The AWP and Disability Inclusion

planet of the blind

Yesterday I posted on Facebook some rebarbative comments about disability access at the national conference of the AWP, which for those who don’t pay attention to the American university’s creative writing set, stands for Associated Writing Programs. There are hundreds of creative writing programs in the US which offer writers both undergraduate and grad degrees.

I believe wholeheartedly in the academic study of writing—from poetry to post-structuralism. In general I endorse the AWP in its effort to create a national gathering for writers and teachers. In fact, I think the AWP’s work is important. In recent years the organization has steered its national conference toward a greater appreciation of diversity and nowadays its panels and readings are richly representative of the multicultural nature of American society. In sum, the AWP is a largely progressive and affirming outfit. Except where disability is concerned. I must say that after a decade attending their conferences I’ve found the cumulative experience so demoralizing I’ve decided both to speak out about the matter and to skip the affair. The former is appropriate. The latter is sad.

If you’re still reading—here are a few highlights from my years of attending the conference:

  1. Hotel in Chicago tells me I can’t come in with my guide dog. Old game. Get the manager. Checking in takes 45 minutes. Dog is thirsty and hungry after plane trip.
  2. Ask for accessible handouts at panels. None. Shrugs from panelists. Eye rolling.
  3. Complain to national office about accessibility problems with conference website. Eye rolling.
  4. Fall down while entering a big room where a popular panel is about to take place. The panelists walk over me while I’m on the floor. One of them is very famous. He talks about empathy in his prepared remarks.
  5. Ask for escort to find things. Takes 1 hour to find accessibility services table. Miss the panel.
  6. No one is educated about helping disabled people. Lots of “I’ll see what I can do…”
  7. Wheelchair users have lousy time with everything from transportation to access.
  8. Deaf people have to fight to get sign language.
  9. Lots of eye rolling. Here is the AWP’s “statement” on disability from their website:

AWP is committed to making all reasonable arrangements that will allow conference attendees to participate in conference events.

All rooms at the conference are wheelchair accessible. The first row of seating in meeting rooms is reserved for individuals who have accessibility needs. In order to help us better prepare, all requests for accessibility services, equipment, or accommodations should be submitted in advance of the conference. Please submit your request to by Friday, January 29, 2016. Attendees who require special onsite assistance during the conference should request it from personnel at AWP’s Help Desk.

The language is not welcoming, and its of some interest that the disability statment is hidden nearly out of sight on their web page, and appears under “refunds”.

Let me contrast this with the accommodations language employed by the Modern Language Association, which offers another big academic annual conference:

The MLA is committed to making arrangements that allow all members of the association to participate in the convention. Stacey Courtney coordinates arrangements for persons with disabilities; she can be reached at the MLA convention office at

Meeting Rooms. Meeting rooms at the convention are accessible by elevator, and the doors are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. There will be a desk in the MLA registration and welcome center at the Vancouver Convention Centre (Prefunction, level 1, West Building) staffed with personnel who can provide assistance to convention attendees with disabilities. There will also be a desk at the Fairmont Waterfront (Lobby level).

Hotel Rooms. To reserve hotel rooms that are specifically equipped for persons with permanent or temporary disabilities, participants must have checked the appropriate boxes on the convention registration and housing reservation forms or contacted Stacey Courtney in the MLA convention office by 14 November.

Transportation. A complimentary transportation service will be available throughout convention meeting hours to transport attendees with disabilities. Arrangements may be made at the desks for persons with disabilities in the Vancouver Convention Centre (Prefunction, level 1, West Building) and the Fairmont Waterfront (Lobby level). Further details will be available closer to the convention.

Sessions. Speakers are asked to bring five copies of their papers, even in draft form, for the use of members who wish to follow the written text. Speakers who use handouts should prepare some copies in a large-print format (14- to 16-point type size). Speakers should indicate whether they want their papers and handouts returned. Sign language interpreters and real-time captioning are available on request. The deadline to arrange for an interpreter is 14 November, though the convention office will make every effort to accommodate late requests. To arrange for either of these services, write or call Stacey Courtney in the MLA convention office.

Scooter Rentals. Scooters, for navigating the convention more easily, can be rented from Scootaround (888 441-7575 or


If disability rights are meaningful and to be honored, I think the AWP needs to organize a committee on disability access best practices. The ironies abound.

I know disabled folks who continue to goto the conference. They believe earnestly that by showing up they will change the dynamics. I no longer believe this.

The AWP should be a leader in all areas of civil rights.

Author: skuusisto

Poet, Essayist, Blogger, Journalist, Memoirist, Disability Rights Advocate, Public Speaker, Professor, Syracuse University

6 thoughts on “The AWP and Disability Inclusion”

  1. Thank you Lisa. I will be pegged as a malcontent for saying the AWP needs to become more open and welcoming to disabled people. That’s how it generally works.


  2. Hi, Stephen. Point well made. Though I’m horrified. I am not surprised. AWP has outgrown its ability to serve its constituents well (partly because they try to be all things to all “writers”), but continues to refuse to think about new ways of doing things. The way that the conference committee selects panels is one of the main things that needs to be more transparent (and less casual), and this treatment of disability issues and disabled persons is clearly another. And, of course, these two issues also overlap as per Karrie Higgins:

    I thank you for speaking out. I hope you can foster change. Me, they just dismiss as a complainer.


  3. Stephen, I’m a staff member at AWP (I read submissions to The Writer’s Chronicle). I’m so sorry you had this experience. I’m going to talk to the conference department about this on Monday.

    Liked by 1 person

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