Scholar Fierce: Access at Black Portraitures

Most conferences are not accessible for people with disabilities to present or attend. Access, for me, is about space for physically disabled people, mental space for folks who think differently, intellectual space to consider disability, and temporal space for folks to absorb what they’re learning. Access also means that this kind of stuff should be taken care of and advertised to demonstrate inclusion from the very beginning. If I have to ask about access, I already know it isn’t accessible. This is an issue for all fields. It is not that I expected more or less for the Black Portraitures conference, but it was disappointing.

To my mind, there is nothing to be gained by enumerating all the ways that the conference was not accessible. Paraphrasing and invoking the words of Audre Lorde, I want this post to be more than a record of difficulty; I want it to help someone. Especially since the information presented is incredibly valuable, I think the organizers should think about the following things.

Location: Most places in the world are not designed to be accessible. Some, sure, are more accessible than others. If you plan to have a conference in a place not known for access, you can’t say “oh well.” You have to figure out a way to think through when & where people may enter. Are there ramps available? Can some be built? Must the main series of events require stairs? Do you have alternative forms of transport to and from the main events, within the event space? Are they clearly marked? Do all the staff know about them? If it is not possible to move independently within that space with a physical disability, is someone on deck to assist? Are the bathrooms in this location accessible? Are they clearly marked? Is the space where the presenters speak accessible? Is that access clearly delineated?

Hotel Accommodations: Like it or not, a conference planner has to think about where people will sleep. They should make sure that the sleeping quarters have accessible rooms of all kinds (some with bars in the tub, some with roll-in showers, some with raised toilet seats, some with raised beds, some with lowered beds). If that is not possible, they should let participants know and reserve some rooms specifically for participants that need them. Conference planners should also be aware of which hotels present the least physical challenges to folks: which is closest to the conference location? How do you get there? Are there off-site events? Is there accessible transport to and from the hotels? Given that traveling with a disability is often more expensive, conference organizers should look for discounts for disabled attendees in this area.

Conference Schedule: Often, conference organizers pack a schedule. In some ways, this can’t be helped. So many good scholars, so little time. If possible, having a less packed schedule is ideal. Please break for lunch and dinner at least. Provide healthy snacks (protein, fruit, veggies). Provide water. If a break is not possible (which I doubt), then there should be a quiet room where people can just go to get away from the heightened stimulation of the conference.

Conference Content: To be fair, some organizers can’t help the papers they get. However, not talking about disability is no longer an option. Here’s where I will call out Black Portraitures. The focus this year was on the body, but all the bodies in question seemed to be mobile, able bodies. Few under discussion were disabled in any way. Moreover, the panels all took place on a stage with steps – resulting in both the intellectual and physical signal that the conference was aloof regarding disability (at best) or hostile to it (at worst). To be sure, including disability in conference content is not a matter of box-checking. It is always an issue of intellectual responsibility because the matter of disability intertwines with how we understand all forms of embodied living.

Of course, there are more concerns to be thought through. I’d be happy to help someone think them through. I recognize that this is new territory for some people. But, I also know that it needs to be done. My experience at Black Portraitures was made easier because I had to put the onus on myself to do certain kinds of labor – some of which should have been done already (ie finding out information) and some of which required that I pass for able-bodied (ie walk everywhere). Not everyone has that option. If I had been feeling unwell, I would have arrived in Italy and been unable to participate at all, or my participation would have been significantly stymied by the expense of taking taxis everywhere or risking that someone would break my scooter or break me.

I mentioned that access is about space. In this case, I had to take that space, seize upon it. Now, I want to be sure that space is already made.

About TAPPhD

Therí A. Pickens received her undergraduate degree in Comparative Literature from Princeton University (P'05) and her PhD in Comparative Literature from UCLA (2010). Her research focuses on Arab American and African American literatures and cultures, Disability Studies, philosophy, and literary theory. She recently published her first book, New Body Politics (Routledge, 2014), which investigates the role of the material body in constructing social and political critique. Her critical work has appeared in Disability Studies Quarterly, Al-Jadid, Journal of Canadian Literature, Al-Raida, and, the ground-breaking collection, Blackness and Disability: Critical Examinations and Cultural Interventions. Currently, she is an Assistant Professor of English at Bates College. She is also a creative writer. Her poetry has appeared in Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, Save the Date, and Disability Studies Quarterly. Her drama has been performed at the NJ State Theater. She offers courses on Arab American and African American literature. In her introductory courses, she seeks to provide students with information and skills that will enable and empower them to critically and constructively engage difficult topics like race, sexuality, gender, disability, and class. In her upper division courses, she pushes students to synthesize their knowledge from other classes and expand their critical thinking repertoires.
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