By: Emily Beitiks
Well, it happened again. Last night, I was hosting an event and even though the topic was access for people with disabilities, I made a big access blunder. The event was running late, and I failed to consider the fact that the ASL interpreters needed to clock out, putting them and the Deaf attendee in a difficult and unfair position.
These sorts of slip-ups are common for all of us who host events, disabled and nondisabled alike. But we don’t share our mistakes often enough. As a nondisabled ally, I think it’s especially important that I cop up to my moments of failure because I owe it to my disabled friends and colleagues who patiently teach me when I drop the ball.
I also know now that access isn’t just about accommodations for people with disabilities. While society may see disability as a burden, I know that disability opens up creativity and innovation. I’ve personally benefited from many access features intended for people with disabilities. I am grateful for open captioning, for example, so that if I lose concentration during the pivotal moment in which a speaker provides the argument of their paper, I can look to the captioner’s screen for what I missed. With a co-sleeping 9 month old baby at home, this feature has been particularly useful lately.
Having worked with people with disabilities for over ten years, I see that bodies and minds are on a wide spectrum; there is no “disability community” but rather “communities.” So working to make our world more accessible to disabled communities is challenging, and sometimes I make mistakes. In hopes that it may help you learn, here are my top ten memories of failure for your enjoyment in no particular order:
1) I’ve failed to introduce myself as nondisabled.
When I speak on behalf of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability, it is important that I disclose my status as a "temporarily able-bodied person.” Failing to do so not only hides the place of privilege from which I speak but also renders people with invisible disabilities on the panel as nondisabled.
2) I’ve booked interpreters for events and forgotten about the importance of schmoozing with other participants before and after the official event.
While calling it “networking” may make some of us cringe, it’s incredibly important to people’s professional and political work. If we want to continue to eliminate the divide that has long existed between people with disabilities and the Deaf community, we need to build in opportunities for conversation over a glass of cheap wine and a cheese cube or two.
3) I put out flowers at an event.
Classic rookie move. We gotta have flowers at the bar to make things pretty, right? Wrong. The flowers make your event dangerous for attendees with multiple chemical sensitivities. So, go with paper decorations or just pass and enjoy that it’s one less thing on the event planning “to do” list – woohoo!
4) I gave a PowerPoint presentation and did not describe my slides.
Okay, before I lose all my street creds here, please note that it was a long time ago when I was an undergrad. But it wasn’t just any presentation. The focus was disability. And my low-vision adviser was in the audience. Huge fail?: yes. Did I learn?: yes. Should you learn from my fail and start giving audio description of your slides?: YES!
5) I planned for wheelchair seating but forgot that wheelchair riders sometimes travel in packs.
Another classic nondisabled rookie move. Yes, of course, I have wheelchair
Two attendees at Superfest 2015.
seating! Oh…you’d all like to sit together? FAIL. At Superfest: International Disability Film Festival, we now have a range of options for wheelchair riders to sit with their other wheelchair rider companions, to be next to non-wheelchair riding friends, or to sit in the multiple chemical sensitivities section. We’ve come a long way baby.
6) I’ve organized events and forgotten to ask if the stage is accessible.
Even if none of the planned presenters uses a wheelchair, you still want to plan for the possibility of a wheelchair rider pulling a Kanye-West-interuption-of-Taylor-Swift move, so the stage must have a ramp or lift. Nondisabled allies should not leave this battle to the wheelchair rider colleagues to fight alone.
7) I’ve pushed handshakes.
Plenty of people in the disability community shake hands, but handshakes need not be the norm. Whether one doesn’t have hands, doesn’t have control of their limb’s movements, or is triggered by the social anxiety of contact, handshakes can cause a lot of unnecessary grief so ask first.
8) I’ve lined up venues without gender-neutral bathrooms.
Hosting events for people with disabilities requires you to think about all the needs of your attendees beyond disability issues.
9) I’ve pressured people to commit to full-day events.
This is a common conference strategy: you pressure your attendees to stay together for a whole day, three days, whatever so that the group may adequately bond. Or you push for an early start and urge people to “power through” with short breaks. However, this is an ableist model. It doesn’t account for the needs of people who require a long time to get ready, long bathroom breaks, or people with chronic fatigue.
10) I’ve hogged the microphone.
Full disclosure: I’m still working on this one. I like to talk. And oh do I love a good Q&A. But if I’m on a panel with people with disabilities, I need to constantly remind myself that my voice must often come second. My confidence with public speaking is inseparable from the privileges I have as a nondisabled, white, heterosexual person.
So… what did I miss? Jump on the comments section and share please. There’s no comprehensive guidebook for this stuff (and if there was, the first item would be that guidebooks aren’t going to prepare you for everything). A reminder in closing, it is better to have tried and blundered than never to have tried at all. Getting to work with disability communities is worth it. *Special thanks to Corbett O'Toole for her patient guidance on my access blunders as well as this post.