By Cody Jackson
This piece was originally published on Medium, and since writing this piece, I believe the study and practice of writing has been turned upside down—and not only by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic but by an intentional focus on anti-ableist praxis. There have been many times when I have found myself questioning whether writing studies has a future, but this issue and other recently published scholarship tells me that the futures of writing studies are anti-ableist. While it would have been ideal to write a new or, at least substantially updated piece, I am grateful that Spark has given this piece a “home”—and I look forward to the conversations that this issue both contributes to and ignites.
To lack privilege is to live with constant bodily and spatial awareness. Because I’m rendered hyperaware of my body within my own entered-into spatial environments, I think of others’ body-spaces and deliberately aim to create and hold space for Othered others. This intention requires a whole new orientation, a reorientation that foregrounds rather than ignores the everyday realities and physical needs of non-normative bodies.
—Christina Cedillo (2018)
I begin this entry with a quote from Christina Cedillo’s 2018 essay titled “What Does It Mean to Move?: Race, Disability, and Critical Embodiment Pedagogy” because the essay is one that questions the very presumption of movement. The presumption that all bodies can transcend the boundaries set by discourse is a white, able-bodied, and cis-normative fiction. And this “movement” includes what I would like to refer to here as “disciplinary movement,” or the ways in which privileged bodies can, and do, move freely across spatial, temporal, and disciplinary boundaries. This entry is one that I write alongside Cedillo’s essay that asks, “What does it mean to move?” Here, I’d like to ask “How does it mean to move?” To put it another way, “how does meaning come to matter?” and “how does matter come to mean?” I ask these questions through the material and discursive frameworks of “accessibility” and argue that accessibility is always a disability justice-oriented praxis of moving|freezing-up in, through, and as the world. This column will perhaps be just as much, if not more, composed by the words of Othered Others as they will be of mine. I hope this will illustrate that disabled possibility and what Mia Mingus (2017) calls “access intimacy” are only possible through the constant and iterative building of a networked tapestry of disabled bodies moving and dwelling together in coalition (see Chávez, 2013).
I felt I had exhausted my other options and, with a sigh of ‘I’ll try anything at this point,’ wrote my deafness into the essay…I had spent so long resisting the notion that I write about being deaf that I had not fully considered how my experience of continuously navigating environments in which I am almost always the only deaf person enabled by theorizing of difference-in-interaction.
—Stephanie Kerschbaum (2014)
I include this quotation from Stephanie Kerschbaum’s (2014) “On Rhetorical Agency and Disclosing Disability in Academic Writing” for two reasons. First, it is an essay that importantly interrogates the relationship between disclosure and disabled movement (both material and disciplinary). Second, and more importantly perhaps, I include it because I was fortunate to meet Kerschbaum at the 2019 Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) where she was my mentor through the WPA mentorship program. And, so, to provide a response to my first question I pose—how does it mean to move?—I’ll say that able-bodied conceptions of space, time, and disciplinarity shape our experiences in the world. And these able-bodied conceptions have, for too long, determined what “accessibility” means and how accessibility comes to reshape and rebuild environments and spaces. For instance, when I was notified that Kerschbaum would be my mentor at CCCC, I was so thrilled to have the chance to meet a disabled disability studies scholar whose work has so deeply informed my work and the field’s. But, this is rare because disabled disability studies scholars are, indeed, rare.
The power of access intimacy is that it reorients our approach from one where disabled people are expected to squeeze into able bodied people’s world, and instead calls upon able bodied people to inhabit our world.
—Mia Mingus (2017)
When organizations or events slot sessions or panels about “Accessibility” it is no mistake that they are all-too-often not led by disabled disability activists. When I write “disabled disability activists,” that is to say that disabled people are not always disability activists and that disability activists are not always disabled. However, in conversations about accessibility, it is essential that they be led by disabled disability activists whose bodyminds experience inaccessibility both at the level of the body and at the level of organizations. It is not enough that they be led by disabled people who aren’t actively involved in the work of disability justice. And, it is not enough that they be led by “caring” able-bodied allies. Critical self-reflexivity alone is not enough. It’s time for disabled people to completely dismantle able-bodied academic discourses and spaces that simultaneously benefit from our Otherness while maintaining it as such from a distance. “Disabled people can’t get too close,” in other words.
[Disabled] not only explains my body, but it also describes the ramps you refuse to build. It calls out the wages you refuse to pay. It shows the world the inclusion you are slow to produce. I think your discomfort with the word disabled doesn’t merely describe me, but you too. Because every time I make you say it, it holds a mirror to your inaction, and you’re scared to look yourself in the eye.
—Imani Barbarin (2019)
I type the words of Imani Barbarin (2019), one of the most transformative disabled disability activists of our time, because they remind us that access is bodied and about how “accessibility”—both the noun and the verb—is firmly entrenched within disabled embodiment. When you invoke “Accessibility,” you are, whether you know it or not, calling upon a tapestry of disabled embodied experience that must be respected, constellated (Powell qtd. in Unger & Lane, 2018), and reanimated. You are invoking the legacies of those who come before me and those who are doing this work in the present. When you say “Accessibility,” I expect disabled people—active disability justice advocates—to be leading this discussion.
Aristotle’s famous declaration that man is a rational animal gave rise to centuries of insistence that to be named mad was to lose one’s personhood…I believe in learning the terms, listening to others’ voices, and naming myself pragmatically according to what the context requires. I believe that this is language.
—Margaret Price (2016)
The history of rhetoric is laden with the bodies of disabled people whose embodied experiences have always been cast out as arhetorical and, as a result, inhuman (Yergeau, 2017; Dolmage, 2016). As scholars continue to grapple with what many refer to as “posthuman rhetorics,” it is essential that the question of and the struggle with/in the category of “the human,” especially related to disabling effects of our social orders, be one starting point in any conversation about accessibility. In other words, rhetoric scholar-teachers should ask foundational questions that actively push us to identify the ways that disabled people and disabled bodyminds are actively excluded from rhetoric and composition as a disciplinary space, from rhetoric as civic and public life, and from rhetorical possibility more broadly.
This is a consciously short piece, but I want to end by pointing to the etymology of the word “accessible,” which originates from the Latin “ad” (to) and “cedere” (‘to go’ or ‘to move’). Returning to my original question—“how does it mean to move”—is a constant reminder that in order for us to ethically engage the question of “accessibility” we must be conscious of the bodies whose movements have, throughout the history of rhetoric and composition, been rendered immobile under the weight of discourse and inaccessible spaces. Unless any and all conversations about accessibility are led and facilitated by disabled people who are also disability justice activists, then they are not about “accessibility” inasmuch as they are the same reiterations of ableism that make disability justice a necessity in the first place. The work is already being done by disabled people and disabled activists, and unless our conversations, conference sessions, and events on “accessibility” foreground the embodied and lived realities of disabled people, we will continue to reinstate the ableist trajectories of both society at-large and rhetoric and composition. In the words of disabled disability activist Annie Segarra (“Interview,” 2017) “the future is accessible,” but this is a future that is materialized through the active, ongoing struggles of disabled bodies-in-alliance.
If your discussion about accessibility isn’t led by disabled disability activists, I want no part of it.
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Barbarin, Imani. (2019). #WhenICallMyselfDisabled, your opinion doesn’t matter. Crutches and Spice.
Cedillo, Christina V. (2018). What does it mean to move? Race, disability, and critical embodiment pedagogy. Composition Forum, 39.
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