I taught as an adjunct at an R1 university and a community college before coming to GSU as a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in Rhetoric and Composition. I have witnessed much good from my peers in FYW classes, both as an adjunct and as a GTA. But I keep witnessing an upsetting trend: ableism in the FYW classroom. Ableism is discrimination against people with disabilities (PWDs) and like racism, ableism inscribes violence onto PWDs, because it both dehumanizes and objectifies the different bodyminds and experiences of PWDs.
Too often, instructors, GTAs, and professors are ableist in their classrooms. Ableism in FYW classrooms helps spread ableism throughout the university, because virtually every student at Georgia State will inhabit a FYW course at some point during their time at the university. When we project ableism in our classrooms, our students will normalize ableism as a practice.
I don’t suggest that a vast conspiracy exists; the majority of this type of ableism happens unintentionally, when we are, ironically, trying to bond with our students.
In trying to connect, we fall into using slang terms and phrases such as “nutjob,” “that’s crazy,” or even allowing the use of the R word in our classroom spaces. We might also say things like, “You need a keen eye to catch the argument in this piece” or “Sometimes, we have to stand up for the truth.”
Both of these phrases erase the presence of PWDs from the academic ecology. We have scholars such as Sushil K. Oswal, who publishes prolifically in both technical writing and disability studies and who relies exclusively on screen-readers and voice-to-text because he has low vision. Many activists in the Disability Rights Movement use mobility aids and they do not “stand,” yet they have engaged in activities that focused worldwide attention on the truth.
We have to stop it. We have to stop using this language in our classrooms. If we believe anything as rhetors, we believe that language matters. If we continue to allow ableist language or to use ableist language in our first-year writing classrooms, we continue the history of ableism in education. With current political actions dismantling protections for PWDs, we must fight even more strongly to create inclusive spaces in our classrooms. We can begin by rejecting the use of ableist language in ourselves and in our classrooms. I, like everyone reading or listening to this on a screen reader, am a work in progress. I don’t always meet this standard, but I work on it every day. I hope you will, too.
Kristen Ruccio’s research focuses on disability studies and Buddhist rhetorical practices, particularly Zen rhetoric. A Ph.D. candidate in Rhetoric and Composition at Georgia State University, her dissertation project examines the ableist history of Composition Studies and the effects of that ableism on Writing Program Administration and students with disabilities in the first-year writing classroom. In her spare time, she devotes the majority of her attention to her 2 dogs, yoga, and vegan recipe development.