Feminist Pedagogy: Implications for UDL

“[F]eminist theory is still resisted for exactly the same reasons that scholars might resist disability studies: the assumption that it is narrow, particular, and has little to do with the mainstream of academic practice and knowledge (or with themselves).”

“Most fundamentally, though, the goal of feminist disability studies, as I lay it out in this essay, is to augment the terms and confront the limits of the ways we understand human diversity, the materiality of the body, multiculturalism, and the social formations that interpret bodily differences.” — Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, 2002, 3

As evidenced by recent collaborations between women’s (gender) studies and disability studies, feminist pedagogy has a lot to offer the way we think about crafting universally designed pedagogies.

Susan Jarratt, a well-known feminist pedagogue in my field, identifies the basic practices of feminist pedagogy as decentering authority, recognizing students as sources of knowledge, and focusing on processes over products (115). What makes feminist pedagogy distinctive, though, is “its investment in a view of contemporary society as sexist and patriarchal, and of the complicity of reading, writing, and teaching in those conditions” (115). Julie Jung identifies similar qualities of feminist pedagogy, set in opposition to qualities of a patriarchal society, which I have included in the following table for a quick compare/contrast:

Table comparing patriarchal pedagogy and feminist pedagogy as defined by Julie Jung

The Qualities of Patriarchal Pedagogy vs. Feminist Pedagogy

The similarities between patriarchal pedagogy and feminist pedagogy to normalized/standardized and universally designed pedagogy are readily apparent, at least in the way that we have discussed them this semester. A patriarchal pedagogy is the historically “normed” pedagogy, and, in many ways, is inaccessible to students: it is teacher-student, doesn’t foster a safe or collaborative environment, and devalues students’ differences. A universally designed pedagogy, as we have discussed, moves away from these inaccessible practices to make the classroom a safe space where everyone’s experiences and knowledges are respected and valued.

The connections in practice are not the only value of considering feminist pedagogy, though. Jarratt writes, “Feminist pedagogy needs both to talk about women as a group—women teachers, women students—but also notice differences within gendered categories, especially when it comes to student writing and reading practices” (117). Kristina Knoll similarly argues, from the perspective of feminist disability studies, for paying attention to the “multitude of disability experiences” (124) that students bring to the classroom. The value of recognizing individual differences is important, not to other students, but to recognize and respect students’ different experiences. This has value for better understanding how students can best learn in the classroom and for understanding how, as teachers, we can create environments that are more accessible to students with many types of differences.

Lastly, feminist pedagogy from a Rhet/Comp perspective has some interesting implications for UD/UDL. Feminist pedagogy examines the way language operates within a gendered world (Jarratt 118). This resonates similarly to the way disability infiltrates language: “In the English language, using disability as a metaphor, an analogy and a derogatory term is common” (Ben-Moshe 107). This is important to address, particularly in a writing classroom that highlights the value of language and rhetorical choices because, as Liat argues, this language is offensive, impedes communication, perpetuates false beliefs, and creates an exclusionary classroom environment (107).

Even in a brief summary, it is clear that feminist pedagogy—its student-centered practices, collaborative and egalitarian values, and its goals for critically examining a gendered/patriarchal (“normed”) society and its social practices—can contribute to a larger discussion of universally designed pedagogies.

Ben-Moshe, Liat. “‘Lame Idea’: Disabling Language in the Classroom.” Building Pedagogical Curb Cuts: Incorporating Disability in the University Classroom and Curriculum. Ed. Liat Ben-Moshe, Rebecca C. Cory, Mia Feldbaum, and Ken Sagendorf. Syracuse, NY: The Graduate School at Syracuse University, 2005. 107-15. Print.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. “Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory.” NWSA Journal 14.3 (Fall 2002): 1-32. Print.

Jarratt, Susan C. “Feminist Pedagogy.” A Guide to Composition Pedagogies. Ed. Gary Tate, Amy Rupiper, and Kurt Schick. New York: Oxford UP, 2001. 113-31. Print.

Jung, Julie. Revisionary Rhetoric, Feminist Pedagogy, and Multigenre Texts. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2005, Print.

Knoll, Kristina R. “Feminist Disability Studies Pedagogy.” Feminist Teacher 19.1 (2008): 122-33. Print.

