Last April, I attended my first-ever AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) conference. I was nervous and excited. Nervous because I am profoundly deaf, so any type of public forum can be difficult and that’s with the proper accommodations. Excited because I was finally taking steps forward to meet, connect with and engage other writers, editors and educators. There is something about being around that creative energy – it is thrilling, inspiring and a serious kick-in-the-butt that I felt I really needed.
I did everything I was supposed to do. I signed up with the Early-Bird registration and I contacted AWP well in advance describing the accommodations I knew I needed. Being profoundly deaf means that I am deaf to the majority of pitches, but not all pitches. The pitches I am able to hear, have to be as loud as or louder than a small jet engine (130 decibels), so I don’t always feel like “hard of hearing” quite captures just how deaf I am. And that is the term I choose – deaf, because unlike profoundly deaf, people understand what it means. That being said, because I am not completely deaf, and because my hearing loss happened later in life (much later) I do not know sign language. Instead I rely on high-powered hearing aids and different listening devices to assist when hearing speakers that both directs the speaker’s voice to my hearing aids directly, but filters other sounds in the room off. I also read lips, if I am close enough to someone to do so.
For AWP I told the staff that I had a receiver that was smaller than a thumb. It could be clipped onto a person’s shirt, on the microphone, held without issue and because it was a receiver it did not affect any sound equipment or microphones. Easy, right? The AWP representative told me that my device should be fine, but I would need to speak to each panel moderator to explain it to them, and see what they said. Essentially, making sure this was doable was 100% on me. Now, I have no problem being my own advocate – I have for my entire life, but AWP made it clear – they were not going to help me. If it worked out, it was up to the moderators of the panels they had accepted. Never mind that as a nonprofit holding what is legally classified as a “trade show” at a convention center – it is legally required that they accommodate me in this way.
I felt frustrated and even more anxious in the weeks leading up to the conference, because I was on my own, and while I had selected the panels I would attend in advance, the representative I spoke with would not return any of my correspondences. I hoped to get in touch with panel moderators before the actual conference. To let them know ahead of time because it was smart and considerate on my part. See, here I was providing the accommodations I needed, figuring it all out, choosing what I would attend weeks before the conference started, just to make it convenient for AWP in accommodating me. I mean, it should be easy enough for them to do, right? All they had to do was say, “Yes.”
Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Each moderator had their own reactions to my device. Some had no problem, and were very considerate, maintaining eye contact with me, speaking clearly and passing my receiver throughout the panel. Some even repeated the questions audience members asked, because the device stops all other sounds from entering my hearing aids, think of it as the ultimate ear plugs. Unfortunately, these panels were the minority. Most panels were confused and hesitant about the device. Maybe they thought it had some secret power, and would record their innermost thoughts when they held it. It couldn’t be fear of recording what they had to say because many people had their phones near the podium to do just that. They would not pass it, and would hold it away from them at such a distance it would not capture their voice (we’re talking arms completely outstretched to provide ample space between their faces and this dreaded piece of technology the size of an eraser). And some panels outright refused.
My first day, the very second panel I attended, was the worst. I went up to one of the speakers that I had thought was the moderator and went into my spiel. He practically bolted and then the moderator appeared “relieving him” of dealing with me. I again went into my spiel, and the moderator was in the group of those that really didn’t listen, but for appearances sake would say he would use it, and then just not. The original person I approached stayed there the whole time as I explained how my device worked, and when I tried to show him how to turn it on, because that’s all they needed to do – turn it on – he glared at me and physically jumped back. Yes, he actually physically stepped back from this terrifying mind-reading device. He then said with contempt, “I’m not touching that!” And true to his word, he didn’t. I didn’t know whether to scream or cry, but I did neither. I felt extremely uncomfortable after the encounter, and his looks in my direction during the panel made me want to get up and leave. But I couldn’t, because they had my device even though they weren’t using it. I was stuck.
Afterwards, I talked to a few friends, other alum from my MFA program and told them I didn’t want to go back. I had spent hundreds of dollars just to attend, because between AWP membership, travel and lodging expenses, such a trip is at least $900. But I didn’t want to go back. Between AWP’s lack-of-response and the attitudes I experienced the first day – I was done. Because as anxious as I had been these experiences exceeded my worst-case scenario.
But I did go back, usually only attending things with friends or my husband. My husband who had other plans had to be my shadow for the remaining two days. I was still my own advocate, but with people not using my device or using it incorrectly, on top of my deafness, which the device does not correct – it just improves the experience – I could not understand a thing. My non-writer husband had to borrow a writer’s cap and try to understand what was worth jotting down in notes and relaying to me later. He also recorded sessions, realizing it was better to just write down everything and transcribe it after the conference had ended. And he did, it took roughly twenty hours, but he did.
