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Composition Forum 50, Fall 2022

Review of Allison Harper Hitt’s Rhetorics of Overcoming: Rewriting Narratives of Disability and Accessibility in Writing Studies

Leslie R. Anglesey

Hitt, Allison Harper. Rhetorics of Overcoming: Rewriting Narratives of Disability and Accessibility in Writing Studies. CCCC/NCTE, 2021. 159 pp.

One of the continual challenges for writing studies scholars and practitioners has involved how we can best account for the roles of bodies in our theories of writing and in our pedagogical orientations. This evolution can be seen in the field’s shift in focus from writing as a product to focus on writers’ processes, and then from writers’ processes to the ideological, social, material, and embodied experiences of writers. While early work on embodied writing practices, however, often centered around normative bodies that were white, male, monolinguistic, upper-middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, neurotypical, and able-bodied (to name only a few intersectional identity markers), more recent scholarship addresses intersectionality and embodied aspects of writing, including a body of scholarship directly addressing and exploring disability.

Allison Harper Hitt’s new book,Rhetorics of Overcoming: Rewriting Narratives of Disability and Accessibility in Writing Studies, extends these conversations about embodied differences by attending to the ableist narratives encoded in writing studies’ history and contemporary praxis. Hitt’s work identifies writing studies’ fundamental reliance on “narratives of overcoming'' in our scholarship and teaching. As Hitt explains, the overcoming narrative is “the disability version of the bootstraps narrative” and includes stories, beliefs, and practices that insist that individuals must struggle and overcome perceived or assumed limitations based on disabilities (primarily coming from abled-bodied perspectives) (8). Her central claim is that, in order to move beyond the overcoming narratives encoded in writing studies, scholars must engage in rhetorics and pedagogies of coming over, a term she uses to alternatively describe narratives, commitments, a concept, a process, and pedagogies (20-22) that invokes recent calls for establishing cultures of access (Brewer et al; Hubrig & Osorio; Ubbesen). Rhetorics of Overming responds to these calls for cultivating cultures of access with her concept of coming over, which she broadly defines as a conscious and consistent approach to inviting disabled perspectives to our research, teaching, and campus and disciplinary spaces by embracing — if not privileging — disabled and other “nonnormative expressions of rhetoricity” (21).

Rhetorics of Overcoming is organized into five chapters that interrogate writing studies’ overcoming narratives from various perspectives. In the first chapter, Hitt begins with an essential overview of disability studies concepts that will be integral to her work. For scholars who are new to disabilities studies, this section will be illuminating and accessible; Hitt uses examples of disability concepts from her own experiences, from mainstream media, and from disability studies scholarship in ways that will invite personal and professional reflection. Hitt teases out the tension of rhetorics of overcoming in the field and her notion ofcoming over. On one hand is the tendency to rely upon overcoming rhetorics: rhetorical positioning that labels disability as hindrances to students and writers. Overcoming rhetorics create narratives that (a) enforce disabilities as hindrances that students and writers must overcome and (b) create classrooms where disabilities are merely accommodated to result in the least possible changes to the classroom. On the other hand, Hitt offers coming over as a counterbalance to these ableist forces that includes a collection of pedagogies, policies, and attitudes that privilege nonnormative approaches to literacy and composing.

Chapter Two extends the theoretical groundwork Hitt establishes by deepening the reader’s understanding of how inextricably connected overcoming rhetorics and writing studies have become through a careful analysis of early scholarship on basic writing. Hitt illuminates how discourse and scholarship on basic writing have historically relied upon a medical model of disability that serves only to reinforce overcoming rhetorics by framing disability “as a deficit to be diagnosed and remediated” (37). She points out how rhetorics of overcoming are invoked when students who were labeled as either a basic writer or a disabled writer (or both) were perceived to have deficiencies that must be diagnosed and remediated prior to the students’ full entry into higher education. And while the examples may feel outdated, Hitt’s analysis reveals a baseline of ableism that has perpetuated in writing programs by providing readers with a framework for contextualizing disciplinary moments when scholars have alternately reified and resisted overcoming rhetorics.

