Releasing Rigidity and Choosing Love: A Disability Justice Praxis

By Andréa Stella

My body is mirroring the militancy weaponized against it. My neck is stiff again. It starts up under my ear, spreads down my right jaw, and sharpens out across my shoulder until my tongue goes numb. It shoots across my eye socket, up through my browline, to the top of my skull. This stiffening happens every time I try to hold ground against people or systems that continue causing me (and others) harm. My body has learned that rigidity might be impenetrable. My body has not learned that rigid things can shatter if toppled over.

I have been rigid again after again after again in academia. This time has a different quality. It feels more acute. Call it my eighteen year mark engaged in higher education (half my life). Call it burnout from this unrelenting pandemic. Call it my masking system finally shutting down. Call it my autoimmune disorder flare ups.

Call it my desire to lead with vulnerability and wholeness. In spring 2021, I interviewed for a graduate fellowship through my PhD program. Everything was still on Zoom. Maybe it was the day, maybe it was six months postpartum with my second child in two years, but I felt safe to be vulnerable with digital boxes housing seven or eight different faces. For the first time in a professional setting I revealed that I am Autistic, disabled, a mother of two young children, and have another job. I felt light. It was a risk, but one that felt worth taking: a risk I have the privilege to take because I am white, thin, and straight passing.

But even as a rhetorician, I misread the room. I assumed that because they hired me, they hired all of me, not just my mask that performs academia. I assumed that because I was finally ready to share, the people on the receiving side were ready to listen and make space for me. I was excited to do my fifteen hours of work and research on terms I requested, and looked forward to a more sustainable experience than the ones I’ve had before in academia. I started the fellowship assuming that since they were aware of my access needs, of my whole self, they would see me as a person deserving of what I am requesting and make it so.

Turns out, they wanted the mask. Eve Tuck (2019) talks about how “raising awareness” is an ineffective theory of change—it assumes that people lack awareness of harms or variations of experience and by making them aware they will change course and do right by the people who are experiencing harm—but we have plenty of proof that this is not a driver for social change. I assumed that by sharing my needs with a community of academics I would be held and supported by them. Instead, they stared back at me as I engaged in raising their awareness.

There is no system in place to support someone who functions outside of Zoom punctuality and email response times. This fellowship turned into a demonstration of the personal toll it takes when a disabled student/professor/mother self-advocates in the only way she knows how, with force. I fire off emails to people who I think can help, who I think will help; I lean heavily on my cohort mates for support.

L[1], you met my first email with tone policing, a warning that this could have been professionally worse and lucky that the communication is contained. You even agreed with what I had to say, but felt my approach was destructive. You read my tone right: I am trying to destroy this insidious system.

But, I know you need me contained because I am not supposed to have power. If I have a voice, it’s harder to exploit me. If we have a voice, it’s harder to exploit us. And you need to exploit us because “the opportunity for funding, the book deals, the platform, the institutional positions, and the exposure are all more valuable than our need for safety and care,”[2] especially when we’re getting precious Mellon money (Incite!, 2017). J[3] said it: “your abdication of responsibility is extremely misogynistic—let’s hire a bunch of femmes and queers and leave them to fend for themselves.” You teach my article on access and care to your graduate students, but still treat me this way. Extractive behavior. Extract and co-opt my experience while engaging in no change. I did not consent to any of this.

I have been reprimanded for not having my camera on, for being a few minutes late to a Zoom meeting, for having to cancel a meeting because my baby was sick, and for canceling a meeting on a federal holiday. Reprimanded for my perceived lack of communication and “slow” response time. For having another job that takes precedence because it pays my bills. Met with rigid resistance when I ask for my access needs to be met, to have less synchronous work, to meet less frequently. I am now caught in a cycle where you think holding me “accountable” for all of these infractions is the true benefit I will gain from these two years. You stopped trusting me to do the work, the work you haven’t clearly defined or mapped out for yourself.

I created a folder titled “unintended labor” with a cascade of email communications and some unsent drafts, an archive where I am constantly trying to prove myself and prove that my access needs are about basic decency, basic humanity. I feel whiny because my kids have been sick. I feel whiny because I’m slow to respond to emails. I’ve spent more time explaining myself than I have on my research for this fellowship.


I am too tired and too disabled to resist what Bettina Love (2019) calls the “educational survival complex,” a system that forces students to replicate white supremacy culture with “mere survival” being the one of the main goals making schools “a training site for a life of exhaustion” (p. 30). The educational survival complex disproportionately impacts Black people and people of the global majority because it amplifies “dark suffering” and perpetuates inequalities. I recognize now that to use white supremacist frameworks of perfectionism, isolation, individualism and defensiveness to resist the institution does exactly what Audre Lorde cautioned against when she said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (Lorde, 2007, p. 110).

So, what’s my next move? If rigidity is unsustainable, I have to try something else. In therapy, my therapist and I talked about moving with the energies of resistance in some martial arts style maneuvers, but neither of us have studied those methodologies. Thinking about it though in my body, it makes sense. The militancy with which these institutions (and people in them) uphold their harmful standards are like steel piles being driven directly into bedrock, with ear piercing precision and weight. I have been trying to fight them by stiffening my body, yelling as loudly as the noise that they emit, and it’s only leaving me drained.

