What is the role of communication in the lives of people with disabilities?

This is the overarching question that drives my dissertation research. Scholars in Composition and Rhetoric and Disability Studies have identified forces that shape disability rhetoric  but what remains unexamined is how disability is experienced as a lived rhetorical phenomenon.

In my dissertation, “Arguing for Access: Everyday Rhetorical Labor of Disability,” I investigate when and how people communicate about blindness, and the tools and resources they use to do so. I conducted semi-structured, qualitative interviews with blind and visually impaired people to learn about their experiences communicating in different contexts of their lives (like school, work, community, family, social life, health care, etc.) and how their strategies have developed over their lifespan.

What i am discovering is this:

  • living with a disability requires a lot of daily communicative work
  • daily communicative work is required because access often depends on disabled individuals’ own self-advocacy efforts
  • disabled individuals’ own self-advocacy efforts are necessary for access because in general disability is understood as individual problem rather than a social responsibility
  • therefore disabled individuals have to perform what I call “everyday rhetorical labor of disability” to persuade people to become responsible for access

I explore what everyday rhetorical labor of disability involves in three contexts: professional, informational, and social. While each context requires specific rhetorical strategies, in all three contexts, everyday rhetorical labor of disability involves challenging people’s ideas about what disability is and where its origins lie, while persuasively reshaping normative ways of relating and completing tasks. It involves shifting people’s ideas of disability as individual deficit to something that requires everyone to reimagine how we do things.

Everyday rhetorical labor of disability is not easy, and people’s access often depends on it. It is a constant, daily effort that arises in both informal settings like grocery stores and church picnics and formal settings like  employment and education. And almost no one receives formal training in it.

Demands on everyday rhetorical labor of disability have material, social, and emotional consequences for people with disabilities. I discuss these consequences through a concept I call “access fatigue,” which describes the exhaustion that can result from the constant demand for everyday rhetorical labor of disability to gain access across contexts.

As a solution, I advocate for shared responsibility for access. While some people with disabilities are quite successful in advocating for their own access and reshaping normative ideas, access should not solely depend on disabled individuals’ own rhetorical work.

If you want to help, take responsibility for access. Be the first people to speak up about access. Ask questions about access, even if you don’t know the answers. Offer help, even when you don’t know how to give it. Talk to people with disabilities, even when you don’t know what to say.

My research stems from a community-writing project called The Outlook From Here. You can also read a bit more about the project in an article in The Badger Herald.

Featured image: The image above features two Ishihara color blind tests. They look like circles with many different colored dots, and supposedly, someone who is not color blind can see a number in the dots. Although I cannot see the numbers, I have always enjoyed how these circles look.