Accessibility in the Classroom

Access should not be viewed as a constraint on architectural design but should be conceived of as a ‘major perceptual orientation to humanity’ (Davies & Lifchez, 1987, 49).

The above quotation comes from Rob Imrie’s article, “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment,” and it frames this week’s readings on physical barriers. Goldstein, Imrie, Strange, and Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson all address physical barriers that range from inaccessible campuses and classrooms to disablist environments to limiting perceptions of disability itself. By positioning access as an orientation to humanity rather than a retrofit—a component that is added to an already-built space—the authors articulate a number of ways to make classroom (and other social) spaces more universally designed and accessible for students.

Crippen accessibility cartoon, "Polling": Staircase retrofitted with two planks of wood to create an "accessible ramp."

"Polling" (via crippencartoons.co.uk): A building retrofits a staircase with an "accessible ramp," while the man talking symbolizes a disables attitude toward accommodation.

Elisabeth Goldstein argues for the importance of implementing UD in higher education because of the diverse group of people that access campuses: “a widely diverse group of people (students, faculty, administration, alumni, visitors), with varying ages and physical and sensory abilities, makes up the campus community” (199). Goldstein considers a number of places that would benefit from UD, including building entrances, classrooms, furnishings, and sound and lighting. I am particularly drawn to her discussion of building entrances. She describes a building entrance as “the first impression one has of the site and orients the visitor the spaces within the rest of the facility” (200). If a building entrance is inaccessible to particular bodies, then, those bodies are marked as disabled—as unable to use these naturalized features in the ways they were intended (which, I think most of us agree, were ill-intended). Even if a classroom inside an inaccessible building is inclusive and welcoming, the message received from the building itself—Some bodies were not intended to use this building—can impact how a student engages within the classroom.

Rob Imrie argues that this received message, the idea that some bodies simply are not considered, is indicative of a larger “able-bodied” society (129). Imrie writes, “This has led some commentators to regard the built environment as disablist, that is, projecting ‘able-bodied’ values which legitimize oppressive and discriminatory practices against disabled people purely on the basis that they have physical and/or mental impairments” (129). Inaccessible buildings and classrooms reinforce this disablist environment. When Imrie discussed the able-bodied workforce, I immediately thought of how that translates to the college campus environment. Many campuses still create barriers for students with disabilities because college campuses were originally designed for able-bodied students.

This is where Universal Design can begin to play a role in creating built spaces that are more flexible and more accessible. However, UD cannot necessarily change the disablist attitudes Imrie discusses. UD cannot only influence physical environments: it must also affect attitudes. If a space is redesigned to be more accessible, this change inevitably has to reflect some changes in attitude and thinking, as well, because if a space is redesigned without critical understanding and respect of persons with disabilities, I’m not sure it could successfully be universally designed.

Carney Strange acknowledges the importance of understanding, arguing that instructors need to understand not only students with disabilities but also the larger social and physical conditions of the larger environments they inhabit (20). This is not a passive understanding, though. Strange argues that, through understanding, we can begin to create environments that are safe and inclusive, promote involvement, and offer full membership in the “community of learning” (23). Necessarily, this shifts away from acknowledging the inaccessibility of physical environments, moving toward a broader understanding of the inaccessibility of spaces and policies and practices. Spatial inaccessibility, then, becomes tied up in larger social structures.

Though Strange briefly mentions policy and practice, James Wilson and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson take them up in more detail. They describe disability law as a marker: “[T]he law writes on particular disabled bodies, no two of whom have the same needs, a generalized grid or map labeled ‘disabled student’” (298). Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson argue that this is a homogenizing attitude, that instructors must do more than what disability and accommodation laws can provide. For them, this seems to come down to flexible pedagogical practices that require instructors to be comfortable discussing difference, to understand the many differences between students with disabilities, and to “be willing to assist each (disabled) student to coconstruct the best individualized learning relationship” (300). That is, supporting students with disabilities in the classroom moves away from legal accommodations to constructing and negotiating a collaborative plan for what that student wants and needs.

Crippen accessibility cartoon, "Homework": Teacher asks blind student to read chalkboard.

"Homework" (via crippencartoons.co.uk): The teacher asks a blind student to read the chalkboard, an example of how accessibility is also pedagogical.

