The Discourse of Disability in Communication Education

Narrative-Based Research for Social Change

by Ahmet Atay (Volume editor) Mary Z. Ashlock (Volume editor)
©2016 Textbook VI, 204 Pages


This book examines the ways in which communicative practices influence the lives of students and faculty with disabilities in higher education. Offering their own experiences as teachers and students, the authors use qualitative research methods, mainly narrative and autoethnography, to highlight the intersections among communication, disability, diversity, and critical communication pedagogy. While embodying and emphasizing these connections, each chapter defines the notion of disability from a different point of view; summarizes the relevant literature; provides suggestions for different ways of improving the experiences of people with disabilities in higher education; promotes social change; and in some cases, promotes policy change. Overall, the volume promotes more effective, mindful, honest, and caring interaction between able-bodied and disabled individuals.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Communication, Teaching and Learning, and Faculty Disability: Lessons from a Personal Narrative
  • Chapter Two: Navigating Communication Courses: The Impact of Visual Impairment on the Teacher–Student Relationship in Communication Classrooms
  • Chapter Three: Should I Tell My Students I Am Brain-Injured?
  • Chapter Four: Disability Subjectivity in Educational Contexts
  • Chapter Five: Walk in Our Shoes: Bridging the Cultural Abyss
  • Chapter Six: Retard: Learning to Lean
  • Chapter Seven: Caught in the Rhetoric: How Students with Disabilities Are Framed by DSS Offices in U.S. Higher Education
  • Chapter Eight: Teaching College Student with Disabilities: Where Do I Go from Here? Effective Communication Strategies in the Classroom
  • Chapter Nine: A Personal Journey to Understanding the Discourse of Disability: Making Connections Possible through New Media Technologies
  • Chapter Ten: Difference through Documentary
  • Chapter Eleven: Zero Degrees of Separation: Managing the Advisor Role as Student Demands Increase
  • Contributing Authors
  • Index

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This project has been an enriching and an eye-opening experience. We are grateful for so many people including our coauthors who helped us to conceptualize this project, engage in various inspiring discussions and dialogues about learning and physical disabilities in the context of higher education, and finally helped us to turn it to an edited book that would further our discussions around communication education and disability.

I (Ahmet) am grateful to so many people who encouraged and also motivated me to carry out this project. I would like to thank to my former and current students who inspired me in so many different ways to think about issues around diversity, disability, and communication. I would like to extend my gratitude to Heather Fitz Gibbon and The College of Wooster’s Faculty Development Funds for allowing me to present my work around disability at various conferences. I am also grateful to several colleagues and friends who helped me to conceptualize ideas. I have enjoyed the support of Jay Brower, Tony Adams, Keith Berry, Diana Trebing, Nancy Grace, Diana Bullen Presciutti, Jimmy Noriega, Margaret Wick, and my colleagues’ at The College of Wooster throughout this project. Finally, all my love and thanks to my parents, Ayla and Kemal Atay, and my partner Serkan, who supported me so much during this project.

I (Mary) am greatly appreciative of the faculty, staff, and students at the University of Louisville in the Department of Communication and the Disability Resource Center for their feedback and support throughout the conceptualization ← vii | viii → and writing of this book. I would like to extend a special thanks to Cathy Patus, Al Futrell, and Kandi Walker for their continued support and encouragement. In addition, I am grateful to my special friends, Diane “Daisy” Waryold, Molly Robbins, Kimber D’Antoni, and Elizabeth Jenkins, who have listened and provided insights for this project throughout many conversations. Finally, I would like to thank my family members including my spouse Will, my son Parker, and daughter Jamie who put up with me working many days and nights throughout this project – your love and support guides and motivates me each and every day.

As editors, we would like to acknowledge and thank several individuals who inspired us, helped us, and also motivated us to complete this work. We would like to thank to Mary Savigar who graciously agreed to materialize this work and her colleagues at Peter Lang who worked with us throughout this project. We also would like to thank to David Estrin for his work as our proofreader. His efforts are deeply appreciated. A special thanks to the National Communication Association for providing forums and dialogue from our colleagues for this worthwhile endeavor.

