Daily Archives: December 17, 2015

This is an image of three spirals carved into stone.


Theme: Disability Studies Approaches to Pedagogy, Research, and Design

Andrew Lucchesi, The Graduate Center, CUNY

I am pleased to introduce Issue 8, the fourth special themed issue of the Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. This issue takes inspiration from the vibrant interdisciplinary field of disability studies. Rather than approaching disability from a medical or rehabilitative perspective, disability studies positions disability as a powerful site of identity, cultural heritage, and knowledge. From a disability studies perspective, discussions of technology, pedagogy, and design—JITP mainstays—take on new complexity and political importance. For instance, when new technologies for course management or multimodal composing are being developed and assessed, we must ask serious questions about who is imagined as a user and who is included as a designer. Many articles in this issue point to the dangers of inadequately considering disabled people’s perspectives as users of and innovators with technology. However, these articles also attest to the generative power of disability perspectives, leading to new ways of accessing technology’s expressive affordances and new ethical stances toward technical communication and design.

As with our previous themed issues, we offer these articles as a discussion starter. Those who are new to disability studies will be introduced to many central concepts and approaches from the field. We’ve received a wealth of impressive submissions on this topic, setting a new high bar for a JITP issue call. This certainly speaks to the power of our readership as our journal has grown. But it also attests to the power of this topic, one that we plan to continue exploring in future issues. Even when we call for future special topic issues, as we do for our newly announced issue on ePortfolios, we hope authors will continue to bring issues of disability and access into their work.

When we first decided to undertake a themed issue on disability, we also chose to commit ourselves to a rigorous self-assessment of our own access issues as a journal. One major change was the development of Accessibility Guidelines as part of our standard call for submissions. These guidelines encourage authors to consider the accessibility of their submissions, building in multiple avenues for engagement, including captions, transcripts, and image descriptions. We have also experimented with new WordPress themes for our site that provide a more adaptable reading format for users. Learn more about this change in Managing Editor Laura Kane’s Weekly Roundup “Accessible Future.”

While the publication of Issue 8 provided the impetus for us to begin this access overhaul, we know our job is far from over. We will continue making improvements to our policies and our venue, just as we will continue promoting discussions of disability and access in the articles we publish. We hope other academic venues will follow suit in committing to accessible publishing, integrating access concerns at the ground floor of the production process, rather than as an afterthought. We welcome feedback about how we can make JITP more accessible at admin@JITPedagogy.org.

The Articles

The first two articles present models for centering the insights of disability studies in undergraduate classrooms. In “The Embodied Classroom: Deaf Gain in Multimodal Composition and Digital Studies,” Leeann Hunter presents a model for unifying multimodal classroom pedagogy around an often overlooked locus of technology—the body. Rather than filtering in-class engagement through digital technology, Hunter uses three classroom narratives to demonstrate how “the gestural and nonverbal technologies of Deaf culture and languages” (par 6) can be productively incorporated into a range of instruction methods and student assignments. Through Hunter’s teaching narratives and analysis, we observe how incorporating Deaf cultural practices into the classroom provides students with diverse tools for communication and analysis that they then carry into their classroom projects.

Jared S. Colton and Rebecca Walton provide a second classroom-focused study in their article, “Disability as Insight into Social Justice Pedagogy in Technical Communication.” This article describes a pilot project to integrate disability studies and accessible design into the technical communication curriculum at the authors’ home institution. Many readers will benefit from the detailed curriculum model Colton and Walton describe in this article, which includes an overview of course readings, major assignments, and the instructors’ motivating philosophies. Using a multi-stage analysis of student reflections and post-semester interviews, Colton and Walton go on to provide a detailed assessment of their pilot curriculum and its implications for other technical communication instructors interested in promoting socially conscious technical communication in their own classrooms.

The third article in this issue widens the scope from individual classrooms and curriculum models to examine questions of institutional access and assessment. Reporting on a study conducted at Open Universities Australia—a large, multi-institution online higher education consortium—Mike Kent argues in “Disability, Mental Illness, and eLearning: Invisible Behind the Screen?” that students with mental and psychiatric disabilities face unique challenges to success in online higher education. Through the testimony of students with these disabilities, Kent demonstrates how institutional policies around disclosure and the constraints of online learning platforms contribute to the challenges these students experience. These institutional and infrastructural factors combine with the persistent stigma associated with mental health/illness to render these students “invisible,” a problem that must be addressed, Kent argues, in future institutional research and programmatic design.

The final two articles in this issue demonstrate provocative models for research and technical design, both in academic spaces and in consumer technology. Gia Alexander examines a persistent problem in the field of textual scholarship: the lack of accessible materials for professional textual scholars with vision impairments. In “Chaucer’s ‘General Prologue’ to The Canterbury Tales as a Case for Accessible Scholarly Editions Using TEI-Encoded Uncontracted Braille,” Alexander offers two important contributions, both of which challenge commonplace binaries such as able-bodied versus disabled researcher and assistive versus mainstream technology. First, she demonstrates how all textual scholars, regardless of disability status, can benefit from incorporating into their scholarly practice a range of technologies designed for people with vision impairments (including magnification devices and Braille). In the process of demonstrating the usefulness of these assistive technology hacks, Alexander also makes a case for promoting the increased use of TEI-Encoded Uncontracted Braille, a practice that would promote the accessibility of the field of textual scholarship to people with a range of visual abilities.

In this issue’s final article, “#OpenAPS, Nightscout, and User-Driven Design for Type 1 Diabetes Technology,” Krista A. Murchison explores the growing movement of user-driven participatory design for assistive technology. Murchison describes how networks of users and designers are using social media and collaborative code-sharing platforms to develop new approaches to diabetes management. In the Open Artificial Pancreas System project (#OpenAPS) and the Nightscout Project, Murchison sees an instructive model for developing assistive technology through a process of participatory design, “involving disabled people at every stage of the process” (par 4).

We hope you are as excited by the diversity and creativity of these articles as we are. In the future, we hope to incorporate disability and access topics as mainstays in the JITP conversation. Indeed, we would love to see these topics taken up with full force in our short form sections, especially Assignments, Opinions, Teaching Fails, and our new Blueprints section. For those brand new to these topics, we hope these special venues, with their rolling deadlines and less formal structure, will allow us to continue discussion even between our biannual cycle for full issues. As always, we welcome your feedback on the articles, either by email or through the comment feature.


I am grateful to Sushil Oswal for contributing his time, knowledge, and personal mentorship throughout the development of this themed issue. Thanks as well to Laura W. Kane, JITP’s Managing Editor, along with the members of the journal’s Governance and Oversight Committee—Benjamin Miller, Luke Waltzer, and Kimon Keramidas—who helped bring this issue to production.

Andrew Lucchesi is a doctoral candidate in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. His research interests include composition/rhetoric, writing program administration, and disability studies. His dissertation uses archival and oral history methods to examine the politics, rhetoric, and institutional practices of disability-access programming in CUNY since the 1940s.


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The Embodied Classroom: Deaf Gain in Multimodal Composition and Digital Studies

Leeann Hunter, Washington State University


In this essay, I draw upon Deaf culture and the concept of Deaf Gain to illustrate how the hearing classroom could benefit from practices that engage in embodied discourses and visual-spatial metaphors. This essay also activates student-centered pedagogy in a way that builds off of Deaf culture, so that students, rather than acting as empty audience members in the theater of learning, become the expressive performers on the stage and the human technologies in motion, embodying a range of identity markers and cultural expressions. Drawing upon the rich body of nonverbal communication that complements the complex linguistic components of American Sign Language (ASL) that comprise Deaf culture, I propose that we engage the physical space of the classroom as well as the expressive space of an embodied pedagogical practice.


When university professors teach face-to-face in the classroom, they have access to instantaneous feedback from their students. Access to student feedback, however, is not the same as actual student feedback. In a worst-case scenario, these professors stare out at a blank sea of faces asking again and again, “Are there any questions?” Although feedback in the face-to-face classroom can come from students in a wide array of oral and visual forms, including spoken words, raised hands, arched eyebrows, slumped shoulders, and crossed arms, for the most part, able-bodied students have learned throughout their formal education to project a perfect blank stare. Consequently, educators have increasingly turned to technology, such as Clickers and Twitter backchannels, to engage more deeply with their students’ learning.

Nevertheless, these technologies are limited by linguistic expression, digital access, and data collection. Technology is valuable, but, as suggested by the dystopian narratives of immobilized bodies captured in E.M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” (1909) or in the Disney Pixar animated film Wall-E (2008), technology is capable of tempting people to exchange their existing human capabilities for assistive devices and de-contextualized simulations. In this essay, I draw upon Deaf culture and the concept of Deaf Gain to illustrate how the hearing classroom could benefit from practices that engage in embodied discourses and visual-spatial metaphors.[1] This essay also activates student-centered pedagogy in a way that builds off of Deaf culture, so that students, rather than acting as empty audience members in the theater of learning, become the expressive performers on the stage and the human technologies in motion, embodying a range of identity markers and cultural expressions.

The human body communicates far beyond words, yet its expressive art and multisensory experiences are being abandoned for the seemingly better technologies of language-driven social media and online learning. Along these lines, Lennard J. Davis (1995) argues that “disability is not a minor issue that relates to a relatively small number of unfortunate people; it is part of a historically constructed discourse, an ideology of thinking about the body under certain historical circumstances. Disability is not an object—a woman with a cane—but a social process that intimately involves everyone who has a body and lives in the world of the senses” (2). The technologies that we gain in response to the various needs of people with hearing loss are not limited only to the devices we create to normalize deaf persons as hearing persons, through hearing aids, cochlear implants, and other assistive devices and communication technologies. Rather, developments in Deaf Studies over the past five to ten years have shown that “the highly visual, spatial, and kinetic structures of thought and language” that comprise Deaf culture may transform “hearing ways of knowing” (Baumann and Murray 2013, 246).

This approach is referred to as Deaf Gain: instead of viewing deafness as the “loss of hearing,” H-Dirksen L. Baumann and Joseph J. Murray (2014) have proposed the idea that deafness is something that is gained, and that hearing culture has much to benefit from the “unique cognitive, creative, and cultural gains manifested through deaf ways of being in the world” (xv). Specifically, I’m interested in how Deaf Gain plays a role in education, literature, and digital technology. Drawing upon the rich body of nonverbal communication that complements the complex linguistic components of American Sign Language that comprise Deaf culture, I propose that we engage the physical space of the classroom as well as the expressive space of an embodied pedagogical practice.

As a Coda, or Child of Deaf Adults—raised by two deaf parents alongside five hearing siblings—I learned to encode and decode facial expressions, body language, and the more complex vocabulary and grammar of American Sign Language as essential components of my human development in language, communication, and knowledge in the world. As a child, I was deeply impacted by Deaf culture and Deaf ways of knowing, and dwelled more frequently on the Deaf side of the borderland between Deaf/Hearing worlds.[2] Yet, my formal education in English studies had de-emphasized the body as a vehicle for communication, locating knowledge primarily in oral and aural articulations. Consequently, reading aloud in class often meant physically following along with the words on the page, listening to the mechanics of each student’s voice as they performed the sounds of words, my heart palpitating and my tongue growing pasty as I anticipated my own turn and my own performance of hearing culture.[3] Listening and reading comprehension were divorced from the act of reading out loud, and thus when my English teacher turned to me with a question, not only did I have no idea what we had just read, but I had no idea what question he was asking. I responded with a shy shrug of the shoulders and silent pleading eyes. Like so many other students, reading comprehension was difficult for me because there was a gulf between the words on the page and the ideas they symbolize.

Despite (and perhaps because of) my early struggles in reading and communication classes, decades later I would become an English professor myself. As a child who was more comfortable with the visual expression of ideas, poetry became an instant lifeline for me to communicate my thoughts, feelings, and ideas within hearing culture. Poetry, like American Sign Language, engages with visual and imagistic pulses of expression, with narrative and storytelling following cinematic gestures through time that can be cut and edited.[4] When I enrolled in creative writing classes in high school, for the first time I was able to understand how the English language works, and how I could use words to capture partial snapshots of the complexity of human experience and knowledge. Baumann and Murray (2014) have commented on Allen Ginsberg’s response to seeing the phrase “hydrogen jukebox” from his poem “Howl” translated into sign language, noting that Ginsberg was “astonished at the precise, concrete, and creative imagery that resulted from a jukebox revved up to the point of a mushroom-cloud explosion of a hydrogen bomb. He felt that sign-language poetry does what he and his fellow poets have been trying to do—create clear images” (xxx). Instead of viewing sign language as an extension or expression of poetry, I would like to consider sign language—and its associated nonverbal, gestural, and imagined interfaces—as a vehicle for education in diverse learning environments. I am engaging the concept of “universal design in writing pedagogy,” which points to methods in introducing “a variety of visual, aural, spatial, and kinesthetic approaches to tap into the intellectual chaos that goes into writing in the physical, literal sense” to show the connection between the inner eye of the signer and the inner eye of the poet (Dunn and Dunn De Mers 2002). In the sections that follow, I explore how understanding the gestural and nonverbal technologies of Deaf culture and languages can influence the public education of hearing, neurodiverse, and differently abled students.

Classroom Observation Through Deaf Eyes

In spring 2011, my parents came to observe my teaching as an English professor for the first time, and it was then that I saw my classroom through Deaf eyes. For eight years, before my parents observed my classroom, I had taught mostly traditional English classes, and rarely did I reflect on disability or gestural forms of communication in my classroom. When I became a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology, I began developing pedagogies that emphasized multimodal approaches to writing and communication, and so my classroom was already in the process of transforming.[5] Despite the inherent multimodal nature of the program, when my parents expressed interest in seeing my place of work, all I could imagine was the blank tableau of my classroom—so many lips moving and ears imperceptibly listening. I knew that no matter how animated and interactive my classroom might be according to hearing standards, no matter how expressive I would be with my face and my gestures, and no matter how brilliant my slide show presentation, my parents would be bored and disconnected from the content and activity of the course.

