Accessible Writing Spaces:
Designing Virtual Spaces that Accommodate Difference

Proposing a conceptual framework for the design of virtual classrooms requires an appreciation for the tradition of inclusion within first-year composition college courses. First-year composition courses and writing centers are among the few, shared academic experiences at many institutions (Crowley, 1998). Although a student might select from several history or science courses, first-year composition uniquely connects students across the disciplines. Virtual writing spaces share this tradition and expand our ability to serve traditionally marginalized populations in first-year composition (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004; Maeroff, 2003; Palloff & Pratt, 2001).

If we consider how individuals with special needs might best be included in a learning community, then our virtual classrooms would accommodate students with those needs and increase the awareness of all students for the need for inclusive multimodal compositions. Striving for inclusion of students with what we describe as disabilities helps all students by recognizing and honoring differences in learning styles and communication methods. No single design or design approach for writing spaces, physical or virtual, accommodates all students with special needs. Our designs reflect myriad writing pedagogies, further complicating any suggestions for planning writing spaces. This chapter offers a flexible framework for evaluating the designs of virtual classrooms for online first-year composition courses, while embracing the differences of courses and instructors. First-year composition is uniquely situated to foster inclusive practices, especially for online courses.

After providing an overview of the increasing need to provide students with accessible composition courses in online settings, this chapter proposes a framework for inclusive design. A discussion of the student community historically marginalized by inaccessible physical and virtual classrooms offers a context for the framework. The proposed framework for inclusive design follows this background. The text then explores current adaptive technologies and the limits of those tools. The framework seeks to respect student differences while recognizing the limits of current adaptive technologies. The chapter then offers design recommendations based on the framework for inclusive design and the current limitations of adaptive technologies.

Composition scholars recognize that designs of physical writing spaces affect pedagogy, as spaces constrain our teaching methods (Bissell, 2004; McGregor, 2004; Weinstein, 1979). Migrating to virtual composition classrooms potentially removes some barriers while foregrounding other barriers. Most scholarship addressing a “digital divide” focuses on issues of class (Monroe, 2004), though scholars have extended the discussion to include issues of gender, ethnicity, and culture (Gurak, 2001; Taylor, 1997). There remains a need to consider divides based on disability (Seale, 2006).

College composition instructors aim to create spaces that foster inclusion and community, yet our virtual writing classrooms often present unintentional barriers for students with special needs (Seale, 2006). To help our students develop multiliteracies, we often include audio, video, and interactive features in our virtual composition classrooms and writing labs (Wysocki, Johnson-Eillola, C. Selfe, & Sirc, 2004), media not accessible to all people. Composition class spaces should be inclusive, from the moment we outline the course content through the teaching of the course. We must move beyond “accommodating,” a term that stresses difference, and shift toward inclusive spaces.

Those of us with disabilities do not wish to be tolerated or accommodated; we seek inclusion. Unfortunately, the most common approach to addressing special needs is adapting or extending existing technologies and pedagogies (Seale, 2006). Literature offers adaptive approaches to accommodation in physical and virtual spaces (Bruch, 2003; McAlexander, 2003). The assumption is that adapting existing practices sufficiently brings the disabled into the community. Such approaches highlight difference as an obstacle, despite good intentions. Consider the use of voice recognition software by students with physical limitations. When reviewing spelling and mechanics, would we be grading the student or the software? Yet, to ignore errors potentially caused by the adaptive technology might be unfair to other students. The student with an adaptive technology accommodation remains “different” from other students, including how he or she is accessed. Sometimes, there might not be an ideal path towards inclusion, but that should always be our goal.

Too often, institutions consider the presence of students with special needs evidence of accommodation, or even inclusion (Pollak, 2009; Seale, 2006). Genuine inclusion requires more than the presence of disabled students within a writing space, something composition instructors recognize regardless of institutional pressures. Well-designed inclusive first-year composition virtual classrooms promote student retention and success (Higbee, 2003). We also have to help students understand that we cannot eliminate all barriers, even with the best of technologies (Maeroff, 2003; Pollak, 2009; Seale, 2006; C. Selfe, 1999; Taylor, 1997). 

Inclusion does not mean we must avoid accessibility and accommodation issues students encounter beyond our classrooms. We can ask our classes to consider how some media inherently limit participation. By increasing awareness of disabilities, just as we have increased awareness of other differences, we can foster a sense of responsibility and justice among our students. As the number of college students with special needs increases, we have an opportunity to be allies and advocates.