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Over the last 20 years, the field of communication has seen important increases in studies focusing on different aspects of the discourse of disability and how physical and learning disabilities influence communication between able-bodied people and people with disabilities. Many scholars come to disability-related research because of their lived experiences or the lived experiences of family members and friends (Braithwaite & Thompson, 2000). In our case, we came to disability research because we wanted to understand the web of personal, social, and cultural factors that influence the educational experiences of students with disabilities. Because we teach at different institutions, our experiences with students with disabilities are different. Mary teaches at a large inner-city public university in Kentucky, whereas Ahmet teaches at a small liberal arts college in rural Ohio. Thus, the student bodies we work with are different, although there are some similarities among them. We both teach students with physical and learning disabilities, although our institutions are structured differently and they provide different services to students and resources to faculty. Moreover, we take similar perspectives to teaching, which is infused by our commitment to experiential and interactive learning and critical communication pedagogy. Hence, we both try to empower students who have traditionally been overlooked or silenced due to their disabilities. We are also curious, which led us to a new academic subdiscipline. This book is about this journey.

We came to this research with differing academic training. Whereas Mary’s entry point was through interpersonal and organizational communication, ← 1 | 2 → Ahmet’s was through intercultural communication and communication pedagogy. The combination of these lenses allowed us to see different connections among disability studies and other traditional subdisciplines within communication studies. In their seminal work, Braithwaite and Thompson (2000) suggest that the study of communication and disability “does not fit neatly into any traditional subspecialization” (p. xii). Although we concur with their arguments, we also join them to suggest that the study of communication and disability needs to be interdisciplinary. We also believe that disability-related issues could be studied through different theoretical lenses by utilizing diverse methodological approaches, ranging from quantitative research methods to ethnographic studies, and from rhetorical analysis to autoethnographic and narrative-based explorations.


It was around the National Communication Association (NCA) submission deadline in 2013 when I contacted Mary to ask her to form a panel on the discourse of disability in the classroom. We talked about how we both had students with disabilities and we wanted to share our pedagogical experiences with others who might have similar experiences about teaching students with disabilities, or teaching with disabilities, or being a student with disabilities. We were not exactly sure how to assemble a group of communication scholars who had been working in the communication and disability-related research. When we advertised our call in the National Communication Association’s “Crtnet” group email, we were not expecting a high number of responses. To our surprise, a large number of communication scholars who had either been working in this area or, like us, wanted to join into the academic discussion on the discourse of disability in higher education, responded positively to our call.

Instead of proposing a panel in the Instructional Development or International and Intercultural Communication divisions, we decided to send our proposal to the Disability Issues Caucus, where interdisciplinary research around disability is showcased and where on going scholarly dialogues about disability were taking place. In November 2013, we were excited and nervous about this panel, which had a large number of panelists. The session had a fascinating discussion among scholars dedicated to pushing the boundaries of communication scholarship further to include issues of diversity, particularly disability, and its complexities. The stories that we shared were moving, theoretically charged, and committed to promote social change.

The panel raised two important questions: Where do we go from here? What do we do next? The answers were clear. We will continue to study issues around disability in the classroom and higher education. We also agreed to form a second panel to revisit some of the ideas that puzzled us or encouraged us. ← 2 | 3 →

Not long after the panel I proposed the idea of editing a book about the discourse of disability in the classroom to Mary. We realized that we had a lot of work to do, but we were excited about the idea of contributing to the existing literature and ongoing research on disability. This book aims to contribute to ongoing research by addressing different issues around disability in the context of communication education.

Even though research on the study of communication and disability has been growing, venues for publishing this kind of work have not been increasing. Although interdisciplinary research on disability has been published in Disability Studies Quarterly, research on communication and disability has appeared in various communication journals, such as Communication Education, Southern Communication Journal, Western Journal of Communication, Journal of Applied Communication, and Text and Performance Quarterly. Research on the discourse of disability in the context of media has recently appeared in various media, film, and cultural studies journals, including Cinema and Media Studies and M/C Journal: A Journal of Media and Culture. Although some of these works are interdisciplinary in nature, most of them borrow heavily from communication and media theories and prior research in the discipline.

The number of books on disability studies also has been increasing. However, most of the publications are either interdisciplinary or works written by scholars in communication sciences and disorders, education, social work, or other areas in the social sciences. A growing body of literature in media and disability and new media and disability by international scholars has begun to appear, such as Ellis and Goggin’s Disability and the Media (2015), Ellis and Kent’s Disability and New Media (2013), and Goggin and Newell’s Digital Disability: The Social Construction of Disability in New Media (2003).