Hitt extends her critique of rhetorics of overcoming in writing studies in Chapter Three by shifting her focus to how the medical model’s impulse to diagnose disabilities has shaped our attitudes about writers’ agency in the space of writing centers. Hitt argues that, while writing centers are uniquely positioned to “authorize writerly agency for both disabled and nondisabled students” because of the one-on-one nature of the work, yet writing center scholarship tends to either “reinforce [a] pattern of diagnosis” by tutors or encourage student writers to self-disclose their disabilities (63, 64). In some writing center pedagogies, for example, students identified as disabled work with specific tutors who implement predetermined tutoring methods for specific disabilities, which reinforces the medical model’s desire to diagnose and cure through remediation. The problem with this approach is not in the training of tutors about disability; rather, it is in the ways that this training often relies upon the medical model of disability by attempting to diagnose the disabled writer’s disabilities and then implementing a specific ‘treatment’ for that disability in the form of a specific tutoring approach. Other elements of overcoming narratives emerge in writing center settings through pedagogical frameworks that assume normative, able-bodied student writers, such as nondirective tutoring strategies and read-aloud protocols, both of which often present access barriers for d/Deaf writers. For Hitt, both of these approaches miss the opportunity to engage in coming over, and she recommends that the training of tutors begin by listening to disabled communities, centering the experiences of disabled students in writing center tutoring, and remaining flexible and adaptive to disabled students as they advocate for their needs in the center.

To extend writing centers’ culture of access through coming over, Hitt proposes writing center praxis that likewise draw from principles of universal design (UD) and multimodal composing to establish “multimodal toolkits,” or a wide range of communicative practices that tutors can draw from to address different writers’ needs and preferences (77). One aspect of the multimodal toolkit that seems particularly generative is Hitt’s emphasis on developing multiple channels of communication that can include visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modes of communication, remaining flexible and responsive to each student writer’s need at the time. As Hitt notes, “[adaptation] is key” and Hitt’s concept of the multimodal toolkit might also be extended to additional developments in accessible communication for disabled students in the writing center, such as research that emphasizes the need to develop flexible and adaptive listening strategies between tutors and student writers (Anglesey & McBride; Kitchens & Dukhie; Valentine).

With a provocative title like Guaranteeing Access(ibility) in the Multimodal Writing Classroom, readers may be tempted to flip to the fourth chapter in search of a fool-proof template for any writing course. Instead, Hitt’s approach to guaranteeing access is rooted in her notion ofcoming over and is steeped with the rallying call of the disability justice community: nothing about us, without us. Guaranteeing access requires instructors to recursively engage in pedagogies of coming over that prioritize collaboration among teachers and students toward identifying multiple access points for students to engage with one another, the instructor, and the course material. She contrasts this with the common practice of functional accommodations — those that address a specific issue of accessibility in response to an individual’s request for accommodation, such as adding captions to a video shown in class at the request of the student. To move beyond functional accommodations toward guaranteeing access(ibility), Hitt describes various assignments and activities from her classes that embody coming over. Among Hitt’s activities shared in this chapter is a cluster of in-class activities in which students view short videos and either transcribe the videos into captions or in which students analyze the rhetorical practices of existing captions (91-110). In these activities, students interrogate the existence of functional accommodations (the captions that represent spoken word or provide broad audio cues such as “music playing”) and compose multimodal texts (like captions) that embrace coming over with rhetorical, stylistic, and extralinguistic cues that would make those videos more accessible.

The fifth and final chapter, Rhetorics of Overcoming, leaves readers not so much with an ending as with an invitation to extend the principles of coming over beyond the writing classroom and writing center. While she begins by offering critical reflective questions that serve as heuristics for assessing the accessibility of individual classes, writing and WAC programs, and undergraduate and graduate programs, Hitt quickly invites readers to consider how accessibility and overcoming rhetorics emerge within the broader university setting, less neatly defined sites of work on our campuses and encourages readers to take up the work of coming over to the spaces outside the classroom that remain sites of overcoming such as our college- and university-level committees, interdisciplinary collaborations, and offices on campus.

