Ahead of PEN America’s panels at the 2019 AWP Book Fair and Conference, author Sonya Huber explains how organizations can take steps to provide accessible and inclusive programming.
Writers with disabilities face a wide range of issues, including lack of access to accessible literary events and print or online materials, inaccessible residencies and educational opportunities, and a lack of access to markets across the world. publishing, literary outlets and readership, social networks and connections with the wider literary community. People with disabilities do not often see themselves among the images presented in the media, in writing and in the arts. Systemic issues such as the state of health care, transportation, social services, and education in our country place great strains on many writers with disabilities, to the point that some are no longer able to write or no longer aren’t getting the mentorship or readership they need. impose a sort of censorship on the experiences of writers with disabilities.
Despite these facts, many social justice and arts organizations do not yet include disability justice in their mission statements or among the range of identities and issues on which they focus. Disability justice is a long-standing area of activism, and disability is a condition that most people will experience at some point in their lives. Artists and writers with disabilities – and this includes mental and physical, visible and invisible disabilities – continue to struggle with a bias that assumes that the “standard” human is valid. The focus on justice and access for people with disabilities does not only benefit people with disabilities. By broadening an organization’s perspective to include the full range of human experience, its members and participants will broaden as all will benefit from a more multifaceted understanding of the world.
“By broadening an organization’s perspective to include the full range of human experience, its members and participants will broaden as all will benefit from a more multifaceted understanding of the world.”
As a valid and concerned writer, where do you start in terms of listening to disability justice in the literary community? In addition to researching writers with disabilities and learning more about disability literary activism (like the #CripLit hashtag and the Disability Visibility Project-hosted conversation among many others), another important step is to examine the facilities and events you attend and start thinking in terms of access. Members of the Disabled and D/deaf Writers’ Caucus of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) have raised a series of access issues over the past few years. As a result of this long conversation, AWP has taken steps to move towards accessibility, including publishing a new Guide to Accessible Literary Events that includes links to locate accessibility resources. Another resource is the Accessible Meeting Planning Guide provided by the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center. As the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center states, “planning and preparation are key.” For events that involve pre-registration or publicity, include contact details for anyone who may need special accommodations. This will allow you to accommodate a range of needs – from large print documents to interpreters, ramps, extra seating or a scent-free environment – and to explore the options in advance. A flyer or email without a contact person to receive questions about access may implicitly signal that people with disabilities are not welcome or not included. Cornell University provides a language and checklist for access requests that may be useful as a framework. When designing web resources, consider whether your website is accessible to meet a variety of needs using “universal design” principles.
No matter where you are, there are experts in your community who can help you with coping resources, and being willing to learn is the only requirement. As part of a commitment to diversity and disability justice, nominate someone within your group or organization to begin learning about local options and developing expertise in access. Over time, you will be able to address the most important issues: challenging the assumption that disability is a marginal issue and accepting more disability-inclusive content, including people with disabilities among your leaders, and mainstreaming justice for people with disabilities in your mission statement and programming. At each step, you will slowly replace a valid bias with a disability justice framework.
(A note from the author on language: Many resources and organizations state that “priority” language is preferred, such as “disabled person.” Many activists, however, prefer to self-identify as “disabled.” a person can choose how they are referred to, so don’t correct a person with a disability for their own description of themselves.)