In anticipation of my parents’ visit, I asked my students to focus on nonverbal modes of communication to deliver their group presentations in what I believed would be a deaf-friendly format. Their presentations served as experimental drafts of their larger group project, which was a creative storytelling project that remediated Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1861) in terms of contemporary issues surrounding privacy in digital contexts. I sat with my parents in the back of the classroom and proudly watched as students variously put together fully captioned slide shows, performed mini action sequences, and even learned a few words in sign language. As usual, I was impressed with what my Georgia Tech students were willing to do and learn in order to perform well in the classroom. To further involve my parents, I asked them to vote on the best nonverbal presentation, and to my surprise, my dad was unimpressed, and couldn’t decide which one was best—in his eyes, they were all equally blank.

Instead of me impressing my parents with my overachieving students, my parents gave me a lesson in what nonverbal communication means—a phrase I threw around lightly when I was giving my students instructions. It does not include signed English, it does not include captions on a screen, and it does not include visual aids. Rather, it is the story we tell with our bodies. Studies in nonverbal communication are mostly grounded in hearing culture, with emphasis on gestures as extensions of gender, power, professional identity, psychology, and evolutionary theories. The nonverbal is typically poised as an extension of hearing culture rather than a fundamental expression of an embodied human experience, capable of infinite articulation.

Nonverbal communication is the story we tell with our bodies. In ASL storytelling, “non-manual signals, such as facial expression, provide important information . . . By changing [the] body position so that each character faces a different direction, [the performer] help[s] the audience understand which character is doing the action” (qtd in Peters 2000, 83). ASL is a visual language, and adept Deaf storytellers engage in art forms that build upon the everyday gestural communication of deaf persons. Baumann and Murray (2014) note that the “traditions of mime and silent theater could be pushed to new levels through the hands and bodies of individuals who spend their lives communicating in a gestural medium” (xxx). My dad, in addition to serving as the Director of the State of Michigan’s Division on Deafness for over 30 years, has also performed as an ASL storyteller, humorist, and mime. Described in the Chicago Tribune as “a gifted teller of jokes and stories, a punster, [and] a delight” (Rubin 1986), my dad, who preferred the animated comedy of Red Skelton to the spoken humor of Bob Hope, extended his love of animated humor and storytelling into mime. When I was a kid, my dad used to perform mimes with his “magic hats” trunk during public assemblies at my elementary school. He’d put on his plastic fire engine red hat and act out a dramatic scene of the bungling firefighter racing to the rescue, getting tangled in the fire hose, struggling to put the ladder up, until the end, when he climbs up the ladder and showcases the emergency: he has rescued a tiny kitten out of the tree. While he was a deaf man performing for a hearing audience of children, his hearing loss was rendered less visible when he narrated a story with everyday facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. At the same time, his performance made visible the storytelling capabilities of the human body, and it demanded that the children decode his stories through careful watching.

Prompted by my dad’s disappointment in my Georgia Tech students, I invited him up to the front of the classroom to perform one of his own skits in mime. He decided to perform the one called, “The Teacher.” “The Teacher” tells the story of a dim-witted professor leading a boring class, droning on and on about the textbook, turning around to scratch words from the textbook on the chalkboard. Every time the teacher turns his back to the class, he gets hit with a spitball. Of course, the grumpy old teacher gets mad and threatens the students with the archaic punishment of a ruler if they keep it up. Finally, he spins around just in time to catch the culprit in the act, while also taking a spitball right in the face. But no matter, he’s caught the student in the act and is delighted he gets to punish the student. But, to his surprise, the student stands up to a height of 8 feet. The teacher becomes speechless, frightened, and cowardly. Apologizing profusely, he hands the ruler to the student. The skit ends with the teacher turning around, bending over, and awaiting punishment.

The skit itself is a parody of the hearing classroom, in which the teacher delivers an oral/aural lecture, while the students express their dissatisfaction through physical mini-aggressions with their spitballs. Students don’t throw spitballs any more, and teachers don’t use rulers. Instead, we have distracted students staring at their mobile devices and teachers who sneer and give point deductions to students looking at their personal screens. But why shouldn’t the student “play” on Facebook or “play” with spitballs? If nothing happens when we ask students to put away their screens, we are ignoring the embodied interface of the classroom and the multisensory affordances of shared space.

In the years after my parents’ visit, I have begun to incorporate the “Nonverbal Skit” as an integral pedagogical practice. I introduce, assign, and complete the activity within the time of one class period to reduce the stakes of the assignment and induce spontaneity. In a 50-minute class session, I briefly introduce students to a vocabulary of nonverbal gestures, which I do by performing a skit myself, a version of “The Teacher.” Students work in groups to compose their short skits based on my mini directions, which are usually connected to larger course themes. As students present their skits to the class, I also ask students to comment on well-played gestures or to replay a concept with different gestures. Most importantly, we wrap up the session with reflections on the visual and spatial affordances of expressing concepts with our bodies.

While the nonverbal skits students perform are themselves valuable journeys into exploring spatial and gestural codes, it is what happens immediately after the skits that surprises me. After spending 20 minutes encoding nonverbal skits with their bodies and decoding nonverbal skits with their eyes, a tiny radical transformation has occurred. I walk to the front of the classroom and see they are all sitting with their laptops open, as usual, but they’re not looking at the laptop screen, they’re not looking into their laps at their smart phones, and they’re not looking off into space. Instead, all of their eyes are on me. The stares make me slightly uncomfortable, because they make me aware that my nonverbal performance is different from theirs, informed as it is by Deaf culture. However, I have invited the stares and have made them a part of the pedagogical practice.[6] Through this practice, the attention of their eyes has been recalibrated and retrained to look at me rather than just listen to me. Their eyes respond to me as an embodied classroom interface, and I cannot be replaced by a screen.

Cathy Davidson, at her 2012 keynote for the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT), provoked her audience with the statement that “If we [professors] can be replaced by a computer screen, we should be.” She followed up on this claim in her Fast Company op-ed piece “Can We Replace Professors with Computer Screens?” (2012), emphasizing that “every workplace survey says communication skills, critical thinking ability, collaborative skills, and ability to understand diverse cultural contexts and acuity at diagnosing problems and finding creative solutions are the most prized qualities in future employees,” and that these skills are developed in the everyday interactions on residential campuses.[7] In Davidson’s discussion of the future workplace in Now You See It, she focuses on the changing needs of the 21st century concept of work—which is no longer a place, but rather a way of thinking. Consequently, the informal free time we spend with colleagues (or classmates) is lost. Likewise, the classroom is no longer a single place, but rather an interface that is shaped by the bodies of the students in that classroom. Davidson (2012) also points to Hamilton’s belief that “playfulness is part of creative, innovative, collaborative, productive work.” He creates a space in Second Life for his colleagues to informally and personally interact with one another. If play is so valuable, why do we leave it to chance? Why do we leave it up to students and workers to decide what constitutes play in a face-to-face setting? With nonverbal skits, students are playing together in a planned interface.

We communicate relationships of power, aggression, insult, and fear via nonverbal gestures. When I replicated my dad’s performance of “The Teacher” in my own classroom, a glaring gender-power issue emerged. While my dad could humorously perform the act of being overpowered by a student in his classroom, topped off with the act of bending over and getting spanked with a paddle, my identity as a young female professor becomes compromised in the act of performing this sequence. Embodying a narrative becomes an act of critical reading. For an assignment on visual rhetoric, a student once presented me with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photograph V-J Day in Times Square, which features a passionate kiss between an American sailor and a civilian woman, taken in Times Square of New York City on August 14, 1945. The student pointed out the romance depicted in the setting, the embrace, the onlookers, the contrast. The student saw what others had seen for decades, but what he and others couldn’t see were the gestures. So we put ourselves in the position of the woman: her face squished, her arm limp—not in a passion, but in de-attachment. And then we become the sailor: the man, with his left arm locking the woman into his embrace, locking her head into a forceful kiss. The romance dissipates. Only in recent years have we seen accounts that critique this once-acclaimed romantic photograph and tell the relationship of the true relationship of these strangers in the photo, who were also strangers to one another.[8] In embodying the gestures we see in the media, we’re reading body language in a way that moves us to identify with others and critically read the power imbalance in the pose.

Embodied Multimodal Composition

Sign languages, including American Sign Language, are more complex than nonverbal communication, but an understanding of sign languages can enrich our understanding of the nonverbal.[9] My lessons in Deaf culture have taught me how to incorporate nonverbal communication and embodiment in many aspects of my pedagogy, including lessons in visual rhetoric in the first-year-composition classroom. In my multimodal introduction to composition course, taught fall 2012 at Washington State University, I asked students to stage a series of experiments in connection to dissecting their consumer identity. Course materials included a mixture of digital, literary, and critical texts, including Rachel Botsman’s TED talk on “Collaborative Consumption” (2010), Lars Eighner’s essay “Dumpster Diving” (1993), Denis Diderot’s “Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown” (1769), Reviewer Rosenbloom’s New York Times essay “But Will It Make You Happy?” (2010), and selections from Lisa Ede’s The Academic Writer (2010).

After some prewriting on their consumer identity, students engaged in a series of small experiments. One of the first blogging activities I assigned was: “Perform a rhetorical analysis of an advertisement for a commodity you currently own. Create a new ad—with images, slogans, and text—based on your own experience of the commodity.” In-class preparation for this blog assignment included discussion of the rhetorical strategies used in advertisements for commercial products, and how the rhetoric of persuasion for financial profit often distorts the lived experience behind our everyday use of a product. While “analysis of an advertisement” is a common first-year composition assignment, I also asked students to re-create the advertisement in terms of their lived and embodied reality of a product. Many students chose advertisements for cosmetics, athletics, or beverages. One student created a parody of an old Tabasco ad from 1959. His first drafts used clip art to illustrate the excess of Tabasco use as suggested by the original advertisement. By the end of the semester, and after a series of pedagogical activities which included the nonverbal skit, the student discovered the value of capturing his own facial expressions to communicate the critical and comedic aspects of his study. In the final revision, the student dramatized the physical impact of Tabasco sauce when it is consumed with the frequency the ad encourages.

The second major experiment of this study in consumer culture involved another blog post activity: “Sell or gift one commodity in your possession; purchase or receive a used commodity. Stage a series of photographs of the old and new commodities to tell their stories.” By this time, students had already participated in lessons in nonverbal communication. Students were now encouraged to take a more social and interactive action that was related to their consumer identity, rather than a private action. Many students chose to visit thrift stores—donating and purchasing used goods. Other students decided to make gifts of their extra commodities, as in the case of one student who created a photo essay of her coffee travel mugs. In composing her essay, she physically enacts lessons in redundancy, both in objects and in rhetoric. Not only does she photograph herself physically attempting to balance two coffee mugs while carrying an armful of books, but she contorts her body to show the burden of weight, while also twisting her mouth to indicate her doubt about whether or not possessing two coffee mugs is a good idea. If a second coffee mug does not add anything to her life except the burden of more weight, then it does more harm than good.

Both students engage in visual-spatial metaphors to build narratives of their identities as consumers, and both students build an identity couched in consumer excess, which they communicated not only with their words in formal written essays, but also with the power of visual and spatial metaphors expressed through nonverbal modes. The lesson in many ways was also more transformative, with one student fundamentally changing her consumer behavior as a result of the assignment sequence. At the beginning of the semester, she expressed through words the idea that thrift stores were probably a better consumer practice, but that she rarely acted on that belief. By the end of the semester, she reflected on her new practice of actively optimizing her consumer purchases through secondhand services and thrift stores. Over the course of the semester, she wasn’t just absorbing or observing knowledge, she was enacting it by having to create a physical record of her journey and convey the feeling of consumer excess through her body.

These concepts need not be physically enacted in order to practice an embodied composition classroom; when engaging in Deaf culture and language, embodiment can be imagined, as it is imagined, as I stated above, in the process of poetry writing. In “Tutoring Deaf College Students in the Writing Center,” Rebecca Day Babcock (2008) shares the transcript of one exchange between tutor, deaf student, and interpreter as a rare example of ASL interference in the writing center session. What the exchange shows is that the student easily imagines in ASL how a woman sweeps her red hair up into a ponytail holder, but struggles to articulate the same image in words. The tutor and the ASL interpreter focus heavily on the word “holds,” and it causes some miscommunication. The tutor says, “And this is where, this is where she has problems with writing. Because in signing, you can say so much more with fewer words. I guess when you have ideas and concepts and all that, you can sign it. But on a paper you’ve gotta write it out” (Babcock 2008, 34). I suggest that this exchange shows an opportunity to not only convert a deaf student’s developing writing skills into adequate English, but to creatively carry her through the composition process. Instead of focusing on what is “right,” or what makes sense in English, I suggest focusing on the physical concept she is expressing in ASL and offer a variety of ways to communicate that highly visual concept in written English. More than the physical reality of the red hair in a ponytail holder, what is the purpose of writing this particular description? When she signs “ponytail”, does she give emphasis to the sweeping of the hair off one’s shoulders, or does she emphasize the hard clasp and tight grip of the ponytail holder on the back of her head (based on the transcript it appears to be the latter). Language communicates emotion, even in the most technical of documents, and here is an opportunity to link the student’s visual understanding of a concept to its expression in written English. It’s an opportunity to build off of the student’s existing cognitive abilities to develop a love for written English, rather than focusing only on what is “correct” in written English, effectively reducing her ASL expression of a concept into an uninteresting statement. Such practices can be extended beyond deaf students to ESL students, as Babcock suggests, but also to neurodiverse, differently abled, and first generation students.

