23 January 2016

Creating Change is not exempt from casual ableism

Creating Change is not exempt from casual ableism.

Right now, thousands of queer and trans folks are gathered in Chicago for the annual Creating Change Conference. I'm not there, mostly for financial inaccessibility reasons but there's also no shortage of disability inaccessibility reasons.

 Photo: Me keynoting the Students of Color Conference "From Moments to Movements" in Yakima, Washington, April 2015. There are a lot of attendees visible in the unfortunately grainy photo facing the front podium. Over 800 students gathered for SOCC. This picture was unfortunately the only "conference" picture I have in my collection that doesn't show mostly a collection of white people.

The conference program booklet contains over three pages asking its attendees to show basic respect for disabled attendees -- to not use flash photography, to avoid asking unnecessarily intrusive questions, to refrain from wearing scents/fragrances, to give people extra space and time to communicate, to avoid making assumptions about things like not making eye contact, to not touch or talk to service animals, to hold open inaccessible doors. From the section on resources for disabled attendees directly -- noting where to find large print programs, wheelchairs and scooters, assistive listening devices, or ASL interpreters -- you might assume that they've made a shitton of progress from the usual shitty standard to be expected at most conferences period (but especially conferences not specifically about disability).

The fact that there are several sessions on disability inclusion as well as developing a disability justice analysis in liberation work, not to mention an actual Disability Caucus (that's tonight), certainly makes it seem like we should be able to expect a pretty good degree of disability consciousness and a willingness to enforce the actual expectations around not being an ableist dickbag.

But then this happened -- an attendee with fibromyalgia (not always an apparent disability) had a series of terrible experiences in just the last couple days alone.

In their own words, shared with permission:

(begin quote)
I understand the wonderful side of Creating Change, that it can be empowering and great. But as a disabled person with different needs I have never felt so marginalized by a conference and the people attending. Most of you know I have some issues with my hips and legs so I bought a cane. After several attempts to get into a elevator (because I don't move fast everyone was cutting me in line and rushing past me) I finally got in one and my cane and I were literally pushed out of that elevator by a group of people probably my own age, because "they were in a hurry."  
Yesterday I attended a workshop specifically for disabled folks and the room wasn't accommodating AT ALL. People with mobility devices were separated from people in chairs because of the space and despite several requests the conference wouldn't provide extra chairs or a microphone. People were having to get down on the floor and sit because they weren't able to stand and they wouldn't provide chairs.  
Every experience I have had here has been a slap in the face to differently abled or chronically ill folks. Instead of feeling empowered in my body and queerness I feel like there is no place here for me and that CC doesn't actually care about folks that have different needs. This experience has made me the most self conscious I have ever felt about my body and the things it does and needs. It makes me sad. 
(end quote)

This kind of bullshit demonstrates the casual ableism endemic to all kinds of conference spaces.

It doesn't matter if the conference is focused on disability. Autistic activist Kassiane Sibley has been repeatedly assaulted with life-threatening seizure triggers at multiple disability-specific conferences, but that's been apparently insufficient to warrant changes in policies or enforcement of them. My partner has been subjected to extremely painful audio feedback from microphones during conferences where plenty of people should have known better. I've been at conferences ostensibly for people with intellectual disabilities where the material ranged from totally cognitively inaccessible to outright patronizing and condescending, because "presume competence" is apparently little more than a buzzword. Other friends who use wheelchairs have been literally unable to get into the room at their conferences -- at times unable to even get onto the podium to speak when they were invited, because there wasn't a ramp provided.

This doesn't even begin to touch on the fact that a ridiculous number of disabled activists and advocates are unable to attend the Society for Disability Studies conference (and many others) every year because it's always financially out of reach -- and a disproportionate number of disabled people are no-income or low-income, even those of us with piles of educational privilege.

It doesn't matter how much money the hosting institution has. I've been told by a university with an endowment of over $1 billion that paying for American Sign Language interpretation for an event advertised to the public would be a waste of money.

It doesn't matter how supposedly progressive, forward-thinking, or inclusive the conference is supposed to be. I can't go anywhere without hearing fellow people of color condemn racist police as "suffering from a mental illness" or fellow progressives insist that focusing on mental health is the way to go in addressing violence or fellow feminists argue that people with uteruses need legal protection for the right to choose so they can abort pregnancies with potentially defective or disabled fetuses.

Gentrification and lack of housing also means disabled people who need the few accessible units are totally fucked, especially if they're also low-income, which frankly, we're much more likely to be on average. Blank stares.

The prison-industrial complex depends on ableism as much as on white supremacy, and in fact, creates new disability experiences by traumatizing and physically abusing prisoners. Blank stares.

Dominant narratives about whose bodies are valuable or desirable or worthy of love focus not only on whether you're thin or heterosexual or cisgender or young(er) but also assume that you're able-bodied, sighted, hearing, physically stable, and neurotypical. Blank stares.

Fair pay has to mean not only a $15 minimum wage, an end to the exploitation of prisoners paid at subminimum wage rates, and hour/overtime protections for low-wage workers, but also an end to the subminimum wages under Section 14(c) for disabled workers. Blank stares.

