Tuning in to Soundwriting

Sound and Access: Attuned to Disability in the Writing Classroom

by Dev K. Bose, Sean Zdenek, Prairie Markussen, Heidi Wallace, & Angelia Giannone

2. Four Preattunements for Sound Studies

We offer four preattunements for sound studies in rhetoric and composition that are intended to vibrate against (and ideally disrupt or crip) able-bodied norms. The following preattunements help construct a different and more diverse foundation for sonic pedagogies.

First, disability is prevalent across the human spectrum, notwithstanding the absence of disabled perspectives in the pages of most journals. In the United States, 19.4% of students in higher education, nearly one in five people, are disabled (National Center for Education Statistics, 2018). In the 2010 U.S. Census, 56.7 million people—19% of the population, nearly one in five—had a disability, with more than half reporting the disability as severe (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). Disability impacts individuals and families across the lifespan, with the oldest Americans (80 years and older) "about eight times more likely to have a disability as those in the youngest group—younger than 15" (U.S. Census Bureau, 2012). People with disabilities also experience higher levels of unemployment and poverty: "17.9 percent of persons with a disability were employed [in 2020]…. In contrast, the employment-population ratio for those without a disability was 61.8 percent" (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2021). The challenge for soundwriting pedagogy, then, is rethinking our curricula for an increasingly diverse population of students who have a range of abilities and disabilities. What does it mean to teach soundwriting—and what can soundwriting become—when we design for disability from the start?

Second, disability is a social category. The social model of disability, an important cornerstone of disability studies that has its roots in the British disability activism of the 1970s, redefines disability not in terms of individual incapacity or medical deficit, but in terms of social and environmental barriers that limit access for people with disabilities. The social model defines institutions as sources of disability, discrimination, and oppression. The mantra of the social model might be boiled down to this: society disables people. The social model provides a slogan and rallying cry that is "simple, memorable, and effective" (Shakespeare, 2017, p. 198). But that simplicity, as Tom Shakespeare has perceptively argued, is also the model's "fatal flaw" (p. 199). In its "neglect of impairment" (p. 199), the social model reduces disability to social barriers. Shakespeare gestured towards a more complex model of disability—insofar as "disabled people face both discrimination and intrinsic limitations" (p. 201)—that recognizes the "complex interplay of individual and environmental factors in the lives of disabled people" (p. 202). Yet despite its simplicity, the social model serves as a powerful reminder that disability, like normalcy, is not natural but constructed. As Lennard Davis (2017) argued in his landmark work on the construction of normalcy, "the ‘problem' is not the person with disabilities; the problem is the way that normalcy is constructed to create the ‘problem' of the disabled person" (p. 2). Similarly, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2017) positioned the construction of disability within a larger system of "differentiating and marking bodies":

disability, like femaleness, is not a natural state of corporeal inferiority, inadequacy, excess, or a stroke of misfortune. Rather, disability is a culturally fabricated narrative of the body, similar to what we understand as the fictions of race and gender. The disability/ability system produces subjects by differentiating and marking bodies. (p. 363)

In the traditional classroom, deaf and hard-of-hearing students are automatically placed at a disadvantage. But so are other students who benefit from multiple modes of representation and expression. There may be environmental barriers creating such restrictions, such as being required to watch uncaptioned videos in order to complete an assignment. The social model applied to soundwriting pedagogy calls attention to the institutional and historical systems of oppression that disadvantage some students before they even arrive in our classrooms. The social model reminds us that most of our public and educational spaces were designed for nondisabled students who are assumed to be the natural and only audience for our curricula and pedagogies.

Third, disability is universal. It is "not a minority issue, affecting only those people defined as disabled people.… disability is a universal experience of humanity" (Shakespeare, 2017, p. 202). How bodies are marked and differentiated as disabled cannot be extracted from the historically contingent systems that produce all subjects. Because every able-bodied person will become disabled if she lives long enough, Garland-Thomson (2017) referred to disability as "the most human of experiences, touching every family and—if we live long enough—touching us all" (p. 363). Every nondisabled person might be considered TAB—"temporarily able-bodied," a term in disability studies that aims to unite people and create greater understanding around shared experiences of disability. Moreover, TAB breaks down the ability/disability binary by reminding us that experiences of disability are shaped, reinforced, and mitigated by context and situation. Some spaces, interfaces, and texts are more accessible than others. But the idea that everyone will become disabled remains controversial for potentially "fan[ning] flames of fear" among an able-bodied population that already views disability as "a fate worse than death" (crippedscholar, 2015). As Robert McRuer (2006) put it, "the disability to come, the one we invoke, has often been frightening" (p. 207).

Nevertheless, disability has been offered up as an identity category that, after postmodernism, can unite all other identities and support a case for universal design (and radical diversity over normalcy) as a foundation of our teaching. As Davis (2013) argued, "disability may turn out to be the identity that links other identities" (p. 265). When "all humans are seen as wounded" and incomplete (or "only completed by technology and by interventions" such as legislation), and when "all groups, based on physical traits or markings, are selected for disablement by a larger system of regulation and signification" (p. 275), then "the experience of the limitations of the body" becomes a "universal in life" (p. 276). Davis offered universal design as a "template for social and political designs" (p. 276). Through universal design, we make a "commitment to removing barriers and creating access for all" (p. 276). In the classroom, universal design is "not a grand solution that can be neatly packaged," but "a variety of teaching strategies" that may in some cases conflict with each other (Dolmage, 2015). One size does not fit all. Leveraging Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles, instructors present course content in multiple ways, allowing students to perceive, understand, and transform that material through multiple senses and modes. Similarly, students engage with the course content and each other in multiple ways. They have opportunities to demonstrate their competence through their own abilities and preferred learning styles (access CAST, 2018).

