Navigating AWP in a Wheelchair
Coronavirus Proves Accessibility in the Writing Community is Complicated
In case you haven’t heard of it, AWP is a major conference and bookfair that focuses on small journals and presses, writing programs, and literary communities. It’s a huge event, the largest in the country, drawing upwards of 15,000–20,000 writers a year.
This year AWP took place in San Antonio, Texas one day before the city declared a public health emergency because of Coronavirus. And I went, on crutches and with a wheelchair.
When AWP first announced it was taking place in San Antonio, I noticed a lot of chatter online about it being in Texas. It seems like every time an event happens in Texas, people are dismayed because of their perception of Texas — from its conservative politics to its portrayal as a racist, white state. The reality is that Texas is diverse and full of people of different backgrounds, opinions, and experiences.
I was excited because I knew I wouldn’t be going back to AWP anytime soon unless it was near where I live in Houston. I was also excited because San Antonio is such an amazing and diverse city, and I was stoked to be able to support the Chicanx and Latinx community of writers there. So last summer when tickets became available, I bought mine. I wanted to attend to meet up with friends, support my local literary organization Writespace as a volunteer, and generally just try out the event again, as an older, if not perhaps wiser writer.
The first time I attended AWP was Los Angeles in 2016. It was so big, I was immediately overwhelmed. I remember making myself sick by trying to get up super early and hit up several panels and staying up way too late meeting up with other writers at offsite events. After I got back from the last AWP, I caught a cold that knocked me out for a week. In the SFF community, we call it “con crud.” It’s a given when interacting with so many people. I had decided not to attend again unless it was nearby and resolved to get better at taking care of myself at events.
Planning for AWP with an injury
As AWP drew closer, I didn’t give the event much thought. Then, in January, I fell and broke my knee.
A few weeks out, I started trying to decide if I was going to make AWP happen. I’d already spent the money on an Airbnb, and I didn’t want to bail on the friends I split it with. Without many resources and never having done this before, I tried to figure out if it was even possible to get around the conference when I couldn’t walk except on crutches. It wasn’t until about three weeks out from my break that I could even put weight on my leg. How could I navigate a massive conference hall by myself? Would it be too painful?
Firstly, let me say that AWP’s accessibility does not have a stellar reputation. In 2016, a petition noted that they rejected every panel offered that year on disability. I’ve watched via Twitter over the years as panelists are routinely denied access to podiums and panel tables because the organizers didn’t think to do something as simple as installing a ramp for wheelchairs or providing captioning services. AWP attendees, organizers, and moderators have regularly ignored common-sense tips for accessibility.
So my confidence was not high in both my ability to get this thing done and AWP’s ability to be accommodating. I am not a person who lives with a disability daily. This makes it harder to plan for an event. I don’t know how things work because I don’t have to deal with them all the time, unlike someone who lives with their disability and knows what accommodations they need.
It’s important to me that I make this clear: While I do live with chronic illnesses that sometimes impact my immune system (hypermobility and lymphedema), I am not someone experienced with daily disability life. The purpose of sharing my experience is so it might be helpful for other AWP attendees and to destigmatize chronic illness and mobility concerns. To show that even people who don’t deal with a disability all the time sometimes need the important improvements that accessibility offers:
I spent a lot of time reading and asking around online before contacting AWP. Twitter is generally unhelpful although well-meaning in its advice. But the AWP accessibility website has grown over the years and gave me enough information to email them. I decided that I needed to rent a wheelchair, because getting around on crutches would be too hard given how large the conference center is and how spread-out panels are. I couldn’t bend my knee well, so a scooter was a no-go and the wheelchair needed to have a raised leg rest. I was a little nervous about this because the AWP site mentioned they only had 15 wheelchairs available. Would they have one that fit my needs? Would I be taking a wheelchair from someone who needed it more? What if they ran out?
The other worry I had was getting around. I knew I would need someone to help me navigate because I was unfamiliar with wheelchair use. The AWP website mentioned that they would provide you with someone to help you find your way, or you could ask for a ticket for an attendant.
So two emails went off into the hopefully-not-void: One asking for a wheelchair with a raised leg rest, the other asking for an attendant ticket for my spouse. In about a week, I got a response that both of these would be fine and that they would even tailor the wheelchair to me at no cost. I was relieved. No missing out on money, no extra cost, just the ability to attend AWP and hopefully get around.
When “All Hell Breaks Loose”: Coronavirus and AWP
Then, two days before the conference, AWP’s Twitter feed said they had a big announcement incoming.
