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ASU associate professor, alum recognized for research on disability justice in the workplace

Award-winning article shows how workplace documents can disenfranchise people with disabilities

Two people seen from the neck down as one points to a page in an open book.

Workplace documents can disenfranchise people with disabilities, according to an article written by ASU Department of English Associate Professor Mark Hannah and ASU alum Kristin Bennett. Photo courtesy Pexels

March 19, 2024

Arizona State University Associate Professor Mark Hannah always has been curious about the intersection between law and everyday communication.

ASU alumna Kristin Bennett, who received her PhD in English in 2022, has long been interested in the intersections of technical and professional communication and disability studies.

So when the Journal of Business and Technical Communication put out a call for articles updating the understanding of ethics and ethical decision-making in professional and technical communication, Hannah, a former attorney and the director of writing, rhetorics and literacies in ASU’s Department of English, and Bennett, now a faculty member at Sam Houston St. University, co-authored an article titled “Transforming the Rights-Based Encounter: Disability Rights, Justice and the Ethics of Access.”

What is writing, rhetorics and literacies?

Curious about this area of research? Stop by a coffee chat/information session about ASU’s writing, rhetorics and literature program, hosted by Mark Hannah.

9 a.m.–noon Thursday, March 28
Durham Hall courtyard (outdoors on Cady Mall)
Tempe campus
Learn more

The article, which examines how workplace documents — i.e. technical communication — often unknowingly disenfranchise people with disabilities because of language choices, won an award for Best Article Reporting Qualitative or Quantitative Research in Technical or Scientific Communication from the Conference on College Composition and Communication

In recognition of Disability Awareness Week, March 18–22, Hannah talks about his work on the article.

Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Can you give an overview of the article?

Answer: When the call went out, we (Hannah and Bennett) were like, “OK, when dealing with issues of disability in organizational contexts, how does ethics show up?” Or, "What is an ethical framework for thinking about those types of decisions?"

The concern of Kristin and mine was how do you write beyond the law, meaning the American Disabilities Act, which demands compliance. (The ADA) impulse is good, but then a rights-based discourse is very limiting in terms of addressing individualized disabled needs or disabled experiences. So how do you move beyond ADA requirements to thinking and promoting justice?

Q: So, how did you do that?

A: How we did that was through disability justice principles. We evaluated an online human resources platform, designed to help folks think about working with disability in the workplace, by looking through all the training material documents that are promoted on this website. I don’t want to say we took a deficit approach to it, but we just wanted to document that this is how rights are enforced or emphasized to the exclusion of broader social justice principles and concerns.

Q: How do workplace documents disenfranchise people with disabilities?

A: Something we found is that there’s a tendency to individualize disability. It’s about you, the disabled person. So how do you overcome and remove that barrier? Often, the barrier is signified by someone being productive.

For example, “We will provide you with this accommodation. It will help you be productive.” And productivity is a traditional standard norm of professionalism, what it means to be a good employee. Well, that just erases the employee and their disabled experience; who they are, their full body, how they come to the workplace.

There’s also a lot of language about equality to get you on the same level with everyone else: “We want to treat everyone the same.” We think this idea of equality for all elides or ignores the individual disabled experience.

Q: It sounds as if these workplaces are trying to say the right thing with their language but are unknowingly doing the wrong thing.

A: Right. Often these company initiatives are driven by law. Their principal interest, as required by law, is to accommodate disabilities in the workplace, which is very challenging. So they structure their approach to just defer to the ADA. Because if you comply with the law, then you’re good. You’re doing what you’re supposed to.

We don’t want to say that’s inherently wrong, but how can we promote justice for disabled individuals?

You can comply with the law but also think about the way your language creates an environment and organizational culture. How do you create that culture with your policy documents, through rhetoric and communication? To do that, we have to be more attentive to language.

Q: Can you provide some examples about how workplace language can change to not just be in compliance with the law, but also provide justice for people with disabilities?

A: It’s about recognizing the individual experience of a particular employee. How do you connect with that person? How do you engage with them and ask about their needs? And then valuing their expertise and what they bring to the workplace; what can we value? It’s about creating space for them to articulate what their value is.

There’s a principle in the disability community that says “nothing about us without us.” You need to engage with the disabled experience. Engage with their voice, how they express things, their values. This is not a new call. Legal studies and social justice scholars have been saying this. So we’re like, “How do we put some specificity to this? What might it actually look like?” And that’s what our article was designed to do.

We’re hoping that through our research, readers — when they encounter these issues — will have a framework and a vocabulary for thinking about justice. Not just as an aspiration, but how to create conditions for it to be realized.

Q: Did your article provide recommendations for workplace language?

A: One recommendation is reframing access as a collective endeavor. Access is not just on the burden of the individual. It’s a collective organizational issue. Another recommendation is switching equality language for equity. How do you acknowledge and define what equity is when thinking about how to structure the discourse of your documents.

We’re not saying these recs will resolve the issue, but rather, (they're) about how you can begin to create and transform culture through attending to language and communication.

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