Everyone is Welcome…Except You
Online events and the barriers to networking when you’re disabled
You have just graduated with your MFA in creative writing! Congratulations! The world is now yours to do just as your professors advised you to do and network, network, network. The global pandemic means all networking events have shifted to online events and that means you can attend all of them. The networking dream!
You register for your first event and some days later, you receive an email: “Sorry, this event isn’t for you. You won’t be able to attend.”
Not allowing yourself to become discouraged, you register for another. A few days later you get the same email: “Sorry, this event is for everyone but you.”
You begin to wonder what you’ve done wrong to be just starting out and have been seemingly blacklisted already. Why don’t event organizers want your money? Don’t you deserve to learn and network too? You spent the same money, put forth the same effort as everyone that is being allowed at these events, so what gives?
After several more attempts and responses informing you that these networking and educational events are for everyone but you, you begin to think you’ve made a mistake, your graduate degree and all the time and money spent earning it was a waste.
While the above scenario would never actually happen, this has been my experience since graduating from my MFA program in January 2020. The shift to online events was the huge silver lining of the pandemic. I could finally attend writing events and conferences without having to break the bank to travel to them. I could buy my ticket and just go.
Except I can’t. Nor can the 11 million other d/Deaf and hard of hearing people in the US. Why? Because the vast majority of these events aren’t captioned.
Now, the lack of captions isn’t an impossible problem. There are as many captioning providers as there online event platforms. Event organizers need only find one that will work with their event platform of choice and use it.
The “impossible” problem here lies in ignorance. The fact that it simply doesn’t occur to event organizers that d/Deaf, hard of hearing, and people who rely on captions for other reasons might even want to attend their event. We are left having to ask whether or not an event will have captions the vast majority of the time.
Here’s how that process often goes:
- An event is in the planning and creation stage for weeks or months.
- The event is announced to the public with sign-up info on the event site.
- We scour every page of the site, trying to find captioning info of any kind.
- Having found nothing, we email the event host to ask.
- By this time, it’s often far too late to implement captions.
- We are, once again, refused access to events due to ignorance.
- This happens over and over again because the ignorance and oversight remains.
I have asked about events being captioned more times than I can recall at this point and here are a few of the responses I’ve gotten (my imagined responses are in italics):
- No, there won’t be captions available. Sorry. Oh, I guess you don’t want my money then. Sorry.
- Captions aren’t in the budget at this time. Hmm. Helpful to know that disabled people aren’t a population you budget for.
- We’re not sure how to go about providing captions. I can help with that, if you’d like. (This is my actual response to this, I’m happy to offer guidance.)
- No, no one in our audience requires captions. Hello, nice to meet you, I assumed my inquiry disproved this?
These are my imagined responses because I know that most of the time, responding will only serve to make me angry and more exhausted. One can only be told “no, you’re not welcome” or “sorry, we forgot you actually exist” so many times before they just stop asking.
The worst response I’ve gotten is from a man who had the audacity to suggest that I take a $49 discount and pay for my own captions. For an entire conference. For reference, I recently ordered captions for a three-hour video, next-day turn-around, edited by a human transcriptionist. It cost nearly $500. For a standard five day turn-around, it would have cost about $200. Accessibility is not cheap but this does not mean you simply don’t do it. It means you build your budget with disabled people in mind. Anything short of that and you might as well put a disclaimer on your event page, “Disabled people not welcome.”
I’ve been reading The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop by Felicia Rose Chavez and Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses and both feel like a gift to my writing practice. As much as they’re driving me to improve how I teach writing, the books are also making me rethink how, as a community of writers, we need to rethink how we approach inclusion and reimagine how we create online writing events.
Both of these brilliant new books give readers a roadmap for changing how they think about the writing workshop. Specifically, they encourage readers to dismantle the white male centric foundation upon which writing workshops were created.
I don’t think I would be reaching if I said that writing events were designed around this very same white male (and abled) centric view of writing. With this in mind, it’s also not a stretch to say that everything in both Craft in the Real World and The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop can be applied to writing events as well.
To make writing inclusive, we also need to make networking and learning in writing inclusive. Budgets need to be built with disabled writers in mind, BIPOC writers in mind, and we need to be at the table for all of these things in their very early planning stages.
The excuse of ignorance, especially in this time of being Very Online, is simply no longer acceptable or excusable. Failing to realize that people who don’t have lived experiences identical to yours want to attend the events you plan is more than ignorance now when free, open access to so many of us is available across all social networks. One need only look outside their bubbles of comfort to see how dire the need for change in writing, writing workshops, and writing events is.