I appreciate this shift in accessibility from the physical to the pedagogical, because, as Wilson and Lewiecki-Wilson argue, instructors often cannot change the physical environments. However, instructors can make their classrooms more accessible through their pedagogies—through adaptation, flexibility, and open discussions of disability. Addressing accessibility as implicated within larger structures—physical environment, social construction, policy, and pedagogy—becomes more critical and holistic. Depending on how much power we have over the physical design of our classrooms, it also becomes more action-oriented because we can address accessibility through the choices we make within our classrooms.



Goldstein, Elisabeth. “Applications of Universal Design to Higher Education Facilities.” Universal Design in Higher Education: From Principles to Practice. Ed.  In Sheryl E. Burgstahler and Rebecca C. Cory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2008. 199-212. Print.

Imrie, Rob. “Oppression, Disability and Access in the Built Environment.” Ed. Tom Shakespeare. The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives New York: Cassell, 1998. 129-46. Print.

Strange, Carney. “Creating Environments of Ability.” New Directions for Student Services: Serving Students with Disabilities. Ed. Holley A. Belch.   San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2000. 19-30. Print.

Wilson, James C., and Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson. “Constructing a Third Space: Disability Studies, the Teaching of English, and Institutional Transformation.” Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities  Ed. Sharon L. Snyder, Brenda Jo Brueggemann, and Rosemarie Garland-Thomson. New York: MLA, 2002. 296-307. Print.

Project 1: Students with AS in the FYC Classroom

First-year composition (FYC) is one of few required college classes, which means FYC serves a diverse student population. Students are expected to practice and improve their critical reading, thinking, and writing abilities within a 15-week semester, which, theoretically, prepares them for the remainder of their academic written work. Beyond this pressure, there are other factors that make FYC intensive: It is often one of the smallest classes that first-year students take, and it is a fairly intimate class—students choose personal topics, share their work with other students, and work collaboratively throughout the semester. In many ways, these are the strengths of FYC, but these factors can also be downfalls. Because of the highly social and intimate nature of FYC, combined with an increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in postsecondary settings, it is important to brainstorm ways that students with AS can learn best within the FYC context.

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is an autism spectrum disorder that affects how individuals communicate and understand language, empathize with people and events, adjust to changes in environment and routine, and engage with body movements and behaviors (NICHCY, 2010). According to the Autism Society (2011), an AS diagnosis is often mild, and those affected frequently have “good language and cognitive skills.” Though students with AS may have good language skills, these skills are often filtered through social ability and how an individual is able to communicate in social situations. In a FYC classroom, for example, communication extends beyond written discourse, moving into arenas of both formal and informal oral communication (e.g. presentations, discussions, in-class activities, and peer review) that may prove difficult for students with AS. Because of its many characteristics, its relatively new disability status—it wasn’t formalized by the World Health Organization until 1992—and a general inattention to students with disabilities in higher ed, many instructors are unlikely to respond appropriately to AS: Does someone with AS need accommodations? What are the strengths and limitations of students’ learning and writing processes? Should changes be made to the curriculum or class environment?

In terms of college-level accommodations, the needs of students with AS vary widely. Adreon and Durocher (2007) argue that the majority of students with AS require the same types of accommodations as other students with LD, including preferred seating, note-takers, recorded lectures, opportunities to take exams in quieter settings, and extended time for exams (p. 276). In a qualitative study conducted by Smith (2007), he determines that many college accommodations for students with AS are not specific enough to meet their needs (p. 526). Adreon and Durocher (2007) agree, outlining some accommodations that may be more suitable to support the learning needs of students with AS, including course substitutions, permission to avoid collaborative activities, and flexibility in deadlines (p. 276). Because FYC is a mandatory course in many U.S. colleges, course substitution is not a viable option. And, as mentioned above, much of the work done in FYC classrooms—from in-class activities to larger class projects—is collaborative. By recognizing some of the more common characteristics of AS, we can construct pedagogies and classroom environments that support their learning needs.

It can be useful to understand a range of challenges and strengths that students with AS may share in order to gain a better understanding of our students’ needs. Students with AS are often challenged by nonverbal communications, such as gestures and body language, and following social conventions, which can make peer interactions difficult. According to Adreon and Durocher (2007), students with AS often have difficulties with “academic content, organization, time management, and study skills” (p. 274). And in terms of the classroom environment, students with AS tend to rely on sameness, which can lead to “inflexible behavior” when that environment is changed or when something within the curriculum is changed (Adreon and Durocher, 2007, p. 273). To address these challenges and better support learning, writing instructors should pay careful attention to scaffolding. For example, we can provide clearly outlined course schedules, set mini-deadlines within assignments to let students know how they can progress to complete a project, and practice different writing strategies in class.

