Skip to content

41 – The Rhetorical Role of Syllabi in Student Conversations About Disability


Neil Simpkins, School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, UW Bothell


This poster describes how students with disabilities use syllabi as a communication tool when discussing their disability access needs with college instructors. Understanding how students with disabilities use syllabi rhetorically can assist instructors in designing inclusive syllabi that invite open conversations about disability access with students.

Derived from a qualitative interview dataset that is part of a larger project examining how students with disabilities experience college writing, this poster reviews a subset of interview data discussing the role syllabi played in student interactions with instructors. Students described encounters related to syllabi in a wide range of classroom settings, from graduate coursework to large lectures to smaller discussion seminars. Through rounds of process and versus coding (Saldaña 2009), three categories emerged. Students with disabilities saw syllabi as a frame for communicating with instructors about their access needs, as a script for their in-person interactions, and as a contract for understanding the power relationships that flowed among themselves, their fellow students, and their instructors.

This presentation contributes to a small but growing conversation about the role that syllabi play in shaping student experiences with disability in higher education (Wood and Madden 2014, Dolmage 2015, Womack 2017). Instructors will get practical advice for writing syllabi that encourage positive disability access conversations; for example, some suggestions include articulating access philosophies as part of the disability accommodation statement and using course calendars to scaffold the workload over the quarter in accommodation conversations with students. Additionally, the presentation will raise questions for participants regarding philosophies of their teaching in relation to disability access. One finding of note describes how pedagogical moves often made in the spirit of redistributing power in the classroom (e.g., co-designing syllabi and rubrics) can sometimes inadvertently disenfranchise students with disabilities.