If you don't get that "your issues" are also disability issues, how are we supposed to expect even a modicum of space for us at your conferences?

Soul-crushing schedules jam packed with workshops and breakouts and plenaries and caucuses and special interest groups and socials and receptions with barely any breaks in between mean that most of us have to say no. They mean that we have to choose between attending the People of Color Caucus and the Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Caucus. Or between attending several breakout sessions and the open social hour that evening. Because our bodies, our brains, our mental health just can't take it. Because the spoons dry up partway through the first day. Because there isn't enough time built in to have actually nothing scheduled.

(Scheduling meetings during lunch doesn't count. That means we have to choose between taking the break we need and forcing ourselves to keep "performing" if we want to be able to participate, if that's when the only option for participation is.)

Expensive hotels, far-away cities, few opportunities for scholarships or financial aid (and often limited financial aid to cover only cost of registration but not travel costs), and steep registration fees that mean most of us have to resort to crowd-funding and begging everyone we know for help getting there, if we're even able to fight through the enormous amount of classist shame attached to asking for money. And of course, that assumes we're not already in desperate need of money for our own basic survival in the first place.

Your queer and trans disabled folks have always been here, creating change in how we do things. In how we do intimacy. In how we do sex. In how we do kinship. In how we do organizing. In how we do social. In how we do community building.

But in your spaces, what we do suddenly turns into too much. It's cool to say you're accessible, shows you're hip and aware of the "next latest thing," but actually practicing it? Actually training your volunteers and staff on how to recognize casual ableism and intervene, especially when it comes to how your conference is being run? Actually addressing issues when they arise? Actually responding to people's access needs when they become relevant? No, sorry, it's not convenient.

Don't bother putting the accessibility notice in your program if you're going to ignore it. Don't bother putting the accessibility notice in your program if you're not going to act on it. I don't believe in words and vague promises and commitments. I believe in actions. I believe in what people do (or don't, frankly), and if all it is is window dressing, I'd rather you be honest in the first place and not include it if you're not going to follow through on it.

If you want to be radically inclusive, if you want to be maximally accessible, if you want to be safer, if you want to create multiple modes of participation, then don't just say you're going to do it. Don't just provide the large print programs and a nice request to please not wear scents or use flash, and then step back and wait for the inevitable fuckery, and then insist that it's all okay and you're still accessible anyway. Create accessibility by practicing your stated commitments and being, oh, I don't know, proactive about it. (This "let's only deal with it after we get a complaint" reactive bullshit needs to stop too.) No more excuses. No more, "but we tried our best." No more, "but it's too hard." No more, "but you're too angry."

We're angry because this is a constant occurrence. Literally everywhere, we are reminded that our bodies and brains don't matter and are not valued. But we keep trying, keep pushing to be part of these spaces because we believe in the power of interconnectedness, of intersectionality, of coalition building, of insisting that our communities recognize our existence in all its complexities, of moving from margin to center, of making sure that the next disabled folks after us have a bit less bullshit to put up with. But so far, things aren't changing much more than on the surface. And while that's a little sad, somewhat enraging, and not more than a little disappointing, it's far, far from surprising.

(If conferences on disability consistently fail on accessibility by all definitions of the word, then how the hell are we supposed to expect anyone else to get it right? But of course, the problem is that we should be able to expect better. Especially when you claim you're committed to accessibility.)

I'm not in Chicago right now, and I'm only sad about that because that means I can't be with my fellow sick and disabled queer and trans folk who are there right now putting up with this ableist bullshit.

See you in the struggle.

Further Reading:


  1. I have had experiences with being a presenter at conferences organized by progressive groups. I have always been the lone voice teaching about inclusion of people with disabilities. One time a woman stormed out when she found out the topic was inclusion of people with disabilities and not LGBTQ inclusion. She said, "I have better things to do with my time!" In two instances the room I was assigned was the least accessible room in the entire facility. The claim of not being aware of needs sounds hollow even if it is true. What is it about accessibility is so hard to think about? I don't know. All I do know is we have such a long way to go----coming from the margins of even marginalized people.

  2. Thank you so much for this. There is so little I am able to participate in as an activist these days because 9f limitations due to health and finances. I am very glad that you and others are speaking on this.

  3. It's truly disheartening to hear that groups that go out of their way to achieve accessibility fail so miserably. I myself am a member of a minuscule little Marxist group whose only funding source is members dues. And yet we manage to get our members to our own annual conference but also to send those who are interested to ones in Australia.

    Even though we cannot find the best locations and must rely on the good will of others we do manage to find a place where all our members can come and contribute. It's not perfect, you can't ensure a peaceful space when mothers have to bring their young children because childcare is unavailable. But we make do. I know that myself and other autistic comrades (there are a few of us including transgender autistic members)do enjoy these events.

    If a tiny organisation of around 40 or so people can inclusive conference that brings together all its members from across the whole of the country (New Zealand), then how can organisations with so much funding fail to do likewise?

    Also I study Urban Planning and as such have briefly examined accessibility issues and concepts such as universal design.


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