Students with AS also have particular strengths that can be harnessed within a writing classroom. As Dillon (2007) observes, “Many students with AS are successful in college. They do not necessarily have intellectual or academic disabilities and may demonstrate exceptional abilities. In fact, preoccupation with specific interests has often led to gaining great expertise in a particular area” (p. 500). Here, Dillon transforms a “negative” into a “positive.” Many students with AS are interested in particular things to the extent that they may not engage with topics that lie outside their personal interests. However, this could be a useful trait in FYC because students always choose their own topics within assigned projects. So a student who is really interested in trains, for example, could write a personal narrative, a rhetorical analysis, and a research paper about different aspects of trains.

FYC revolves around rhetoric, and Bitzer’s (1968) conception of the rhetorical situation is always dependent on social context, audience, and individual constraints. No one skill is appropriate for every context; rather, particular skills have strength in particular contexts. It is useful to place students with AS within this context, too, and to think of strategies for developing pedagogies where they can learn best. For Smith (2007), students with AS learn best when schedules are clearly outlined, assignments and activities are explained, and students are given choices about what kind of peer involvement they will have (p. 517). For Madriaga (2010), this idea is articulated through the creation of “safe” spaces that allow students a release from auditory and visual overstimulation (p. 40). These authors suggest both structure and flexibility, which we can translate to the FYC classroom, particularly through multimodal pedagogies.

By promoting the use of different modes—textual, visual, and verbal—to present and create knowledge, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to learn in ways that are most valuable for them. Stein (2008) argues that multimodal pedagogies recognize students as “agentive, resourceful, and creative meaning-makers” (p. 122), which values the differences that students bring to the classroom. Within a multimodal FYC classroom, there are clear expectations and goals, detailed assignment prompts, and structured class activities that allow students to see the connections between activities and projects goals. However, there is also a lot of flexibility that can support different needs. For example, an activity like peer review initially seems like it could be a challenging activity for students with AS due to its intimate, social nature. However, peer review can be done in groups, in pairs, anonymously, through written or verbal discussion, in print or online. Students with AS can engage with the goals of FYC in structured yet flexible ways within a multimodal pedagogy that values difference and diversity, providing students with the options they need in order to learn best.

This video is a pretty cool example of a multimodal, collaborative project created by (British) children with Asperger Syndrome to educate others about AS. It provides a personal, more in-depth discussion of the characteristics, challenges, and strengths of having AS.



Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.

Autism Society. Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/aspergers-syndrome/

Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, (1)1. 1-14.

Dillon, M. R. (2007). Creating supports for college students with Asperger Syndrome through collaboration. College Student Journal, 41(2), 499-504.

Madriaga, M. (2010). ‘I avoid pubs and the student union like the plague’: Students with Asperger Syndrome and their negotiation of university spaces. Children’s Geographies, 8(1), 39-50.

National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2010). Autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved from http://nichcy.org/disability/specific/autism

Smith, C. P. (2007). Support services for students with Asperger’s Syndrome in higher education. College Student Journal, 41(3), 515-531.

Stein, P. (2008). Multimodal pedagogies in diverse classrooms: Representation, rights, and resources. New York, NY: Routledge.

World Health Organization. (1992). International classification of diseases, ICD-10 (10th revision). Geneva, Switzerland: Author.

Unlearning a “One-Size-Fits-All” Educational Model

In Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn, Cathy Davidson asks us to rethink our students’ abilities. She writes, “Where [neuroscientists] perceive the shortcomings of the individual, I sense opportunity for collaboration. If we see selectively but we don’t all select the same things to see, that also means we don’t all miss the same things” (2). There are many important threads within this book, but in terms of dis/ability, I think there are three themes worth exploring deeper: cultural values, pedagogical practices, and assessment.

First, we must unlearn our cultural values. The current 21st-century narrative blames technology for our inability to pay attention and for the “dumbing down” of students (10). Because of this narrative, Davidson argues that we are “more likely to label [students] with a disability when they can’t be categorized by our present system, but how we think about disability is actually a window onto how attention blindness keeps us tethered to a system that isn’t working” (10). This is where unlearning comes in.