Embodied Digital Studies

In addition to practicing embodiment in the composition classroom, I have also introduced it into the digital classroom, in an introductory course on digital studies for the Digital Technology and Culture program at WSU. In the spirit of “unplugging” the digital humanities, [10] this iteration of the course engages in the fine line between the physical and digital, drawing in large part upon Douglas Rushkoff’s book Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age (2013). In his discussion of the possibility of a future in which life can be fully simulated in a virtual environment, he writes, “I doubt there’s a computer simulation on the horizon capable of accurately representing all the activity in a single cubic centimeter of soil or the entire sensory experience of clipping one toenail, much less an entire social world of thousands of human users” (Rushkoff 2013, 64). One of the ways we explore this complexity of human experience is through short readings in modernist literature, including an excerpt from the beginning of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925).

In Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf tunnels into the minds of characters, beyond the physical moment to their depths of memories, as in the opening passages in which Mrs. Dalloway is thrown back upon her memories of a past lover when she feels the air in her lungs. In the following passage Septimus Warren Smith feels intricately connected with the trees and sparrows, and in the private space of his mind, he feels like he is teetering on the point of madness, and he feels this connection in his body:

“But they beckoned; leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body, there on the seat, fanned it up and down; when the branch stretched he, too, made that statement. The sparrows fluttering, rising, and falling in jagged fountains were part of the pattern; the white and blue, barred with black branches. Sounds made harmonies with premeditation; the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds.” (Woolf 1925, 22)

Septimus observes that “the spaces between them [the harmonies] were as significant as the sounds.” In embodied digital studies, we endeavor to make similar observations about the spaces between the 1s and 0s, following in the steps of Douglas Rushkoff (2013): “There’s nothing in between that 1 and 0, since a computer or switch is either on or off. All the messy stuff in between yes and no, on and off, just doesn’t travel down wires, through chips, or in packets. For something to be digital, it has to be expressed in digits” (50). But we can choose to live in between the 1s and 0s—we can choose to live a life that is not programmed.

When we study data in this class, we consider the value of surface data, big data, and metadata, and we put that information in conversation with deep data.[11] In addition to using literature to illustrate deep data, I also immerse students in the complexity of human experience. While data projects like #oneSecond collect, catalog, and present one second of posts on Twitter into 4500 pages across four books to show the magnitude of human experience concentrated on one second, in class, we focus on everything that is not captured by a Tweet. We note, for example, that the content that students post on social media does not, as Manovich (2012) notes, constitute “transparent windows into their selves; instead, they are usually carefully curated and systematically managed” (465). Instead, we focus on the texture of human lives, from what we see, hear, and feel to what we imagine, remember, and predict. Stephen Kuusisto (2008) offers a similar approach in his essay “Teaching by Ear,” where he uses his blindness to teach students to deepen their listening skills: “What I’m after in the classroom is to help students see that the imagination is really not so different from listening in the dark. And that the more carefully we listen, the more we sense is there, or was always there” (127). By teaching students to access the multiple textures of human experience, they learn to see, hear, or feel more deeply than they could before. Embodied digital studies moves in concert with disability studies, valuing sensory experiences of the world, while acknowledging the immeasurable variations in sensory experiences from person to person.


In an era of decreased state funding and increased reliance on enrollment-based funding, universities are investing more and more in technologies that enable professors to deliver courses in bulk. Research in Deaf Gain related to higher education, including studies in architectural spaces, community living, cinematic lenses, poetics, digital advances, and cognition promises to be one of the most valuable investments we can make in improving residential campuses and face-to-face pedagogy. When we transform our pedagogical practices in the face-to-face classroom to value the deep learning that comes with human interaction and embodiment—particularly when those bodies vary in identity markers of class, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and disability—our students gain ethical knowledge that values human difference.


I want to especially thank my parents Christopher and Annella Hunter for providing me with a warm and rich experience of Deaf culture and for prompting me to think critically about the embodied classroom. I’d also like to thank Kathi Inman Berens, Paul Fyfe, and George H. Williams for their various contributions to the initial growth and development of the ideas expressed in this article. Finally, I want to thank Andrew Lucchesi, Sushil Oswal, and the reviewers for their valuable roles in the production of this special issue.


Babcock, Rebecca Day. 2008. “Tutoring Deaf College Students in the Writing Center.” In Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Jay Domage. 28-39. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s.

Bauman, H.-Dirksen L. 2006. “Getting Out of Line: Toward a Visual and Cinematic Poetics of ASL.” In Signing the Body Poetic: Essays on American Sign Language Literature, 95–117. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bauman, H.-Dirksen L., and Joseph J. Murray. 2014. Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Bauman, H-Dirksen L., and Joseph J. Murray. 2013. “Deaf Studies in the 21st Century: ‘Deaf-Gain’ and the Future of Human Diversity.” In The Disability Studies Reader, 4th ed. Routledge.

Davidson, Cathy N. 2011. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York: Viking.

Davis, Lennard J. 1995. Enforcing Normalcy: Disability, Deafness, and the Body. First Edition. London ; New York: Verso.

Dunn, Patricia A., and Kathleen Dunn De Mers. 2002. “Reversing Notions of Disability and Accommodation: Embracing Universal Design in Writing Pedagogy and Web Space.” Kairos 7.1.

Dye, Matthew W. G., Peter C. Hauser, and Daphne Bavelier. 2008. “Visual Skills and Cross‐Modal Plasticity in Deaf Readers.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1145: 71–82. doi:10.1196/annals.1416.013.

Ericsson, Patricia, Elizabeth Edwards, Tialitha Macklin, and Leeann Hunter. 2016. “Composition at Washington State University: Building a Multimodal Bricolage.” Composition Forum 33. (Forthcoming)

Fyfe, Paul. 2011. “Digital Pedagogy Unplugged.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 5 (3).

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. 2009. Staring: How We Look. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Hoffmeister, Robert. 2008. “Border Crossings by Hearing Children of Deaf Parents: The Lost History of Codas.” In Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, 189–215. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Kuusisto, Stephen. 2008. “Teaching by Ear.” In Disability and the Teaching of Writing: A Critical Sourcebook, edited by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Jay Dolmage. 124-129. Boston: Bedford, St. Martin’s.

Manovich, Lev. 2012. “Trending: The Promises and the Challenges of Big Social Data.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, 460–75. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Peters, Cynthia. 2000. Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to the Canon. Gallaudet University Press.

Rubin, Neal. 1986. “Deaf Humorist Lets His Fingers Do The Talking On Stage.” Chicago Tribune, February 26.

Rushkoff, Douglas. 2011. Program or Be Programmed: Ten Commands for a Digital Age. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull.

Woolf, Virginia. 1925. Mrs. Dalloway. San Diego: Harcourt.


[1] I adhere to the convention of using capital D: Deaf to refer to the community of people engaged in shared language and cultural practices and using lowercase d: deaf to refer to hearing loss and people with hearing loss who may or may not identify with the Deaf community.

[2] For an excellent discussion of Coda borderlands, see Robert Hoffmeister’s “Border Crossings by Hearing Children of Deaf Parents: The Lost History of Codas” (2007).

[3] Research on deaf children’s reading comprehension and visual spatial attention suggests that “deaf individuals are more distracted by visual information in the parafovea and periphery” (Dye, Hauser, and Bavelier 2008, 71).

[4] Baumann (2006) writes at length on the connections between cinematic techniques and ASL: “[g]iven such a close, homologous relation between techniques used in ASL and film, one wonders why the lexicon of film techniques is not a standard part of ASL poetics” (109).

[5] One of the guiding principles of the Writing and Communication Program at Georgia Tech is WOVEN, which stands for written, oral, visual, electronic, and nonverbal forms of communication.

[6] See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s Staring: How We Look (2009) for a critical history of staring and its social associations with disabilities.

[7] I discuss ways that multimodal classrooms can prepare students for the 21st-century workplace through social learning projects in “Learning to Adapt: Students, Teachers, and Professionals in the 21st Century” as part of a co-authored article on “Composition at Washington State University: Building a Multimodal Bricolage” (forthcoming 2016).

[8] On September 30, 2012, the anonymous feminist blogger named Leopard writes about the photograph in “The Kissing Sailor, or ‘The Selective Blindness of Rape Culture.’”

[9] Sign languages “are rich in what Taub (2001) calls ‘metaphoric iconicity,’ in which complex ideas are demonstrated through visual-spatial metaphors. Such a language does not lack in abstraction, but gains in clarity of the concrete representation of complex ideas” (Baumann and Murray 2013, 249).

[10] In “Digital Pedagogy Unplugged,” Paul Fyfe writes: “Can we imagine ‘teaching naked’ as more than merely doing without, but as something already integrated to the circuit of its electronic counterpart? What if instead we kept the “digital” in the non-electronic senses of that word: something to get your hands on, to deal with in dynamic units, to manipulate creatively?”

[11] Lev Manovich (2012) describes the difference between surface data and deep data: “In the twentieth century, the study of the social and the cultural relied on two types of data: “surface data” about lots of people and “deep data” about the few individuals or small groupsThe first approach was used in all disciplines that adapted quantitative methods … The second approach was used in humanities fields such as literary studies, art history, film studies, and history” (461-62).

About the Author

Leeann Hunter is Clinical Assistant Professor of English and Digital Technology and Culture at Washington State University. She received her PhD in 2010 from the University of Florida, and she was a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow at the Georgia Institute of Technology from 2010-2012. Her research focuses on gender studies, professional culture, and social connectedness in Victorian literature and the digital humanities.

Image of brown rods on a white background.

Disability as Insight into Social Justice Pedagogy in Technical Communication

Jared S. Colton, Utah State University
Rebecca Walton, Utah State University


Incorporating social justice concerns into the communication design classroom can be difficult. Based upon a pedagogical study, this article proposes that considerations of disability can provide insight into the relevance of social justice to technical communication practice. Engaging with notions of disability enables students to recognize the existence of privilege. This recognition better enables students to talk about what they might consider less comfortable facets of privilege (race, gender, class)—facets many of them have been taught to reject outright or view as an agenda in contradiction to their own personal value systems. Disability is not readily associated with any particular political position and thus can pave the way for consideration of other social justice topics.



As the theme of social justice gains more traction in technical communication scholarship, instructors are trying to invent ways to incorporate ideas of social justice into their classrooms. Still, the relevance of social justice to technical communication is not readily apparent to everyone, perhaps least of all to students. To address this problem, this article proposes one strategy in which considerations of disability can provide insight into broader notions of social justice in the communication design classroom. The context for the research we present is a shift in the curriculum at our university to more centrally incorporate issues of social justice. To inform this curricular revision, we designed a pedagogical study (IRB approval #6070) to help better understand how to bring social justice pedagogy into the technical communication classroom. The broader overall study investigated three undergraduate course designs being piloted in the 2014-2015 academic year and involved multiple methods to collect data at various times throughout and immediately after the fall and spring semesters. This article homes in on one of those three courses (a course on rhetoric, digital media, and disability studies) to investigate the promise of disability studies for initiating students to the relevance of social justice to technical communication. Our findings demonstrate that facilitating students’ awareness of disability can serve as an entry point for helping students recognize the relevance of social justice to the work of communication design.

Technical Communication and Social Justice

Although the term “social justice” is only recently gaining prominence in technical communication scholarship (see Agboka 2013; Haas 2012; Leydens 2012; Walton and Jones 2013), the field has long been concerned with inclusivity and unjust power disparities, producing a sizable body of relevant scholarship. Social justice research in technical communication has been defined as “investigat[ing] how communication broadly defined can amplify the agency of oppressed people—those who are materially, socially, politically, and/or economically under-resourced” (Jones and Walton forthcoming). This research aligns with early technical communication scholarship positioning the field as humanistic (Miller 1979) and with scholarship from a critical-cultural turn, which began explicitly acknowledging concerns of power, hegemony, voice, culture, and diversity as relevant to the field (see Scott and Longo’s 2006 special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly and Herndl’s 2004 special issue of Journal of Business and Technical Communication). Extending this earlier work, social justice research moves beyond description and analysis to take action against oppression.

“Social action” is the term used by Rude (2009) to identify one of four major categories of technical communication research. This research takes a variety of forms: for example, service learning, in which students apply their developing expertise to support community and nonprofit organizations (e.g., Scott 2008; Youngblood and Mackiewicz 2013); community-based research, in which scholars partner with nonacademic communities to pursue issues of mutual interest for social good (e.g., Faber 2002; Walton, Zraly, and Mugengana 2015); action/activist research, which requires that nonacademic communities benefit from the knowledge produced and actions facilitated by research (e.g., Clark 2004; Grabill 2000); and civic engagement, which aims to improve public understanding of issues relevant to people’s lives (e.g., Bowdon 2004; Moore 2013). These forms are not always distinct but often overlap: service learning and civic engagement (e.g., Scott 2004), civic engagement and action research (e.g., Blythe, Grabill, and Riley 2008), action research and service learning (e.g., Crabtree and Sapp 2005).

Under the broader umbrella of social justice research, we characterize our project as service learning and action research. We provided students opportunities to practice their new skills to produce knowledge and facilitate action that benefits communities—specifically, people with disabilities in the Cache Valley area of Northern Utah. It was our aim that in so doing, students develop an ethical framework in the sense of a neo-Aristotelian virtue. While ethics is conceptualized and practiced in a variety of ways (e.g., duty, rights, care, utility), Aristotle considered ethics a systematic study of the character of good action. For Aristotle, ethics was not a scientific problem or a heuristic readily applied to any situation but rather a pursuit that was a reward unto itself. In other words, doing “the right thing” because it is “the right thing,” not because an action yields more favorable results or is simply an assigned responsibility. One of the key terms in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (2011) is “virtue,” which characterizes a person’s being rather than a particular act. In this framework one would not view a person as virtuous based upon one inclusive act or a statement such as “I believe in equality”; rather, a virtuous person’s ethical practices would appear to others as part of his or her character—not as instinct but as an element of a carefully cultivated disposition. This sense of ethics—as day-to-day practice, as beliefs enacted, repeated and continually improved upon—is where we see technical communication and social justice converge.

