Last year was my first experience with AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and its annual conference. In some ways it was wonderful, but in all of those ways – it really didn’t have anything to do with the conference or the institution. When it came to the conference itself, nearly every experience (90%) was fairly negative to very negative.
Why? Well there was the fact that the conference was not accessible to many people with different disabilities. As someone who is disabled and profoundly deaf, this was very troubling. Sometimes it was just that the organization did not have accommodations available that they should have (and are legally obligated to). Other experiences were more extreme, like the speaker on one panel who flat-out refused to use a device necessary for me to hear the panel. He actually jumped away from it like it was a bomb and said, “I’m not touching that!” There was another incident with someone who attended the conference who was sitting in the seat reserved for those with accessibility needs, who had no such needs, and got mad because of the noise coming out my hearing aids. She actually wanted me to apologize to her, on behalf of my deafness.
While I tried to focus on the positive I took away from the experience (which was really seeing old friends, and the collective creative energy that filled the spaces) I couldn’t stop thinking about the bad. Not from a dwelling standpoint, but from one of not wanting them to happen again. I knew I wasn’t going to go back. It wasn’t worth the cost. But then after the organization’s panel selection (not a single disability panel was accepted out of more than 550 accepted events) there was an explosion of controversy (nicely summed up here) that accused the organization of bullying and intimidation tactics as well as Kate Gale writing a horrid piece for the Huffington Post, telling many different minorities to shut-up and let the majority speak for them. After some backlash she took down her piece, but feel free to read it here.
Many writers spoke out against everything that was going on. Some wrote open letters, including me. The purpose of my open letter wasn’t to join the ranks or rant or vent – it was because I felt change needed to happen. Sometimes you have to call a person or institution out, publicly, to receive a proper response. And I felt that this was the case here. I didn’t expect everything to be fine and dandy, my expectations were what they always are in this kind of situation: 1) I would be listened to, instead of just dismissed, and 2) the first steps would be taken to address my concerns and stop them from happening in the future.
I sent the open letter to AWP’s board of directors as well as posting it on my blog. I was grateful to receive a response, varied but still. People who worked at AWP in various departments were concerned about my experiences and seemed to take them seriously. Each board member responded, though some seemed to do so in a simple form letter, but a form letter takes more effort than simply ignoring the message entirely. Speaking with those in charge of the conference, I felt whether it was because of the controversy or just happy coincidence, AWP acknowledged they fell short of reasonable accessibility expectations (I don’t think they still realize just how short, but some acknowledgment is better than none). They shared their plans for the 2016 conference, services I mentioned that were not offered that they now were making sure were available, etc. As well as disciplinary action for anyone who chose to refuse accommodations to those in the audience.
I had no intention of going to the 2016 conference. I didn’t renew my membership after the 2015 debacle. I wasn’t necessarily boycotting them, but I did not want to support the attitudes and stance I felt they had at that point in time. But as a gesture of good faith they offered to allow me to attend the conference for free (free admission, though I am still not a member and therefore do not receive other member perks like their magazine, etc.). This year the conference was in Los Angeles, a place where I lived for a few years while attending graduate school. A place where many people I care about still live. Had the conference been anywhere else, I would have passed. After all, airfare and lodging are expensive and it also means time away from work, the house, etc. But the opportunity to see so many old friends, visit a piece of my past and my graduate school’s campus again, was too much. I accepted, and now here we are.
I am excited and grateful for the opportunity to see what has actually changed and what hasn’t. From the onset, I never expected perfection or an ideal scenario. Sure, that is the goal and yes, we shouldn’t have to work for that, it should be an automatic, in an ideal world – but the world is hardly ideal… about anything. I have experience from companies and they refuse to acknowledge any fault or show a willingness to change and do better. I can’t speak for others… I know others who spoke out have been received well and are giving it another shot just as I know others who felt targeted for speaking out and their issues were never adequately addressed. So I can only go forward with my experience, and hope that I am not disappointed.
For the most part, if everything that has been claimed and the services actually happen as they are supposed to, I see great improvement already. That doesn’t mean there isn’t more that needs to be done to close the gap, but it’s something. This was always going to be a process, and I’m willing to be there through that process – it’s a halt or refusal to go forward that I would not be on board with.
I hope that what I see and have interpreted to be first steps… actually is, and I’ll find out next week. I hope to voice how AWP can continue to improve as an organization, but also as a conference, because no matter how big the conference is and how small their staff is, some things that still aren’t happening… frankly, need to. But again, it’s a process.
I’m in it for the long run, and I am nervous saying so, but I am cautiously optimistic this is a start in the right direction. They’ll be obstacles and missteps, and it will take time… but as long as it’s moving, I’m okay with that.
This is your second chance, AWP. In the words of RuPaul…