sweltering heat and choking exhaust, waiting for the "accessible" van we kept being assured would arrive. On such seemingly tiny details does access rest.

The policies studied exhibited varying degrees of awareness of the unstable relationship between policy and enactment. For example, the FMS policy-in-progress states as the third of its three guiding principles, "Always plan ahead; always have a Plan B." In this way, the document assumes the instability of the policy/enactment relationship. Other statements, while not as explicit, signal their attention to the importance of enactment by getting specific about the variables that arise in kairotic space, including the exact configuration of buildings, the types of services available, and precisely when those services can be accessed. For example, the APHA's "Accessibility Guide" for their 2007 annual meeting (Washington, D.C.) is 23 pages long, and includes information about accessibility at the meeting location itself, as well as at airports, hotels, and Washington, D.C. in general.

Here, again, author/audience plays an important role. Upon close analysis, it appears plausible that parts of the APHA's guide make use of boilerplate from other sources, as when it refers to Washington's "vast green spaces, sweeping memorials, and majestic neoclassical buildings" (19). If not an actual quotation another document, such as a visitor's guide, this phrase does at least draw interdiscursively on the tourism business — a discourse characterized by optimism and grand gestures. This places in a different perspective statements such as "Taxis are readily available in the downtown area": what does "readily" available mean? And available to whom? (I must reiterate here that my aim is not to sharpshoot at leaders in the area of accessibility policy documents — of which APHA is certainly one — but to point out just how difficult is the task of attempting to write policy which can adequately account for kairotic space.)

Another detailed "Accessibility Guide," this one from the STC's AccessAbility SIG for their 2007 Summit (Minneapolis), takes a different approach by offering descriptions of Minneapolis, hotel, airports, etc., in the first person singular:

I was able to visit all of the hotels one day in March. Although I wasn't able to get into any of the rooms, I was able to tour the lobby area and portions of the second floor … Once in the [Hyatt Regency Hotel] lobby, you will find a bar on your right, straight ahead there is a large, carpeted lobby with many small arrangements of furniture on different levels for meeting and visiting. The check-in counter is in the back of the lobby. There are ramps for wheelchair access wherever necessary, but there was not a wheelchair level check-in counter. … (p. 22).

While such a detailed description is not always feasible, nor does it fully solve the anticipation/enactment problem, it is intriguing to note the differences between the level of detail provided by this guide and that provided by, for example, a bland statement that "the conference hotel is fully accessible."

Many of the policy statements, particularly those addressed to conference presenters, offer specific guidelines for enacting access. For example, the Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities explains what materials to provide (CD-ROM copies, 40-50 print copies, vocabulary list, captioning for videos, etc.). It also offers to produce Braille and large-print formats, stipulating that if materials are not received in advance, presenters are responsible for producing these alternative formats themselves. Moreover, PacRim's "Accessibility Guidelines for Presenters" includes a statement about possible consequences for not following these guidelines: "Your observation of these guidelines will impact the review of future proposals to the Pac Rim conference." Thus, while some documents frame their accessibility guidelines as requests or suggestions, the PacRim document makes it clear that enacting accessibility is a requirement.

Inevitably, the more specific such guidelines become, the more their awareness of certain forms of accommodation as opposed to others becomes apparent. The accommodations most frequently mentioned in the policies studied are wheelchair access; mobility aids such as scooters; alternative-format copies of presentations; and sign language interpretation. An important assumption to avoid here is that particular accommodations are "for" particular kinds of disabilities. For example, while it might be assumed that hard copies of papers are only for people with hearing impairments, in fact transcripts aid a wide range of people, including those who have difficulty focusing on, remembering, or processing oral language, whether that difficulty stems from fatigue, an illness, a psychosocial disability such as anxiety, or a brain injury. With that said, however, it is notable how few of the statements mention disabilities other than those which involve impairments of mobility, seeing, and hearing. One exception is the APHA's "Accessibility Guide," which not only mentions both chemical sensitivity and chronic pain, but offers a detailed comment on how to enact accommodation of these disabilities:

Specific requests will be made to the hotels that chemicals not be used on the meeting room carpeting within 4 days of the commencement of our meeting and that only unscented products be used in guest rooms. In addition, APHA requests that its meeting attendees refrain from the use of perfumes, hair sprays and other chemicals, for the comfort and health of all our registrants. … APHA members with disabilities (including chronic pain) have indicated that in crowded locations and at other times at APHA they experience perhaps unintended pushing or well-intended taps that have caused pain or have caused them to lose their balance. Please be aware of this and be considerate of all our members. (5)

APHA's statement is unusual; few of the policies mention chronic pain or fatigue, chemical sensitivity, or mental disabilities, and very few discuss their accommodation at any length. Susan Wendell (2001)'s "Unhealthy Disabled," which explores the theoretical and practical problems of considering chronic illness a disability, acknowledges that "impairment" for chronic illness may mean something quite different than for a person who is disabled but not ill — what Wendell calls "healthy disabled." She insightfully concludes that the impairments of chronic illness, while difficult to understand in a traditional DS paradigm, "cannot be accommodated if they are not acknowledged and discussed openly" (p. 23). The same is true for other so-called "hidden" disabilities, including mental illness.

Generative Questions

Because access is a practice rather than an event, it's difficult, if not impossible, to offer any sort of blueprint for policies that will be written or revised in local contexts. Instead, I offer a list of generative questions. In the spirit of this analysis, I wish to emphasize that I have thought of eight questions here, but I hope more will be added if this study serves the dialogic role for which it is intended.