We admit that looking to Aristotle for a contemporary concern and concept of social justice may seem strange or antiquated to some, as Aristotle likely would not have recognized people with disabilities as citizens, and Aristotle’s moral virtues are those of citizens enlisted in political activity. Also, Aristotle’s virtue ethics are often thought of as individual virtues. How then, does drawing upon such a notion of ethics benefit technical communicators looking to engage in social justice? To the first point, contemporary virtue ethicists such as Garver (2006), MacIntyre (2007), and Vallor (2010) each have demonstrated that such repellent embarrassments (of racism, sexism, and able-ism) found in Aristotle’s writings are unethical to a contemporary neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics framework and that some of Aristotle’s absurd comments on ethical and unethical action (such as the notion that it is more virtuous for a city to open its gates to an enemy so that the battle is fair) are not constitutive of the theory of virtue itself. This theory of virtue in its simplest form is the idea that being good and doing good are intertwined. In other words, for Aristotle, virtues “that promote the agent’s self-realization” and “those that promote the good of others” are not separate (Garver 2006 p.5).

Ironically, the second concern, that virtue ethics are individualistic (which, of course, is not the same as individualism), is actually why virtue ethics are so helpful to technical communicators. Unlike contemporary theories of justice found in liberalism (Rawls 1971) and libertarianism (Nozick 2013), in which it is not the individual citizens who are able to enact social justice but only the state and its institutions (a position many students reinforced when first discussing social justice), a neo-Aristotelian virtue ethics sees justice as a learned disposition of one who does what is just situationally with respect to community values and who distributes good equitably in those contexts (trans. 2011 V.9). Rather than a framework that views enactments of social justice as occurring only when institutional mechanisms are adjusted by those in power—in which the most an individual can do is lobby for an injustice to be rectified—a virtue ethics framework considers justice a mode of being that is manifest through continual practice. This shift enables technical communication students to imagine practicing social justice even if they do not work for a non-profit organization or some other entity specifically organized around concerns of social justice.

Course Design

Listed as a topics course for technical communication majors, the focus was on rhetoric, digital media, and disability studies. In framing the course, Colton asked the students on the first day of class, in the spirit of Roman rhetorician Quintilian, “Is a good document designer also an ethical and just document designer?” The course learning objectives centered on enabling students to see all design practices as having an ethical component, an insight that would allow them to see their work as having effect on social justice. This latter concern was a significant challenge, as most if not all of the students had considered technical communication and social justice to be unrelated.

Required texts included Meloncon’s collection Rhetorical Accessability (2013a), Williams’s The Non-Designers Presentation Book (2010), and Davis’s The Disability Studies Reader (2013a). Rhetorical Accessability was key to bridging the gap between a basic presentation design book (Williams 2010), the kind of text to which the students were accustomed, and a critical theory book on disability studies (Davis 2013a). One of the major arguments the authors in Meloncon’s (2013a) collection make is that considering the needs of users with disabilities also makes one a better and more desirable technical communicator in general: i.e., accessible practice is effective practice, whether in terms of document design or pedagogy. As a case in point, Pass (2013) argues, “Effective accessible design doesn’t just help those with permanent disabilities—it helps everyone” (p. 118). Oswal and Hewett (2013) similarly state “the recommended alternatives and practices [toward accessibility] will help instructors improve their courses for all other students as well” (p. 151).

Through reading, discussing, and producing content in response to the chapters in Rhetorical Accessability (Meloncon 2013a), the students learned to consider various disabilities of potential users and strategies of writing for and with these users. For example, after reading Gutsell and Hulgin (2013), the students began changing their language practices—whether using people-first language or the type of language a particular community prefers (e.g., the “deaf community”), rather than relying solely upon medical sources, popular media, or the models of language with which they were familiar. Many students had never considered designing for people with autism and found Elmore’s (2013) discussion of the social construction of independence and dependence as challenging to their worldview, a worldview dominated by neo-liberal individualism. This chapter was a first step for many to begin seeing how all humans are interdependent and that labeling others as “disabled” is a product of our social institutions’ privileging of particular kinds of interdependence (namely white, male, abled, etc.). This notion of interdependence was especially powerful, and many students reiterated throughout the semester how recognizing different types of interdependence (including their own) gave them an ethical incentive to consider people with disabilities in their designs and communications.

Arduser’s (2013) chapter on the language of diabetic communities helped students recognize that the language one uses can empower, disempower, include, or exclude users, and that how one defines disability (Pass 2013) makes a great difference to the social institutions creating accommodation law and policy. Some students noted that under the right socially constructed circumstances and the right definition, they could be categorized as having disabilities themselves. Broadly considered, Rhetorical Accessability made more accessible some of the more theoretically and ideologically challenging material in Davis’s collection (2013a), which introduced the students to arguments and information such as problems of normalcy (Davis 2013b), the history of disability law (Emens 2013), institutional inequality (Baynton 2013), and invisible disabilities (Samuels 2013).

For the major assignment in the course, a service-learning project, Colton developed a relationship with the local Center for Persons with Disabilities (CPD). The students would video and caption CPD guest lectures (given by persons with a disability or loved ones affected by disability), then edit the videos by adding various b-roll footage, images, documents, and presentation slides in a manner that would fit the screencasting genre and would be suitable for online learning. To prepare the students for the final project and allow them to practice their video production and captioning skills in the context of the readings, the course was organized around two additional major assignments: reading reflections and an intervention assignment. The reading reflection assignment prompted students to summarize the disability studies and technical communication readings for the past two weeks (usually four articles) and respond to them, similar to a typical summary/response essay. Reading reflections early in the semester were in the form of a written essay; reading reflections later in the semester were in the form of a screencast. This format enabled students to practice their presentation design skills (such as Williams’s (2010) principles of clarity, relevance, animation, and plot), as well as practice their skills in captioning for significant sounds (Zdenek 2011) through the production of three-minute videos.

Inspired by and modeled after Zdenek’s own pedagogical practices,[1] the intervention assignment gave the students a chance to look for something in their own life that was inaccessible in some manner to a person with disabilities. For this assignment, some students continued to work on their captioning skills by uploading captions (via free online software such as Amara) to a YouTube video of their choice that had no captions or poor captions as a result of YouTube’s automatic-captioning algorithm. Other students chose to follow the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0 to edit the code and content of a website toward better worldwide accessibility (Lewthwaite and Swan 2013). These website interventions included writing alternate text for images and, where possible, revising the content on the site by creating linear reading paths, informative (rather than “cute”) titles and headings, and writing in plain language (Jarrett, Redish, and Summers 2013). Through these assignments, students engaged with concepts of rhetoric, digital media, and disability studies. This engagement proved productive in at least two ways: introducing concerns of social justice into the practice of technical communication and prompting reflection on social justice issues—even beyond concerns specific to disability studies.


The findings reported in this article address two of the broader study’s research questions:

  1. What are students’ perspectives on the relevance of social justice to their professional field? to their own professional goals?
  2. What factors were useful for fostering in students a critical reflection on social justice?

One type of data informing this article is anonymized student assignments: four reading reflections and an intervention assignment. This data addresses research question one by conveying student perspectives at multiple points throughout the semester and research question two by indicating whether and to what extent assignments prompted students to engage in critical reflection on social justice-related concepts. One limitation of this type of data stems from the rhetorical context of assignments: some students may say what they think a professor wants to hear in an effort to get a good grade. Another limitation is that this data alone is unlikely to uncover factors beyond readings and assignments that are useful for fostering critical reflection on social justice.

We engaged in several strategies to mitigate these limitations. First, Colton took care to create a supportive discussion environment (online and in person) in which students could share a range of perspectives. He intentionally asked open-ended questions, gave time and validation to different viewpoints, and asked students to do their best to avoid discriminatory language but also not police each other as they were learning new discourse practices regarding disability. A second strategy for mitigating limitations was to provide students with assignment descriptions and grading rubrics that explicitly focused on critical engagement (i.e., not on arguing a particular point or advocating for an instructor-selected position), and grading comments reinforced that focus on critical engagement, not on parroting a particular view. Third, we engaged in three types of triangulation to improve the rigor of the study and validity of the findings (Denzin 1978; Patton 1999):

  • Sources: We analyzed several sets of data collected by the same method—for example, reading reflections produced by students at different points throughout the semester.
  • Methods: Participants produced data through different methods—e.g., semi-structured interviews, written essays, and multimedia documents.
  • Analyst: We engaged in iterative, joint data analysis to develop the coding scheme.

Students were informed of the study at the beginning of the semester, given opportunities to ask questions, and provided with an information sheet that detailed how they could opt out of the study (as well as other information, such as purpose, benefits, and risks of the study). Students could opt out at two levels: 1) removing only their individual assignments from the study and 2) removing any collaborative assignments to which they contributed. To minimize coercion, the opt-out procedure enabled students to withdraw at any time[2] without their instructor knowing until after grades were submitted. A university employee who was unaffiliated with the study agreed to collect any forms (which were attached to the information sheets provided to every student) and hold them until after grades were submitted, at which point the assignments of participating students could be anonymized for analysis.

Students were also invited to participate in a semi-structured interview after classes had finished meeting for the semester. To minimize coercion, Walton conducted all recruiting, scheduling, and interviewing without Colton’s involvement or knowledge of which students participated until after grades were submitted. This method provided a different rhetorical environment for data collection, in which participants could enact a greater degree of freedom in expressing their views (Moeller, Walton, and Price 2015). Interviews ranged from 30-45 minutes and addressed the following topics: a) students’ experiences and perceptions of the course, b) effects of the course on their perspective of social justice, c) effects of the course on their professional goals, d) effects of the course on their feelings of preparedness for entering their profession, and e) their own perceptions of their learning outcomes. No students opted out of the research study, and nine of the 20 students participated in an interview.

Findings were identified through iterative formal coding of interview transcripts and student assignments to identify patterns of meaning (Braun and Clark 2006; Miles and Huberman 1994 p. 55–69). In the first round of coding, Colton and Walton independently coded the same subset of data, noting all direct and indirect references to social justice, such as describing challenges faced by marginalized people and advocating accessible communication design. We created memos to note potential patterns and relationships among these patterns. Based on patterns we both saw emerging in the data, we iteratively developed and applied a joint coding scheme from which three themes emerged:

  1. Reasons to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design: being a more proficient and valuable technical communicator; doing what is ethical.
  2. Ability to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design by recognizing exclusionary practices and identifying ways to make communication more inclusive to people with disabilities, in terms of both usability and representation.
  3. Awareness of connections between social justice and technical communication beyond issues specific to disabilities.

These themes emerged across multiple data types, across the semester, and across students. Table 1 below shows the distribution and general prominence of these themes. Each letter (A, B, C) indicates at least one application of a particular code according to data type and student.This table shows the distribution and prominence of themes. Each row represents a student; 20 students total. Each column represents a source of data; there are six data sources. The columns in order from left to right are reflection 1, reflection 2, intervention assignment, reflection 3, reflection 4, and interview. Columns are ordered chronologically from left to right. Reflection 1 occurred at the beginning of the semester; interviews took place after classes were over. Table cells represent a particular data source (represented in columns) for a particular student (represented in rows). Where a student’s data source contained at least one application of code for theme A, B, and/or C, that cell contains an A, B, and/or C. Theme A is reasons to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design. Theme B is ability to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design. And theme C is awareness of connections between social justice and technical communication. These themes appeared across students and across data types, with theme C appearing much more frequently in data sources produced near the end of the semester and after the semester. The prevalence of themes was pretty comparable across students, except for students 6 and 20, whose data contained no relevant codes until the end of the semester: reflection 4 and interview for student 6; reflections 3 and 4 for student 20.


Our findings suggest that facilitating students’ awareness of disability can serve as a productive entry point for helping students recognize the relevance of social justice to the work of communication design. The findings suggest how students can begin to revise their practices to reflect this change in perspective regarding the role of the field and their place within it.

Reasons to Engage in Inclusive, Accessible Communication Design

The first theme conveys patterns of students’ reasons to engage in inclusive, accessible communication design. The most immediate insight was that making design more accessible simply made them better technical communicators. This insight broadened their perceptions of the role of the technical communicator—e.g., whether as a web designer, a manual writer, or an editor—to include a consideration of all potential users, especially people with disabilities:

“As technical communicators, it is our job to write and communicate about these technologies. [. . .] However, because users’ technological embodiments aren’t all the same, documentation will not be all the same. It will require that we are adaptable to different users’ needs.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Meloncon (2013b)]

“It is our job as technical communicators to provide autism-friendly applications and programs through design principles, usability tests, and audience analyses.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Elmore (2013)]

In addition, students indicated that considering accessibility would make them a greater asset to employers or would provide them with cultural capital by setting themselves apart from others in the field of technical communication:

“As we create these user-centric documents, we will be aware of what we need to do to make them accessible in order to reach a more broad audience. By being able to reach a more variety of audience, we will become more valuable technical communicators.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Elmore (2013)]

“A more sound knowledge of people and disabilities would be very beneficial to me as a technical writer.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Elmore (2013); Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013); and Meloncon (2013b)]

Finally, beyond a consideration of accessibility making them better technical communicators, some students articulated a concern for ethics and social justice. Moving from a constitutive “this is what a technical communicator does” to a normative “this is what a technical communicator should do,” the students began to posit accessibility as more than just a job of the technical communicator; instead, communicating accessibly is also a means to express and enact an ethical value:

“It is important to be ethical in the workplace by not empowering stereotypes or social bias.” [Source: Reflection 3 in response to Davis (2013b)]

“People all have different problems, but some are just more visible than others. As we help make content accessible for everyone, we will understand our fellow human beings that much better.” [Source: Reflection 3 in response to Linton (1998)]

“It is not ethical to design for the abled while ignoring the disabled.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Meloncon (2013b)]

“The more technical communicators that are aware of these kinds of issues the more the industry in general will change. So, it’s the kind of thing that can snowball, and have a greater effect than even just on that particular classroom.” [Source: Interview]

The above quotes indicate that many students began identifying a concern for people with disabilities and for composing with accessibility as more than just an expanded role of the technical communicator. Students articulated ethical commitments exceeding their job descriptions, including the following: discrimination of people with disabilities is wrong; normalcy is dangerous; an appreciation of difference is important; technical communicators can create societal change; and the students themselves, alongside and by paying attention to people with disabilities, can be the instigators of this change.

