“Attunements to new lacerations”

Anne: When we present an early version of this chapter at the 2014 conference of the Society for Disability Studies, Riva Lehrer asks why we begin our challenge to access in “ambivalence, rather from the space that is implacable.” In giving our attention to the ambivalent interfaces of bodies and environment, she queries, are we refusing to acknowledge the reality of impairments that cannot be accommodated?

We know that many impairments cannot be accommodated. Can we enlarge our language and that of Disability Studies to accommodate this? I am re-tracing these questions, as my husband Jeff and I move slowly across a boardwalk, snaking through a bog in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. It is a rainy afternoon in August, and the walkway is slick. We know this, and are taking it gingerly, when, on an incline, I start to slip…and can’t stop. Seen from outside, the scene must be hilarious: I slide, and slowly turn, before landing (surely with a plop!) on my back, in the bog. Experienced from the inside, though, there is no room for laughter. As I slide, inexorably, and turn, inflexibly, I feel a pain–excruciating, in my right knee. When I try to get up, it’s totally non-negotiable: I cannot put any weight on my leg. And there it is, in a moment: the implacable.

Implacable, too, are my needs over the next few weeks, as I am displaced from agile mind to immobile body, as I hobble, and ice, and ask for assistance from Jeff who is, in turn, (un)fairly implacable in his judgment of what needs I (think I) have, what needs he thinks need meeting. We negotiate, or I do without, when he will not accommodate.

That fall, I return to Bryn Mawr, moving with less pain, although still using a cane–and encounter an agitated warning from our new access coordinator: all needs must be met. Or else. In a steadily rising tone, she writes me about the college’s legal obligations to a student who has told us of her needs too late for us to accommodate them all:

Part of the responsibility for this is [the student’s], however, legally the college would be found at fault, should she be so unhappy and decide to pursue it legally….[that the student] did not contact me until very late…in no way gives the college “wiggle room”; in the eyes of the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, colleges must be ready, yesterday, to have all materials ready for students who need accommodations ….There is to be no lag time or wait time for the student in terms of receiving materials in the appropriate format.

And yet, it turns out, there is nothing implacable there. Getting to know the student, introducing her to the administrator who is scanning our documents, we together work our way through the syllabus, identify what needs to be re-scanned to be made audible, agree to do so on a workable timetable.

A month after the administrator, my student and I reach accommodation, Riva arrives on campus, to serve as the creative consultant for a cluster of courses, a 360° I am co-teaching on “Identity Matters.”1 When Riva first comes to my class, she asks us all to begin to imagine–and then to draw–the “invisible body of desire”: what we would look like, if we were completely unbound by any restrictions? What could we do as an entity, if all constraints–gravity, time, whatever holds us back from being what whatever we might be (everything implacable?)–were lifted?

To get to this place, she asks us first to think to our last vacation, our last really enjoyable time–

I was on vacation when I slipped and tore that ligament–

and then back to a longer vacation, a time freed from responsibility and obligation, centered around what we always wanted to do–and then even further back, to the seventh grade, when we were beginning to dream about what we wanted to be. How were these states connected? Where did they make a “turn”? When did our desires change? What might have happened in our lives, if we had gotten to do completely what we wanted to do when we were twelve?

All constraints lifted, all choices totally open: what powers do we have? What are our minds and hearts good at doing? Peeling back from the everyday to much older motives: what moves us now at the essential level? “Build a body that lets you be that entity,” Riva says (as she has done, in a self-portrait called “At 54”):

12_Nine_RivaSelfPortrait
Riva Lehrer, “At 54,” acrylic and collage on paper, 2013.

Her invitation is a way to enter students’ psychic spaces, to seek, under their own direction, what they most long for–in the language of crip ecology, “to open up desire for what disability disrupts.”2

And so it is really Riva who articulates, first at the conference, then in my class, the tension that animates this chapter: the stretch between what is implacable, cannot be negotiated, and what is desired: flexible minds, bodies, social spaces. Mobile. Unbound. Pliable. Placable. Changing the circumstances in which the self finds herself. Mediating between what is necessary and what is impossible, what is wanted and what is do-able. In flesh and feeling, both constrained and reaching.

The swing between implacability and desire, between what cannot be negotiated and what can be dreamed, is ever on-going, always inviting renovation. I learn these lessons–the need to attend, the difficulty of doing so, the im/possibilities of responding appropriately, the invention of new possibles–again and again throughout the following semester, as Riva and I co-teach “Identity Matters” with  Kristin Lindgren, who directs Haverford College’s Writing Center, and Sarah Bressi, of Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. Partly because of our topic, partly because of the structure of profound engagement that a 360° entails, partly because of the particular mix of individuals who gather to share this project, the work of this cluster makes transparent the on-going, back-and-forth, ever-unsettling and unsettled process of access and accommodation in teaching and learning. We desire. Adjust. Long for something more or else. Recalibrate. Thread in and out of our shifting environment.

