Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Richard Marback


People with mental disabilities, or what are sometimes referred to as “mental illnesses,” face stigma when they interact with the public. To fight this stigma, the members of a small, grassroots, advocacy organization known as the Speakers Bureau travel to high school and college classrooms narrating their experiences with mental disability. They do so to replace culturally circulating stereotypes regarding such disability with more accurate and positive images. This dissertation is an auto-ethnographic exploration of the rhetoric of the Speakers Bureau. Through rhetorical analysis of members’ classroom speeches, of interviews with each speaker, and of the speaker’s self- assessment of their own rhetorical motivations, it identifies the moves one group of mentally disabled speakers makes to circumvent the impasses that stigma puts in their way of their efforts to persuade audiences to let go of negative perceptions of people who bear psychiatric diagnoses. The study of the Speaker’s Bureau’s rhetoric involved six participants including the author. It led to the following conclusions: First, the way in which a mentally disabled speaker represents her identity to audiences depends on which model of mental disability she accepts—the “medical model,” which posits mental disability as an illness that medication can successfully address, or the “consumer/survivor/ex-patient” model, which considers mental disability not a defect but simply an alternative way of being human. Second, the speakers’ attempts to persuade rely on “deep disclosure” of the disturbing nature of their experiences with mental disability. Deep disclosure makes the speakers vulnerable to rejection by the audience, but may also open the possibility for a reciprocal vulnerability in members of the audience, vulnerability to the idea that mental disability can affect them and vulnerability to a change in the audience member’s faith in the idea of normalcy. Through these vulnerabilities, the speaker and the audience member grant each other agency. The speaker grants the audience the agency to accept or reject him, and the audience member grants the speaker the agency to truly change the audience member’s perception of mentally disabled people. Through these mutual acknowledgments of agency, the agentive potential of each speech comes into being.