I’d like to share some thoughts that have come up for me around the Nuts and Bolts of Accessibility presentation I gave last weekend at Catalyst Con. Though I usually refrain from posting something here that is quite so meta. I think what has come up for me around presenting this topic is just a continuation of what I’ve been talking about up until now—sex, disability, accessibility, and the intersections between and ethics around all of these. As such, I hope it’ll be helpful for me to introduce my meanderings to the wider world.
Now that it’s over, I can say publicly that that was the first time I’ve given that presentation. I didn’t really know how a presentation on accessibility would go with the Catalyst crowd, a crowd of educators, bloggers, and other professional and laypeople who talk, write or think about sex and sexuality.
The marvel of social media is that I have a whole trove of tweets people made during the presentation to help me see whether or not this material landed. These tweets also helpl me figure out how to improve and expand on the material next time I present it. It’s fascinating, and a little other-worldly feeling, to have a real-time archive of what did and didn’t resonate with the audience. Thank you tweeters! Thank you also to Catalyst, for without the space, and the structure of the conference, I wouldn’t have been giving that presentation in the first place!
The process of preparing this presentation was personally and professionally illuminating. One of the things that can happen when one is, by necessity, focused on a daily basis on making sure one’s own access needs are met, is that the access needs of others become, personally-speaking, less relevant. Researching the needs of people with disabilities unlike my own has made me a more aware, and more knowledgeable, person. Other people’s struggles and needs do intersect and parallel mine, and I can–and really need to–be in solidarity with the folks who have those needs.
I’ve become more aware, too, of disability politics. Previously, my understanding of disability politics has been of the activist side–what some people might call the radical side. We need that activism; we need the people who use their strong voices, articulate words, and persistence to affect lasting change. We also need the love and connectedness I’ve been seeing in my reintroduction to disability activist politics. This is one example of what I mean—a note of solidarity that makes me cry, and makes me a better woman—personally and professionally.
This learning played out last weekend.
As a presenter, one of my responsibilities is making sure that as many people in the room as possible get what they need from my presentation. Not all may agree with me, not all may get what they wanted, or what they thought they were going to get, but I have to at least make sure, to the very best of my ability, that they’re all getting what I’m putting out there.
One of the participants in last week’s presentation is Deaf. This person was also at a presentation I co-presented about a year ago. It wasn’t until after that presentation that i learned this person had been there, and that they had primarily accessed the presentation through what people call lip-reading but which is actually more accurately termed speech-reading. Speech reading is difficult for most people; a skilled speech-reader, with no distractions, can usually pick up about a third of what is said. If a speech-reading person is tired, distracted, or, as in the talk I co-presented last year, has to follow more than one person speaking, the level of accuracy is going to be greatly affected.
As a presenter, I’m not comfortable with any of the people in the room only effectively being able to absorb a third of what I or others say during my presentation, and that some of what they’ve gotten may not actually be what was said. I can’t influence whether someone is paying attention, or how they’ll interpret what is said, but I can make sure they have access to everything that is going on in the room. In other words, while I am in that presentation space, and it is my scheduled presentation time, I, and anyone else I may be presenting with, have a responsibility to ensure the access and emotional safety needs of everyone in that room are met.
In addition to the average impediments to speech-reading, anyone watching my lips and face is probably going to have a much harder time reading my speech.
Because (here goes!) the face I have now is not the face I was born with. I’ve gone through a lot of surgery to correct facial anomalies, resulting in mild nerve damage and weak muscles. The way I form my words isn’t the way other people form their words. Knowing this makes me even less comfortable with the idea that someone might watch me present and not understand me.
Yes, this topic means enough to me that I’m willing to publicly share something that I don’t talk about with many people these days.
So,, what has unfolded for me over the past couple of months is a growing consciousness of cross-disability support and solidarity and a greater awareness of what is important to me as a presenter.
This year, the Deaf person I mentioned earlier didn’t have to read my speech or miss comments from audience members. There was an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter. So, any person in the room who would benefit from ASL—and there may well have been other people I wasn’t aware of—didn’t have to rely on watching my face,or on straining to hear my soft voice. They could focus on getting whatever they came to the presentation for; I hope they, and everyone else, got that.
And, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that it’s good practice to “walk the walk” as well as “talk the talk.” The idea of giving a presentation on disability and accessibility while being aware that someone who wanted to attend had an access barrier didn’t sit at all well with my sense of integrity.
I don’t know yet what this means for future presentations. Given the physical inaccessibility of so many spaces, the challenge of lining up interpreters or access equipment, I haven’t quite worked out how I’ll be able to ensure that people know they can get any access need met in any space where I’m presenting.
So, my integrity won’t let me put a fluffy happy ending on this, won’t let me declare undying promises of universal access,.
All I can do is continue to be self-reflective, as transparent as I can be, and to make a promise, to myself and others, to do the work that needs doing, and to stay the course when that work gets tough.
Wherever I go (professionally) I want to bring you with me.