Student Community

Our higher-education student populations are changing. For a variety of possible reasons, from better supports to better diagnostic methods (GAO, 2009), the percentage of post-secondary students with disabilities has risen significantly since 2000. Students with special needs account for approximately 11 percent of enrollment at our universities and colleges (GAO, 2009). Some states have experienced dramatic changes in student communities.

From 1999 to 2007, California public post-secondary schools reported an almost 20 percent increase in the number of undergraduate students with disabilities, and New York schools reported about a 40 percent increase in the number of undergraduate and graduate students with disabilities. (GAO, 2009. p. 8)

In the United States, the Americans with Disabilities Amendments Act of 2008 defines disability as any condition limiting a regular life activity. Students now entering our first-year composition courses have experienced the benefits of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, which mandates supports for students in our public schools ( The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) sets eligibility standards for programs and institutions receiving federal funds ( Students classified as disabled during high school generally are recognized as disabled and eligible for supports when entering college (GAO, 2009).

Obtaining supports for disabilities requires official documentation, presented to a college’s disabilities services department. This requirement limits access to supports. McAlexander (2003) observes that “it is mainly the children of middle-class parents who are diagnosed with learning disabilities; their parents have the money and the incentive to have them tested” (p. 107). If we design inclusive composition courses, students with special needs would receive support regardless of legal eligibility.

We have only vague federal laws and regulations to guide us towards accommodating students with disabilities at the post-secondary level. Laws are not best practices, only the minimum required of us by society. To design truly inclusive writing spaces, we should turn towards those with the most insights: students living with various special needs. The framework for inclusive design offered later in this chapter places more weight on student experiences and our ethical obligations than it does on legal and regulatory compliance.

Physical Disabilities

By their very nature, virtual writing spaces promise to accommodate individuals with various challenges. Physical assistive devices, such as wheelchairs or crutches, experience no access barriers in virtual spaces, such as narrow aisles or poorly designed desks. Yet there remain potential barriers in virtual composition classrooms for those with physical challenges.

The limited motor control associated with paralysis, palsy, dystrophy, and other conditions affects the ability to interact in real-time with students, instructors, and tutors via text-based chats. Typing speed and typing method might be affected by a physical impairment. We need to remember that some students generate texts with adaptive input devices, such as eye-trackers, breath tubes, and finger sensors. Any exercise or discussion that emphasizes at least average typing speed will exclude some students, especially those with special needs. For example, a synchronous chat session represents a text “conversation” with a speed and pacing similar to physical in-class discussions.

Features such as chat that occur in real time can be very difficult for users with a range of dis-abilities or with slower cognitive capacities. Synchronous discussions can be difficult for some types of assistive technologies, such as screen readers, to keep pace with. For individuals with cognitive impairments, keeping up with a synchronous discussion, much less participating in one, can still be quite difficult (Jaeger & Xie, 2009, p. 59).

Our traditional composition classrooms exist within larger campuses, limiting our abilities to control the classroom environment. Physical spaces tend to overlap, with the sounds, smells, sights, and other stimuli from outside the writing space potentially affecting students and instructors (Pollak, 2009). Students with seizure disorders, migraine headaches, tactile sensitivity, photophobia, synesthesia, aural sensitivity, and other challenges might experience distress for reasons beyond our control.

A student with extreme sensitivity to stimuli could react to scents such as perfumes or colognes; noises in adjoining classrooms or hallways; problems with lighting; high pitched tones from electronic devices; or any number of other stimuli beyond an instructor’s control (Pollak, 2009; Wyatt, 2010). By comparison, the same student could work from his or her residence and avoid problematic stimuli. The traditional classroom space cannot be controlled as directly by an instructor as a student’s computing environment. Not that institutional choices don’t constrain our virtual composition classrooms. For example, the adoption of a campus-wide learning management system constrains many of our choices.

Cognitive Disabilities

Cognitive challenges are among the most common disabilities eligible for supports among higher-education students (GAO, 2009). Studies have determined that “dyslexic students… comprise 30 to 40 percent of all students classified as disabled” in K-12 settings (Maeroff, 2003, p. 217) and approximately 10 percent of students receiving accommodations in postsecondary settings (GAO, 2009). Because dyslexia affects so many students, several research projects have sought to improve the accessibility of online spaces for these learners (Seale, 2006).

Executive Impairments

Self-discipline, organizational skills, and intrinsic motivation are essential to success in virtual spaces (Eaton, 2005; Maeroff, 2003). Online writing courses and virtual writing labs offer students flexibility, but these spaces “can backfire if students are irresponsible” (Breuch, 2005, p.146). However, some disabilities resemble “irresponsible” behavior. Cognitive disabilities include attention and executive challenges that might affect online performance (Pollak, 2009). Unfortunately, only limited research has been conducted to determine how students with some cognitive disabilities work online (Moore, Cheng, McGrath, & Powell, 2005).

Inclusion and Equality

Appreciating that more students with special needs are entering our composition classrooms, our field needs to consider potential frameworks for course development that promote inclusion and equality of opportunity. The framework is student-centered, recognizing their experiences and insights can help us design more effective composition classrooms. These students deserve to be active, engaged members of the composition community.

For example, consider how we include blind students. In a physical space, we rely on speech and braille texts to deliver content. Instructors can speak while writing notes on a whiteboard, which includes not only students with visual challenges, but also helps students who are auditory learners. Online, we might offer audio recordings of lectures and text-to-speech technology. Again we will be accomplishing more than accommodating a disability because audio lectures have other advantages. Audio can be downloaded to a portable player and listened to when and where it is both conducive and convenient. All students might benefit from many of the features of podcast lectures. Avoiding reliance on a single mode for content delivery or processing is key to inclusive design. This holds for physical and virtual writing spaces. When viewed from this perspective, inclusive design is pedagogically sound design.