Conferences Must Embrace Accessible Technology

When professional organizations balk at providing assistive technology for their disabled members, they block a connection between disabled people and the world—to everyone’s detriment.

By Katie Rose Guest Pryal and Karrie Higgins

Alt Text: An old blue wooden door locked shut with a metal bolt and a metal padlock.

This month, physicist Stephen Hawking died. A brilliant scientist, he changed the face of science. And he was disabled: he was nearly fully paralyzed. He did a vast amount of his work with the help of assistive technology: a mobility chair, a computer that spoke for him using signals he sent with muscle movements in his face, and more. These assistive technologies created a bridge between one of the most brilliant minds of our lifetime and the Abled World.

And yet, even today, major professional organizations balk at integrating assistive technologies that would allow their disabled members to bring further knowledge into the world.

Take, for example, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), one of the largest academic conferences in the country with roughly 12,000 attendees annually. This past month, it once again bungled accessibility for disabled writers at their conference. In particular, they emailed disabled presenters who requested to use video-chat instead of traveling to present in person, telling them their video-chat presentations would be poorly received and advised against presenting.

The authors of this piece are disabled writers who have, currently and in the past, turned down opportunities to attend or present at AWP because of AWP’s record of exclusion of disabled writers. For example, of the 42 keynote speakers at AWP this year, none identify as disabled. AWP’s bungling has become a perennial issue. Other disabled writers are addressing AWP’s accessibility problems in other ways.

We want to focus on one particular aspect of accessibility — providing technological access for those who are unable to travel the conference, specifically, access via video-chat.

The use of video-chat makes conference attendance more accessible. Video-chat has been raised as an issue before for academic interviews and in an era of travel bans. For its part, the academic establishment has pushed back against the use. But the excuses are hollow, and they tend to follow the same tune. Here’s how AWP pushed back this year.

Karrie’s panel organizer notified AWP that Karrie could not fly to the conference because of an unforeseen health emergency. When she requested a video-chat accommodation, she received this email from AWP (in excerpt):

I do want to caution you, however, because in our experience events where Skype has been used have not always received the best feedback. We generally discourage Skyping in panelists because we have received complaints of the technology not working seamlessly. Adding technology increases the likelihood that something could go wrong — the internet may be spotty or there might be a delay or there might be a whole host of other tech issues.

While AWP did eventually state that Skype would be allowed, they expected Karrie to machete through this thicket of disapproving language.

After receiving this email, Karrie tried to create a presentation, but she did not feel supported. She had canceled her flight because of a major medical issue, the recovery from which was exhausting. She could prepare a panel with proper disability support, but she could not prepare a panel and handle AWP’s discouragement about resolving “the whole host of tech issues” that are actually a conference’s responsibility.

She worried she would bring negative reviews to her co-panelists. She felt ashamed, angry, and hurt, and she eventually withdrew quietly from the conference.

A Case Study: The Creative Writing Studies Organization Conference

Back in 2016, we created a panel for the Creative Writing Studies Organization (CWSO) Conference, which took place at the beautiful yet tiny Warren Wilson College in the mountains of North Carolina.

The panel, We Don’t Have to Meet Your Genre Expectations, dealt with disability writing and the genre expectations of those who read the work of disabled authors. We addressed how readers expect an “overcoming” narrative. Or a tragic disabled character. Or a magical one, like Daredevil of the comic books. Readers only allow disability narratives a slender path, and if you, as a disabled writer, deviate from that path, readers strike back. Hard.

Karrie, one of three presenters on the panel, was unable to travel to the conference due to her disability. The CWSO, despite its small size, provided outstanding disability resources — and sensitivity. As the panel organizer (and the only one of the panelists actually located in North Carolina), Katie took point working with the CWSO to arrange a video-chat for Karrie so she could present her paper.

One of the conference directors made every effort to ensure that Karrie could participate. For our panel, we had a large screen, a projector, a tech team composed of student interns, and plenty of time to get set up for our panel. Karrie’s face was not projected on a small screen to the side, but rather in a large format above Katie and our third panelist.

Karrie was not only present — she was immense. And she was perfect.

If this is the technology that the CWSO could pull together at a small college in North Carolina at the very last minute, why on earth is AWP claiming to have such a hard time integrating video-chat panels into its conference?

The accessible technology is there, it works, and conferences have access to it. Conferences like AWP, the Modern Language Association (MLA), and others are making a choice to exclude disabled members by using “poor technology” as a bogeyman. The MLA goes so far as to cancel job interviews when candidates request Skype; if those candidates are disabled, they are being cut off from job opportunities for requesting a reasonable accommodation during the interview process.