By tracing the history of overcoming rhetorics through key moments in writing studies’ history, Hitt offers readers a significant framework that highlights the impetus for readers to shift toward pedagogies located at the multimodal-UD nexus. The greatest strength of this work lies in Hitt’s ability to demonstrate that this work is both valuable for all students, regardless of their disability identification, and that it is necessary for resisting the more entrenched forms of ableism that have emerged in higher education more widely in writing studies. From a pedagogical perspective, Hitt’s approach to shifting our attention to teaching students both with multimodal texts and about the relative accessibility of various composing practices can create the kinds of spaces where students “can explore the rhetorical potential of accessibility; making ethical choices about how they represent content, voices, and sounds, and thinking critically about how those choices affect their audiences” (90). From an ethical perspective, Hitt’sconcept of coming over will undoubtedly serve many readers as a flexible method for identifying access issues in their classes and on their campuses and for recreating those spaces in light of accessibility and universal design.

If there is one aspect of the book that could be improved upon, it may be in the relative lack of concrete examples of assignments and classroom practices that could help readers begin creating Hitt’s idea of a multiple toolkit (77). When I first read the book, I was especially eager to hear more about Hitt’s approach to collaborative note-taking (86). This is an assignment that I had tried in the past but felt as though it was not implemented successfully. The book introduces exciting assignment potentials but without the practical prompts and sequences that readers can use as springboards. In her later work, Hitt continues to describe these activities and assignments for scholars. Her recent interview on the podcast Pedagogue, hosted by Shane Wood, for example, offers a more detailed description of how the collaborative note-taking assignments play out in her graduate courses. The choice to omit such materials, however, might serve as a reminder that classrooms that begin with local conditions, contexts, and collaboration with students begin the process of enacting coming over in resistance to ableism in their own classroom, writing center, program, and other university spaces.

Works Cited

Anglesey, Leslie R. and Maureen McBride. Caring for Students with Disabilities: (Re)Defining Welcome as a Culture of Access. The Peer Review, vol. 3, no.1, 2019. Retrieved from

Brewer, Elizabeth, et al. Creating a Culture of Access in Composition Studies. Composition Studies, vol. 42, no. 2, 2014, pp. 151-54.

Hitt, Allison. Access for All: The Role of Dis/ability in Multiliteracy Centers. Praxis: A Writing Center Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 2012, pp. 1-7. Retrieved from

---. Foreword. Writing Centers and Disability. Eds. Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels. Fountainhead Press, 2017, pp. vii-x.

Hubrig, Adam and Ruth Osorio, Eds. Enacting a Culture of Access in our Conference Spaces. College Composition and Communication, vol. 72, no. 1, 2020, pp. 87-117.Retrieved from

Kitchens, Marshall W. and Sandra Dukhie. Speech-to-Text: Peer Tutoring, Technology, and Students with Cognitive Impairments. Writing Centers and Disability. Eds. Rebecca Day Babcock and Sharifa Daniels. 2017, Fountainhead Press, pp. 163-83.

Lewiecki-Wilson, Cynthia et al. Two Comments on ‘Neurodiversity. College English, vol. 70, no. 3, 2008, pp. 314-25. doi:10.2307/25472229.

Ubbesen, Molly E. Creating a Culture of Access through the Accessibility Working Group. Composition Forum, vol. 46, 2021. Retrieved from

Valentine, Kathryn. Listening to the Friction: An Exploration of a Tutor’s Listening to Community and Academy. Praxis, vol. 19, no. 1, Jan. 2022, pp. 95-103. Retrieved from

Wood, Shane, host. Episode 114: Allison Hitt. Pedagogue. Retrieved from

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