Ability to Engage in Inclusive, Accessible Communication Design

The second theme involves students’ ability to recognize and engage in inclusive communication design: inclusive in the sense of being usable for people with disabilities and inclusive in the sense of being respectfully representative of people with disabilities. Regarding usability, students identified several examples of problematic design:

“Going from a simple search engine page to this sudden and immediate page full of visual images, links, and sounds can be overwhelming, even stressful.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013)]

“A few of the slides were completely covered in text, and because there was a lot of text, the text was small. This made the presentation difficult to read and hard to digest the information that was most vital.” [Source: Reflection 1, sharing a personal anecdote in response to Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013)]

“For low-literacy users, even locating the option for TTS [Kindle’s text-to-speech feature] could be an issue. There are several links at the top of the reading interface, and TTS is located under the settings link.” [Source: Reflection 1 in response to Jarrett, Redish, and Summers (2013)]

“Not captioning videos excludes people who cannot hear, have difficulty hearing, have difficulty processing aural input, and people who simply have a hard time understanding the speaker’s accent from enjoying the benefits of public videos.” [Source: Intervention assignment]

As demonstrated in the above quotes, students identified a range of examples of document type (e.g., online search site, slide presentation, ebook, online video) and of people being marginalized (e.g., people with cognitive differences, with sensory differences, and with low literacy in a particular language). Students recommended specific changes to improve inclusivity, such as fewer, more meaningful links and multiple representations of the same content, such as image, text, audio track, and closed captioning. Noting that no single design could ideally accommodate everyone, several students suggested recruiting people representing wide ranges and types of abilities to engage in user testing, and one student recommended creating multiple versions of the same document, each with full and equal content to avoid further marginalizing people.

Communication design was also described as exclusionary for problematic representations of marginalized groups. For example, after reading the following sentence on a local business’s homepage, “Almost anyone can bowl, even if you have a disability,” a student referenced Gutsell and Hulgin (2013), saying:

“By placing this on their website, the bowling alley has incorporated exclusionary language when their goal is to convey that they are inclusionary—their language is doing exactly the opposite of what they would like it to do by embracing the supercrip metaphor as an advertising tool.” [Source: Reflection 2 in response to Gutsell & Hulgin (2013)]

The most commonly described examples of problematic representations involved people with disabilities being used as a means to an end, such as advertising, fundraising, or winning political office. Students described these representations as exclusionary, noting that they dehumanize and misrepresent people with disabilities and their interests.

Though positive, we do not see the students’ design recommendations themselves as the primary contribution to social justice pedagogy but rather the change in student perspectives and awareness that these recommendations represent. In identifying examples of what makes communication design marginalizing versus empowering, students demonstrated the ability to take action, to engage in the inclusive practices that they had described as important to being proficient technical communicators and ethical people.

Several students described their subsequent efforts to make documentation more inclusive in the organizations where they work or volunteer, including a food pantry, a domestic abuse shelter, a local museum, and the college of natural resources. Other students emphasized the importance of pairing awareness and action:

“I felt like I had to just think on a personal level, like, how can I improve it? […] For example, saying, ‘We need to provide captions for videos,’ but then also having a tutorial video of how to provide captions. It’s all fine and great that people are aware of the situation, but if they don’t know how to resolve it, then it doesn’t really go anywhere. So there’s actually no social justice; it’s just an idea.” [Source: Interview]

Awareness of Connections between Social Justice and Technical Communication

The third theme provides evidence of students making connections to broader notions of social justice beyond disability. We see here a critical awareness of experiences of people who occupy positions of lesser privilege because of their gender, race, ethnicity, or sexuality, as well as ability. For example, in reflecting upon their readings, students engaged with notions of normalization and power, historical justifications for discrimination, and positionality as socially and culturally constructed. Students then began noting the relevance of these concepts to multiple marginalized groups:

“Linton [1998] states that disability was constructed to serve certain ends, specifically a compromised social position. Taking that further, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are also socially constructed.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Linton (1998)]

“Baynton [2013] addresses the notion that labels, such as those for disabilities, are powerful weapons for inequality and are used to justify treating people differently.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Baynton (2013)]

“There are similarities between people with disabilities and an LGBT individual. It’s a personal decision to come out, whether as gay or having depression.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Samuels (2013)]

“Disability rights is very much like a civil rights issue.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Baynton (2013)]

“This idea of normalcy strives to make humans appear as closely related to one another as inhumanly possible: in behavior, dress and appearance, health, and intelligence, among many other aspects.” [Source: Reflection 3 in response to Davis (2013b)]

Noting the relevance of these concepts to multiple marginalized groups, some students became more attuned to issues of inequality in their day-to-day lives. This awareness led to empathy that could inform the decisions they make as communicators: for example, taking care to use people-first language and respecting the rights of people to name aspects of their own identity:

“I think I’m more aware of those around me and the automatic judgments that are passed, and things like that. So, I think that social justice and accessibility and all of that really played a role in how I view those around me.” [Source: Interview]

“It’s very important that we understand the definitions and terms [preferred by members of marginalized groups] but also understand, kinda, what they’re going through. Take a walk in their shoes.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Price (2013)]

We find this increased critical awareness particularly encouraging in light of students’ early perspectives on social justice. Students consistently described their views of social justice at the beginning of the semester as unrelated to their own lives and certainly to their profession, with many explaining either that they had never heard the term before or that they had vaguely related it to notions of picketing and protesting:

“Student: I didn’t think it [social justice] had anything to do with technical writing at all. I just thought it was people, like, campaigning for different things or fighting for different rights. [. . .] I had an idea it was doing the right thing, but I didn’t figure that was a big part of technical writing at all.

Interviewer: Did your perspective change over the course of the semester?

Student: One hundred percent. It was crazy. When I would create designs, I wouldn’t factor in different audiences. That’s the main thing. […] It just didn’t really factor into my designs. I felt like a really bad person after that, but I’m glad I took this class because now I know.” [Source: Interview]

We see this increased critical awareness—e.g., moving from vague notions of social justice to a commitment to consider marginalized audiences in one’s communication design—as a good start. But the complexity of understanding, commitment to righting unjust inequalities, and awareness of complicity varied across students. For example, Table 1 suggests student 20 did not embrace (or perhaps did not understand) these notions, even advocating for design strategies that were explicitly identified as oppressive in the readings:

“We can learn from these poster children in our own design. Creating something that is rhetorically pleasing and evokes emotion is the surefire way to grab people’s attention.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Longmore (2013)]

Also, while many students embraced people-first language, others resented what they saw as constraining political correctness:

“[Using people-first language] can be very important in emphasizing the fact that they’re a person first, but at the same time it can really grate on people sometimes, too, to have their vocabulary policed like that. And it can create negative feelings.” [Source: Interview]

As the above quote suggests, not all students saw social justice as a major professional consideration, even by the end of the semester; however, the data did show a consistent and clear pattern of increased critical awareness informing their communication design to be more inclusive. From the same student:

“In the end, it isn’t just about disabilities, it is about everyone’s right to be a part of society and to make their own choices in their lives.” [Source: Reflection 4 in response to Samuels (2013)]


This article addresses the need for more research on pedagogical practices that supplement instrumental considerations of communication design with ethical considerations of social justice. As instructors have expressed difficulty and concern for how to implement such practices in their teaching, we have proposed a strategy: introducing issues of social justice to students by initially pointing their attention to disability and its immediate and more accessible exigency to communication design.

Drawn from our action-research/service-learning project in which such a class was taught, we present three themes from students’ discussion and practice: 1) an expanded notion of what it means to be an effective, credible, and ethical technical communicator; 2) an ability to recognize exclusionary communication design and revise toward inclusivity; and, as they begin to view accessible composing not only as a role of communication designers, but as an ethical commitment to inclusivity, many students 3) articulated a more complex critical awareness of social justice beyond concerns specific to disability.

These themes are not disparate, and their relationships are important. We believe that the earlier themes are a precondition for the later themes. In viewing the distribution of themes in Table 1, we can see that theme C appears more frequently in data types produced toward the end of the semester and that it almost always appears after or alongside the first two themes (A and B). This suggests that inclusive practices facilitated by attention to accessibility can serve as first steps in enacting social justice as a professional habit in the sense of a neo-Aristotelian virtue. Technical communication instructors interested in social justice are struggling to find ways of introducing the topic to students who are accustomed to instrumentalist ways of thinking (Scott 2004). From a student interview:

“Part of the reason we’re taking this [course] is to see the different points of view and to form our own opinions about it. And to a certain extent, we do need that background to see where all these other people are coming from. But, since it’s a course that’s preparing us to go out into the work-field and to be technical writers, I did feel that we need to have most everything in the course to have a practical application.” [Source: Interview]

We believe understanding these connected themes as conditions for one another (not necessarily as a progression, though it might occur in that manner) can help instructors develop pedagogical strategies for implementing social justice concerns. Importantly for reaching instrumentalist students, these strategies are neither didactic nor extraneous to the most important issues in the field.

For students to begin thinking of communication design as an ethical endeavor, one with implications of social justice, they must also see such an ethical stance as relevant to their personal and professional goals. Research shows that students are more motivated to learn if the instructor connects the material to students’ interests and that incorporating goal-directed practices is critical (Ambrose et al. 2010). This is why beginning the conversation with disability is so fruitful. Accessible design feels practical to students, so it is congruent with instrumentalist views of the field. This strategy allows instructors to introduce social justice by building out from a shared foundation.

In what they may expect to be an instrumental course on digital media, students can be unwilling to engage with “uncomfortable” injustices relating to race, sexuality, and other identities. Starting with disability allows students to recognize more easily the existence of privilege and how societal norms serve some populations better than others. This places the students in a better position to talk about what they might consider more uncomfortable facets of privilege (race, gender, class)—facets many of them have been taught to reject outright or view as an agenda in contradiction to their own personal value systems. Disability is not readily associated with any particular political position and thus can enable more digestible consideration of other social justice topics.

Our hope is that this article will provide not only new strategies for those introducing students to the idea that social justice is relevant to communication design but also give encouragement to those instructors who wish to do so but do not know where to begin. As a concluding remark, let us say that by positing disability as insight into social justice pedagogy in communication design, we have no wish to relegate disability as an issue of lesser importance or lesser complexity than other issues (such as race, class, gender, and sexuality). Just because we are advocating disability as a starting point to engage with broader concerns of social justice does not mean that disability in and of itself does not require deep critical engagement. If anything, not enough work has been done on disability in communication design, particularly technical communication, and here we help raise disability as a central concern for all technical communicators, especially those instructors interested in social justice pedagogy.


We’d like to thank Jeanie Peck and Alma Burgess at the Center for Persons with Disabilities at Utah State University. Their partnership was key to the service-learning component of the course we discuss in the article. Thank you also to our students, who graciously participated in this research, allowing us to learn alongside them. We would also like to thank special issue editor Andrew Lucchesi for bringing this issue to fruition and to acknowledge Sushil Oswal’s contribution in conceptualizing this special issue.


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[1] Email correspondence, July 12, 2014.

[2] Like almost all IRB-approved studies, ours allows participants to withdraw at any time—including after grades were submitted—but it was in the period before grade submission that the risk of coercion warranted an intermediary in the withdrawal process.

About the Authors

Jared S. Colton is an assistant professor of technical communication and rhetoric at Utah State University. His research addresses the intersections of rhetorical theory, ethics, and politics within professional and technical communication, whether in pedagogy or sites of social justice. He is particularly interested in how classical and contemporary ethical frameworks inform the production, practice, and critique of collective activism via social and mobile media and accessibility technologies. He has published in Enculturation, Rhetoric Review, and the Journal of College Science Teaching.

Rebecca Walton is an assistant professor of technical communication and rhetoric at Utah State University. She studies the role that communication can play in more equitably distributing power. Her research interests include social justice, human dignity and human rights, and qualitative methods for cross-cultural research. Her work has appeared in Technical Communication Quarterly; Journal of Business and Technical Communication; and Information Technologies and International Development, as well as other journals and edited collections.

This is an image of a screen that would appear on a window.

Disability, Mental Illness, and eLearning: Invisible Behind the Screen?

Dr. Mike Kent, Curtin University


This article reports on a recent study of students who registered for disability support while studying fully online through Open Universities Australia. The first stage of research was a survey of students who registered for disability support with the organization. This survey found a very high proportion of these students–44.9 percent–identified as people with a mental illness, prompting a second stage of the research where students who had identified as a person with mental illness were interviewed individually. Using this data, the article explores some of the benefits and potential problems students with disabilities experience while studying online, before focusing more specifically on the implications for people with a mental illness. The paper then looks at how mental disability remains a relatively unexplored area of inquiry and how this can partly be explained through the contested place that mental illness holds as an impairment in the broader field of disability studies, particularly in relation to the social model of disability. Finally the article concludes by making a call for further research into best practice for online technological and pedagogical design to better support and enable this group of students. It recommends how the potentially disabling structures of academic institutions could be reformed to better enable a more accessible learning environment. The first step in this process is to recognize these students as having a legitimate impairment that needs to be addressed and accommodated in the contemporary higher education environment.