  1. What discourses does the statement draw upon? Or, put another way, what rationales does it offer for its formulation? Does it invoke access as a practical, "value-added" issue; access as a social-justice issue; compliance with mandated access for legal reasons (ADA); or rationales specific to its own discipline? If it cites highly "double-voiced / dialogic" (Bakhtin, 1986) terms such as "diversity," does it clarify what is meant by these terms?
  2. How does the statement define its audiences? Is it "for" participants with disabilities? "For" presenters? "For" all organization members? What audiences are imagined, addressed, and invoked?
  3. Who authors the statement? If communal authorship, how is production negotiated? How is authorship identified?
  4. What are the terms of the document's production and dissemination? How transparent are the statement's history and modes of circulation?
  5. Is the document available for feedback regarding revision? Is feedback specifically invited? In what modes (written, oral/aural, email, etc.) may feedback be offered?
  6. If there are various responsible persons, committees, bodies, etc., authoring the document, how do these entities communicate with one another — not just in concrete communications, but through intertextual and interdiscursive references and links to one another?
  7. Where impairments or specific accommodations are mentioned, what kinds of disabilities do these account for, and which are left out? Do some accommodations potentially conflict with one another? How are such potential conflicts addressed?
  8. What plans are indicated for reports on the enactment of such policies? Is there a mechanism in place to create a dialogue loop of policy, enactment, and revision?


In this article, my focus has been on policy documents because I believe they play a crucial, but rarely acknowledged, role in conference accessibility. However, this one aspect of change must be joined by a deeper and broader questioning of "the conference" in its entirety. What problems might inhere in the conference, as it is currently imagined, that policy statements cannot address? Where will we need larger, more quantum-level changes? For example, does "presenting" really have to involve standing or sitting before a group of (mostly) strangers and performing in real time? Further, must one be physically present to present? Does attendance have to involve getting on a plane and flying to some distant city? McCarthy et al. (2004), and others in computer science, have for some years been arguing for ways that digital communication can dissolve the conventional in-person, panel-driven structure of most conferences. Or, to take another example, do conferences have to be so exhausting? Is the current model of three to five motion- and language-packed days (and often nights) really the best way for all of us to learn from one another? Susan Wendell (2001) points out that accommodating chronic illness in our professional and activist spaces will involve, not merely adjustments, but deeper attitudinal shifts: "People will have to think differently about energy and commitment, pace and cooperation" (p. 26). In general, if we wish to create accessible ways to meet one another and share our ideas, what traditions of competitiveness and agonistic discourse, of academic hierarchies in general, will have to be dismantled?

I hope this study will join with other calls — at present, too few — for reform of conference structures in many areas, including the cost of attendance (particularly for independent scholars and other non-tenured academics), the media/modes used for sharing ideas, and the inclusivity of organizations' governing structures. Disability studies has the potential to serve as a leader in calling for and effecting such changes. For example, Bradley Lewis's (2006) Moving Beyond Prozac, DSM, & the New Psychiatry offers a "thought experiment" in which he sketches ways to reform psychiatry as a whole, including the annual American Psychiatric Association conference, in order to achieve a more democratic structure that includes central roles for "c/s/x" (consumer/survivor/ex-patient) participants (pp. 158-159). Lewis acknowledges — as I do, in regard to the present study — that the call for reform is to some degree "a normative recommendation" (p. 163). However, like Lewis, I am a pragmatist; and like him, I believe that "starting the argument for democracy matters" (p. 163). Reform, and perhaps one day radical restructuring, of the conference must be a collective imaginative project.

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  1. I am using infrastructure rather than built context because it better encapsulates all variables of a situation, including spatial, temporal, and attitudinal. This notion of infrastructure is drawn from Grabill (2003), who develops it specifically in relation to access, and who in turn draws upon Star and Ruhleder (1996).

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  2. The importance of paying attention to the ways that access is enacted in the real time of a conference cannot be overstated; in the section "Enactment," I address this element in detail.

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  3. A number of publications offer general guidelines for making meetings more accessible. These include "A Model for Accessibility" from the University of Hawai'i (http://www.cds.hawaii.edu/main/publications/modelforaccess); "Equal Access" from the University of Washington (http://www.washington.edu/doit/Brochures/Programs/equal_conf.html); and "Removing Barriers" (http://www.fpg.unc.edu/~ncodh/pdfs/rbmeetingguide.pdf) from North Carolina State University.

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  4. Each of these items is spelled out in more detail; I have provided just the first phrase from each example.

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  5. Although the platform adopted by the Beyond Compliance Coordinating Committee at Syracuse University is not an accessibility policy as defined by this article, it may be of interest. The platform includes "an understanding of disability as a form of diversity" as one of its strands, and explains how "diversity" is being used in that context. See http://bccc.syr.edu for more information.

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  6. The MLA has also published a ground-breaking document titled "Disability and Hiring: Guidelines for Departmental Search Committees," available at http://www.mla.org/dis_hiring_guidelines.

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  7. Thanks to the FMS committee working on development of these guidelines for allowing me to use the in-progress document in this analysis.

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  8. To clarify, this study does not analyze the real-time, on-site enactment of any policy; that is, I did not attend any of these conferences to collect data. That would be a valuable dimension to examine, and will be important to pursue in future studies of conferences, but is beyond the scope of the present study.

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