Since going viral last October, the invitations to speak at conferences and other events have slowly but surely started trickling in.
At first, it was thrilling. I’ve always wanted to travel and talk about my experiences, because I still believe that face-to-face interaction does something that my words on the screen simply can’t. I wanted people to put a human face to the very important issues that I’ve been talking about.
I wanted people to realize that trans people exist, trans people with bipolar no less, and that I am not only surviving, but thriving in a world that often limits us.
But just as quickly as the invitations came in, they were being revoked. Not because I wasn’t capable of speaking, or that the engagement was cancelled – time after time, the conference and workshop invitations were being withdrawn because I had asked for disability accommodations.
As a lifelong sufferer of anxiety, I had requested what many folks with disabilities request – a travel companion.
Sometimes we ask for a companion because we need an interpreter with us. For others, we need someone to offer us assistance because our mobility is limited in some way. For me, with a history of panic attacks, I ask for a companion so that I can better cope with my anxiety that is frequently triggered by travel.
This is not an accommodation I ask for because I want a friend to go with me for fun. This is not an accommodation I ask for because I am trying to inconvenience someone. This is an accommodation I ask for because anxiety severely limits my ability to travel, and having someone with me has made that anxiety more manageable.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t need to ask for an accommodation; it would be built into the system. Heck, in a perfect world, I wouldn’t have an anxiety disorder to begin with.
But folks with disabilities often need accommodations to be able to participate in events. It’s unavoidable. And in almost every case, we are either asked to foot the bill for the “added expense,” or in many cases, our invite to participate is mysteriously (or sometimes, not so mysteriously) revoked.
We’re told it has something to do with budget, but I can’t help but hear it as, “Your voice does not matter enough for us to accommodate you.”
We are seldom represented at conferences and events – not only because we aren’t asked to be there, but because even when we are, there are obstacles preventing us from accessing the event.
We’re often told that it’s an issue of money, that they would LOVE to have us, that it’s so unfortunate that they can’t accommodate us. I’ve heard this more times than I can count.
But here’s my question: If you cannot make your events accessible to people with disabilities, who exactly are these events for?
By being unwilling to take the necessary steps to ensure that folks like me are able to participate in events, we ultimately create conferences that are by and for able-bodied people. We effectively erase and marginalize people with disabilities.
If you are denying someone the opportunity to participate in your event on the basis of their disability, it’s no longer about money and has everything to do with ethics. It’s not a question of money, but rather, a question of what YOU are doing to ensure that your event is accessible, diverse, and representative of the communities that these events are for.
This applies not just for those who are attending, but for those you have invited to speak.
To suggest that folks with disabilities are too expensive to bring to an event, or a financial burden you are unwilling to take on, tells me that you are less concerned with accessibility and more concerned with the bottom-line.
And that tells me that the problem isn’t with my disability or accommodations – the problem lies with you.
I am blogging about this not with the intention of shaming anyone in particular, but rather, because accessibility is a very real issue that speakers and writers like myself face. I raise this issue, too, as a challenge to those who are organizing events. What effort are you making to both recruit and retain speakers with disabilities? People of color? Queer and trans folks?
It’s so important, especially in blogging communities, that the events we create include as many of these diverse voices as possible. And if you aren’t making an intentional and sincere effort to be inclusive, it’s time to change strategies.
Otherwise, it’s a lose-lose situation. When folks with disabilities continue to be silenced and excluded, these events will inevitably fall flat because they only represent a small slice of what our broader communities really look like.
So I ask again: Who are these events really for?
Sam Dylan Finch is a queer activist and feminist writer, based in the SF Bay. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community. When he isn’t writing, he’s probably eating takeout and dancing to Taylor Swift.
Author’s Note: I know that there is some debate around whether to use “differently-abled,” “disabled,” or “person with a disability.” I acknowledge that there is some disagreement there and validate those concerns completely. I used the language that I identify with most, but recognize that not everyone uses this same language.