Yesterday I wrote on this blog about a conference in Washington which, perhaps innocently, failed to make its conference schedule accessible for the blind. My problem is I don’t think 1970’s style blamelessness is appropriate in 2014—its no longer acceptable to me to hear that accessibility obstacles (architectural, digital, attitudinal) are just an oversight. As Freud famously said: “there are no accidents”. I quoted from Deleuze yesterday: “We will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon) if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it.” (Deleuze, Gilles. Nietzsche et la philosophie. Disability is an appropriated thing, an exploited and possessed phenomenon. There are no accidents: we didn’t think about disability very much when organizing our conference. Its too hard. Doesn’t some other entity “handle this”? Some sub-rosa office of accommodation and hand holding? Isn’t that how it works at our university? Why should we have to see to it that our conference materials can be read by the blind? This is how the appropriating force takes possession of disability. Its a seamless process.
What’s got my goat? My little tragedy goat? Well, for one thing, I’m haunted by old conversations. I’ve had unpleasant chats with people at the Associated Writing Programs, the hosts of the biggest academic creative writing conference in the US. Ten years ago I told (name withheld here) that their website was inaccessible. His answer was “we’ll get to that.” Translation: doesn’t some other entity handle this? He didn’t like talking with me. I have other academic friends who use wheelchairs, need sign language interpreting, need a personal attendant—all of whom have had problems with academic conferences—continue to have problems. My tragedy goat indeed. He’s a group goat.
I’ve decided not to attend the “Split This Rock” poetry festival in DC. I’m now deciding whether to go to the AWP. I’m the organizer of a panel honoring the poet Sam Hamill. I will likely go because Sam is a culture hero of mine. But I will hold my nose. The AWP so dislikes “the disabled” that their website contains the following:
All rooms at the conference are wheelchair accessible. The first row of seating in meeting rooms is reserved for individuals with special needs. Special services, equipment, or accommodations should be requested in advance of the conference. Please submit your request to email@example.com by midnight Eastern Time on Friday, December 20, 2013. Attendees who require special onsite assistance during the conference should request it from personnel at AWP’s Help Desk.
Isn’t that great? All rooms in the Hilton are accessible. I love the term “special needs”. Who the fuck wrote this? As for a two month advance notice for accommodations? Ridiculous, demeaning, and altogether appropriating. And BTW, if I can’t read the conference pdf how can I know what sessions I’d like to receive accessible materials for?
I’m a well known American poet, essayist, teacher, blogger, and yes, public advisor. I’ve worked with the Metropolitan Museum, MOMA, the Kennedy Center; the Mayor’s Office of the City of New York; the State Department. Its a long list. I teach in the Center on Human Policy, Law, and Disability Studies at Syracuse University. I’ve taught at Iowa where I had a full professorship in creative writing. And yet, and yet, I’m an outsider, because after all, the appropriation of disability reconsigns it to the Victorian basement, the “other”.
Last week my undergraduate alma mater, Hobart and William Smith Colleges announced a visit to campus by a noted African disability rights advocate. They sent out an inaccessible pdf, and they’d scheduled the event in an inaccessible room.
A friend wrote me on Facebook yesterday. She’s blind and a guide dog user like me. She’s also an academic. I like her. She told me that she has to go to meetings all the time with inaccessible materials and she just makes do and I ought to just make do.
But the larger question—the one I’ve posed in a renga of rhetoric in the voice of conference organizers is the crucial one: Doesn’t some other entity “handle this”? Some sub-rosa office of accommodation and hand holding? Isn’t that how it works at our university? Why should we have to see to it that our conference materials can be read by the blind?
People on Facebook or Twitter or in journals argue all the time about the efficacy of academic creative writing—either praising the study of literary work or damning the process. My own take is that creative writing culture is essentially without sincerity. Its a “me first” podium from which singular stories of abjection and resilience are emoted but without any awareness of class warfare. I remember at an AWP conference in Chicago, trying to get into a room with my guide dog and I tripped. I fell down. And a gaggle of poets actually walked over me. They wanted to get to the good seats. One of them was very famous.
My wife who is a nuanced and thoughtful soul worries that bringing these issues to light will lead to my being labeled a malcontent. This is the risk. This is why Bill Peace calls his blog “Bad Cripple” The creative writing community can label me if they like, though I have sufficient faith there are smart and independent minds aplenty—and moreover, some may even support better disability access at academic conferences and, if they teach, on their own campuses.