For example, captioning is not just a means of providing access for students who are deaf or hard of hearing (although it is assuredly and primarily that); it is a learning resource for all students. Captioning provides dual input streams (text and audio) for students to combine reading with listening, promotes literacy and second-language learning, offers a written transcript (in an accessible format) that can serve as a study guide, and provides keyword search functionality (which makes interactive transcripts possible), just to name a few benefits. Students with a range of abilities may find captions beneficial, as Judith Garman (2011) suggested in her study of individuals with autism who "may struggle with audio processing" (para. 4) and thus rely on captioning for "filtering out different sounds and distinguishing between what's relevant and what is not relevant" (para. 10). In the universally designed classroom, captioning serves diverse functions for a wider group of students. It also supplies the technology through which the recorded and archived classroom lecture can be indexed, searched, studied, and transformed by students to support their own learning styles.

Finally, disability enables insight—"critical, experiential, cognitive, sensory, and pedagogical insight" (Brueggemann, 2002, p. 795). Disability is usually treated as a loss, lack, or impairment ("hearing loss," "hearing impaired"), a tragic condition only to be pitied, something to be eradicated or cured at all costs. Scholars in disability studies have taken issue with the hierarchy that positions disability only as a terrible absence. For example, scholars have offered, in place of hearing loss, the concept of Deaf gain. In their edited collection Deaf Gain: Raising the Stakes for Human Diversity, H-Dirksen Bauman and Joseph Murray (2014) located the shift from hearing loss to Deaf gain within "a larger paradigm shift in thought from an overarching framework of normalcy to one of diversity" (p. xv). They framed deafness and sign languages as vital expressions of "biocultural diversity" (p. xvii).

Taken together, these attributes of Deaf Gain—enhanced and prolonged eye contact, intersubjective engagement, collectivist social patterns, transnational bonds, less auditory distraction, and acute visuospatial aptitudes—all contribute to a new perspective on what it means to be deaf. By calling attention to these gains, we are not making the case that hearing individuals should intentionally become deaf; but we do call into question the reverse notion, that deaf individuals should intentionally become hearing. (p. xxvii)

In the writing classroom, the concept of Deaf gain invites us to reconfigure our pedagogies and classroom spaces by embracing our students' biocultural diversity. An entrenched university culture of accommodation, which leaves ableist pedagogies intact, defines students with disabilities as outsiders. Deaf gain offers a way of locating deaf and hard-of-hearing students as insiders to embodied knowledges, aptitudes of visual perception, and new insights about sound: sound as bodily effects (felt vibrations, lip reading, gestures), transformative inscriptions (captions, soundwaves), technologies of mediation (hearing aids), and new forms of agency and control (Bluetooth-enabled cochlear implants and access on demand). If one goal of the soundwriting course is to engage students in thinking through the relationships between sound and writing, then Deaf and hard-of-hearing students have much to offer.

The concept of Deaf gain encourages us to rethink the design of space itself, from the groundbreaking architectural work of the DeafSpace Project at Gallaudet University (Bauman, 2014) to the redesign of digital/film spaces that anticipate the needs of signing actors and/or caption readers (Butler, 2017). DeafSpace is architectural space that is engineered for visual access. As Hansel Bauman (2014) explained, DeafSpace is a response to challenges that Deaf people face within a built world "largely constructed by and for hearing individuals" (p. 378). As a "pattern language" (p. 380), DeafSpace "grows from the simple fact that, for Deaf people, vision and touch are a primary means of spatial awareness and orientation. Many use sign language, a visual-kinetic mode of communication, and maintain a strong cultural identity built around these sensibilities and shared life experience" (p. 378). DeafSpaces are designed to maximize signed communication and community: ample natural and multiple sources of light; generous lines of sight to promote wayfinding through curved walls, glass surfaces, and "shallow-arch seating" (p. 384); high contrast surfaces to promote visual communication; wide hallways and walkways to facilitate signed communication on the move; threshold walls that offer privacy but also allow users to see when visitors are arriving or passing by. Contrast the standard academic classroom building that was built for hearing users who communicate primarily by speaking and listening. This space may feature one or more of the following: narrow hallways, low natural lighting, fully enclosed rooms with opaque walls (so that inhabitants must be able to listen for visitors), educational spaces designed with rows of seating in mind (which inhibit eye-to-eye contact), hard surfaces that reflect and amplify noise levels, and labyrinthine layouts with fewer open spaces for serendipitous interaction and collaboration. Even the seemingly innocent concept of the ninety-degree angle (where one hallway intersects another) comes under suspicion for demanding that people hear around corners or else run into those coming the other direction.

DeafSpace is one critical insight drawn from an attunement towards disability studies. It is predicated on facilitating visual communication and community among culturally Deaf people. While it doesn't seem immediately relevant to sound studies, DeafSpace reminds us that the built environment—space itself—is designed for certain types of hearing and listening bodies, movements, and interactions. Designed space presumes an embodied relationship to sound. Deaf gain offers a different way of thinking about soundwriting in relation to space and sight. Being able to see sound—to connect hearing to seeing, to locate the source of sonic information, to make visual meaning in noisy environments or across long distances—is particularly valuable, which is why the patterns of DeafSpace should resonate with hearing and hard-of-hearing people: ample lighting, clear lines of sight, visual wayfinding cues, and so on. These patterns can generate insights for sound studies and soundwriting pedagogies.