Pathology or Neurodiversity?: Cognitive Accessibility and the Rhetorical Construction of ADHD in Higher Education

Samuel James Dunn, Purdue University


It is estimated that 2-8% of college students (approximately 1 in 20) report clinically significant diagnoses of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Typically, those with verifiable diagnoses of ADHD are eligible to receive certain accommodations through the university which, in theory, put them on even footing with their peers; however there has been very little research done to actively address the needs of these students in the context of the composition classroom itself. To address this gap, in this dissertation I discuss the rhetorical positioning and identity construction of ADHD in the contemporary American university and ways in which composition courses in particular can more effectively institute practices aimed at enabling cognitively diverse students to succeed. The first goal of this dissertation is to better understand origins of the current medical/pathological rhetorical treatment of ADHD and the ways in which this approach affects college students with ADHD. Specifically, I look at the history of ADHD discourse to demonstrate how ADHD has come to be discussed through the lens of medical and pathological language and how such language has been adopted by contemporary colleges and universities through accommodations offerings and diagnostic protocols. The second goal of this dissertation is to advocate for ways that agents within composition programs can improve pedagogy and course design in such a way as to better meet the needs of these neurodiverse students. In particular, I discuss a cognitively accessible approach to teaching composition that focuses on metacognitive awareness as well as a “prototyping pedagogy.” Owing to the difficulty of addressing individuals’ cognitive needs – even when there exists a specific diagnosis each case is deeply idiosyncratic – the goal for both of these pedagogical approaches is to enable students to better recognize their own cognitive strengths and weaknesses and to actively seek out technologies, physical spaces, and writing processes that best enable them to compose successfully. From this dissertation I have identified three general takeaways: 1) institutional language surrounding neurodiversity needs to improve, 2) more effort can/should be placed on the academic success of neurodiverse students in colleges and universities, and 3) pedagogical approaches tailored to the needs of ADHD students are also beneficial for most if not all other students, regardless of cognitive ability. It is this last takeaway that is perhaps most important to emphasize. I argue that as we make conscious efforts to improve the cognitive accessibility of composition programs, we are simultaneously improving the overall quality of composition pedagogy for all students, regardless of cognitive ability or diagnostic status.




Sullivan, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Pedagogy|Technical Communication|Rhetoric

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