Feature: The Protection Silence Does Not Offer

by Stephanie Quinn, Ph.D

When technical writers communicate, they do what most individuals will do. They attempt to anticipate their readers’ needs: What information do my reader-users need to know and what is the most effective way to present the information? Technical writers apply these specific techniques learned from technical writing professors in a field heavily influenced by the science and technology industries. As computing technology exploded in the U.S. during the 1940s at the height of World War II, for example, technical writing emerged and expanded at breakneck speed.

Imagine it: rooms filled with experts (mostly men at that time) in need of other experts to communicate technical information — specialized content accessible by an increasingly narrow, and steep path for those who can climb to the top. This scene epitomizes the intellectual prowess we’ve come to expect of higher education and progress. As a woman teaching technical writing for 15 years, I’ve passed down this legacy of consolidated power in expert-centered management and design of information despite my own efforts to integrate user-centered approaches. I may explicitly instruct my students to account for the ways a diverse group of users (“abled” and “disabled”) will think and act when using a technical document, but it is my silence that implicitly reinforces conformity to a tradition of ableism, exclusion, marginalization, and gender bias.

If educators analyze what they include and omit, they soon realize “the absence of something creates meaning, as does its presence” (Gabel et al., 2016, p.67). Typical technical writing textbooks reveal what Brown and Duguid (2000) in The Social Live of Information described as an idealized image of technical writers and the texts they create (p.85). First, a prescribed technical process outlines a plan, followed by well-established basic design features, and finally, usability testing addresses quality control (typically in a succinct subsection of a chapter or standalone chapter toward the end of the book). But usable for whom? The textbook I use, like most, contains no references to disability, accessibility, impairment, A.D.A., or WCAG 2.0 website accessibility standards.

Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, more than 56 million people in the U.S. (19% of the population) live with a disability (Anderson & Perrin, 2017). In higher education, 2 million (or 11% of) undergraduate students (U.S. Department of Education, 2016) and 4% of faculty members have disabilities according to the National Center for College Students with Disabilities (Grigely, 2017). The troubling reality is that few faculty members disclose their disability to administration, and even fewer request accommodations. Price, Salzer, O’Shea, and Kerschbaum (2017) found that 87% of faculty with a mental disability did not request an accommodation even though visible and invisible disabilities among faculty have been documented in self-disclosure publications since the 1990s. In fact, nearly 70% of faculty surveyed had no or limited knowledge of workplace accommodations.

In this case, the absence of something speaks volumes. In higher education, the culture “encourages students and teachers alike to accentuate ability, valorize perfection, and stigmatize anything that hints at intellectual (or physical) weakness” (Dolmage, 2017, p.3). Well-intentioned retrofits of physical structures and spaces (i.e. ramps, assistive technologies, and interpreters) may serve to include faculty and students with disabilities, but these do not transform institutional culture and systems that “privilege those who can easily ignore their bodies and those whose minds work the most like the minds” of able-bodied experts.  As Sushill Oswal argued at the 2018 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Conference earlier this year, “inclusion without accessibility is not diversity”, and it certainly is not equitable.

For those of us — the educators living with visible and invisible disabilities — who have chosen silence, it is time we transform our silence from the periphery to activism in the center. We must commit to “language and the power of language” as Audre Lorde urged us in 1977. In technical writing, this means renegotiating the competing ethics of utility (the needs and interests of the many-majority outweigh those of the few-minority) with the ethics of care for all individuals who wish to understand and use a technical document. It means discussing the importance of usability and inclusion while simultaneously developing explicit infrastructure to create accessible texts.

I am suggesting we shift our frames of reference. In physics, a frame of reference is used to describe the motion of an object. The terms we use to describe the motion are dictated by the dominant culture, in this case higher education. In rhetoric, these terms create what Kenneth Burke called terministic screens. “Our screens become projections of ourselves, and they shape the ways in which we see the world and act in it” (Smith, 1998, p.330). When I choose to silence myself, I allow myself to be silenced by a dominant culture’s prescribed identity of disability: “incapable, illiterate, dysfunctional and non-productive members of school and society” (Peters, 1999, p.104). But if I reclaim the language, my motion, my activities as a professional in higher education will require continuous renegotiating of competing, yet powerful, identifies — woman, mother, technical writer, educator, expert, person living with invisible disabilities and chronic illness, and so on.

