Recently I had the opportunity to sit down (virtually, of course) with Dr. Lindsey Felt and talk about her frosh writing course “#NoBodyIsDisposable: The Rhetoric of Disability,” which she’s updated to reflect the challenges and organizing of disabled people under COVID-19.
In her course, she told me, “We’ve been studying how disabled folks have been prophesying these adaptations for a very long time and it’s kind of a collective ‘I told you so’ – non-disabled folks reckoning for the first time with having to stay at home and not knowing what the future holds for you, to having difficulty accessing healthcare and the often ableist messaging around that.” She continued, “Non-disabled students learning in a Zoom class …for the first time are recognizing barriers in access that deeply impact their own learning...I just hope we develop more awareness of these shared challenges.”
Lindsey told me that her course’s title, taken from the real hashtag #NoBodyIsDisposable, is “a way to draw attention to disability activism on social media on twitter before and during the pandemic.” She explained that she’s “really trying to highlight ways disabled folks, especially BIPOC disabled folks were disproportionately marginalized and at risk for contracting and dying of COVID. [The hashtag] ‘No body is disposable’ is highlighting the work of disabled activists who were left out of the conversation and were considered disposable.” Her course, and her students’ research projects, look at disability rights issues and activism before the pandemic and look forward, asking, “where do we go from here? What does the pandemic teach us about how we talk about health, illness, disability, disease?”
Lindsey shared some of her course’s readings with me. The class starts with Elliot Kukla’s New York Times op-ed “My Life Is More ‘Disposable’ During This Pandemic,” which asserts that “the pestilence of ableism and ageism being unleashed is its own kind of pandemic.” She pairs this popular piece with rhetorician Jay Dolmage’s introduction to his book Disability Rhetoric, which outlines the “disability myths” that govern “how we talk about disability, how these myths get circulated and how they affect how we respond to people with disabilities.” From there the course pivots to talking a lot about access. “What does access mean?” Lindsey asks. “It’s so tied up in our notions of ableism – so we turn the lens to our own learning environment, which helps us create an accessible community.” Then the class engages Georgina Kleege from UC Berkeley in a short essay about audio descriptions, which are used in the blind community to access visual materials. In the context of an introductory rhetoric course, Kleege’s—and by extension, Felt’s—attention to audio description raises interpretive questions like, “who is the speaker here? Is it the audio describer, is it the creator of the work? What assumptions does it make about the abilities of the blind community, which is the intended audience; for example, how do you describe to someone who maybe has never seen color before?” Lindsey explained audio description as a site of analysis but also a writing practice taken up by the course that “offers an interesting inversion or complication of the rhetorical triangle.”
Audio description and closed captioning are important practices that move through Lindsey’s course, as disabled students profit from the practice and non-disabled students receive valuable exposure to making their own creations accessible. She described one activity where students audio describe stills from The Lion King, generating relevant nouns and adjectives in small groups before composing descriptions together. Then, they listen to the official audio descriptions and “compare our choices to the official one, thinking about audience, the speaker, who is the voice, how do they intonate,” and so forth. Other scaffolding assignments include looking for and describing real world “access fails” and including alt-text for images in final papers. She told me how access practices are integrated on Zoom as well. Their course has a live captioner, but when they are absent, auto-captions on Zoom are always turned on. She said, “Any auditory-based media I share always either has captions or a transcript available.” Class plans are posted on Canvas the Sunday before each week begins; most classes are recorded, a practice she and students discussed and agreed upon together at the beginning of the term, and “videos, audio and transcripts are all available to students.” She added, “I model access needs requests frequently: I ask for students to turn their videos on when they speak if they are comfortable, or for them to share their thoughts in the chat or have another student re-vocalize if their internet connection is clearer. I do a lot of repeating: "Did I hear you say ...X” “I think you said Y...does that accurately convey your question or observation?”
Lindsey identifies as deaf and disabled, and also has several disabled students in her course this quarter. She’s been thinking a lot about the ways disabled people have been further marginalized by the pandemic, inside and outside of Stanford and educational institutions, even as disabled folks’ activism and theorizing has made this moment more livable and legible for all of us. As someone with an auditory disability, Lindsey described the year of masking in public as extremely isolating. “I have a lot of anxiety around that now,” she told me. “It’s a complete lack of information with the lack of visual cues.” As we rush to re-open educational institutions, she worries about the needs of disabled students, faculty, and staff. “What is it going to look like in the classroom, assuming not everyone is going to be vaccinated? What is that going to look like in a large lecture hall” for students with auditory challenges when other students and teachers are masked? “Especially for students with disabilities, not everyone will feel comfortable going back into the classroom. Grassy areas outside are not accessible for students in wheelchairs.”
She concluded our conversation by reflecting on the challenges of making her students’ learning environment and her own work environment accessible over the last year. “As a teacher who has a disability, I feel I have done additional labor to make Zoom accessible for myself and that labor has paid off for my students, but I just keep coming back to we need more representation of disabled faculty at Stanford.” She added, “We’ve had these conversations in other [racially minoritized] communities but I’d like to see that in parallel with disability. Disability is intersectional and intersects these other identities.”
She also reflected on challenges making her course accessible to the differently-disabled enrolled students. “I have had to navigate a lot of access conflicts – students might have an access need and sometimes they negate each other or create a conflict. It underscores the importance of thinking of access broadly and integrating it from the beginning in how we build and structure our classes, our curriculum, assignments, and our grading.” This important discussion left me thinking about access in my own courses, how I have become more accessible during COVID but how much further there is to go. While I have very accessible grading policies including contract grading and an unlimited extension policy, I have been less proactive in using captioning and descriptions. Lindsey’s leadership and advocacy for disabled students and colleagues has been invaluable to our PWR community, but our conversation also reminded me of the ways marginalized communities always end up doing the labor for themselves that the whole community must take up on their behalves.