As I flew into Washington, DC, last month, I knew I had an enviable view of the city below. The little, short-haul Embraer jet (read: terrifying sky Winnebago) flew in so low and slow that I could make out a bit of detail on the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building in the unseasonably nice weather. I’d even scored a row to myself on this leg of the trip, so I didn’t have to peer around somebody else’s profile to get a good look out the window.
I’d never seen the capitol from this perspective before; all my previous flights in and out of the city had been blanketed by snow and fraught with the crabbiness that comes from delays and rough landings. Yet even with this just-about-ideal view, it was hard to rally much excitement about the cityscape. In fact, I thought for a few moments about lowering the window shade as we landed. It was a month into Donald Trump’s presidency, and my feelings about this place had already coalesced into a bolus of dread and exhaustion.
I came to town to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference—a gathering I’ve traveled to regularly for the past seven years—to promote the work of the journal that I run jointly with two other editors. We’re proud of our magazine and of the writers we publish, so even when I’m less than enthusiastic about hauling suitcases full of trade show supplies across the country, I go.
I go despite the fact that it was at this same conference in 2014 that a man punched me while I walked through an exhibit hall with my cane. I go despite the fact that, in 2016, writer Laura Mullen asked the conference why it hadn’t included any disability-related panel discussions that year, and the executive director of the conference accused Mullen, in an email that he cc’d to her department chair, of attempting to damage the organization’s reputation. I even go despite the fact that, on the heels of the email to Mullen, a member of a conference subcommittee published a mystifying Huffington Post item (one that, though retracted, lives on in a Publisher’s Weekly screen capture) making light of calls for greater inclusivity.
Every year, I pay my registration fee, book a hotel room, fill my schedule, and hope that things will have gotten a bit better.
I was still hopeful when I arrived at the conference center to set up my booth, my cane in one hand and the first of many loads of books in the other. If you’re counting along with me, you’ll have noticed that this is a tally that leaves no hands free for heaving open metal-and-glass doors (ones that, because of their size and weight, aren’t always the most friendly to bodies like mine, even when we aren’t hauling cases of books around). I pushed the button on the ADA-friendly power-operated door and waited for it to open. It didn’t. I tried the button again. I waited. I tried a different door, then waited some more as that sense of dread and exhaustion crept up again.
Over the several days of the conference, I found that the power doors throughout the facility—and at my conference hotel—were inoperable. I spent my days body-slamming my way through the heavy entrances and exits to get from one place to another, and taking a hair-raising turn or two through some revolving doors (you really haven’t lived until you’ve attempted to propel your cane-using body through that kind of gauntlet at speed).
Getting into and out of buildings was just the first thrill, though; a lack of signs throughout each of the buildings meant that elevators were hard—even impossible—to locate. The conference’s accessibility desk (where a person could presumably ask about the locations of those mystery elevators) was situated in a hilariously hard to find and harder to access cranny of the conference center. The icing on this year’s cake, however, was the fact that the room in which AWP had scheduled the Disabled and D/deaf Writers’ Caucus meeting had a stage that could only be mounted with the use of a set of metal stairs on wheels.
As I went through each day of the conference, I documented what I encountered, snapping and sharing photos of everything from those wheelie stairs to the poorly-considered strobe lights that an MFA program’s staff flashed in the faces of unsuspecting conference-goers (while joking that they hoped nobody walking by had epilepsy). This documentation habit is one I adopted after I shared my clobbered-in-the-exhibit-hall story and received scores of emails from strangers who said I can’t believe that happened to you.
That’s a phrase that sounds a lot like I don’t believe that happened to you.
Not long after I returned home, I wrote what now feels like my yearly epistle to the conference organizers, making a numbered list of requests for such pie-in-the-sky accommodations as operable doors, an accessible accessibility desk, and rooms that have speakers’ setups appropriate to the people scheduled to speak there.
Later that day, I got a response from one of the staff members. He conceded some shortcomings in the conference setup (sparing me a defense of the rolling staircase), but told me that he doesn’t know of any other conference that makes such good disability accommodations. He was pleased to report, he went on, that the conference made successful accommodations for the largest number of attendees in its history.