Online education has been a rapidly growing part of the higher education sector over the past fifteen years (Allen and Seaman 2014, 5; Sugar, Martindale, and Crawley, 2007, 365; Wait and Lewis, 2003, iii). When students are fully online we often will not meet them until they graduate. In this context, making sure what is offered is accessible to everyone, particularly students with a disability, is vital. There are a number of advantages to studying online for students with disabilities (see Dobransky and Hargittai, 2006; Fitchen et al., 2009; Roberts, Crittenden and Crittenden 2011). However, online students with a disability can become invisible, and this can lead to unintended accessibility problems. Students with disabilities are underrepresented in tertiary education (see Sachs and Schreuer 2011; Wentz, Jaeger and Lazar 2011), and this seems to be particularly the case in Australian higher education where some estimates put the number of these students as low as four percent (Ellis 2011, 1) compared to between eight and fourteen percent in the United States and United Kingdom (Sachs and Schreuer 2011, para 2). In this context, Open Universities Australia (OUA) had approximately 6.37 percent of the student body who identify as having a disability in 2014.

Open Universities Australia is a consortium of seven Australian universities and brings together fifteen different institutions teaching higher education to students fully online across a number of different fields at both an undergraduate and postgraduate level. Each institution involved produces its own online courses that are presented under the OUA banner. OUA offers four study periods a year running back to back for thirteen weeks each. Students are given the option to disclose that they have a disability to OUA as part of the enrolment process; however, privacy legislation in Australia means that OUA does not pass this information on to the specific institutions where the students are studying. As Roberts, Crittenden and Crittenden (2011, 246-247) found, students are often reluctant to disclose that they have a disability–even if it means that they are unable to access course material–a situation that is no doubt made worse if multiple disclosures are required to different organizations. It also means that when students do not come forward, institutions may be unaware of the accessibility requirements of a particular cohort and not construct an appropriate learning environment that would potentially negate the need for disclosure in the first place.

In October 2014, an online survey was conducted to explore the attitudes and conditions of students with disabilities studying through OUA. An invitation to participate was sent via email to each of the students that had registered for disability support. The survey explored two key areas; first, the survey focused on how accessible the different online platforms used for teaching and learning by the different institutions were. Second, the survey focused on the student’s level of disclosure to each institution, looking at what motived students to disclose their disability or not, and for those who did, if the accommodation and support offered was effective. The survey also solicited volunteers who might be interested in participating in further follow-up research. From these volunteers, eleven students who identified as having mental illness were individually interviewed to provide further depth to the survey’s results.

OUA invites students who register as having a disability to select from eight separate categories of impairments: hearing, learning, mobility, vision, medical, intellectual disability, acquired brain impairment, and mental illness. By mimicking these broad categories, the survey was able to look at the specific impacts of these impairments as they relate to accessibility, disclosure, and the effectiveness of any accommodation offered. The survey sample matched well against the total student body with a disability, in terms of age, gender and types of impairments reported.

One of the significant findings of this survey was the number of students in the sample who reported as having a mental illness. Students with mental illness have, in the past, formed a relatively small group of students within the broader disability category. The United States Department of Education reported that for all university enrolments in 2008 among the students who identified as having a disability only fifteen percent reported having a mental illness (as cited in Lee, 2014, 40). However, this study found that within the OUA cohort this number was significantly higher, making up 46.3 percent of survey respondents.

OUA does not prominently release its information on the number of students with disabilities. However, when this data is released, the specific impairment categories of intellectual disability, acquired brain impairment, and mental illness are labelled under “other” along with other students who have an impairment that does not map onto one of the five other categories. This “other” category then makes up 54.2 percent of all impairments and serves to mask the high level of students studying through the institution with a mental illness.

In the broader community the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in 2007 the proportion of people with mental illness in Australia was 17.6 percent for men and 22.3 percent for women. In the United States in 2014 the Congressional Research Service quotes studies with figures between 32.4 percent and 24.8 percent using different methodologies (Bagalman and Napili, 2015, 1). If the survey sample was applied to all students who registered as having a disability at OUA, they would be significantly underrepresented, making up only three percent of the student body.

The next section will examine the potential of eLearning for people with mental illness. It will also examine some of the barriers presented to this form of learning. It might be pointed out that often these are as much related to pedagogy and the structural nature of higher education than to any specific technology. Further, these barriers are often caused by a lack of understanding and awareness more than active discrimination, a situation that is certainly exacerbated by the relatively hidden nature of mental illness as a disability–particularly in an online environment. This hidden nature, it will be argued, comes not just from the stigma that is often associated with this type of disability, both by people who have mental illness as well as others (Holmes and River, 1998, 231; Corrigan and Rao, 2012, 464), but also from the relationship between mental illness and the disability social justice movement, and the discipline of disability studies that it informs. Before turning more specifically to mental illness, it is useful to position this type of impairment and its relation to the broader issues facing all students with disabilities in the higher education environment, particularly in an online learning and teaching context.

Disability and eLearning

There are a number of areas in which eLearning can work to the advantage of people with disabilities when studying in a higher education context. These revolve around the three areas of accessibility, flexibility, and disclosure (Kent 2015, para 11). Online information can be made available in a variety of formats to best suit the person accessing it, whether this is visual through a screen displaying images or text, audio as spoken words and sound, or touch devices such as a Braille tablet or Lorm glove, and increasingly through wearable technologies such as mobile phones and smart watches. There are also a variety of different ways this information can be entered, as well as retrieved, again allowing for greater accessibility for both students and teaching staff with different types of impairments.

This is not to say that eLearning sites are always designed to maximize this affordance. Students with disabilities face a range of challenges in higher education and online higher education environments. Borland and James (1999, 89) found students with disabilities felt ‘invisible’ or unimportant within higher education and experienced negative attitudes from staff and other students. Sach and Schreuer (2011, para 8) found students were reluctant to disclose that they had a disability in a face-to-face context, particularly those with what can be considered an invisible disability. In an online context many more disabilities can become invisible (see Ellis and Kent, 2011). Roberts, Crittenden, and Crittenden (2011, 246-247) found that online students were reluctant to disclose a disability, even if it meant that they were unable to access resources that were made available in inaccessible formats. Fitchen et al. (2009, 241), Kelly (2009, para 1-2) and Van be Bunt-Kokhuis and Bolger (2009, 1) all found problems with the accessibility of online content, for instance documents can be formatted in a way that prevents assistive technology such as screen-readers from working properly, and videos can be uploaded without assistive captions for people with hearing impairments. These are problems that need to be overcome through inclusive design of both the technology and pedagogy of online learning; these studies do highlight some of the existing problems in this environment.

Despite the use of online technology sometimes being problematic, it does provide a number of more flexible options for students with disabilities. Inaccessible or difficult to access lecture theatres and tutorial rooms can be avoided. Problems associated with travel to a traditional campus and spending time there can be similarly avoided. Even problems with accessing some of the social aspects of university life can be reinterpreted online (see Leaver, 2014). With this flexibility also comes the affordance of controlling disclosure of a specific impairment. Muilenburg and Barge (2005, 40) found that students with disabilities who had experienced previous discrimination in face-to-face learning situations were actively attracted to online learning. Good accessible design makes eLearning more accessible for everyone, conversely, poor design can make content hard to access for all students regardless of impairment. As Case and Davidson (2011, 47) observe: “Making technology such as online learning accessible is ethically appropriate, economically sensible, and self-serving, as everyone may need accessible technology as the population grows older.”

Among the impairment types that can disappear online, many types of mental illness are a prominent group. This invisibility is often what a student desires, but when coupled with the reluctance of institutions to disclose the number of students in this category it becomes a further barrier to the awareness and intervention required to make eLearning inclusive for this group.

The Study

In 2014 Open Universities Australia had 42,898 students enrolled. Of these 2,925 identified as having a disability and 1,480 of these had registered for disability support with OUA. This last group of students was each emailed an invitation to participate in an online survey, and 352 students chose to participate. The survey was run through the online Survey Monkey platform and consisted of 17 questions. The first four questions looked at demographics including age, gender, level of education and the impairment type the respondent identified. These responses were broadly in line with the demographics collected by OUA for the full cohort of students to whom the survey invitation was sent. The next two questions looked at how long the person had been a student and the type of study the student was undertaking. Questions seven, eight and nine asked about any accommodation the students might have received as part of their studies, questions ten and eleven looked at issues around disclosure and questions twelve through sixteen looked specifically at technology and online learning systems, and how accessible they were for the students. Finally, question sixteen asked about the student’s opinion of OUA as a place to study, and question seventeen gave the respondents the opportunity to indicate that they would be interested in participating in further research. A summary of the responses can be found in Appendix A.

There was a very high response rate to the final question asking if the participants would like to participate in further research with a 63.4 percent positive response. For students who had identified as a person with mental illness this positive response rate rose to 71.1 percent. Given this seeming eagerness on behalf of the respondents to have their voices heard, and the high proportion of students who identified as being a person with mental illness, in 2015 a series of follow-up interviews were held, looking specifically at students who identified as having mental illness. These interviews were conducted online, either through Skype or an exchange of emails, and looked specifically at the impact of this type of impairment on the accessibility of online learning. This second stage of the research was designed to answer calls, specifically from people with mental illness, for research that is conducted “with” not just “on” this group (McWade, Milton and Beresford, 2015, 305).

These semi-structured interviews expanded the survey’s focus on technology to also look at teaching practice and pedagogy. An invitation to participate was sent to each of the individuals who had indicated that they would be interested in further research and who had left a valid email address. Eleven interviews were conducted via Skype or email. Six of these reported mental illness as their only impairment, while the remaining five reported multiple impairments including mental illness.

Mental Illness and eLearning

In 1999 McLean and Andrews found that university students in Australia with psychiatric disorders faced major problems completing their course of study. They found students suffered problems completing assessment tasks within the timeframe allotted and regularly attending classes due to fluctuating symptoms, as well as stigmatized treatment by staff and other students. ELearning can add to the accessibility of higher education for people with disabilities, and this is particularly true for people with mental illness, although the affordance of this potential accessibility depends on appropriate digital and pedagogical design. There are a number of potential pitfalls for online design that can impact different types of mental illness. People with mental illness will also often have other impairments that impede their access to online content. The interviews indicated this was the case for slightly more than half the people interviewed and the survey found that 41.6 percent of respondents who identified as having a mental illness also identified as fitting into one or more other impairment categories.

While in this paper mental illness is referred to in a very general sense, it must be acknowledged that this broad category of impairment can manifest in a wide variety of different manners. The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (2013) details 48 different categories of mental illness listed with numerous sub-classifications. This diversity is important to acknowledge as there is always a danger that when compensating for one element of impairment a barrier is created for others. A commonly used example is curb-cuts on the side of the road which make the urban environment less difficult for wheelchair users to navigate, but more difficult for people with a vision impairment who use the raised footpath to identify the edge of the road. While the ability to present different types of information online to different users greatly assists the development of universal design in eLearning, the potential for digital curb-cuts to develop must be considered. Different impairments will require different, and potentially incompatible, ways to navigate around the Web, both at the hardware and software level. Innovations that for example allow greater access for people with vision impairments, such as audio descriptions, will not be accessible by people with hearing impairments (see Ellis and Kent 2011). These mutually incompatible barriers also have the potential to impact across the diverse range of mental illness.

The interviews allowed for a more in depth investigation of what type of mental illness this category contained. Of the eleven students interviewed, consistent with the prevalence of different types of mental illness in the broader Australian population, depression and anxiety were two of the most prominent conditions along with post-traumatic stress disorder (Australia Bureau of Statistics, 2008, 8). Of the eleven interviewees six reported having conditions related to depression, four anxiety and four post-traumatic stress disorder, along with one person with obsessive compulsive disorder. Four of the eleven interviewees reported having more than one of these conditions. Two of the respondents reported having previously had episodes of suicidal thoughts associated with their studies.

The three areas that make eLearning attractive for students with disabilities are accessibility, flexibility and disclosure. Particularly for students with mental illness, eLearning allows them to avoid many of the problems they might face if they had to attend classes on a physical campus, and have the flexibility to work within the changing parameters of their impairment. Similarly, the affordance provided through eLearning to have more control of the disclosure of their disability, particularly in light of the issues around stigma, is an important feature.

As one student observed:

“Not being a physical or noticeable illness, there is a lot of stigma attached to depression and its associated conditions and as such you just have to ‘push through’; unfortunately this at times can be more detrimental for you personally. But it is often the case where we are told just harden up, which then makes you feel worse as a person.”

This can also impact students’ attitudes towards disclosure and thus their ability to receive any accommodation in relation to potentially inaccessible parts of their studies, one interviewee explained:

“I haven’t actively applied for assistance mostly due to a feeling of shame and inadequacy regarding my disabilities.”

The survey found that across all the institutions accessed through OUA, students who responded to the survey would disclose to the institution where they were studying that they had a disability 60.3 percent of the time. For students who listed mental illness as an impairment, this number dropped noticeably to 48.4 percent. Given the potential stigma felt by people with mental illness (see Holmes and River, 1998; Corrigan and Rao, 2012), and the reluctance of students with any disability to disclose that they have a disability, it is likely that the number of students studying online who have a mental illness is higher than the results of this survey would indicate. As another student observed:

“This was a massive decision for me. First mental health has a stigma still and it’s hard to admit to this to others. Second it has been hard to accept my limitations when I have always been a very academic person who used to read and study for hours on end.”