Technical writing, much like higher education it would seem, operates like a zero-sum game: your gain is my loss, and your loss is my gain. So entrenched is this cognitive bias that it is well-documented in other fields such as psychology and economics. Inclusion and accessibility do not sacrifice design. If anything, they help us challenge values that Graham Pullin (2009) warns in Design Meets Disability “have become so widespread as to become assumptions” (p. 205). The current state of disability and inclusion in higher education is an unsatisfying situation. However, we cannot stop with this observation. We must acknowledge that the concept of disability is a diagnostic judgment of inadequacy (Jung, 2011, p.263). It is a form of social discrimination that results in negative economic, professional, and private consequences. Designing texts and organizational culture for diversity and inclusivity, rather than discrimination, will lead to fresh complications and challenges. The path is steep but not unclimbable.

Disability is not something some people — more than 56 million U.S. citizens — just happen to have. The failure of higher education and society stems, in part, from the failure of health-related language. When those of us living with disabilities shape the language with which to discuss our lived, material experiences, we can begin to shift from a collective lexicon of exclusion to one of inclusion while also acknowledging and honoring the equal involvement of all individuals in “the round of existence” (Santayana, 1922, p.132). Disability doesn’t just happen to some of us and stop there. It impacts all of us. As an educator in the technical writing field, I am well-positioned to help shape this new literacy. All of us, Audre Lorde (1984) would argue, regardless of academic field or trade, are equipped “to establish or examine her function in that transformation and to recognize her role as vital within that transformation” (p. 43). In this essay, I have attempted to break my silence, and in doing so, I hope these actions have a wider effect on those living with disabilities and working in higher education. These experiences of oppression can only come to light when we turn our silence into visible action and language.


Anderson, M., & Perrin, A. (2017). Disabled Americans are less likely to use technology. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/07/disabled-americans-are-less-likely-to-use-technology/.

Brown, J. S., & Duguid, P. (2000). The social life of information. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Dolmage, J. T. (2017). Academic ableism: Disability and higher education. Ann Arbor, MI. University of Michigan Press.

Gabel, S. L., Reid, D., Pearson, H., Ruiz, L., & Hume-Dawson, R. (2016). Disability and diversity on CSU websites: A critical discourse study. Journal of Diversity In Higher Education, 9(1), 64-80. doi:10.1037/a0039256.

Grigely, J. (2017). The neglected demographic: Faculty members with disabilities. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Neglected-Demographic-/240439.

Jung, K. E. (2011). Chronic illness and educational equity: The politics of visibility. In K. Hall (Ed), Feminist disability studies (pp.263-286). Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lorde, A. (1984). Sister outsider. Ten Speed Press, New York, NY.

Peters, S. (1999). Transforming disability identity through critical literacy and the cultural politics of language. In M. Corker and S. French (Eds), Disability discourse (pp. 103–115). Buckingham and Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Price, M., Salzer, M., O’Shea, A., & Kerschbaum, S. (2017). Disclosure of mental disability by college and university faculty: The negotiation of accommodations, supports, and barriers. Disabilities Studies Quarterly, 37 (2). Retrieved from http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/5487/4653

Pullin, G. (2009). Design meets disability. Cambridge: MA: MIT Press.

Santayana, G. (1922). Soliloquies in England and later soliloquies. Scribner’s Sons, New York, NY. Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/soliloquiesineng00santrich.

Smith, C. R. (1998). Rhetoric and human consciousness: A history. Long Grove, IL: Waveland.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). Fast facts: Students with disabilities. Digest of Education Statistics, 2015 (2016-014), [Chapter 3]. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=60


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