It seemed to me that getting somewhere within the general ballpark (or the parking lot outside the ballpark) of the Americans with Disabilities Act was good enough for him.
During the 2016 campaign season, in what’s become a landmark moment for many people in thinking about the now-president’s behavior, Donald Trump did a crass imitation of reporter Serge F. Kovaleski. In denying that he’d made fun of Mr. Kovaleski (though everyone who observed that cringe-worthy demonstration knows darned well what we witnessed), Trump touted the ADA accommodations he’d made to his properties, saying, “I spend millions of dollars making buildings good for people that are disabled. Millions and millions of dollars. Do you think I’d ever do a thing like that?”
Trump seems to feel that abiding by federal law demonstrates a robust commitment to disabled folks’ wellbeing.
But here’s the thing that people—from Trump to conference organizers—seem to forget about the Americans with Disabilities Act: it’s not discretionary. It’s the law. The ADA guarantees disabled folks the full and equal enjoyment of any public or commercial facility. It guarantees the operable working conditions of equipment (including, you know, doors) in those facilities. It requires the removal of structural barriers (a requirement that includes providing ramps instead of, say, stairs on wheels) that impede access. And it prohibits any entity from retaliating against an individual who’s spoken up about non-compliance.
To suggest that it’s praiseworthy to meet the most basic demands of the law is frankly silly; a banker who doesn’t personally launder money isn’t necessarily committed to financial fairness. A judge who refrains from accepting bribes isn’t necessarily impartial. And a conference team or a landlord responsible for a few grudging accommodations isn’t necessarily committed to inclusivity. They’re exhibiting the bare minimum of effort and compliance required to keep them out of trouble.
As I look ahead to booking our journal’s event spaces for the coming year’s conference, I’m already doing the dread-and-exhaustion math: how much extra money will I spend out of pocket to hire an assistant—somebody who can hold open broken power doors as I haul in books for my exhibit space? How much time—time I could otherwise spend networking or bookselling—will I spend snapping photos of inaccessible facilities next year, documenting my experience for those who wouldn’t believe my reports otherwise? How many emails will I receive asking me to stop tweeting those photos? How many times will I be told that the inadequate accommodations already provided are “successful?”
Already, I’m tempted to stay home and put all the time, money, and labor I expend on the conference each year to another use entirely. I never set out to be a disability activist in the first place; I was just somebody who didn’t like being punched to the ground, and decided to talk about that fact. I was a person who thought it would be great if we could have a conference that more writers could enjoy without barriers, whether physical or institutional, and I decided to talk about that, too. But if I want to see real change, not just get some grievances off my chest, I’m going to have to keep showing up. I have to keep talking about it.
We live in a historical moment that’s particularly dependent on such accidental activism. I doubt that many of us expected to spend 2017 making daily phone calls to our elected representatives, tweaking our budgets to allow for monthly contributions to the ACLU and Planned Parenthood, or protesting in the streets for the foreseeable future, but this is how we accomplish the long process of change. We show up. We keep talking about exclusion and unfairness wherever we find it. We keep writing letters, making phone calls, and asking for change. We keep the window shades up as we fly in for landing.
Kelly Davio is the Poetry Editor of Tahoma Literary Review. She is the author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013) and the co-editor of the anthology The Poet’s Quest for God. Her work appears in venues including The Rumpus, The Nervous Breakdown, Best New Poets, and more.
READ MORE WORK BY THIS AUTHOR:
- No, You Aren’t Moving to Europe, pt. 3
- No, You Aren’t Moving to Europe, pt. 2
- No, You Aren’t Moving to Europe–An Essay in Three Parts
- The Smell of Tempered Glass
- On Representation
- The Service of Lesser Gods
- Mindfulness Is for Healthy People
- If We Learned Anything From David Bowie
- James Brown and I Go to the Lab
- Kylie Jenner and Her Golden Wheels
- I Was Once the Writer Kelly Davio