Using Simulation to Teach Social Justice and Disability Ethics in Business Communication

[We’re pleased to welcome guest editor Dr. Sushil Oswal of the University of Washington and author Dr. Stephanie Wheeler of the University of Central Florida. Dr. Wheeler recently published an article in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly entitled “Harry Potter and the First Order of Business: Using Simulation to Teach Social Justice and Disability Ethics in Business Communication,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Dr. Wheeler speaks with Dr. Oswol regarding motivations and challenges of this research]

BCQ_72ppiRGB_powerpoint.jpgWe are here with Dr. Stephanie K. Wheeler who is an Assistant Professor of Rhetoric at the University of Central Florida where she researches Cultural Rhetoric, Pop Rhetorics of Harry Potter and Lady Gaga, Disability Studies, Rhetoric of Eugenics, and Civic Engagement and activism among Faculty and Students. She is the author of “Legacies of Colonialism: Toward a Borderland Dialogue between Indigenous and Disability Rhetorics”. Dr. Wheeler just published a fascinating article, “Harry Potter and the First Order of Business”, about the use of simulations in her college communication course for the Sage journal, Business and Professional Communication Quarterly.

Oswal: What motivated you to pursue this Harry Potter research?

Wheeler: When I was first struggling to find a way to make my first semester of teaching Introduction to Business and Professional Communication meaningful and interesting to my students, I had a chance conversation with a close friend who was designing a zombie simulation for her class. It occurred to me that I might find a way to do the same for Harry Potter. Multiple attempts and years later, I think I figured it out.

Oswal: So, what was the answer?

Wheeler: My BPCQ manuscript was motivated by the question of how to honor our own interests and meet students where they are outside of the classroom with their own interests, while at the same time meeting their educational needs inside of the classroom? Furthermore, how can we ensure a balance between the two?

Oswal: What has been the most challenging aspect of conducting your research? Were there any surprising findings?

Wheeler: The most challenging part of writing this piece was coming face to face with my failures in my earlier classes where I attempted the simulation. In fact, the first few attempts at the class were unmitigated disasters. I always had a small group of students—probably committed Harry Potter fans–who really enjoyed it, but by and large my classes were, to put it nicely, not interested in the simulation. I talk about this a little bit in the manuscript, but I think that there is one main factor that went into it: I didn’t go “all-in” with the simulation. That is, I didn’t quite have the confidence to pull off that the simulation would work, and when it didn’t, students weren’t able to understand the consequences of their writing choices. Thus, the most surprising thing that came out of this paper was my realization that the research could not have been done had I always been successful in the way I had hoped, and so much of its success depended on taking some major risks and my own belief in it that it was really working. And then, I also found out that I could not keep this newly-gained confidence to myself; I had to share it with my class by being overtly enthusiastic about the Universe of Harry Potter. Once my class could sense this enthusiasm, even the strangers to Harry Potter were willing to get their feet wet with this simulation.

Oswal: Let’s say that some of our readers are still sitting on the fence and want a pedagogical justification: what reasons can you give them to try this simulation out in their classes?

Wheeler: Given the practical focus of business communication pedagogy in particular and communication teaching in general, instructors are always looking for ways to connect with their students in different ways; what else would be more interesting for students than the Universe of Harry Potter in a required course?

Oswal: Instructors might also like to know more about what your thoughts are on Harry Potter at this time since you continue to improve this class simulation. What ideas did not make it into your published manuscript that you would like to share with us?

Wheeler: My overall approach to teaching Business and Professional Communication is to think about the ways that language reflects, sustains, and resists oppressive power structures, especially (and most importantly) when it is seen to be devoid of any cultural influence or impact, like in technical documents. One way I emphasized this in the course I describe in my manuscript is to regard writing as a eugenic technology, having the capability of writing bodies in and out of existence to fit whatever power structure it was serving. This is why a Harry Potter simulation made so much sense to me: to really look at the impact of how our beloved characters are brought to existence by J. K. Rawling through writing and just as easily eliminated by the same stroke of a pen can really illuminate the power and responsibility that comes with writing and becoming a writer.

Oswal: Do you have any additional materials on this project that instructors might find useful if they wanted to develop a Harry Potter course for their business and professional communication curriculum?

Wheeler: I had to remove some more detailed appendices, which can be found at my website, http://www.stephaniewheeler.wordpress.com and readers are most welcome to review them.

Oswal: Thanks for talking to me about this fascinating communication project and I hope that our readers find this Harry Potter simulation as enticing as you and I found talking about it.

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Do we Value Disabled Lives in Academia?

