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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

Our Embodied Selves: Neurodivergent and Disabled Writers Navigating the Pandemic

Millie Hizer, Liz Miller, Elena Kalodner-Martin, and Dennis Etzel Jr.

Keywords: collaboration; PhD student; mental health, disability


Categories: Sick/Disabled Bodyminds during Sick/Disabling Times; (De)Constructing Writing; Building Community in Isolating Times



The intersections of work and life have come together and clashed in entirely new (and, dare we say it) unprecedented ways. Though disabled and neurodivergent folks have long been expected to balance the expectations of academic and professional performance alongside our emotional, cognitive, and physical needs without structural support, the ongoing pandemic has increasingly highlighted these difficulties. However, we also want to emphasize the creative and innovative ways that disabled and neurodivergent scholars have responded to these challenges while seeking their own carework.

Collectively, our stories position writing as an embodied practice. We know that writing is an activity that shapes our very being—it can be cathartic, a social practice, a way to express our lived experiences and trauma. Throughout the pandemic, our bodyminds have become weary. As scholars, we acknowledge that writing can at times feel like an insurmountable task; the pressure to produce academic writing is something that we have all faced and continue to face. However, in writing with and through our bodies, these challenges have been lessened. Ultimately, we know that writing can be a form of self-care. It can be used to express the ways in which our neurodivergent bodies move through the world and care for one another in these uncertain times. 

Writing this piece together has been an experience in collaboration, but also of sensitivity, flexibility, and deep vulnerability. This piece reflects how four people navigate disability, neurodivergence, and chronic illness and also reveals the ways that we shape these experiences as much as they shape us.



We know that writing is intertwined with our physical and emotional wellbeing.

I know that my mental health and creative writing are interdependent of each other, that I started writing poetry as a way to move out of my deep depression when I was twenty. In December of 2020, when I went to submit a few poems to a literary magazine, I realized I had not written anything since that August. That because of my need to engage with family, students on Zoom, and all other life things, writing took a back seat and my stress was at the wheel.

I developed a way to write using my cell phone's voice-to-text straight into a Google Docs app whenever I can, often in the middle of night or during the day when something comes to me to write about. Because I have five boys—two on the autism spectrum and sensory seeking, one with ADHD, each of the five with their own needs and engagements, and all pretty wild—I know that my writing is both important and not-as-important.

We know that writing is multifaceted and shaped by our identities.

I know that writing can be both a burden and cathartic. As a neurodivergent graduate student, my brain continually oscillates between hyper-focusing, obsessive rituals, and distractions. During the pandemic, I was diagnosed with ADHD-OCD Comorbidity, which changed the way I think about my own writing practices.

It can be difficult to write about subjects that don’t hold my attention. During the pandemic, I learned that writing about my disabilities can be a form of self-care; when my brain couldn’t focus on the writing I needed to do for a graduate seminar class, I would write about my disabled bodymind as a form of catharsis. This gesture would then recenter my focus on the task at hand. In other words, the burden of writing what I didn’t want to write was lessened by what I did want to write.

I also know that the pandemic has shown me the importance of choice when it comes to the modalities in which we teach and learn. After seeing that composition can effectively be taught online, I’ve developed a passion for online learning. Teaching online has helped preserve my health during the pandemic, and I hope that there will continue to be online teaching options available after COVID. I know that both my own writing and work as a writing instructor are inseparable from my identity, and I welcome the freedom that this knowledge brings.

We know that writing is collaborative and shaped by our daily lives.

I know that writing is a social activity, shaped by the people and environment around me. As a person with anxiety who deals with sensory overload, writing and control are inherently bound up with each other: control over the sounds I hear, control over how the light hits my desk, control over the temperature of the room. Too much—or too little—sensory information means no words on the page, even if I sit at my computer for hours, fingers poised on the keys, brain churning, desperately trying to write.

Even though the pandemic meant that I (and everyone else) lost a significant amount of control over my life, my writing routine became a critical part of how I responded to and coped with so much uncertainty. At home, the background music was always the same. The temperature remained consistent. With the pandemic isolating me from so many of the sensory triggers that had once made writing so overwhelming, the past year and a half (at the time of this writing) of confinement to the walls of my house became, ironically, a period of great growth.

Now, like many others, I am returning to in-person teaching and learning. The opportunity to work alongside my friends and colleagues in coffee shops is slowly returning. Classes, meetings, and workshops will be held in face-to-face settings. As an extrovert, I am excited. As a neurodivergent graduate student, as someone who has not had to do the cognitive labor of parsing out an excess of sensory information in order to focus on the immediate task at hand, and as an immunosuppressed, chronically ill person who is at increased risk of infection, I am afraid. There are so many unknowns. There is so little control.

"I am not writing," Anne Boyer writes in her poem "Not Writing." Boyer follows in the tradition of  Gertrude Stein’s "not as repetition but insistence," so that in writing a list of things she is not writing, the poem becomes a political act as much as an act of contradiction. That poem is my relief in this not-yet-over pandemic time. And what is there to write but ourselves to each other? Why do I feel refreshed even in these words, shared in a space with others who identify themselves through this disability-based vulnerability?

We know that we write with and through our bodies.

I know that writing is a deeply embodied activity—something on which I often reflect as a neurodivergent and disabled scholar and writer. It used to be the case that I could harness my mental illness to craft poems and compose articles and essays, perhaps giving in to common tropes romanticizing art and pain. However, since starting graduate school and confronting the disabling and traumatic realities of academia and our larger capitalist society, this is no longer the case. Writing often feels superfluous when the world seems to be falling apart.

It's been difficult not to fall victim to this defeatist way of thinking, particularly with the onset of the pandemic and the growth of individualist, anti-vaccine rhetoric, combined with recent discourse on climate change. However, I've found that, perhaps contradictorily, focusing on my disabilities and traumas has honed my writing in ways I hadn't previously expected. For example, becoming attuned to disability and my needs has enabled me to reflect on the composing environments most advantageous to my work—where I do my best writing, how to avoid distractions, what kind of sound ambience is most conducive to focus, etc. It's also guided me toward the therapeutic work I've needed to undertake in order to write in a healthy and meaningful manner, so that I can use my scholarship and creative writing to effect change rather than merely become bogged down in hopelessness.

These are lessons I try to instill in my students, particularly in this age of virtual learning and isolation. Attending to the mental health of myself and folks enrolled in my courses, I've worked hard to honor students' experiences and struggles, while also encouraging them to compose projects according to what they need at the time to heal or make sense of academic and career goals that invariably shift as the COVID pandemic ambles onward.



For each of us, writing (and writing about our writing!) has also been an important part of making sense of our identities, particularly as we continue to navigate such a turbulent time. We know that writing, both as a process and product, is always in flux. We know that writing can— and should—change as our worlds change. We also know that writing, and the communities and ways of knowing that writing allows us to access, changes us.



Millie Hizer: I am a PhD Candidate inRhetoric and Composition at Indiana University Bloomington. My dissertation examines how disabled students and faculty in higher education navigate academic ableism through embodied, rhetorical tactics of resistance.

Liz Miller: I recently completed my PhD in the Rhetoric, Composition, and Literacy program at The Ohio State University. My dissertation examines the mental health experiences faced by graduate students during COVID with the hope of articulating routes for care, access, and support.

Elena Kalodner-Martin: I am a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. My dissertation theorizes user-generated healthcare content in online spaces as a form of technical and technological expertise.

Dennis Etzel Jr.: I am a Senior Lecturer at Washburn University teaching English. I teach with a beginning statement that my priority for students is their safety and mental health. I am open about having ADHD and PTSD in order to help break the stigma.