Despite these positive developments, only a few scholarly books by the U.S. communication studies scholars have been published. Braithwaite and Thompson’s seminal work, The Handbook of Communication and People with Disabilities: Research and Application (2000), remains one of the most important collections. In their edited book, Understanding Disability Studies and Performance Studies (2012) Henderson and Ostrander brought together a number of scholars in communication studies, performance studies, and disability studies to examine the notion of disability. Although some progress has been made in the area of communication and disability, as communication scholars, we need to contribute to the discourse of disability and examine the ways in which our communicative practices influence people with disabilities, and how social institutions, such as media and education, either perpetuate the social stigmas attached to bodies that have different capabilities, and how these institutions have been oppressing or silencing the stories of people with physical and learning disabilities. ← 3 | 4 →

Our goal in this book is to examine the ways in which our communicative practices and the cultural spaces designed for learning influence the lives of students and faculty with disabilities in higher education. Moreover, we intend to offer our own lived experiences as teachers and students in order to illuminate crucial issues and to create cultural awareness about issues of diversity. Thus, we utilize qualitative research methods, mainly narrative and autoethnography, as a method of inquiry to examine issues of disability in the classroom and higher education.

This book builds on the previous work of several communication scholars whose research focused on disability, critical communication pedagogy, and diversity. We build this edited book on the work of Braithwaite (1992, 1996) Braithwaite and Braithwaite (1997) and Braithwaite and Thomson (2000) on the study of communication and disability Thompson’s (1982, 2000) and Thompson and Cusella’s (1988) work on people with physical disabilities Do and Geist’s (2000) work on the notion of identity and physical disabilities Soule and Roloff’s (2000) arguments about the role of assistance in the lives of people with disabilities the research of Hart and Williams (1995) on the relationship between able-bodied instructors and students with disabilities the work of Lindemann on communicative performance of disability (2008), disabled sexualities (2010), and disability in the classroom (2011) Fassett and Morella’s (2008) work on discipline and learning disabilities and finally the writings of Fassett and Warren (2007) on critical communication pedagogy.

In this book, we intend to highlight the intersections among communication, disability, diversity, and critical communication pedagogy, and the chapters in this collection embody and emphasize these connections. We believe that education as a social institution and the classroom as a place of learning and exchanging ideas can be a difficult—and sometimes oppressive—cultural space for people who learn differently and who have different abilities. Hence, we examine the notion of disability and a web of institutional, social, cultural, and political forces that shape communication between students and instructors, and we focus on experiences of people with disabilities in higher education.

In the social science and humanities literature, a disability is defined as something socially created and culturally contextual. As a construct, it is experienced individually and collectively (Hedlund, 2009). Hedlund argues that “… disability can be constructed and defined in different ways, and different aspects of people’s lives are amassed under the disability” (p. 6). Throughout this book, the contributors provide different definitions of disability; they reconstruct its meaning by providing their lived experiences. Furthermore, Thompson (2000) argues that, as a social construct, disability becomes a defining characteristic of an individual. Even though a physical and learning disability might not be relevant to most interactions, it still becomes one’s characteristic and a way of defining one’s identity. ← 4 | 5 → In this collection, we treat disability as an identity category that shapes people’s everyday lives in different social contexts.

In this book, we combine the discourse of physical disability with the discourse of learning disabilities. Because we would like to eliminate the hierarchy of oppression (in this case the hierarchy with the discourse of disability) and we treat injustice and discrimination around different identity markers as a whole, a group of oppressive ideologies, we recognize that there are differences in the way of construction of disability (for example, issues around learning disabilities receiving less attention) and the ways in which people experience them. Thus, we aim to create a dialogue to address different aspects of the notion of disability and the issues around it.


We use stories as a way of communicating. Hence, the stories we hear influence our reality, experiences, and identity. At the same time, the stories we tell help us to make sense of our realities. Stories empower us. They also change the ways in which we look at the people around us. As Fisher (1987) once noted, we are storytelling animals. In this book, we use qualitative approaches to study communication and disability in the context of higher education. In particular, we employ ethnography, autoethnography, narrative, and performative writing as ways of examining the notion of disability.


VI, 204
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
Disability Communication Higher education Pedagogy
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2016. VI, 196 pp.

Biographical notes

Ahmet Atay (Volume editor) Mary Z. Ashlock (Volume editor)

Ahmet Atay (PhD, Southern Illinois University Carbondale) is an assistant professor at The College of Wooster. He is the author of Globalization’s Impact on Cultural Identity Formation: Queer Diasporic Males in Cyberspace (2015). Mary Z. Ashlock (PhD, Florida State University) is an assistant professor at the University of Louisville. Her research includes disabilities, corporate communication, public speaking, and women/gender studies.


Title: The Discourse of Disability in Communication Education