[We’re pleased to welcome Guest Editor Dr. Sushil K. Oswal of the University of Washington Tacoma. Dr. Oswal recently published a guest editorial in Business and Professional Communication Quarterly entitled “Can Workplaces, Classrooms, and Pedagogies Be Disabling?” which is currently free to read for a limited time. The editorial was written as an introduction for the Special Issue: Enabling Workplaces, Classrooms, and Pedagogies: Bringing Disability Theory and Accessibility to Business and Professional Communication. Below, Dr. Oswal reflects on the significance of the articles featured in this issue in the context of today’s political environment:]

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Disability has been of late in the news for so many reasons: during the last presidential election, a presidential candidate publicly made fun of a disabled journalist without any serious repercussions; earlier this year the U.S. Department of Education took down advisories on providing access to education in schools and colleges to students with disabilities without any serious opposition from educators or public; and presently some members of Congress are trying to turn the clock back to the times when United States did not treat its own children as citizens because they were missing a limb or a sensory organ. What has been missing from the media coverage of these recent events is whether or not the U.S. body politic any more considers disabled people human enough to have any rights or voice at all. The humanity that was returned to this nation’s disabled citizens after a long wait of two centuries at the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act by President, George Bush on July 25, 1990 seems to be in peril because the U.S. Congress appears no longer concerned about the civil liberties of all the citizens of this land. Even when major corporations like Walgreens, Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Apple have realized the value of being inclusive of disabled users, consumers, and sometimes, workers, some of our democratically elected representatives are writing legislations that would raise new barriers for more than one fifth of the country’s population and deny them the right to enjoy a meal at a restaurant, or a game at the neighborhood bowling alley.

This author believes that not only do we in academia have a civic obligation to speak in support of our 56 million disabled fellow citizens in public debates about disability rights but also have a professional and academic responsibility to pull down barriers that keep these citizens from full participation in our universities, the products of our professional work, and our information and communications. The March 2018 special issue of Business and Professional Communication Quarterly takes a step in this direction and presents a host of professional and scholarly solutions for making our business information and communication accessible for users with disabilities. Not only does it share some well-tried approaches for teaching disability and accessibility in our classes but also includes a set of strategies for disabling our whole curriculum so that the business field begins to include students with disabilities as the rightful members of academia.

It is a hefty issue with seven full-length articles and a longish introduction by the guest editor. Above is a link to the table-of-contents as a sampling of the topics and authors covered. Readers will see how the authors here engage disability studies theory and design principles in interesting ways with the work of scholars like Sara Ahmed and J. K. Rowling. Before the print copies of this BPCQ special issue run out, you would like to grab a copy for your book shelf. The special issue can also be an excellent textbook for a graduate course in business, professional, and technical communication because the wonderfully diverse advice on integrating access offered in this volume is even more pertinent for our future teachers, scholars, and practitioners as people with disabilities join our programs (and ranks), and as the aging population of this world demands roughly the same sort of access to information and communication services that disabled users have desired all along.

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Identity, Mental Health and Work

[We’re pleased to welcome author Hadar Elraz of Cardiff University. Hadar Elraz recently published an article in the Human Relations entitled “Identity, mental health and work: How employees with mental health conditions recount stigma and the pejorative discourse of mental illness,” which is currently free to read for a limited time. Below, Hadar Elraz summarises the findings of her study:]

Experiences of mental health in the workplace

huma_71_2.coverThis article examines how identity is constructed for individuals with mental health conditions in the workplace. The study found that people with mental health conditions use their experiences to perform more effectively in the workplace. The same strategies that individuals put in place to manage their mental health can also be applied to prioritize workload effectively, promote mental health awareness and achieve work‒life balance.

In a series of 60 interviews, the study reveals how people with mental health conditions overcome stigma, judgement and discrimination to stay in employment and, in many cases, prosper in the contemporary workplace. Those who have experienced mental ill health have knowledge and expertise about the interface between work and their condition and ways to address them.

The findings shows how the individual sensitivity to these issues addresses all kinds of strategies to manage their mental health and working lives more effectively. The interviews revealed the following coping strategies used by the study participants to manage their mental health conditions:

Maintaining silence

Some respondents recalled how they would maintain silence, coping on their own against all the odds without requesting support. While anti-stigma campaigns and awareness training are not uncommon in many contemporary workplaces, interviewees still felt looked down upon and discriminated against. Non-disclosure might be one response to this type of hostile environment.
One respondent recalled how they “didn’t think people associated mental illness with people who are functioning in high-status jobs. [Instead,] people associate mental illness with people who can’t work.”

Sheer hard work

Others developed strategies to manage their mental health effectively alongside their responsibilities at work, to stay, cope and thrive in employment.

