- Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education, University of Delaware, Newark
Educators, academics, and advocates convened at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware for Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education on October 25–27, 2013. For a small conference, it was large: about 70 people participated for the weekend, with 25 more attending for part of the time. Breakout sessions offered 18 panels, roundtables, and working groups on narrative, pedagogy, disability services, workplace conditions, and methodology. These smaller sessions were regularly punctuated by six plenary talks, which gathered us into one space as they pushed our thinking about disability, disclosure, and higher education.
The conference began generating community even before October 25. Both over email and in the form of a Facebook group, the conference organizers, Stephanie Kerschbaum and Margaret Price, recruited attendees to participate in creating access. The group discussed and coordinated inexpensive, easy-to-obtain fragrance-free shampoo and soap, and collaborated to write descriptions for photographs of the conference site. This volunteer access work joined forces with coordinator Bess Davis and the University of Delaware’s efforts at the conference site: upon arriving, attendees could pick up fragrance-free soaps, interaction badges, and stim toys. In their opening remarks, Kerschbaum and Price described the meeting room, stopped to do access checks and make adjustments, and explained that the conference was designed to run on crip time; rather than standard 75-minute panels, the same amount of material would be presented and discussed over two hours, with 30-minute breaks between sessions.
I take the time here to describe the way access materialized and circulated at this conference because these practices radically shaped the conference atmosphere. I have attended other disability studies conferences where conference organizers diligently worked toward access and participants held it as a central value, but in such situations access often plays out as a tacit agreement among participants, an assumed set of practices that should be [End Page 219] working smoothly and silently in the background. The open and continuous talk about access at Disability Disclosure in/and Higher Education was pedagogical, modeling best practices, as much as it produced effects. As a small-d deaf woman, I often experience strong hesitation about stopping a group activity to ask for access changes (a hesitation overlaid by shame that I am “succumbing” to pressure to pass); one of the effects of Price and Kerschbaum’s explicit requests that we “take care of ourselves” and do what we needed to do in order to be comfortable was an atmosphere of permission to be present, to “bring our whole selves to work,” as Kathleen Martinez put it in her keynote. The longer sessions eliminated much of the harriedness and stress of time-constrained presentations, leaving more time to mentally absorb what had been said and have a sustained group conversation during Q&A. Again, the effect was one of invitation to be present and engaged, an invitation that reached capaciously out as it anticipated as many embodiments as it knew how. My experience was one of feeling access in my body, affectively, as belonging. I am certainly pushing the genre boundaries of a report here into personal reflection, but I find it worth reporting that the concerted effort to model and talk explicitly about access—rather than giving it the status of a “matter of course,” unevenly practiced—made for a conference form that worked powerfully alongside content. As I met and talked with other participants during the conference breaks, many shared that they were having similar experiences: after the conference ended, Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace wrote, “Totally loitering on this here page because I don’t want the dreamy conference to be over,” a comment that was seconded, thirded, and multiply liked. The Facebook group remained active months later, as participants continued to mull over the conference’s provocations. Hopefully these practices—a community ethic of participation in providing access, access talk, and crip time—will become common at disability studies conferences and, promiscuously, at disability studies presentations in larger conferences like MLA and NWSA.
Talking openly about access included a commitment to recognizing privilege and acknowledging those who, despite the conference organizers...