Doctoral student’s accelerated composition course explores disability issues, myths and stigmas

Instructor and doctoral student Talisha Morrison Instructor and doctoral student Talisha Morrison

Disability is all around us. In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that nearly 20 percent of Americans have a condition considered a disability. But for Talisha Morrison, an instructor and doctoral student at Purdue, that statistic is not abstract.

Morrison’s younger sister has cerebral palsy, while her mother uses a wheelchair as a result of a stroke. Morrison also has family members with mental illness, and has personally been diagnosed with a chronic headache condition. But it wasn’t until two years ago—when her own son was born deaf—that the Purdue instructor began to dig deeper into how society views and talks about disability, as well as the stigmas surrounding it.

“Now that I have a son who’s deaf, I’m much more aware of the barriers that exist for people with disabilities. Especially when those disabilities are invisible, and many times they are,” says Morrison, who is studying rhetoric and composition, with emphases in writing center theory and practice, as well as community based literacy practices. “Disability can be so invisible to society that we force people to ask for accommodations, and some people will never ask for the things they need because of the stigma.”

Morrison saw an opportunity to embed disability studies into her English 108 course, an accelerated composition class with a service learning component. She initially met with Randall Ward, director of Purdue’s Disability Resource Center (DRC), and DRC access consultant Raye Gipson, to discuss areas in which disability issues intersect with the course’s pillars of language, writing and general communication.

“Because this is a writing class, we spend a lot of time talking about how we write, the language we use, and making documents accessible,” Morrison says. “In addition to discussions on accessible document design, we talk about how we ourselves represent disability through our language, taking into consideration various audiences.”

Morrison starts each semester by showing her students Stella Young’s TED talk on disability. The title of the late Young’s talk, “I’m not your inspiration,” is Indiana’s theme this year for March Disability Awareness Month. In the video, Young discusses her wish to live in a world where having a disability is not considered the exception, but the norm. It provides a good starting point for students to think about disability in ways they haven’t before.

“The students’ first assignment is to do an analysis of representations of disability, which involves exploring stereotypes and examining how myths are perpetuated, challenged or changed,” Morrison says. “We talk about the history of the Americans with Disabilities Act, universal design and social hierarchies for disability. I also ask the students to explore Purdue and the surrounding community while thinking about accessibility from a variety of perspectives.”

Alexandrea Crouch, a freshman in the Krannert School of Management, said Morrison’s course introduced her to the DiversiKey Certificate Program, which enables students to acquire diversity leadership skills and competencies needed to succeed.

“I previously did not associate disability with diversity, but I did a project on hiring and discrimination in the workplace, which opened me up to this whole new HR career opportunity I’d never thought of before,” Crouch says. “The project helped me realize that I can be the voice of change when it comes to making the workplace more diverse by hiring staff with disabilities.”

Morrison’s students also worked on group projects in which they interviewed members of the campus community about their experiences with disability, creating accommodations, accessibility training and more. Students shared their final reports with the DRC.

“We talked to a student on campus who suffers from anxiety, and it was interesting to hear her perspective on what campus life is like for her,” Crouch says. “I think it helped make my classmates and me be much more aware of how we talk about disabilities, and the fact that people are people and just want to be treated normally.”

Morrison says many of her students also reflected on their own disabilities throughout the semester, and some indicated they felt more comfortable with their conditions as a result of taking the course.

“Several of my students who talked about their disabilities during class weren’t affiliated with the DRC, although some shared that they were struggling in certain classes as a result of their conditions,” Morrison says. “Although the DRC is becoming more visible, there are still a lot of people who don’t know about it, so I think it’s important for staff and faculty to promote DRC resources in a way that encourages students to go there for help.”

The Office of Institutional Equity has coordinated several Purdue events related to Disability Awareness Month. Please see below for details:

For accommodations at any of these events, please contact the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE) at 765-494-7253 or at equity@purdue.edu.

Writer: Andrea Thomas, communications director for Student Success Programs, 765-496-3754, thomas78@purdue.edu

Last updated: March 2, 2017

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