Literate Misfitting: Disability Theory and a Sociomaterial Approach to Literacy


“Iopened the book and started to read . . . I COULD NOT READ. It was like my eyes would not cooperate . . . Allthewordsrantogether. I was so scared that I said, ‘Oh my God, I can’t read.’ I must have said it louder than I thought because my waiting was over.” Jean1-a special education teacher for over twenty-five years supporting students with reading and writing and an avid reader and writer herself-writes these words four years after a stroke sent her to the emergency room and she found her “normal” literate practices completely overturned. Jean’s memory marks her first realization that she had acquired aphasia, a disability affecting the production and comprehension of language, caused by stroke or other brain injury and creating a variety of challenges in speaking, writing, and reading.2 Although Jean received the medical attention she needed in these alarming moments, she found that her literacy practices had been permanently changed. While by force of habit she expected it to, her body-her eyes-could no longer make sense of the book, a material of literacy used by Jean throughout her life and career. Aphasia presented to Jean what I am calling a “literate misfit”-a conflict between her body, mind, and the materials of literacy. That conflict sheds light on how the relationship between the embodied, material, and social aspects of literacy operates on all writers, disabled and normatively abled.To make this argument, I draw from a larger study to focus in on the accounts of eight people with aphasia who are grappling with reading and writing after experiencing a significant change to their access to language. Like Jean, others also experienced losing control over body, mind, and materials. After aphasia, everyday literate practices that seemed “just normal” or automatic, such as reading a book in a waiting room, are uncomfortably disrupted. Dense newspaper text runs together, obscuring words and meaning; handwriting no longer looks like the writer’s own; ideas feel “squashed”; reading requires rereading. And an individual’s sense of her or his literate identity alters as well. “I did, I tried to, [mimes reading] I can’t do it. I can’t read it,” former pharmacist Bob explains. “Frustrating. Absolutely, positively frustrating,” says former grocery store manager Robert of reading and writing after aphasia. “I don’t have a flair to do it,” former high school English teacher Judy says of writing after aphasia-explaining that she has “left the writing behind.” What does this misfit between body, materials, and social expectations around literacy mean for the writing of people with aphasia? And what does it mean for understandings of literacy more broadly?In addressing these questions, this project contributes to a recent move in writing studies to bring the social and material aspects of literacy into closer conversation. A social understanding of literacy foregrounds how within economic systems, power relations, and everyday experiences literacies are valued or devalued and how literate subjects are differentially able to acquire, use, and mobilize those literacies (Street; Heath; Gee). Material approaches to literacy direct attention to how literacy is facilitated by tools or technologies such as pencils, paper, keyboards (Haas; Baron; Syverson; Prior and Shipka; Pahl), and, as I will underscore, the body (Haas and Witte; Fleckenstein; Purcell-Gates et al.; Lindgren; Owens and Van Ittersum). Literacy activity theory, particularly as developed by Prior and Shipka, aptly encapsulates this materiality as “the dispersed, fluid chains of place, time, people, and artifacts that come to be tied together in trajectories of literate action” (180).Theorizing literacy as “sociomaterial” exposes how social values, expectations, and trends are imbricated in the very materials of literacy and how the two “interanimate each other” (Vieira, “Writing” 423). The “familiarity of ‘the social'” in writing studies has often prevented researchers from articulating how the social nature of writing is, in fact, deeply material, argues Laura Micciche in a recent issue of College English on “Reimagining the Social” in composition studies (498).