While I requested videos and/or transcripts from AWP I was told I was out-of-luck. Every alternative solution I had suggested or requested so that I could understand what I attended was denied or ignored. The AWP did not even reserve the first row in their panels for people with disabilities. I have to be in the first row since my device I use works on Bluetooth and doesn’t really go through human bodies so well. Their response was, “We cannot police it since we have over 550 events,” etc. But you know what? If you can have 550 events you should have a protocol to make sure people with disabilities have these seats and if there are seats left – fine. AWP did not even bother hanging a sign on the first row. Zero effort was made (which is also an ADA violation, for your information). And in terms of policing it, charge the moderators with this responsibility. The truth is, every argument I was given as to why AWP could not accommodate me had a very real, and often simple, solution. But AWP just wasn’t interested in trying.
I thought my experiences at the conference had been a fluke, or perhaps AWP was not used to people requesting any accommodations. But I was naïve. I told many people I wanted to start a caucus for people with disabilities so that their accessibility concerns and their representation within the organization, namely on panels, would improve. I found there was a lot of interest in this among AWP members with disabilities. This empowered me. There was interest because as bad as my first experience was, others had experiences far worse – every year without fail. This reinforced how necessary a caucus was, and how important it was to get disability issues out there through panels at the conference.
But then I was deflated. Not a single disability panel was approved for next year’s conference in Los Angeles. How in the world can AWP as an organization find this acceptable? Even worse was their official response when being called out by some of its members with disabilities. “Well, we gave you a caucus.” Well, I feel I should thank the AWP for that, because I am sure allowing their members with disabilities or organize and figure out how to improve the AWP is quite scary. A caucus while valuable is the equivalent of an after-school club, while the panels are actual classes. They are not the same. Don’t even try to pretend that they are.
And things just spiraled out from there. David Fenza, the Executive Director of AWP, attempted to silence a member who simply requested that there be some kind of transparency in terms of panel statistics – who applied and who was accepted. Had she not already been well-established in her career, she may have feared what would happen. Would she be let go? Did she blow her shot at being on the tenure-track? Fenza’s attack was just that – an attack. One that was blatantly obvious to anyone that read his response (which was posted on this person’s personal blog). He deliberately bullied her in hopes of shutting her down. How many more has he bullied who were not established and therefore effectively silenced? Fenza has yet to make an apology and the AWP has yet to state that such tactics will not be tolerated from anyone.
Then Kate Gale wrote a piece (“AWP is Us”) that upset everyone. It was racist, homophobic, and mocked the entire situation, which was already serious. But she didn’t have the ovaries to actually say anything against those with disabilities. But Kate, you didn’t fool us. We heard your message loud and clear. And Fenza actually defended this horrid essay/blog. He said no one was defending the AWP, but did it ever occur to him that that was because there was nothing to defend? The AWP is wrong, and as it is functioning, it is broken. Is it going to continue to operate in its unethical, often-illegal and broken fashion, or is it going to own up to its failures and make real strides to fix what is broken?
There are a lot of things that need to happen to fix what needs to be fixed. But there has to be a first step. First, someone at AWP needs to select AT LEAST one panel focused on people with disabilities. And really, just having one is still a problem, but at least it is something. Second, Fenza should step down. Now, I don’t think he will, though his recent remarks to the media shows that he should at least be kept on a tight leash. He needs to apologize, both personally to the woman he tried to intimidate, but also to the AWP membership as a whole. There are a lot of people who no longer trust him or look to him as a leader. They see him as part of the problem. If he does not do the right thing and resign, he needs to at least start earning his keep. He is not entitled to his job, and he needs to remember that. Third, the AWP needs to get serious about their accessibility issues because there are so many ADA violations there, it could easily result in legal action from those they fail to accommodate, as well as being stripped of their nonprofit status for failing to accommodate so many.
I am struggling with my decision to remain a member of this organization or to demand a full refund and simply be done. I am angry, and I am tired. I am shocked that this kind of thing is actually happening at an organization I should love – one that so many people I admire are a part of. I know my anger is righteous and justified, and if I listened to it I would have already been gone. But how can I try to change something if I am no longer a part of it? But is the AWP really interested in changing or are they a lost cause? Because so far any apologies or moves on their part has been to protect the organization and its image. And the things that need to happen aren’t happening. And this makes me incredibly sad, for all of the wonderful members in this organization, for the organization as a whole, for disabled and other marginalized groups of writers within the organization that the AWP wish would just shut up already. Perhaps that is the most troubling thing of all; that it is clear the AWP as an organization does not care. They only care to put forth the appearance that they care. And that is truly sad, indeed.
What’s it going to take AWP – for you to wake up? Please tell me, because I promise you that if you let your members know what needs to happen, for real change and accountability to occur, it will happen, much faster than you could ever expect.
*On September 2, David Fenza finally apologized for his hostile and bullying email message to poet, Laura Mullen. I feel at this point, my reactions to said apology are irrelevant. He apologized, which is something that needed to occur – it did. I hope that he continues on this path of steps in the right direction, because more needs to occur before many of AWP’s members trust him as a leader and representative for this organization.