The Crucial Layers of Technology

One of the issues that that the able-bodied conference-runners do not fully understand is the critical role technology plays in creating access for disabled attendees. In fact, they often view such technology as a problem rather than a solution.

For example, in their email to Karrie, AWP wrote:

We have found over the years that attendees appreciate when all panelists are physically present during the panel discussions and readings — they tend to feel more involved when it’s a person-to-person interaction without the layer of technology between them.

This language is ableist. Just as Hawking used “layers of technology” to mobilize and communicate, Karrie wears hearing aids, a layer of technology that performs thousands of calculations per minute, adjusting to different acoustic situations and facilitating communication between the hearing world and her. These layers of technology do not come between disabled people and normates; it connects them.

The same is true of video-chat. It is, in the context of conference accessibility, an assistive technology.

Video-chat makes it possible for people to connect who otherwise may never be able to communicate in person. Like Karrie’s hearing aids — or Karrie’s rollator, or heck, even Katie’s bipolar disorder medicine or Karrie’s epilepsy medicine — assistive technologies such as video-chat allow us to extend disabled access into the Abled World. With assistive technology, our worlds meet, and disabled people and normates can connect in meaningful ways.

Technology creates bridges between people and allows for worlds to connect.

Do large conferences have the guts to bring in assistive tech for disabled presenters?

AWP sent out emails to disabled presenters that scared them away from the conference. These presenters would have enriched and diversified the conference. Instead, AWP made them feel like ugly burdens — simply because AWP can’t get their tech to work right.

In short, professional organizations would rather exclude disabled members than deal with glitches or have some audience members feel uncomfortable — or, better yet, commit the conference to improving the A/V tech for this particular assistive technology.

And let’s cut to the chase. A major professional organization can’t call accessibility an eyesore or glitchy without admitting it thinks the same thing of the disabled people who need accessible tech. They’re not separable.

And we cannot ignore that many conferences — like the Creative Writing Studies Organization — have brought in panelists via video-chat with great success.

And lastly, even an abled human body is not “glitch free.” That is the nature of living in a body. And physical presence is no guarantee things will go off without a hitch. For what it’s worth, we’ve found in-person, abled presenters a thundering bore on numerous occasions. Their physical presence does not guarantee a high-quality panel any more than a disabled person using video-chat guarantees a low-quality one.

What Can Be Done?

Inclusiveness is, in part, an attitude. AWP has shown, year after year, that their inclusiveness problem is, at its core, an attitude problem. They do not cultivate a climate of disability inclusiveness. Quite the contrary. Until an organization can shift its attitude, nothing will change. They will continue to view assistive tech out of context. They will “accidentally” exclude all disability panels, as AWP did in 2016. They will “accidentally” have no disabled keynotes, as AWP did this year.

First, then, an organization must commit itself to inclusiveness, to accessibility rather than accommodation. Those two words mean very different things. As Katie, a disability theorist, has written in the past:

“Accommodation” shifts the burden to the person with disabilities. Accommodation requires a person with a disability to interact with a gatekeeper, to ask for something extra, and often to prove that she deserves accommodation in the first place— that she is “disabled enough.”

AWP, like most organizations, takes the accommodation approach. It needs to change to the accessibility approach, to assume that all persons need or might need accessibility, to shift the burden to the institution and away from the individual:

Accessibility, alternatively, means that a space is always, 100% of the time, welcoming to people with disabilities. Accessibility means that “accommodations” are integrated into a space and are not particularized to an individual— but rather created for our society as a whole.

Second, Organizations also need to deliberately recruit a group of diverse disabled people to work on their accessibility plans for their conferences. Organizations who want to make this change can reach out to other conferences, even other large conferences, who do disability accessibility well. The Conference on College Composition and Communication comes to mind as a large conference who models accessibility well. The College Art Association (CAA) has encouraged Skype for candidate interviews and even provides a guide to getting it right on both sides of the connection: more of this, please.

And lastly, conferences who make mistakes need to listen when disabled members voice our grievances. And then they need apologize rather than double down and make excuses when faced with the sadness and anger of their disabled members. Only then can we build trust and start healing.

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Learn more about Katie Rose Guest Pryal at katieroseguestpryal.com or support her by buying her books. Tip Katie to support her free writing at paypal.me/krgpryal.

Learn more about Karrie Higgins at karriehiggins.com.

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-K and K