The actual process of disclosure could also be difficult in itself beyond issues of stigma.

“The first dealing with [University] Disabilities Services sent me into a depression spin that put me out of commission for a week. Their style of questioning was intrusive and insensitive.”

Another student’s experience also showed that it was not always a simple process.

“When I did reveal my depression the institution was reluctant to accept my disability. Once they did it helped and the university facilitated me seeing a councilor”

Another student also noted that these difficulties extended beyond the disability office and through the whole university institution.

“For everyone’s talk about wanting to help us, we have to jump through some ridiculous hoops to get that help. And even when we do our worries or concerns can be overlooked, not even just by the school itself but by other students and facilities. Other groups such as sport or music student groups, or charity work done on campus, can ignore our needs when we want to take part or volunteer”

Even once they have gotten past issues related to stigma and disclosure, students with mental illness face problems more directly related to the learning environment. The total percentage of students who reported difficulty with accessing online learning platforms due to their disability was slightly lower for students with mental illness, at 16.8 percent compared to 18.7 percent of students in the survey who did not identify as having mental illness. However, the responses from the students who did have difficulty showed a noticeable impact on the accessibility of different online platforms used in learning and teaching for people with mental illness. The table below shows the responses to the survey for students who identified as having a mental illness and that had trouble accessing online learning platforms. The second to last column indicates the percentage of students who responded to the survey and did not identify as having a mental illness and the final column the difference between the two. There are clearly large differences in the accessibility of different platforms for students with mental illness compared to other students with disabilities with some platforms seemingly presenting more troubles and others proving to be more accessible.

alt=’This table lists the different online platforms listed in the survey and students level of difficulty in accessing them. It compares the difficulty experienced in the survey by students who identified as a person with mental illness and the students who did not. There are 10 columns in the table and fifteen rows. The first column lists the online platforms that were asked about in the survey. The second column lists how many students had not used the platform, the next four columns list the students who had used the platform and how difficult they found it to access from “no problem” to “minor problems”, “major problems” and “unusable”. The next column lists the total number of students who used the platform, followed by the column that lists the percentage of students who had problems. The next column lists the percentage students reporting a problem with the platform from the survey who did not identify in the survey as having a mental illness, and the final column lists the difference in percentage between these two groups. The top row of the table labels each of the columns and each subsequent line looks at the data from a specific online platforms. The data reads as follows: Moodle, not used 44, no problems 14, minor problems 5, major problems 0, unusable 0, total used 19, percent problems 26.3, percent problems (without mental illness) 43, difference negative 16.5 percent. Blackboard, not used 10, no problems 32, minor problems 20, major problems 5, unusable 1, total used 58, percent problems 44.8, percent problems (without mental illness) 51, difference negative 6.5 percent. Facebook, not used 26, no problems 32, minor problems 4, major problems 1, unusable 1, total used 38, percent problems 15.8, percent problems (without mental illness) 26, difference negative 10.4 percent. Twitter, not used 40, no problems 21, minor problems 2, major problems 0, unusable 1, total used 24, percent problems 12.5, percent problems (without mental illness) 11, difference 1.4 percent. Slideshare, not used 58, no problems 4, minor problems 0, major problems 1, unusable 0, total used 5, percent problems 20, percent problems (without mental illness) 8, difference 11.7 percent. Prezi, not used 55, no problems 6, minor problems 0, major problems 1, unusable 0, total used 7, percent problems 14.3, percent problems (without mental illness) 18, difference negative 3.4 percent. Lectopia, not used 55, no problems 5, minor problems 1, major problems 2, unusable 0, total used 8, percent problems 37.5, percent problems (without mental illness) 41, difference negative 3.4 percent. Echo 360 / echo center, not used 38, no problems 14, minor problems 9, major problems 2, unusable 1, total used 26, percent problems 46.2, percent problems (without mental illness) 50, difference negative 3.8 percent. PDFs, not used 13, no problems 37, minor problems 9, major problems 2, unusable 1, total used 49, percent problems 24.5, percent problems (without mental illness) 33, difference negative 8.8 percent. Blogger, not used 49, no problems 9, minor problems 3, major problems 1, unusable 0, total used 13, percent problems 30.8, percent problems (without mental illness) 20, difference 10.8 percent. WordPress, not used 48, no problems 11, minor problems 2, major problems 1, unusable 0, total used 14, percent problems 21.4, percent problems (without mental illness) 11, difference 10.3 percent. WebCT, not used 56, no problems 5, minor problems 0, major problems 1, unusable 0, total used 6, percent problems 16.7, percent problems (without mental illness) 22, difference negative 5.6 percent. YouTube, not used 18, no problems 41, minor problems 1, major problems 3, unusable 0, total used 45, percent problems 8.9, percent problems (without mental illness) 31, difference negative 22.6 percent. University Websites, not used 7, no problems 39, minor problems 15, major problems 6, unusable 1, total used 61, percent problems 36.1, percent problems (without mental illness) 49, difference negative 13.3 percent.’
Despite these findings in the interviews students expressed their satisfaction with both the Blackboard platform and the OUA website, amongst others, as can be seen in these comments.

“Blackboard interaction with tutor/peers is helpful, enables discussion in an open and accepting forum. E-mail communication with tutor is also helpful, as allows me to narrow areas of concern and focus on requirements.”

“Blackboard has been great. It’s generally easy to understand and use. Further to this, as more than one uni uses blackboard it means that the general layout is the same.”

“Collaborate sessions and video tutorials work well”

“The oua website has been very helpful. When the website was upgraded I struggled to understand how to navigate it, however has pretty much figured it out again.”

“The online library has been great as well and have always found what I am looking for without issue.”

“Facebook pages help ease isolation–it’s a new thing.”

The students also noted other tools that they found more difficult:

“The Collaborate function which allows for personal communication has not been successful for me as I am uncomfortable with this platform and it leaves me feeling inadequate.”

“I have sometimes struggled with universities that do not use blackboard but rather their own websites to obtain information. Ultimately it results in having five log ons, five passwords and trying to navigate your way around many different sites. While this wouldn’t normally be an issue, when confusion and memory are major issues, it can be hard to try and resolve how to use these differing sites.”

“Social Media causes trouble.”

As can be seen in the comments about Blackboard Collaborate, social media and websites, as well as the interview and survey responses to Blackboard, a platform that works well for one person may be hard to access for another. As the comment on the OUA website indicates, this can also be the case for the same platform and person in different circumstances.

Accessibility problems are not just about online teaching platforms. As Guglielman (2010, 1) observed, eLearning needs to address accessibility and inclusion from both the perspective of technology and pedagogy. This is particularly true for students with mental illness. There were a number of areas related to learning, teaching, and educational design that the students highlighted in the interviews.

“I like the OUA system of providing reading material, guided discussions/mandatory db posts and written assessments/online quizzes. I am able to work at my own pace without having to wait for others. Allows me freedom to race ahead, then circle around and start from the beginning again.”

“The second unit I speak of employed the use of a portfolio for two of it’s [sic] assessments. Which was (ideally) worked on each week and marked at two intervals throughout the study period. An activity was completed for each week’s learning, for a total of 12 portfolio pieces of which a select few were randomly chosen and graded. As someone who becomes quite anxious and suffers performance anxiety this was a great idea as it took the extreme pressure off as you essentially had 12 chances to prove yourself, and you were getting tested on everything learnt so you were going to have your strengths and weaknesses and it caused less anxiety as the task could be broken down in to ‘smaller’ sections as opposed to the ominous ASSESSMENT!”

“I would like to see more exams. I wouldn’t say I enjoy exams but I feel more comfortable with exams. I know I have done the work and that I have within me as a result the knowledge required to be an educator. I retain this information and I know that I can explain it and apply it in a classroom. Assignments unfortunately are not my specialty and unfortunately I’ve found with online education there is not an even ratio or even a ratio at all. It is 3 assignments a unit.”

“I personally prefer the typed text or pre-recorded lectures. This is twofold, one I again struggle in group environments. Two, due to concentration issues, I can only maintain focus for around ten minutes before stopping for around ten minutes then starting again. Therefore pre-recorded, or typed lectures are much easier to stop and start as needed.”

“I know it is not easy with online study, but my strongest recommendation is to enable a variety of assessment methods – I would like to see more exams (for the reason outlined above) or other assessment methods.”

“As I started the degree on line, I found I flourished with the challenge and could work more freely without the bullying that one experiences from some of the lecturers on campus in an art school. As I suffer from anxiety attacks, I was not able to cope with the personal attacks that are so unprofessional and actually make one want to never paint again.”

There were also a number of techniques that the students found harder to adapt to:

“Due to my disability I have trouble with concentration and memory. Therefore studying, especially for exams can be difficult with retaining information. That said, the disability support section has been exceptionally helpful in providing an area to sit away from others due to anxiety and extended time.”

“Needed help with Exams.”

“Individual assignment rather than group assignment, however I know this is just a factor of university. Anxiety disorders and relying on others with group work don’t function well together. Anxiety isn’t always rational and can be very hard to navigate your way through a group assessment.”

“Group projects (ARGH) … too much unknown, and reliance on other people. Own self-imposed high standards do not always translate across a shared assessment platform.”

“I had to withdraw from a unit due it bringing on my depressions, including thoughts of self-harm and suicidal thoughts. It was a philosophy unit in metaphysics the meaning of life etc.”

“I find exams hard.”

The students highlight in these comments different approaches to assessment and ways of working through learning content, both in terms of what works and what doesn’t. Comments such as the attractiveness of exams as a form of assessment appear as both positive and negative features. There are some good justifications for the design of assessment that includes hard set deadlines for assignments, the need for physical examinations and group work. However, these need to be considered against the disabling effect they have for many students, particularly those with mental illness. While in most cases a student seeking accommodation for this type of disabling assessment could be easily accommodated, this requires a level of disclosure that many students will not make. This prescribed approach to assessment is not necessary. One of the advantages of eLearning is that it is possible to offer more accessible alternatives to students without requiring any form of disclosure on their part. A unit could offer more than one type of assessment for the learning material to accommodate not just students with disabilities, but also different learning styles in all students.

These assessment design problems are compounded by the construction of the university teaching and administration systems. OUA offers four thirteen week study periods a year. While there are clearly operational reasons to keep this rolling period of study, it would also be possible to design units where students can progress at their own pace. This is an approach adopted by Open Colleges Australia–an organization that provides further education in a similar way that OUA provides higher education. At OUA, while a student can withdraw from a unit of study during a study period–and if they disclose that they are doing so due to the impact of mental illness they can normally do so without penalty–they must start that particular unit of study from the beginning in a subsequent study period and redo all assessment that they may have completed up until that point. If they resubmit assignments they had previously completed, it is considered a case of academic misconduct due to self-plagiarism. This is particularly hard for students who might struggle to be able to put in thirteen weeks of work at a time and must normally restart a unit of study from the beginning if they wish to attempt it again. There seems no reason why a student could not suspend their study, rather than withdraw and then re-join the unit in a later study period. Similarly, the institutional arrangements between OUA and the different organizations that provide the programs of study mean that students are faced with having to disclose their disability multiple times if they require any special consideration. As can be seen from the comments above, this is a source of unnecessary difficulty for the students based on meeting regulatory requirements, rather than what is the best for the students. There are good administrative arguments for the existing system; however, these also need to be seen as a significant form of institutional discrimination.

As with all types of disability there are also times for students with mental illness when the impairments impact the person regardless of inclusive design or any accommodation that might be offered, as these students observed:

“OCD, plays into aspects such as not being able to sit down and do uni work or undertake study until everything is in order. Sometimes this includes things like not being able to do uni work if I haven’t been to the gym, because it ‘throws my cycle off’. I then become anxious about satisfying a mental checklist so that my mind is at ease so I can complete my study.”

“Convincing myself that I am worthy enough to be doing the course. That I do deserve to be there and that I am capable of being a teacher/completing the degree. I become overwhelmed with feelings of failure. This could be in week one–I could read ahead about the assessments, become overwhelmed because I don’t understand it and I start to get anxious and worry I will fail which puts me in a negative mindframe and causes me to withdraw or avoid completely.”

During the interviews, students were asked what they would recommend to make study easier and they made a number of suggestions and recommendations, some of which are presented below:

“Also due to the stigma of mental health, while I have had no issues, it’s potentially worth advertising, or conveying that oua and associated universities are understanding and considerate regarding mental health disabilities. This would potentially help people feel more comfortable revealing this information.”

“Maybe it is worth considering putting trigger warnings on some units (related to depression).”

“Perhaps have an online place where people with disabilities can go and discuss things, how they’re doing, what they need help with. Something for all universities, all disciplines, no matter what. Have it accessible to hard of hearing people, to blind people, to people who have anxiety issues and can’t deal with being seen by people but can type to communicate instead. Create a support system for disabled students so that they don’t have to go through what I did for three years–trying to come to terms with my new diagnosis and a whole new world of learning and requirements. “

“There is minimal contact between admin at university and tutors regarding students with disability. This means that I either have to repeat my condition over and over to different people, or bring it up when I have issues, in which case it appears I am using it when it suits me which isn’t the case.”

“When registering the disability I provided reports from my psychiatrist and doctor which has been used for the exam conditions. I had to repeat this process for every university that I attended. It would be more efficient for students, if this process could be completed with oua then that’s then forwarded on to universities. Or if not possible, once provided by student to all universities that this info is provided to tutors so that they have an understanding of the struggles we may have.”

Other students also mentioned the importance of access to extensions to provide “breathing space” and a mental safety net and locally invigilated exams.

