The AWP and Disability Inclusion

The writer Quintan Anna Wikswo has written an “Open Letter to the AWP Regarding Disability Rights” which you can read here: http://bumblemoth.com/open-letter-to-awp-regarding-disability-rights/

If you’re not an academic writer—a poet, novelist, short fiction writer, playwright, or non-fictionist who makes her living teaching you might not be aware of the AWP, more comprehensively known as The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. Essentially, American colleges and universities support the teaching of literary or “creative” writing and graduate and undergraduate students can take courses in the subject in formal programs at over 900 schools. Like other professorial associations the AWP hosts an annual conference. This year’s event occurred last week in Washington, DC and the unofficial word is that some 15,000 people attended. It’s a big jamboree. There are hundreds of book sellers, readings, panel discussions, impromptu dances, off site gatherings, and of course writers. Some are celebrities. Many are day laborers in the mills of poetry and largely unknown. The great thing about the AWP’s annual fest is there’s something for everyone who loves words. Unless you have a disability. If you’re disabled you’re essentially forced to participate by sufferance. That is, you’re allowed in. If you need ramps, sighted assistance, directions, or, perhaps more fundamentally, a welcoming smile, you’re out of luck. Quintan Wikswo has covered the territory so I won’t repeat her altogether excellent points. I’ll merely say as a disabled participant who attended the latest conference her letter is spot on.

Now if this was the first time the disabled were poorly treated by the AWP one might say, “golly, they’ve got some learning to do.” But this isn’t a new subject—either with the creative writing crowd or with other academic conferences. The truth is, the disabled are viewed as a nuisance by academics. There are lots of reasons for this, but for my money the single biggest one is professors by and large don’t view disability as a matter of diversity like race, gender, or sexual orientation, and imagine that it’s a rehabilitative issue—a 19th century view to be sure—but one that’s widespread. Most colleges offer “special” services for “those students”—there’s a segregated office that “handles” those folks. Most professors know the rubric that’s supposed to be included on the syllabus. If you need accommodations go here….”

That disability is a matter of culture; that the cripples are among the concert goers, the literate, the citizenry is hard for academics to fully grasp. Even the University College of London has recently made the news by inviting Judith Butler to give a lecture in an inaccessible auditorium.

These stories are legion. Syracuse University, where I teach, held a summer conference on disability and philosophy two years ago and the organizers—faculty and students—failed to make the events accessible. Imagine.

While attending the AWP this past week I found myself in an elevator with two women. Picture it: a man with a guide dog and briefcase and two professional women who were conference attendees. As the elevator descended in the Renaissance Marriott one said to the other: “I wish those people weren’t so blind about the matter.”

So of course I said: “Please don’t use blindness as a metaphor for lack of knowledge or comprehension. In fact, don’t ever use disability as a symbol of diminished competence.”

They were embarrassed. They apologized. I said, “you can’t apologize for the whole culture. Just admit the disabled are like everyone else.”

The AWP has made great strides with multiculturalism. But the disabled are part of multiculturalism too. They are. If people of color were treated to eye rolling, maladjusted sniffing, the old moue of disgust, there’d be a considerable outcry. I remain dismayed by the academic conference industry’s grudging, ill mannered behavior. I’ve written about this before. I even vowed to never again attend the AWP. Then I was asked to be on a panel. I thought, “well maybe they’re getting better.”

I spent $1,700 dollars to go. And my people? The disabled were treated badly. It’s especially galling to pay money to be told you’re an inconvenience. Take a look at Quintan Wikswo’s letter.

If you’re an American writer who believes in human rights, let the AWP know that enough is enough.