Guest Post: Disability and Visibility at the Academic Conference

By Caitlin Rose Myers

We would all agree that conferences are an essential part of the job of academic.  However, I’ve recently discovered firsthand that fulfilling this part of our job is extremely difficult for those scholars and graduate students who have disabilities, in ways that are often overlooked – not out of malice, but out of a lack of understanding or foresight.  On a recent trip to two conferences in the span of two weeks, I encountered many of the obstacles I’m referring to while using my wheelchair to try to navigate the conference atmosphere.  I’d like to share these obstacles in the hope of promoting more foresight and more activism for the rights of disabled conference attendees.  Since my disability is largely related to mobility, that is my focus here, although I hope that more conversation can occur about sensitivity and accessibility for all disabled scholars.  As a part of our job, we shouldn’t struggle as much as we do to engage with these events, and I hope to encourage those who notice some of these issues at conferences you attend to speak to organizers about promoting accessibility.
First, all conference events that are listed in the conference program, including panels, banquets, graduate student nights, and outings, should be fully accessible.  They are made available to conference attendees in order to fulfill many of the components of our jobs as academics, including networking and extending our scholarship. Taking away even the choice to fully attend a banquet where a graduate student may finally get to speak to a potential mentor, or where you might connect with a future publisher or committee member, is discrimination, intentional or not.  This requires extra research and accountability.  Contacting venues and asking in advance for details about their accessibility can go a long way, and visiting all of the spaces with someone who has experience with disability can go even farther.
Second, and these aren’t always comfortable to talk about, but restroom situations need to be investigated in advance.  At one conference, all of the doors to the restrooms were slightly too small to get through in my wheelchair, which meant a diagonal shoving had to take place to even get through the door and access the extra-wide stall.  At the second, there were no accessible restrooms on the floor where most of the conference events were.  I had to take the elevator up or down a floor.  This often resulted in being late to events or panels as I waited for elevators and sometimes meant that I missed them altogether, if I felt that my late entry (which would be made more awkward in a wheelchair where I need someone to hold the door open so I can maneuver inside) would be too disruptive.  This again requires both advance notice and on-the-ground legwork to investigate, preferably with someone who has experience with disability.  It may be difficult to know how wide a doorway needs to be or when a corner is too tight for someone who has never used a chair.  This is something that unfortunately is going to be more of a problem in those beautiful historic hotels that many conferences in the humanities love to populate.  Doors just weren’t built wide enough back then.  Accessibility to all, however, should always trump aesthetics.
Third, if there are going to be any accessibility issues that – for reasons of budget or other interference – will still exist at the time of the conference, there needs to be notice of that in the conference materials, both online and in the program, and well in advance.  One conference that I attended held some panels at a level that seemed entirely inaccessible due to stairs leading down from the elevator.  I had to acquire the help of the hotel’s guest services, who led me through a back staff-only section to a wheelchair lift, which I certainly didn’t know about in advance, and which meant missing an entire paper on that panel to arrange.  It’s terrible to leave obstacles like this in place.  If I’d known in advance about that issue, I probably would have spared myself the trouble of even trying to attend panels on that floor – but that shouldn’t have to be the case.  If there is a paper being presented that is relevant to my research interests (as this paper was), then I shouldn’t be excluded based on ability and lack of forewarning.
There are many other ways in which conferences can be exhausting and frustrating for those with disabilities, of course.  For example, fifteen minutes is just not long enough to negotiate a manual wheelchair around acquiring coffee and getting back to a panel room, one hand at a time.  Many of those with disabilities are on strict diets and are unable to find gluten-free or dairy-free options during the snack times in between panels, meaning having to purchase food in advance or, again, miss papers.  Those in wheelchairs can’t use podiums and therefore can find it difficult or awkward to give papers in spaces made for their use, especially when the rest of their panel elects to stand.  When chairs are set up to hear panels or keynotes, there are very seldom spaces set aside for wheelchairs, necessitating someone’s help to rearrange the space so that the wheelchair doesn’t block a walkway.  Everything takes longer in a chair – that space from one panel room to the other means that you can’t easily stop to talk to that person who just made a brilliant point in the last Q & A without missing something, while able-bodied attendees can chat and then dash in the room before the talks begin.  Not all of these are issues that can be solved, but steps such as increasing the time between panels, setting up spaces differently, and offering more diverse meal options could be a start.  Again, I think ultimately this kind of change comes down to two kinds of action: one, for committees organizing conferences to include someone who’s job is to investigate accessibility, preferably someone with experience, and two, for all able-bodied attendees to notice when obstacles to accessibility are in place and speak up.  With so much of our collective research surrounding alternative forms of embodiment, the community could do more to promote the needs of actual disabled bodies.
Caitlin Rose Myers is a PhD candidate at The University of Arizona in Tucson.  She specializes in British Romanticism, the Gothic, the medieval legacy of romance, and posthuman theory.