Graduation Year

2014

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree

Ph.D.

Degree Granting Department

Communication

Major Professor

Mariaelena Bartesaghi

Keywords

Communication, Disability, Discourse, Epistemics, Evidentiality, Genre

Abstract

As it is generally conceived, knowledge belongs to the individual: we imagine how a lightbulb suddenly illuminates above the scientist's head, a muse whispers in the philosopher's ear, cogs slide into place as wheels turn in the thinker's mind, and, "Eureka!" an idea is born. As an individualistic experience, knowledge is secure in the repository of the mind, a "steel trap" as it is so often referred, which can only be breached by the most sophisticated and precise methods. From these popular representations of knowledge, one can extrapolate further to conclude that knowledge is not made, it is received. All of these metaphors of knowledge present a passive subject waiting for knowledge to be imparted from the Cosmos.

Much like knowledge, a disability and, reflexively, the knowledge of disability, is an individually sited matter; disability is something to be had, possessed, or owned, not shared. Similar to knowledge, disability is not actively produced, it just "is." And disability, too, is internally located, often being attributed as the outcome of physiological malfunction. It follows then, that because both knowledge and disability are separately regarded as individualistic phenomena, as located with(in) the individual, and as existing independently of him or her, that knowledge of disability would also share these characteristics. This study's objective, however, is to prove just the opposite: to position disability as a form of knowledge, and therefore, the knowledge of disability as the endpoint of an ongoing process of social interaction.

I use discourse analysis to analyze interviews conducted with staff members of a university office responsible for providing academic accommodations to students with disabilities, in conjunction with documents authored and disseminated by this organization. My study conceives discourse as language in action. By this I mean that discourse creates the very social structures it is presumed to describe. I also understand discourse as reflexive, meaning that embedded within discourse are larger social and moral norms. Believing that analyzing discourse allows for normative beliefs on knowledge and disability to be clearly displayed, I ask the following questions: By what assumptions do members organize disability in their daily practice? What role does communication play in these processes of social organization? What resources or forms of evidence are necessary to determine, to produce knowledge of, disability? And does everyone have equal access to these resources?

This study's findings hold broad implications for diverse stakeholders. For the field of Communication, this study affirms the need for revised ways of understanding communication, as it shows how antiquated ideations of communication as a linear exchange of information narrowly define what counts as knowledge. Additionally, this study also contributes to Disability Studies in that rather than arguing disability as a social artifact from an exclusively conceptual standpoint, it empirically makes a case for disability as the product of social interaction. For the organizational members consulted in this study, I offer recommendations for their praxis. The final, and arguably the most important, party that this study has implications for is the student with a disability. Because this study promotes a more inclusive approach to disability, and because it encourages a lesser burden of proof with respect to knowing disability, this study is of particular interest to the individuals who are classified as "disabled."

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