For the twelve students enrolled in this particular group of courses, who represent a variety of classes, races, genders and dis/abilities, the focus on “identity matters” makes this project intensely personal from the get-go. Fed from multiple directions–the students’ own investments, and ours (Riva’s creative exercises, Kristin’s course on disability, Sara’s on aging, mine on feminism)–we give extended attention to the interpersonal dynamics of accessibility and accommodation, hold repeated discussions about how we speak with one another, how we listen to what was said, how we might grant respect to every class member. Wishing. Stumbling. Wanting. Exhausting. Aspiring. Up and through the semester’s end: on-going negotiating of constraints and longings. Our group effort constitutes another instantiation of “crip ecology,” shifting our environment as it shapes and shifts us.

Our classroom is filled with desires–all compelling, all legitimate–and incapable of being fulfilled in the same place at the same time. “Accommodation” is an “assembling” and re-assembling that never settles, is never fully accommodated.

Throughout this essay, we move from speaking of “access,” which signifies a capacious, radical vision of the equal participation in society of persons with disabilities; to describing “accommodation,” which signals more narrow, specific strategies (such as extra time for testing, or large print texts). We also evoke the concept of “universal design,” which, as Jay Dolmage observes, “often usefully syncs with” accommodation, but also critiques that model with a more profound sense of “the actual , tricky, ongoing negotiations of classroom practice,” a recognition that there will never be a “grand solution.”3

Our own relationship to each of these orientations also shifts from that of critique to syncopation and back again. For instance, we accept Jay’s description of universal design for learning as offering “places to start thinking, doing, acting and moving.” always aware that any teaching strategy that offers a “good solution in the classroom” will also inevitably create “conflicts of access.”4

My students’ postings form a collage of such conflicts: different, often competing, capacities and checks, needs and wants:

Hummingbird

I appreciated the energy our classroom discussion had today. I appreciate the passion, openness, and sincerity many of us brought to the classroom space. I also noticed some of us did not have the space to bring that passion, openness, and sincerity. There were interruptions, raised voices, and comments over each other. Can we work to maintain that passion and energy, and to also incorporate pauses in between our voices? Can we work on scanning the room and noticing when our peers are making an effort to interject but not finding a way? Can we try to be more aware of each other? Allow each other to finish our thoughts before jumping on? Checking in with our peers to make sure we haven’t skipped over a voice?5

Another student, who is a McBride (one of a cohort of women over the age of 24, who did not complete college immediately after high school), reports on the

khinchey
unexpected invisibility of being a McBride: my insecurities as an academic are reinforced through the narrative that I ‘don’t belong’ in the Bryn Mawr community with my non-normative timeline and my inability to succeed as a student in my first go at college. 6

Realizing that such anxieties frequently lead her to bring her personal experience into class discussion–and that these are significant expressions of her longing to belong–she challenges Hummingbird for using the privilege of upper-class politeness to silence her, refusing her the right to speak in her accustomed mode.

Other students, largely silent to this point, also begin to write about their experiences of the in/accessible:

Sunshine

When I said in class today that I was struggling with what was my own anxiety and what was the class dynamic, I was thinking about what were my own problems that I need to deal with versus what the other members could do to make the class accessible for those without anxiety. Because in my head that was all that was necessary. Make space for those without anxiety, and for people like me, with anxiety, it is all on me to create the rest of the space. But I am a member of the class, with anxiety. It is an intersectional identity, and I cannot remove myself from it. There is no way I can be a member of the class without anxiety, the same way I cannot be a member of the class who is not a cis woman or black.7

ndifrank

I too share a lot of these same feelings. I suffer from anxiety and I don’t feel comfortable always saying that out loud. My anxiety has shaped me into someone who tends to be a listener within the classroom…and a talkative person outside of the classroom. I really appreciated the conversation we had today and although I don’t believe we should have a fully structured course that includes hand raising or using cards, I still would appreciate more space to be who I am. [A classmate] brought up the idea of not wanting to have to shrink within the classroom and while I do agree with that, I am also grappling with the idea that the classroom only has so much space (our space being our time). One person taking up a lot of space causes another to take up less. I know that I don’t speak up that much within the class and it has always been a struggle for me. I am a victim of emotional abuse which included a lot yelling and chastizing that silenced me as a child.8



The student consultant we’ve engaged through Bryn Mawr’s Teaching and Learning Institute9 reports that one-or-some students think that I should intervene more in class, to keep people from getting cut off, and/or direct the discussion more. Knowing we disagree on what “respect” sounds like, and also that different ones of us prefer different pacings, I propose that we share this labor: asking for some other voices in the conversation, being more aware of what’s going on, not so caught up in what we want to say that we don’t look around, pay attention to others’ body language, making sure—especially if we’ve already spoken—that others aren’t wanting to speak before we speak again; try a breath inbetween. These gestures–pushing ourselves to speak if we haven’t, pushing ourselves to be still if we have already talked in any given session–are all forms of accommodation, ways in which we and our environment continue to respond to one another.

We expend much effort before recognizing the essential incompletability of this project. We can’t achieve the total access we desire–and we can’t stop trying to.We expend much effort before recognizing the essential incompletability of this project. We can’t achieve the total access we desire–and we can’t stop trying to.