Chatter immediately began about canceling the conference. Many other large events had recently shuttered due to the desire to contain spread of the virus. About halfway through the next day, the city of San Antonio announced a public health emergency due to the CDC’s release of a coronavirus patient early who later tested positive and had to be re-quarantined.
Writing Twitter lost it, y’all. The conversation was all over the place. I’ve compiled some of the tweets that stood out to me here:
After AWP announced it was going forward, a slew of folks canceled. It turns out that AWP only had 40% of its normal attendance. There were a lot of things said leading up to the event that I didn’t agree with and a lot I did agree with. But like a human, I was mostly concerned about what I should do and whether going would harm anyone in my life or myself. This was not an easy decision to contend with.
I can’t say what others should have done, just what was going through my mind. I, like many others with chronic illness/disability/health concerns, had to contend with a lot of factors:
- Am I going to risk infecting myself?
- Do I have immunocompromised people around me at risk?
- Is there a risk of increasing the spread of the virus?
- Will my university/organization allow me to travel now? Will they still fund my travel?
- Can I afford to lose the money I’ve already put into this?
- Can I get any of my travel money back?
All of which were valid concerns. I began to notice people who felt like they had to justify their decision either way. And these fears crept in for me, too. What if people judged me for attending? I was already worried about needing a wheelchair despite being able to walk with a crutch. Disability, chronic illness, and mental/physical health are very much individual factors. What impacts one person is different for another. Not everyone with a disability is immunocompromised. Many people had to choose between money and their health. In another month, I might have had to cancel because of my chronic illnesses.
These are concerns that immunocompromised folks deal with every time they look at attending an event. Is it during flu season? Am I going to risk catching something and being sick afterward for weeks? Am I going to wear myself down by attending? How can I mitigate the danger to my health? What if I have a flare-up?
I was just one writer in a sea of writers trying to decide what was right to do.
I do not envy the decision behind the scenes on an organizational level. As one attendee I talked to said, “I am still not sure what the right decision was for AWP as an organization.” I volunteer regularly with a local literary center in Houston and help plan its yearly conference. Eating the cost of our venue and lost speaker fees that late in the game would shutter us. AWP is much larger, but that also means much larger losses. I can’t imagine having to decide between the cost of the event and possibly damaging the organization, and the cost on people’s lives and livelihood, those who depend on AWP every year for income and those who are at a high risk by the event going on.
If AWP had canceled, I think a lot of folks would have found it easier because the decision would have been taken out of their hands. I think as organizations we have to prioritize the people who make our events happen. I would like to think the writing community would have rallied together to make sure AWP survived this.
All of this is to say: Navigating these decisions is complicated for everyone involved.
In the end, I decided to attend AWP. A lot of factors went into that decision, mostly that I knew as a freelancer who works from home (and more so until I’m able to get around better), who doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t have elderly around me, I knew my risk of transmitting the virus would be lower. My immune system has been better lately and my knee break is healed, if not completely rehabbed. I didn’t think I could handle the financial burden of canceling. So I went.
Attending AWP with a Broken Knee
I was pleasantly surprised at how well-run the conference was as far as accessibility goes. When I got to the conference center I picked up my wheelchair easily near the front entrance and they had it ready (although not labeled for me, but I doubt anyone else would have taken it given its leg rest). It was really useful for getting around. Having my spouse attend and help me was a key point too. It was really helpful (and convenient that he’s a physical therapist!) The two accommodations AWP made for me were what I needed.
We went through the regular registration because there was no line. Very fast, although I could have gone through the ADA registration. In the journal fair, it was quite empty but people were nice about letting me pull right up to their tables and look at books. The only person we bumped into was another wheelchair user but it was just a passing blip. Most people got out of the way for us.
I didn’t go to a lot of panels but they were all marked for accessibility and with a front space. Some of the panel rooms were full and I did see a few people take those seats after the panel started. Those should be left empty even if the room is full because often it takes those in wheelchairs/devices longer to get places.
I was on a panel and it didn’t have an elevated stage so it was fine. Didn’t see if other panels had steps or raised platforms but I don’t think they did. My only issue was my fault, for trying to do one lunch nearby and not bringing the wheelchair (which they said I could take offsite). San Antonio and the Riverwalk has a LOT of stairs. So I had to give up and go back to get the wheelchair because I got tired.
Overall, I feel like AWP did a good job in-conference for accessibility. Tables were set up at good lengths apart, there weren’t a lot of obstacles. AWP’s Twitter thread had a LOT of tweets reminding folks of the accessibility guidelines, which I appreciated.
I hope that this experience is helpful to those who are considering attending AWP or larger writing conferences in the future. As I said before, accessibility benefits us all. It’s something that’s going to be on my radar even more now in the future.
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.