Unlearning is a theme throughout the book, “required when the world or your circumstances in that world have changed so completely that your old habits now hold you back” (19). For me, unlearning is also required when our cultural narrative devalues certain abilities. This is why Davidson’s notion of “collaboration by difference” is so important. She writes, “Collaboration by difference respects and rewards different forms and levels of expertise, perspective, culture, age, ability, and insight, treating difference not as a deficit but as a point of distinction” (100). Instead of devaluing students who lack particular abilities, collaboration by difference places students with different abilities together in settings where they work together on a project that requires all of their particular abilities. In order to enact this kind of participatory collaboration, though, we have to unlearn our pedagogical practices.

Davidson seeks to answer the question, “What if instead of telling [students] what they should know, we asked them?” (62). In the case of Duke’s iPod experiment, we see students in control of learning. Davidson describes the experiment as an investment in teaching: “one that didn’t require the student to always face forward, learn from on high, memorize what was already a given, or accept knowledge as something predetermined and passively absorbed” (69). For students, this meant new opportunities to learn information in ways that best benefitted them, providing them with technology that they could use to enhance and support their own learning—a nice reminder of the benefits of UDL and the multiple options it provides.

Davidson argues that a “one-size-fits-all model of standards” that is unbending to students’ particular needs is partially to blame for student failures (77). Perhaps this is why Manhattan’s Quest 2 Learn (Q2L) is so successful. Using gaming principles that engage students in games that require strategy, problem solving, and teamwork allows students to benefit from each other’s strengths. The same could be said for the success of the Voyager Academy. Here, each child is responsible for learning, for self-controlling and self-monitoring her learning processes. My favorite example of this participatory learning is the “disruptive” boy:

He’s been doing well today, but I learn he’s smart and energetic enough to turn the class upside down with his antics. He’s been learning, lately, how to tell for himself when he’s in a disruptive mood, and he has a deal going with Mr. Germain. If he feels like he cannot control himself, he’s allowed to just walk away and go work by himself at the computer. He doesn’t have to ask permission. All he needs to do is take himself out of the situation where he’ll be disruptive. It’s a public pact: Everyone knows it. 135

For me, this example provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on our values: What are the goals of teaching? Of learning? How do we set up our own classrooms to support and benefit all of our students? Davidson argues that all students can succeed in the 21st-century classroom as long as the curriculum moves away from standardization, focusing instead on the collaborative, intellectual work that occurs outside the classroom.

This brings me to the last point: assessment. It is clear within this book (and in her real-life endeavors) that Davidson is no supporter of standardized testing, and in “How We Measure,” she offers alternatives. First, she argues for a stop to end-of-grade exams, opting instead for tests that challenge the “complex, connected, and interactive skills” of the 21st century (125). Second, she argues that we need to imagine assessment in ways that will measure “practical, real-world skills” such as communicating with others, making sound judgments, and determining credibility (127-8). Instead of “dumbing down” students at the end of the year, Davidson suggests adding a “boss-level challenge” that would allow students to participate in decentered, challenging, and collaborative learning (131). All of these alternatives emphasize the importance of testing students not for how much they can memorize or regurgitate on a piece of paper. Instead, these alternatives push students to engage with the material, providing learning opportunities for students who are failed by standardized tests.

What I like best about Davidson’s approach to testing is her willingness to challenge what constitutes “failure.” She asks, “By what logic would failing a test in a language other than the one spoken in your home constitute a failure for you as well as for your teachers, your classmates, and your entire school?” (94), a question similar to our previous readings and discussions of assessment. If we have different tests, students with different abilities have more opportunities to perform in ways that more accurately measured their knowledge. By unlearning our 20th-century values of ability, pedagogy, and assessment, we provide all of our students with more genuine and fair opportunities to learn and demonstrate that learning in 21st-century contexts.

Incidentally, if y’all haven’t heard of the “badges” for lifelong learning that Davidson mentions, here’s a video that explains them. Badges are the brainchild of HASTAC, a cross-disciplinary organization that explores the collaborative uses of technology. When they announced the badges competition last Fall, people freaked out—not as much as it sounds like they did for Davidson’s “How to Crowdsource Grading” but there were definitely some people with some important and interesting things to say about these alternative grading measures, including Davidson.

Davidson, Cathy N. Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking, 2011.