February 10, 2017
Here is my open letter to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs
regarding their disability rights infringements at #AWP17. Please write me at Q at Quintan wikswo dot com regarding disability in/accessibility at #AWP17. I have included the list of contacts at the end – I suggest contacting their Board Chair (David Haynes,214-768-3561) and their Legal Counsel (Ronald Goldfarb, (202) 466-3030, firstname.lastname@example.org).
Hi Colleen Cable, Events Coordinator, AWP –
Thanks for writing. I know we both are probably upset that this year’s AWP has run into problems around accessibility. There are a number of us organizing to put together a list of issues we would like to see addressed next year, and I or we will keep you posted. Since the conference is still in action, there may be time to address some of the most pressing issues, which I’ll list for you below.
We are all familiar with the accessibility policy. The anger and rising frustration is that the policy is not being enforced, observed, or being put into action. This is almost worse than having no policy at all, because it is in essence empty words, and empty promises. Which indicates, at best, a lack of organizational understanding, and at worst, a clear disregard for the well-being of disabled writers, who are protected by federal law under the ADA. Therefore, this is not a “good manners” policy or dispute, but rather one that quickly becomes a class action civil rights infringement.
(1) I know a major one is the general attitude that disabled writers have faced from staff/volunteers at the conference – the word most frequently used is “dismissive” followed by “disrespectful.” Essentially, a host of instances in which disabled writers are coming to volunteers and helpers and staff with concerns about how to reach rooms, how to get help with doors, how to navigate the conference center, asking for signage to be put up on doors with no auto-open, etc and the verbal response has been extremely disrespectful and dismissive. This may be a volunteer training issue – often people who do not have visible disabilities (such as neurological impairments) are not taken seriously by support staff.
(2) A second issue that has come up has been the accessibility desk itself, which has not been physically accessible for some writers. When they asked for who they could talk to, they were referred back to the accessibility desk. Others were told “well, if you can’t make it to that workshop/event because of your disability, then you should choose a different event to attend.”
(3) I have heard from writers who were essentially diagnosed by volunteers as not being disabled. A writer should not have to prove neurological impairment, dyslexia, brain injury, or other cognitive disorders that may prevent them from being able to navigate spaces or read directions. This includes combat veterans with PTSD who do not need to be made to feel stupid or inadequate if they have trouble finding a room or encounter a similar cognitive challenge. If they request assistance, they should receive assistant. Period. It is not the job of AWP to determine whether or not someone is disabled enough to deserve help.
(4) I am getting texts and facebook messages from writers in wheelchairs or with mobility impairments who are stuck in conference rooms – apparently the door attendants are frequently goofing off and/or not assessing the needs of the people in the rooms, and didn’t remain long enough to ensure that everyone has been able to exit. Clearly, this is an enormous safety hazard and threat to the personal security and health for disabled people.
(5) I have also received messages from disabled writers who were unable to get to their own book signings because of impediments to their mobility, and that nobody on staff/volunteer helped by either contacting the host publication to let them know the writer would be delayed, or helping the writer get there in a timely manner. Instead, the replies are along the order of “you should have planned your time better” or “can’t you reach the publisher on the phone”. This is callous, and indicates, as I’ve said, a shocking lack of respect and comprehension.
(6) Your data pool, or demographic pool at the conference is not even accurate, because many disabled writers have decided to no longer attend because of the exhaustion and anger and heartbreak of being treated poorly. For example, there is a lot of discussion on twitter and facebook by disabled people who have stated that they no longer attend AWP because they don’t feel listened to, consistently accomodated, and many of whom have had negative experiences in previous years with the same issues I mention above.
(7) There has been a lot of conversation about how the MLA conference is the preferred conference for writers because of their efforts and effective strategies for disability accomodation. This means that the reputation of AWP for its lack of disability awareness has reached so far into academia that participants and departments are aware that their faculty cannot attend your conference, and that CW department funds need to be allocated to MLA attendance instead. Ths is a pity.
(8) Given the context of last year’s AWP in Los Angeles and the issues around racial discrimination, there is an intersectionality of allies – people who do not go to AWP because there is a demonstrated history of bigotry issues. I don’t mean this to be rude, but to state a fact. I don’t know if you are aware, but I personally have come across 15-20 postings by literary magazines and publishers and writing departments who have posted that they do not support AWP’s lack of inclusiveness, and instead are donating the budget funds to the ACLU or other civil rights organizations. Between gender issues, race issues, and disability issues, a pattern emerges over time that – when only addressed incompletely, or by not taking full responsibility and asking for help – ostracizes larger and larger numbers of writers and their allies.
(1) AWP should admit that with all good intentions, it has nevertheless made a number of errors and oversights in how it supports the rights of disabled people at the conference. An apology would go a long way, because the recurrent tone of defensiveness and dismissiveness is making a lot of enemies – and I’m sure that neither awp nor the affected writers want to go through the heartache of being discriminatory or discriminated against, even inadvertently. Taking responsibility would be the first step.
(2) Actively and rapidly reaching out to the entire AWP community about how to better accomodate writers with diverse disabilities would be effective, because the range of disabilities is diverse and many of us face very different challenges depending upon our disability. This is especially an issue with neurological impairments, such as PTSD, brain injury, autism spectrum, epilepsy, and so forth. A survey or opinion poll sent out to all members would ensure that AWP is not doign the diagnosing, but is giving all members the agency to self-identify, or advocate for their colleagues.
(3) Discussing the fact that the policy in writing is not actually put into place in action, and soliciting ideas from the general membership about how to do so. This disparity is hurtful and feels deceptive, even though I’m sure that’s not the intention. I’m sure the policy was created in good faith, and it would behoove AWP to call attention to this policy as well as to take nondefensive responsibility for the face that there have been problems implementing it.
(4) Serious training for volunteers and staff around disability issues. A company policy is only as strong as the employees who are charged with implementing it. Perhaps some of this is an ignorance issue, and can be resolved by putting appropriate people in charge of administering the disability accessibility desk and associated programs. The doorkeepers at the rooms are very clearly the weakest link here, but so are the people who are tweeting dismissive responses.
(5) If AWP does not currently have a Disability Rights & Accessibilility Advisory Committee that includes the full range of disabled people, I suggest that be implemented.
(6) AWP can arrange a consultation with the MLA to learn how they have achieved success and resounding respect from the disability community.
While I am saddened and horrified by the flood of texts and messages I have received from colleagues – and total strangers – during AWP17, I am glad that I have the opportunity to bring them formally to the attention of AWP.
As you are aware, the ADA is supported by federal law, and disabled writers are protected by laws that ensure our equal access to resources. This is why we have been reaching out in desperation to the General Counsel for AWP, in hopes that his understanding of the law will encourage AWP to take our concerns with the utmost seriousness.
I look forward to your response.
Here are some handy names, emails, phone numbers for folks to contact regarding the egregious disregard for disability accessibility at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs’ conference #AWP17 happening now. >>>> I hope people who aren’t disabled show some intersectional support or at least signal boost. You may have no idea what a big deal this is for disabled writers, and has been for a long time with AWP. Please reach out and be allies.<<<<< I think they’d hate to see people revoke their advertising, cancel their memberships, report that their ADA infringements are being released to the press, or that their events are in violation of civil rights for the disabled. Handy resources for those who aren’t or aren’t at #AWP17.
Director of Conference
Chair of Board of Directors
Telephone: (202) 466-3030
Conference Events Coordinator
Executive Director of Publicity
Conference Press Pass Requests
Voices: Letters to the Chronicle Editor
Writers’ Conferences & Centers