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Disability, access, and the virtual conference

After my first Zoom meeting of the pandemic, I found myself lying on the bathroom floor with my noise-cancelling headphones on, on the verge of a full-blown meltdown. As an autistic person, I’ve always been hypersensitive to noise and to visual stimuli—but I hadn’t realized that a Zoom meeting with my colleagues could cause sensory overload. The number of images on the computer screen, the amount of movement in those tiny thumb-nail images, and the speed with which the images had moved, flashed, and changed—not to mention the obtrusive noise of malfunctioning microphones and noisy, socially-distanced households—had been enough to make me physically sick. Although many people tend to assume that an online event is automatically more accessible than an in-person event (after all, people can attend without leaving their homes), this isn’t always the case. Even when online events are more accessible, one of the lessons the pandemic has reminded me of is that the act of creating disability access can fundamentally change the nature of the thing that is accessed.

“Creating access for people with disabilities sometimes means fundamentally changing the nature of the thing that is made accessible”

In writing my new book, Shakespeare and Disability Studies, I was interested in exploring disability access as art and in exploring disability access as a complicated (and complicating) multifaceted phenomenon. Disability access is rarely just a question of “Can someone with X impairment use Y?” but rather more often a question of “If we modify Y so that someone with X impairment can use it, how does it change the meaning, the experience, and the effect of Y?” Creating access for people with disabilities sometimes means fundamentally changing the nature of the thing that is made accessible, whether the thing made accessible is a Shakespeare play (“the play’s the thing”) or a Zoom meeting. When we change the nature of the thing made accessible, we don’t just create access and inclusion for people with disabilities—we often create a new kind of experience altogether. I continue to be delighted and inspired by the innovative works, events, and objects we create (whether knowingly or inadvertently) when we create access for people with disabilities. Sometimes those new works, events, and objects bear a resemblance to the inaccessible version from which they grew. At other times, they do not.

Perhaps the most complex possibility, and the one most fundamentally counter-intuitive to a culture in which able-bodied and neurotypical (non-autistic) thinking are prioritized, is when creating accessibility not only fundamentally changes the nature of the thing made accessible but also causes attendees with a disability to lose something valuable. This seems counter-intuitive because stereotypical ways of thinking about disability have (falsely) taught us that disability experience does not include pleasure and that eliminating barriers to access is always an inherent and uncomplicated good. Neither of these things is true. For example, this year I’ll lead seminars at two Shakespeare conferences (the Shakespeare Association of America and the World Shakespeare Congress). Because of the pandemic, both conferences, for the first time ever, will be held completely online. However, these virtual events are more complicated for me than they originally seem, and their accessibility represents both gain and loss.

“I continue to be delighted and inspired by the innovative works, events, and objects we create (whether knowingly or inadvertently) when we create access for people with disabilities.”

In some ways, both conferences will be more accessible for me in an online format. Traveling can be difficult for some autistic people (keeping in mind the effect of Zoom on my body and mind, imagine the effect of a crowded airport). I usually travel annually to the Shakespeare Association of America—but with much ado. I can’t fly alone (nor hope to navigate unfamiliar city streets or crowded hotels by myself) and so always travel with a support person. My support person is usually another Shakespearean, a kind volunteer who, after weathering the sensory travails of the airport and public transportation, will spend the conference with me. I am not independent. But also, I am never alone. Everything in my life is shared. There is a certain beauty in that. After a busy day of seminars and panels, I will lie on the hotel room bed in the fetal position, far too worn out from the crowds and the noise to do anything else, and my support person and I will gossip together with great pleasure about the intellectual goings-on of the conference.

Disability, in our culture, is stereotyped as loss. Accessibility, in our culture, is deemed as always good, always a gain. It is also often misunderstood as simple and one-dimensional, as easy to understand and to explain. This year, for the first time ever, I will attend the Shakespeare Association of America without a support person. I will be independent. It is important, however, to think about the enormous cost of making the conference fully accessible to me. This act of access will fundamentally change the nature of what the conference is. The only way to make the conference fully accessible to me is for its social component, its travel component, its in-person component, to be completely removed. This represents a loss for all of the people at the conference and, ironically, also a loss for me. Because after my seminar at the 2021 Shakespeare Association of America, I won’t return to my hotel room to gossip about the intellectual goings-on of the conference with my support person. Rather, I will shut down my computer and reflect silently on the events of the conference… alone… for the first time in my life.

Featured image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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