Seale and Cooper (2010, 1108) found that many teachers in higher education see the importance of making eLearning accessible–they are just not sure how. When the prevalence of a particular type of impairment, such as mental illness, is hidden this process is further complicated. The impacts of this can be seen in the use of online learning technology, the pedagogy that underpins the design of online learning and units of study, and finally at an institutional and administrative level. This lack of visibility is in part a consequence of people with disability’s reluctance to disclose that they have a disability. In an online environment, this is further exacerbated for people with mental illness by the stigma that is often associated with this type of impairment. However, mental impairment has always occupied a difficult place in discourses around disability that sets it apart in debates around accessibility and inclusion. Mental illness is often thought of, and treated, differently from other types of impairments. One way to try to understand this may be linked to the way this type of impairment has been conceived, particularly in relation to the social model of disability.

The social model of disability first articulated by Michael Oliver (1981), as a contrast to the medical model of disability, places the causes of disability on society, rather than an individual’s body. In this context it is not being a wheelchair user that is the disability; rather it is the construction of inaccessible stairs to gain entry to a building. For eLearning, it is the inaccessible technological, pedagogical and institution design of the learning environment, rather than any problem resulting from a particular student’s impairment that activates disability.

The social model traditionally focused on physical and perceptual impairments and often excluded mental illness (Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation, 1974, 7). In 2000, Mulvany observed “disability theorists have rarely included psychiatric disability in their work” (584) and this would still seem to be the case fifteen years later. While the understanding of the social model of disability has begun to expand beyond physical and sensory impairments to include other areas, including cognitive impairments such as dyslexia (Macdonald 2009; Riddick, 2001) and learning difficulties (Chappell, Goodley and Lawton, 2001; Goodley, 2010), mental illness still is approached very much from a medical model perspective, with an approach to make a person better, rather than the environment more accessible. This can be seen in the label: Talk of mental illness and mental health invites a medical approach and the idea that a person needs to be healed or made better. This can also be seen in students’ explanations of their mental illness in the interviews:

“I don’t consider that I have a disability. I have a medical condition that requires managing, through lifestyle and medication.”

While the use of the term mental illness in this paper has been adopted to mirror the label given to the impairment by OUA, a more constructive descriptor is needed with useful ideas and alternative labels coming from Madness Studies, Neurodiversity and Neuroqueer (see McWade, Milton and Beresford, 2015).

Mental illness is much like many other impairments, it can come and go and change in severity, and it can develop in a person throughout their lifespan. Also like many other impairments, it is a condition where the disability comes from the construction of society, rather than the individual. Although also like other impairments, the impairment itself has individual consequences (Crow, 1996, 3-4). In this context, medication taken by many people with mental illness to help control their impairment should be seen as more analogous to a wheelchair for a person with a mobility impairment, rather than as a bandage over a wound as it might be more commonly thought of through the prism of the medical model.

Mulvany (2000, 586) notes that “People with mental disorders have been excluded from generic disability programs in areas such as employment and training, housing and accommodation support, generic social support, recreation and disability services.” The medical model approach, coupled with the stigma associated with these conditions can also explain why the prevalence of mental illness in online students is also not widely acknowledged and the information is not openly distributed. The high proportion of students who are studying with mental illness shows the urgent need for these existing prejudices to be overcome, particularly in an educational setting.


The problems that many students with mental illness face when studying on a traditional analogue campus can, to an extent, be alleviated through online study. However there are still a number of barriers to successful participation for these students online. The high proportion of students with this type of impairment represented in the survey indicates that this online mode of study is popular amongst this group and shows the need to both raise awareness, and develop an understanding of the needs of these learners. This form of learning is clearly popular, and OUA seems to be a favored destination for this study, as one student declared when asked if they had any final comments in their interview: “Thank you Open Universities Australia.”

Making access to higher education through eLearning more accessible for students with mental illness, like all design that allows for greater inclusion for people with disabilities, will also make it more accessible for all students. However at this stage there has been limited research into what type of pedagogical design would be a best practice when working with students with mental illness and even less so in an online context. This study has shown that there are three broad areas where reform could make this environment more accessible for these students. The way online technology is used for learning and teaching currently presents a barrier for some students. The pedagogical design of units, particularly around assessment, and the use of group work also need to be closely examined to make it more accessible. Finally, the way that the university is managed and the administrative impact of this on students can currently present significant barriers. It also seems that this group of students has their own ideas about how institutions can be more accommodating to their needs and are eager to share them. These students want to have their voices heard in relation to the accessibility of eLearning. This stands in stark contrast to the invisibility of these students and this impairment category both in broader discussions of disability and also within the student’s own institution. This is a hopeful sign that needs to be embraced, not just by OUA and its partner teaching institutions, but also more broadly across eLearning in higher education.

One of the concerns about people with disabilities and eLearning is that as people with disabilities study online they disappear behind the screen, out of sight of the analogue campus, and as a consequence, issues of inclusion and access lose their potency as this group loses their visibility. Online through OUA we see people with a mental illness have a more serious problem–they have disappeared behind the screen, but even online their presence is masked by both the students themselves and by the institution as they disappear into the “other” category of disability. While this study has focused on students studying through Open Universities Australia, and thus fully online, many of the issues raised here are also pertinent to the growing number of students who are studying some, if not all, of their degree online or though the recently conspicuous Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) (Allen and Seaman 2015, 5-6).

The first step to advocate for change is to create a sense of solidarity within a group and to then use these numbers to agitate for change. The invisibility of this group of students makes this task particularly problematic. But the high numbers of these students in this area of higher education demands the attention of those who manage learning technology, teaching, and institutions. If these relatively high numbers of these students involved in eLearning are repeated across the increasing number of higher education courses offered online then this research needs to be seen as a matter of significant priority.


The interview phase of this research was conducted with funding from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education https://www.ncsehe.edu.au and the Australian Commonwealth Government. I would also like to thank the editors of this special issue, Sushil Oswal for his valuable work in improving this article through the peer review process, and Andrew Lucchesi for inviting me to submit to this issue and seeing the issue into publication.


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Appendix A

Question 1 “In what year were you born?”: The average age of the respondents was 42 years, with the oldest 85 and the youngest 15. This compared to the average age of 36 years for all students registered with disability support through OUA.

Question 2 “What is your gender?”: There were 71.4 percent female responses, 27.5 percent male and 1.1 percent preferred not to say. This was broadly in line with the gender ratio for all students registered with disability support through OUA of 70.4 percent to 29.6 percent.

Question 3 ” What is the highest level of school you have completed or the highest degree you have received?”:

Less than high school degree 10.8%
High school degree or equivalent 18.3%
Some college or university but no degree 52.0%
Associate degree 3.1%
Bachelor degree 12.1%
Graduate degree 3.7%

Question 4 “What type of disability or impairment, if any, do you have?”:

Hearing 10.2%
Vision 7.2%
Mental Illness 44.9%
Learning 8.7%
Medical 39.2%
Intellectual 1.8%
Mobility 25.3%
Acquired Brain Impairment 4.5%

There is some variation particularly in the higher representation of vision and mobility impairments when compared to with the overall numbers for all students registered with disability support through OUA listed below:

Hearing 4.8%
Vision 5.3%
Learning 7.5%
Medical 37.3%
Mobility 16.9%
Other 54.2%


Question 5 “How long have you been a student through OUA?”:

Less than one year 34.2%
One year 14.4%
Two years 18.9%
Three years 17.2%
Four years 7.1%
Five years 2.8%
Six years 1.4%
Seven years 1.7%
Eight years 0.6%
Nine years 1.1%
Ten years or more 0.6%

Question 6 “What is your chosen field of study?”:

Arts & Humanities 57.4%
Business 13.3%
Education 6.7%
Health 5.5%
IT 6.7%
Law & Justice 11.0%
Science and Engineering 5.5%
Not Specified 1.4%

Question 7 “Are you aware of the type of accommodation that can be offered by the unit providers in relation to your disability/impairment to help with your studies?”:

Yes 28.7%
No 43.9%
Unsure 27.3%

Question 8 “Have you received any accommodation in relation to your disabilities in relation to your study?”:

With all units of study 6.6%
With most units of study 7.5%
With some units of study 16.1%
With no units of study 69.7%

Question 9 “Did you find this accommodation was adequate and appropriate?”:

Yes Always 9.7%
Mostly 10.3%
Sometimes 9.2%
Never 0.9%
Have not received any accommodation 69.9%

alt=’This table lists the different institutions listed in the survey and if students had disclosed that they had a disability to them. There are 4 columns in the table and sixteen rows. The first column lists the institutions from the survey, the second column lists the students who said they had disclosed their disability to this institution (answered “yes” in the survey), and the third column lists those that had not (answered “no” in the survey). The final column lists the percentage of those who had disclosed to a particular institution. The top row of the table labels each of the columns and each subsequent line looks at the data from a specific institutions. The data reads as follows: Curtin University of Technology, yes 100, no 53 percentage yes 65.4 Griffith University, yes 115, no 47, percentage yes 71.0 Macquarie University, yes 77, no 39, percentage yes 66.4 RMIT University, yes 33, no 25, percentage yes 56.9 Swinburne University of Technology, yes 56, no 40, percentage yes 58.3 University of South Australia, yes 51, no 37, percentage yes 58.0 Australian Catholic University, yes 6, no 7, percentage yes 46.2 Charles Darwin University, yes 4, no 11, percentage yes 26.7 La Trobe University, yes 1, no 8, percentage yes 11.1 Learning Network Queensland, yes 3, no 5, percentage yes 37.5 Murdoch University, yes 40, no 25, percentage yes 61.5 Polytechnic West, yes 1, no 5, percentage yes 16.7 The University of New England, yes 3, no 7, percentage yes 30.0 The University of Western Australia, yes 4, no 5, percentage yes 44.4’

Question 11
“When you have not disclosed that you have a disability to an institution what are the factors that caused this?”: 

I did not think it would help 51.8%
I did not know I could 13.1%
I did not know how 13.9%
I did not need any accommodation 26.5%
I did not want any accommodation 9.0%
I did not want to disclose my disability/impairment 17.6%

Question 12 “How do you access the Internet for your studies?”:

Desktop computer 46.2%
Laptop Computer 74.9%
iPad/Tablet 27.3%
Smartphone 23.9%

Question 13 “Have you had any problems accessing online learning platforms due to your disability/impairment?”:

Yes 17.9%
No 82.1%


alt=’This table lists the different online platforms listed in the survey and students level of difficulty in accessing them. There are 7 columns in the table and fifteen rows. The first column lists the online platforms that were asked about in the survey. The second column lists how many students had not used the platform, the next four columns list the students who had used the platform and how difficult they found it to access from “no problem” to “minor problems”, “major problems” and “unusable”. The final column lists the percentage students reporting a problem with the platform from the survey. The top row of the table labels each of the columns and each subsequent line looks at the data from a specific online platforms. The data reads as follows: Moodle, not used 99, no problems 26, minor problems 13, major problems 1, unusable 0, percent problems 35.0 Blackboard, not used 17, no problems 68, minor problems 51, major problems 12, unusable 1, percent problems 48.5 Facebook, not used 58, no problems 63, minor problems 13, major problems 3, unusable 1, percent problems 48.5 Twitter, not used 92, no problems 37, minor problems 3, major problems 1, unusable 1, percent problems 11.9 Slideshare, not used 116, no problems 15, minor problems 0, major problems 2, unusable 0, percent problems 11.8 Prezi, not used 110, no problems 20, minor problems 2, major problems 1, unusable 1, percent problems 16.7 Lectopia, not used 105, no problems 18, minor problems 7, major problems 5, unusable 0, percent problems 40.0 Echo 360 / Eco Center, not used 64, no problems 39, minor problems 28, major problems 8, unusable 1, percent problems 48.7 PDFs, not used 22, no problems 81, minor problems 27, major problems 6, unusable 1, percent problems 29.6 Blogger, not used 105, no problems 21, minor problems 6, major problems 1, unusable 0, percent problems 25 WordPress, not used 100, no problems 27, minor problems 4, major problems 1, unusable 0, percent problems 15.6 WebCT, not used 118, no problems 12, minor problems 1, major problems 2, unusable 0, percent problems 20.0 YouTube, not used 37, no problems 78, minor problems 14, major problems 6, unusable 1, percent problems 21.2 University Websites, not used 14, no problems 78, minor problems 42, major problems 17, unusable 1, percent problems 43.5’
Question 15
“Please list any other online platforms that you have had trouble accessing as part of your studies”:

Seventy students responded to this. Twenty indicated that there were no other platforms they had trouble with, and the remaining 50 predominantly took the opportunity to expand on the problems they had with the platforms suggested above, and also highlight problems with inaccessible course material.

Question 16 “Would you recommend Open Universities Australia as a place to study for people with disabilities?”:

Yes 75.9%
No 3.1%
Maybe 21.0%

Question 17 “Would you will be willing to participate in later stages of this research, including online focus groups or interviews? If so please leave your email address. Please note this is not part of the survey and further participation is strictly voluntary (you can also change your mind and decide not to participate further at any point)”:

226 students, 63.4 percent of the people who took the survey, responded to this.

About the Author

Mike Kent is the head of department and a senior lecturer in the Department of Internet Studies at Curtin University. Dr Kent’s main research interests focus on the two main areas of tertiary and online education, as well as people with disabilities and their access to communications technology. He is co-author, with Katie Ellis, of Disability and New Media, (Routledge 2011), and co-editor (with Tama Leaver) of An Education in Facebook? Higher Education and the World’s Largest Social Network (Routledge, 2014). His work has also been published in a number of academic journals including The Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, Digital Culture and Education, Disability Studies Quarterly, Disability and Society, and M/C Media Culture. His current research includes the forthcoming books Massive Open Online Courses and Higher Education: Where to Next? (Ashgate) with Rebecca Bennett and Disability and Social Media: Global Perspectives (Ashgate) with Katie Ellis.


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