My cohort is holding me up on Discord and in a Whatsapp group chat. We’re collaborating and caring for each other. We’re supporting each other despite the deliberate decision to privilege an institution before living, breathing, surviving, graduate students. I never agreed to put the institution before my own well-being, I never agreed to be harmed so that the status quo of institutional practices could be maintained.

I am pausing.

I am taking a deep deep deep inhale.

And a slow low humming exhale.

I am returning to my center. I am recalling the marine mammals Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2020) teaches about. Returning to my original and personal research that I use to support my pedagogical foundation in my own classroom, of how to survive in academia. I choose softening, I choose uplifting my people, and I am also choosing refusal. I don’t think I’ll attend meetings anymore that don’t serve me. And, I acknowledge that I am in a privileged position because my cohort mates will stand up for me if the grant directors want to revoke my fellowship. I have class privilege because I have a second job outside of academia that allows me to pay the bills. (Although, my family’s health insurance is tied to the fellowship.) I can be the one to call everyone out, the one to state my needs, if it means that someone else who has more to lose won’t have to and will benefit from any distance the dial moves towards equity, towards abolition. Resistance is love, love for the parts that can’t be snuffed out any longer, love for the people who aren’t in the same privileged position to speak out, and love for the people who have even more to lose.

I am cultivating a sustainable resistance practice that draws from the lessons of Black, queer, and disabled feminist/femme theorists/artists/scholars in order to mitigate the institutional harms that impact my undergraduate students and me. Sustainable resistance feels like interdependence (Kaba & Murakawa, 2021), feels like collaboration (Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2018), feels like an email before the start of the semester saying you get an A simply for being enrolled and here’s bibliography to show why grades aren’t worth a damn (Madoré, Zeemont, Burgos, Guski, Lam & Stella, 2021). This practice is a model to my students of what is possible when we center care and love in the classroom and demonstrates to faculty what is possible when we refuse the institution’s desire for indoctrination and policing by replicating a “structure designed for infinite lack” (Gumbs, 2020, p. 57).

My guiding vision comes from Alexis Pauline Gumbs’ (2020) study of Black feminist lessons from marine mammals: “what if school was the scale at which we could care for each other and move together” (p. 56). What happens if my resistance practice happens from the shoreline where I see a pod of dolphins glistening and leaping out of the warm ocean water, instead of staring at a cold brick structure designed to mill people around? Or, if my resistance practice acknowledges the intimacy of being virtually in someone’s personal space, even with cameras off?

I want the scale of care and collaboration I can foster with my students to be boundless like the ocean. Gumbs (2020) sees care present in striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba) schools as “organizational structures for learning, nurturance, and survival” (p. 55) serving as an interspecies model to “combat the imbedded isolation of late capitalism” (p. 51) including white supremacy, ableism, and classism. My writing classroom is a place to disrupt “white linguistic supremacy” (Baker-Bell, 2020); a site of “racial processing and composing in, within, and against the academy and schooling as its very own kind of literacy and education project” (Kynard, 2021) towards a scale of care.

What if we held the reverence of the classroom as a sacred space like M. Jacqui Alexander (2006) describes where “in any given semester a number of Souls are entrusted into our care” (p. 8)? What if we swam in the waters of this place?

I appreciate the space and opportunity to write this out of my body, to release what has been festering for almost a year. I appreciate this space as a way to reconnect with what truly matters to me since the noise of this fellowship has been overwhelming.

I hope you[1] read this; I hope you[1, 4] teach this; I hope you[1, 4] feel this in your body and choose to access the portal of the abundance that is love.


Alexander, M. Jacqui. (2006). Pedagogies of crossing: Meditations on feminism, sexual politics, memory, and the sacred. Duke University Press.

Baker-Bell, April. (2020) Linguistic justice. Routledge.

Gumbs, Alexis Pauline. (2020). Undrowned: Black feminist lessons from marine mammals. AK Press

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. (2017). The revolution will not be funded. Duke University Press.

Kaba, Mariame, and Murakawa, Naomi. (2021). We do this’ til we free us: Abolitionist organizing and transforming justice. Haymarket Books.

Kynard, Carmen (2021, Mar. 4) Towards a Black composition studies: Black as graivtas (Part II).

Lorde, Audre. (2007). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press.

Love, Bettina L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Beacon Press.

Madoré, Marianne, Zeemont, Anna, Burgos, Joaly, Guskin, Jane, Lam, Hailey, and Stella, Andréa. (2021). Resisting surveillance, practicing/imagining the end of grading. Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy, 20.

Martinez, Aja. (2020). Counterstory: The rhetoric and writing of critical race theory. National Council of Teachers of English, 2020.

Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. (2018). Care work: Dreaming disability justice. Arsenal Pulp Press.

Tuck, Eve. (2019, Feb. 7). Eve Tuck: I do not want to haunt you but I will: Indigenous feminist theorizing on reluctant theories of change. Vimeo.


[1] “L/You” is a composite of faculty/admin involved in this story, like what Dr. Aja Martinez (2020) uses for counterstorying.

[2] Estelle Ellison’s Patreon

[3] “J” is a beloved collaborator, witness, and fellow

[4] To my dear audience

Author Bio

Photo of Andréa Stella, who is walking on a beach with a babyAndréa Stella (she/her): I am a digital rhetorician, writing composition professor, and social researcher. My work broadly focuses on care for minoritized people. I’m a proudly queer Autistic mother of two starbeings.