Doubling their efforts in this way led many respondents to reflect on how they have grown more resilient than their colleagues who have not experienced mental ill health.

One respondent said: “I am a strong character. [But,] I don’t think people realise how strong a character you are. They don’t have any reference, because they never suffered from it [mental health condition] themselves.”

Another referred to this as “sheer hard work”, adding: “I just absolutely feel like I’m working twice as hard as anyone else in the place to achieve the same level of output.”

Taking control

Study participants used self-taught and reflexive techniques as well as self-medicating to take control of their health and performance at work. Combining both soft skills and medical insight into their condition made many of the participants experts on managing their mental health conditions within and beyond the working environment.

One respondent said: “I have been doing that for years. I self-manage myself by taking mood stabilisers, anti-depressants […] finding one that works to get you up to a level where you can function.”

Public disclosure

While concealing mental ill health in the workplace was a key concern for many interview participants, some spoke of the positive outcomes associated with public disclosure.
Significantly, the interviewees that were more confident about the security of their employment found public disclosure raised awareness and improved mental health management. Motivated by a desire to share their experiences of mental ill health to encourage broader cultural change, these participants expressed eagerness to assist both employee wellbeing and organisational performance by openly disclosing their mental health experiences at work.

One respondent said: “I think it’s part of me. Why should I hide away? If I see other people, I think if I gave them a bit of insight and knowledge, maybe that’d save them from going through some of the things.”

Allaying their fear of stigma and discrimination, public disclosure represented a legitimisation of mental ill health within the working environment.

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How Can Employers Support Mentally Ill Employees?

12178605035_786bf7b47f_mPeople with mental illness often find it daunting to find a job, much less keep one. It may be difficult for a person  with a mental illness, like depression or anxiety, to balance their psychological needs with the stress and demands of a job. The challenge of balancing work and mental health often acts as a barrier to mentally ill people trying to find employment. However, the structure, stability, social exposure, and meaning that employment can provide means working is vital for mentally ill individuals. In addition to the challenges presented by mental illness itself, a significant facet of the issue is that employers may be unwilling to hire and accommodate them. In a recent SAGE Open article, “Employers’ Perspectives on Hiring and Accommodating Workers With Mental Illness,” authors Janki Shankar, Lili Liu, David Nicholas, Sharon Warren, Daniel Lai, Shawn Tan, Jennifer Couture, and Alexandra Sears demonstrate just how urgent it is that employers help to improve the employment rate of the mentally ill. The abstract for the paper:

Many individuals with mental illness want to return to work and stay in employment. Yet, there is little research that has examined the perspectives of employers on hiring and accommodating these workers and the kinds of supports employers need to SAGE Openfacilitate their reintegration into the workforce. The aim of the current research was to explore the challenges employers face and the support they need to hire and accommodate workers with mental illness (WWMI). A qualitative research design guided by a grounded theory approach was used. In-depth interviews were conducted with 28 employers selected from a wide range of industries in and around Edmonton, Canada. The employers were a mix of frontline managers, disability consultants, and human resource managers who had direct experience with hiring and supervising WWMI. Data were analyzed using the principles of grounded theory. The findings highlight several challenges that employers face when dealing with mental health issues of workers in the workplace. These challenges can act as barriers to hiring and accommodating WWMI.

You can read “Employers’ Perspectives on Hiring and Accommodating Workers With Mental Illness”  for free from SAGE Open. You can also find more open access content from SAGE Open, including articles on subjects like management, communication, education and more, by clicking here.

*Mental illness image attributed to Alachua County (CC)

Exercise and Happiness in the Disabled

JSE__.inddIt’s no secret that physical exercise produces endorphins that make you happy. But a study published in the Journal of Sports Economics looks at the effects of exercise and sports participation in a special (disabled) population, adding a new angle to the current “happiness literature”:

Using survey data collected by the Korean Sports Association for the Disabled, all respondents were legally disabled. This study presents empirical evidence of positive ‘‘nonhealth effects’’ of physical activity on life satisfaction. Approximately a one-level jump in physical activity in the six-level score provided the same improvement in life satisfaction as one-quarter of the effect of the employment status change from unemployed to employed. Additionally, the empirical finding that the level of disability was insignificant in determining subjective well-being is consistent with a threshold argument. The authors’ empirical results also support there being no adaptation to disability, in contrast to findings in the psychology literature.

Read the rest of the article in the Journal of Sports Economics, and click here to learn more about the journal, which publishes scholarly research in the field of sports economics with the aim of bringing together theoretical and empirical research in a single intellectual venue.