More on Accessible Conferences: Pryal and “Reading Aloud”

Katie Rose Guest Pryal, one of my favorite writers on hidden disabilities, has produced some awesome work lately on accessibility. She was one of many people to write about the lack of disability content at the big Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, producing fabulous pieces about the nature of accessibility. Now she’s got a new piece for Vitae on academic conferences and accessibility for people with psychiatric disabilities.

Conferences are these oddly performative spaces where our work, in my field anyway, lingers in the gaps between ephemeral workshops and permanent peer reviewed scholarship. It’s vetted, but not really reviewed, and performed and critiqued on performance, even as in theory it’s all about the ideas rather than style. They can be hotbeds of prestige culture, gossip and critiques. I think they are very important, too, especially for small-time scholars isolated from their scholarly peers.

Pryal’s column is filled with important insights, but here’s the one I want to highlight today. She writes:

No more shaming for reading papers aloud. This is a pet peeve of mine. Many speakers at conferences get slammed either in private (by gossips) or on social media (by what I would consider trolls) for reading their conference papers out loud on a panel.

Now, some presenters read their papers because they lack audience awareness. They read fast to cram in all of their oh-so-important ideas, or they read the paper because they just didn’t prepare well. I’m not talking about these people right now.

I’m talking about another group of presenters — the ones who read their conference papers because they have to. Many of these people read their papers in a captivating manner. They have fabulous audience awareness. But they still read.

I am in this group of readers. We read because reading, itself, is an accessibility measure for us— for a whole host of individual reasons such as anxiety or disfluency.We read because doing so makes our participation at a conference possible. It’s makes the conference accessible.

Don’t shame presenters who read their papers. Don’t tweet snarky comments with the conference hashtag, e.g., “Ugh stop reading papers already! #conference2016.” First of all, we see those tweets. Second of all, you just might be attacking someone who reads because she doesn’t have a choice.

I am a performer, most at my ease in front of a full room with a lightly scripted text, at most, from which to deliver (or hidden in my study with the blinds drawn. It’s a balance of extremes). But that performance is not the why of a conference paper.

We build accessibility into our gatherings through policies, many of which Pryal details here (I offered some others in this piece I wrote for Vitae, based on interviewing a large number of scholars who identify as disabled).

But we also built accessibility by shifting our perceptions and embracing a culture that values neurodiversity, including diversity of paper delivery styles.

Finally, to Pryal’s point about conference tweeting, I’m total agreement. Tweeting shifts the temporary to the permanent, so my first rule is: Tweeter, do no harm.

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