At semester’s end, Hummingbird testifies that her contributions in class aren’t taken up in the way she expects. Her story is a tangle of not being able to understand, and of not being understandable, of her “words taking on meanings” she doesn’t intend. All of this in the context of love–of a deep, familial longing for connection:

Hummingbird

Not too long after we discussed deafness and Deaf culture in Kristin’s class, I dreamt that I had become entirely deaf. Friends and family members were speaking to me, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. In the dream, this deafness had occurred months before and I’d been taking a sign-language class in response. But when I tried to communicate with my family and friends with my elementary level sign language, I couldn’t fully express my feelings. When I spoke aloud, they told me I sounded entirely different and couldn’t understand me. I could think clearly what I wanted to express, but I had no way of expressing it. I felt entirely cut-off from the people I loved.10

In early November we are trained into a more disciplined practice of speaking and listening. We attend a public performance of “Two Women Talking,” by Bryn Mawr alum Monsoon Bissell and her good friend Benaifer Bhadha; then an all-day workshop, just for our group, on their “narrativ” method. Learning how to implement careful listening: to clear our minds of obstacles that might prevent us from being fully present and receptive, as we prepare “listening bowls” to catch one another’s stories. Gabby explains the first step: “Imagine that the words coming out of your mouth are filling a bowl. In order for your words to be received well you must ‘clear your bowl.’ Simply name all the things that may hinder you from listening.”11 Sula elaborates: “Take a moment and think about…the space you offer up when you agree to listen to someone. We all have a variety of bowls (shallow, deep, tall, wide), and we are offering up our biggest bowl when we are most ready to listen.”12 During the weeks after, we are able to put such exercises to repeated good use in class. I am particularly heartened when some students who have been in conflict organize their own “listening conversations,” and report back that they’ve learned to “widen and deepen” their bowls.

And yet, as the semester draws to a close, two other students, who are very angry with one another, are telling the same story: each posts something on-line that gets no response, and so feels invisible, not listened to. Two others tell counter-stories: they read their classmates’ posts, have no words to respond. I observe that we all have been, and have had, sustained silent readers throughout the semester. Sometimes we don’t realize this: we are being seen, listened to.

When we gather for our last class, I invite the students into a closing ceremony, designed by Alice Lesnick, which figures this understanding. Calling attention to the beautiful bowl I have set in the center of our circle, “fragile but capable of holding whatever we put in it,” I instruct the students to place in the vessel something they want to leave there; then, on a second round, to demonstrate and articulate what they are carrying out. To do this in an embodied way, considering the shape and weight of these things….

I say, drawing on a powerful image offered by Bridget, that the bowl “has been here all along, and it isn’t yet filled.” I see it holding Gabby’s fear that our upcoming public listening conversation “isn’t focused where our priorities should be, on police brutality,” Natalie’s sense of “being suffocated by too much information,” Rhett’s apology for his lack of presence, Amelia’s awareness of our continued “shared martyrdom,” Sula’s “feeling bad that she’s not feeling bad.”

The “listening bowl” marks the fullness of possibility, without insisting on its full realization (which probably, anyway, can’t be found in words…). Learning what is wanted is a process. The bowl is both a metaphoric way for each of us to attend to what one another has to say, and–without choosing one mode of access over another, or ever reaching full accommodation–it figures a means of experiencing the material classroom, intermittently, as an “imagined community.”13

This, again, is ecology “cripped,” unsettling what we think we know in favor of interruption and disturbance, unveiling new imaginings that unfold in how we live our lives, enact our selves, interact with all that surrounds and moves through us.

There are, to be sure, cracks in this bowl. But there’s a sufficiency here, too–and a space to hold it all. Longings deeply linked with the capacity to imagine otherwise. Filled with failure that is also, always, a mark of desire.  A “holding environment”14 –not as permanent, but as a space of learning, to return to as needed.

  1. Identity Matters: Being, Belonging, Becoming.”A 360° cluster offered in Fall 2014, Bryn Mawr College. 
  2. Elizabeth Chandler, “Cripping Community: New Meanings,” No More Pot Lucks, September 5, 2013, accessed July 28, 2016.
  3. Jay Dolmage, “Universal Design.”
  4. Dolmage, “Universal Design.”
  5. Hummingbird, “A Plea for Space,” October 2, 2014 (5:27 p.m.).
  6. khinchey, “On Still Not Having All the Answers,” December 18, 2014 (11:23 p.m.).
  7. Sunshine, “What Is Accessible?” October 7, 2014 (11:34 p.m.).
  8. ndifrank, “Thoughts about our talk and invisible diablities,” October 8, 2014 (1:35 a.m.). 
  9. Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.”
  10. Hummingbird, “Communication?: a Self-Reflection,” December 18, 2014 (8:54 p.m.).
  11. Gabrielle Smith, “Let’s Chat,” Final Booklet, December 9, 2014.
  12. Sula Malina, “Bryn Mawr’s ‘L’ Word: “Listening,” Final Booklet, December 9, 2015.
  13. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,revised edition (Brooklyn, New York: Verso, 2006).
  14. Cf. D.W. Winnicott, Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment: Studies in the Theory of Emotional Development (1957-1963; rpt. London: Karnac Books,1996).