My Misadventures in Geneva, Part II of II

Realizing that accessibility ideals can be culturally specific, and wanting to be pragmatic, I focused on disability issues that I believed would introduce productive new ways for all participants to experience conferences.  From the outset, I urged organizers to develop a webpage that would be accessible to screen-reading software which if taken seriously could have unintended benefits well beyond a seemingly limited group.  Chairing a university committee on electronic accessibility taught me two important lessons that I repeatedly tried to share with the organizers: 1) just like with physical architecture, if you build-in accessibility features from the outset, it’s far easier and cheaper than adding it in later, and 2)  my eagle-eyed colleagues reap numerous benefits from websites designed with accessibility in mind, such as easily-searchable documents and streamlined information, as well as the ability to customize documents for one’s own use.  Despite two years where I gradually went through all the stages of suggesting, reasoning, informing, educating, nagging, insisting, shaming, and cajoling, the website remained impenetrable to screen readers until barely a month before the event itself.  This meant that the submission process and most conference materials weren’t available to people with print-reading disabilities, unless I asked for them, which meant that despite Kate Rousmaniere’s steadfast support, it quickly became “Catherine’s Issue” as opposed to something that needed to be done in the spirit of inclusion.  After I threatened to have the DHA publicly withdraw from the event, they appointed an enthusiastic liaison who, despite her own lack of expertise, worked tirelessly to push the right people to get it up to speed.  It was heart-breaking that after all of this effort, I felt I’d made more enemies than friends, that for the hardworking conference organizers in Geneva, I would always be viewed as a complainer who made things difficult in the name of some abstract minority that remained largely invisible. And to think that all of this could have been avoided if they had heeded my initial advice back in 2010!

In addition to insisting on an accessible web presence, Kate and I championed better communications.  When Paul Longmore and I signed on two years before, we seized on the idea of a bilingual conference offering a wedge into allowing participants to appreciate what it’s like to be excluded.  We pointed out then - as I would continue to do at every opportunity, including my brief public remarks at the conference - that a bilingual French and English event presented communication challenges not unlike those for incorporating deaf participants.  Though problematic for various reasons, such an analogy at least prompted nods of recognition and expressions of empathy; this was the one place where I sensed an admission that environments could indeed be reimagined, that it was time to question the standard ways of doing things.

Thus, early on, I argued for creating an expectation that because of the disability component, we needed to model new ways of conveying information in order to reach a greater variety of people.  More than once, I suggested we try raising funds to hire real-time captioners for the major sessions, pointing out that having someone’s talk transcribed on a screen would make it easier for non-native speakers who could read a language better than hear it. I advocated a concerted campaign to have presenters speak slowly and distinctly.  How is it, I still wonder, that academics spend so much time worrying about what people will think of our work but with so little consideration for our audience?  Sitting through person after person race through their text at lightening speed, I imagined they assumed a room full of super-listeners with total fluency in every language, concept, and proper name in multiple disciplines, not to mention with the ability to focus completely and continuously on what was being said.  If academics stopped for one moment to think about it, we would realize just how ableist and exclusive most delivery styles are, and how limited and limiting our conference environments are as a result.
I’d hoped that disability might offer an opportunity to rethink some of these assumptions, if only to underscore the lesson that often less can be more for everyone.   Saying fewer words but taking the time to say them clearly and offering explanations for outsiders would offer greater intellectual access to a larger number of people. My own experiences in the classroom have taught me how it can be useful to dwell on particular images and their significance rather than race through so many so fast; lingering over fewer might offer a new perspective on them for everyone in the room, not just those who couldn’t see them.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when the plenary talk delivered immediately after my pleas for clarity proceeded to demonstrate exactly the problems I had described.

In retrospect, I realize that, much as I constantly drove home the idea that disability offered an opportunity for rethinking access for everyone, I underestimated the persistence of older ideas about people with disabilities.  It was still too easy for most organizers and attendees to believe that we were dealing with unfortunate individuals rather than people who challenged basic assumptions about physical and intellectual environments.  They operated in a mode of catering to the needs of a single person rather than believing that they too had something to learn.  Thus, when it turned out that I was one of a tiny handful of the attendees who were visibly identifiable as being disabled, it made depressing sense that they could easily conclude that my mission had been self-serving or for a virtually non-existent minority.  Above all, they could convince themselves that all I asked for had been a complete waste of time and valuable resources; look at all we did for you, and still nobody came.

Why weren’t more disabled people there?  I’m partly responsible.  In the beginning I pushed for colleagues to go.  But as things dragged on, and it became ever-clearer that disability was being marginalized by the organizers in Geneva, I lost heart.  Given the incredible expense of getting to Europe and of being in Geneva, I couldn’t make a convincing pitch.  The experiences with the website were especially disheartening, to the point that when people contacted me about applying, I was candid that I couldn’t guarantee a truly accessible intellectual or even physical experience.  There’s also the reality that there aren’t yet that many academics with disabilities who have navigated the formidable barriers to full employment.  As my struggles with the Geneva organizers made clear, the university environment remains inhospitable to those who don’t adhere to the usual ways of doing things; it’s no irony that so many scholars speak endlessly about standards in the very act of decrying standardization. This helps explain why too many of us go to considerable lengths - sometimes at tremendous personal cost - to hide any forms of physical, intellectual, or emotional disability.  I’m guessing that for every one visibly disabled person, there are at least five others grappling with it.

For this reason, I’d like to think that my efforts were not in vain. Among the four hundred participants, I imagine twenty or thirty who were secretly grateful that someone pushed for broader forms of access. Just knowing that these ideas are on the radar somewhere has to be a little bit encouraging, and even empowering.  I imagine another thirty to forty who walked away scratching their heads, unsure for now, but that somewhere deep down a little spark was lit that will make them more open the next time one of these ideas comes their way; they might even think of their own frustrations as they tried to listen to yet another rambling talk, and take a brief look in the mirror.  Finally, I don’t have to dream about the handful of scholars I met in Geneva who are already engaged in this work because I saw first hand that they had already understood that they’d discovered something very new and exciting; email traffic reveals a new cadre eager to create disability-themed panels for next year’s ISCHE conference in Riga, Latvia.  From the younger scholars to the organization’s outgoing president, these people will carry the torch to the next conferences where they will help to bring about lasting change for all.