Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Access in feminist scholarly spaces

Silly selfie sitting next to my wheels
Last month I was at the National Women's Studies Association annual conference in Cincinnati, Ohio.  I've been to the conference four times now, thanks to one of my masters department professors letting me know about a call for papers in 2010.  As a co-chair of an interest group of the organization, I have to go whether or not I'm presenting a paper or moderating a panel.  This year was one of my "multiple hats" years, with co-chair duties, co-presenting a workshop, moderating a panel, and presenting a my own paper.  So off to Cincinnati I went for my annual gathering of scholarly feminist type people.

Photo description: A selfie taken sitting on the floor next to my wheelchair. The black cushion & back tire with thin spokes are in the foreground, with the rosy cheeked, bespectacled, auburn haired author in the background smiling.

Because of the cost of this conference and the lack of funding available at my institution to get to events like this (which, for people who want to become professors and work in academe, these conferences are required to get a job after graduation), I decided to drive from North Carolina to Cincinnati, Ohio.  Without stops, the drive takes about 7.5 hours according to Google Maps.  With the hourly stops my spine requires of me, this became a really long venture.  The perk was that I could pick what assistive devices I wanted when I wanted them.  I wasn't stuck with only crutches, or only my wheelchair.  This gave me some freedom....and it came in handy because the elevation changes from driving through the Appalachians resulted in less-than-fully inflated tires on my wheelchair (with no good way of inflating them without hunting down a medical supply store or bike shop).

I can't get to the first floor! Ack!
While my transportation afforded me some choices, the conference is notoriously barely accessible for a variety of reasons.  The past years' conferences were held at a hotel convention center.  This year it was at the Duke Energy Convention Center with a separate official hotel (I stayed in a nearby town with Amanda of FatBodyPolitics and another scholar from Texas, & commuted to the conference).  This place was hell as a gimpy person.  The first day we attended we had trouble finding the one accessible entrance (I used my wheelchair).  We then had issues with elevators only going to certain floors, with all the elevators really far from each other.  Also, thick carpet...evil, evil thick carpet.  Add to that bad signage and last minute schedule changes (like a change of time for the Disability Studies Interest Group meeting between the program, the webpage, and the app.....that was complete and utter access fail). I made due with the company of other rad scholars (feminist pool party!!), but it felt like an epic pile of microaggressions.

Photo description: A photo of an elevator button panel. The sign above says "Duke Energy Convention Center" with descriptions for levels 2 & 3. Below are buttons showing options for the second (main) floor, the third floor, DH (unknown location), and open, close, and alarm.

I should make an art book with my crutch
Saturday I decided that my tires were just too flat to use even though I was having a bad pain day.  I really realized how bad the distance between different meeting rooms was that day.  The disability related panels were on one end, the fat studies ones in another area, with access to the exhibition hall and food/sustenance in another.  Because of this, I ended up taking pain medication and found it really difficult to be a functional academic on the day that I really needed to be "on the ball" (with the workshop, moderating, and presenting in the same afternoon).  My paper was in the last panel of the evening from 5:25-6:50pm....while a concert was doing a soundcheck nearby, while a grad student social was going on, in a strange corridor that people had trouble finding....if it wasn't for the awesome response I received for my paper (an autoethnographic work about my experiences as a fat spine fusion patient), I would have seriously considered quitting my involvement with the organization.  Thankfully a bunch of us had a lovely dinner together that made me realize how much I value these kinds of scholarly gatherings (including one scholar and I reminiscing together about life in Northern Minnesota, as both of us are studying elsewhere).

Photo description: a bronze forearm crutch with a rainbow dyed rose propped on it. They are leaning on a brown wood countertop. The roses were in a vase that said "take one" (not shown).

Sunday was a short conference day, so thankfully less eventful.  A couple panels then going through the exhibition hall (a lot of publishers and organizations advertise their scholarly wares in there...most of the organizations don't set up on Sunday though, but most of the publishers offer book sales on display copies).  I had a long drive home that day, so I tried to walk as much as I could....although overdid it because of the books & talking with my hotel roommates (it was like scholar slumber party all weekend and none of us got sufficient sleep.  I regret nothing!).  I warned my partner that I was overdoing it and may need to stop somewhere to either nap or get a hotel room.  Thankfully I made it home in one piece despite being afraid to drive in the mountains at night, but copious amounts of caffeine plus the Honor Harrington audiobook got me back home.

There's my belated conference post.  The TL:DR is that feminist conference spaces need some serious work in accessibility.

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