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Disabilities and Writing

A major writing conference caught flak last year for rejecting panels about disabilities in writing. It's made some changes, but some still aren't satisfied.

March 28, 2016
 
2015 AWP Book Fair

The nation's largest association of writing programs, responding to criticism from writers with disabilities, has made a number of changes for its annual meeting next week. Critics acknowledge improvements, but some say more needs to be done.

The push for changes began in August of last year with a petition posted by several members of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. It noted, among other things, that the 2016 subcommittee responsible for choosing panels had rejected every disability-related proposal. Meetings of other humanities associations, such as the Modern Language Association, tend to have many sessions focused on disability studies, a growing scholarly field.

At the time, AWP responded that it had accepted a proposal for a new disability caucus, which it said “is a panel, as all caucuses are,” and which, according to its description, “will allow for disabled individuals to network and discuss common challenges related to identity, writing and teaching while professionally leading a literary life.”

Many, like writer and blogger Karrie Higgin, were still unhappy. “They gave us a ‘disability caucus,’ which translates to a ‘networking event’ where we hang out with our own kind and don’t make problems for all the able people … but not a panel,” she wrote.

Fanning the flames further, a member of AWP’s organizing committee published a blog post, which has since been taken down, criticizing AWP’s critics (an archived version can be found here). That attracted more intense responses, and the whole incident warranted others to raise concerns about a lack of overall accommodation at AWP conferences for people with disabilities.

Since August, AWP has adopted a number of changes, many as a direct result of criticism or requests from critics, in advance of its conference this week. Some of the changes include additional seating for people with disabilities throughout the conference, expanded and more prominently displayed accessibility information on the website, an accessibility desk in the registration area, and a requirement that off-site events, which are a major part of the conference, be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act in order to be listed in conference program.

“That’s a really great improvement,” said Jillian Weise, an associate professor of creative writing at Clemson University and previous AWP panelist. But there’s more to be done and “on some things, they just get it a little wrong.”

For example, “In prior years, they added a quiet space at the book fair behind partitions,” she said. Though available to anybody, the space is intended in part for people prone to panic attacks, agoraphobia or who have related conditions. “[This space] seemed a little bit like an attempt at inclusivity, but was a separation,” Weise said. “That those who want to can go behind the partition and just be quiet.”

Still, quiet space or no (and there will be additional such spaces this year), Weise said AWP is making progress on accessibility. “My frustration comes from the lack of programming,” she said, noting as others have that all disability-related panel submissions this year had been rejected. “I don’t buy the line that none of the panels were good enough. I just don’t buy it.”

AWP says caucuses, including this year’s disability caucus, are considered panels, so one of the four total disability-related submissions was indeed accepted.

Further, said AWP’s director of conferences, Christian Teresi, “Given the vast array of concerns in contemporary literature, it’s hard to create a single schedule that satisfies everyone’s concerns. But we work really hard to include as many voices as possible.”

“If one year’s conference omits a certain subject, another conference addresses it. That happens as the time,” he said. Last year’s conference in Minneapolis, for example, featured at least three disability-related panels.

As for the other concerns, Teresi said, “accessibility is something we haven’t always gotten right, but something we very much want to get right. We’re working on it.”

“AWP made some real progress and has been very receptive,” said Sheila Black, a writer and poet who helped organize this year’s disability caucus. “It’s a big conference that hadn’t particularly foregrounded disability as a category to consider in the past,” she said. And after last year it included several disability-related panels, many people felt momentum was building. And then, this year, “the caucus ended up being the only disability-related thing accepted at AWP.”

“It was a year where I think the disabled community felt an intense and deep-seated disappointment because the year before there had been several [related panels] and those had attracted interest,” Black said. “I think that [AWP] kind of blundered into [this controversy], but they have bounced back …. In a sense the controversy was good because it kind of showed that those faults were there.”

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