Two anthropologists reflect on their experiences and ask what it will take to make our discipline and our Annual Meeting more accessible.
Why should you care about accessibility? And what does it mean to make our discipline and our Annual Meeting more accessible? Beyond the technical and logistical modifications, accessibility entails the recognition that disabled scholars and their research are central to anthropological epistemology. We, as disabled identified scholars, are not just another group to be studied and mined for data. We are you. Accessibility, then, is a social commitment that requires both dedication and transformation. It includes the many important policies found on the American Anthropological Association’s (AAA) Accessibility and Inclusion page, but it is also an understanding generated from listening to the voices of disabled scholars. It is in that spirit that we, as low-vision and blind scholars, offer these ethnographic snapshots of our recent experiences at the Annual Meeting in Vancouver. We hope this inspires others to share their stories so that as a community we can make both our Annual Meeting and our discipline more inclusive.
Arriving at the Annual Meeting
My wife and I are getting ready to leave our hotel to head to the Vancouver Convention Center (VCC) for the first day of the 2019 Canadian Anthropology Society / Société Canadienne d’Anthropologie (CASCA) and American Anthropological Association Annual Meeting. I’m carrying my cane, but I hesitate to unfold it, wondering if I should wait until we arrive. Although I’ve been legally blind for more than 20 years, I have only recently begun to use my cane on a regular basis. Why not? Is it the condescending look from a passing stranger that I glimpse from what’s left of my vision? Probably. Is it because I’m tired of the proud stranger infantilizing me? Probably. But maybe I’m also afraid, or ashamed, that the identity I create about myself won’t align with the identity that people create about me. Why do I feel like the cane dissolves my masculinity?
My wife, also an anthropologist, has come with me to the Annual Meeting. I don’t require my wife’s presence to succeed; but she takes care of the logistical and administrative tasks mundane to most, yet often overwhelming to me: researching and getting hotel reservations, figuring out directions, walking me to the venue, managing our budget, locating food, reading menus, assisting with accessibility issues that inevitably arise with my laptop (I am a screen reader user), and putting in the emotional labor it takes to deal with me. All of these tasks I can do, but as one interlocutor has calculated, they represent the 30 percent of the extra work that blind scholars do to accomplish the same tasks as a sighted person.
I’ve come to the Annual Meeting to begin my dissertation fieldwork by interviewing scholars who identify as disabled. I’m thinking through my interview script as I grapple with the decision whether to deploy my cane at the hotel, or just at the conference center. Am I an imposter? What right do I have to conduct these interviews if I can’t come to terms with my own identity?
With my eyes downcast and cheeks flushed, I decide to deploy the cane at the hotel and we walk to the VCC with a friend from my department. My heart rate seems to increase as we get closer—thousands of eyes must be staring at me, the guy with the cane. I feel like an outsider. My wife locates the door, and we enter and head for the stairs. The first thing I hear is, “Sir! The elevators are over here! Sir! Sir! Please, the elevators are over here!” So much for trying to blend in; I’ve been outed. Stigma’s finger points at me. I want to leave. I manage to keep it together and my wife and friend walk me to the registration booth.
To my surprise, the person working the registration desk didn’t infantilize me, didn’t speak loudly (a common response I encounter as a blind man), and provided the assistance I needed without making a scene that marked me as different. I could not have asked for a better encounter. Shortly afterwards, we ran into a dear friend and mentor. It was going to be a great day.
The first day of the AAA Annual Meeting is always the hardest. I don’t know my surroundings, I’m usually exhausted from traveling, and I have to spend most of the day figuring out where I am and where I want to go. This past November in Vancouver was my fourth Annual Meeting and the first day was no exception.
I’m sure the meetings pose distinct challenges to everyone who attends. They can represent a significant financial expense, they can pose risks for undocumented and immigrant colleagues, they are time consuming, and the sheer number of people and events can be anxiety inducing. I’ve certainly felt some of these burdens as a graduate student attendee, but the biggest obstacle to an enjoyable meeting are my eyes. I have albinism and as a consequence I am legally blind. I see well enough to make my way without assistance, but when it comes to reading signs, small text, maps, or just recognizing the faces of colleagues at a distance, I’m quickly overwhelmed. Embarking on a career as an anthropologist is a testament to years spent learning to survive and thrive with my disability, and yet I still struggle at the Annual Meeting.
This Annual Meeting was going to be different. The emails sent by the Association reiterating its support for accessibility and detailing the initiatives underway to make the Annual Meeting more accessible encouraged me to plan in advance. I took time to plot out my itinerary with the online scheduling tool. I studied the Google Map display of the area around the VCC and learned the names of the streets I’d use to get there from my hotel. Arriving Thursday morning ahead of a 10:00 a.m. Roundtable I organized with a colleague, I felt confident this meeting would be different, easier, more comfortable, and less overwhelming. I walked over to the badge pickup booth to find a computer where I would locate my registration and on the screen was a small text box asking for my registration email. I typed it in, unable to read what I wrote, and pressed “enter.” “No match found.” I tried to enlarge the display using the keyboard commands to figure out if I had made a typo, but they didn’t work. I leaned in close to the screen, squinting my eyes and feeling slightly embarrassed, but that didn’t help either. I retyped my email once, twice, three times, before it worked. A mix of frustration and relief enveloped me as a conference staff member handed me my badge lanyard. I walked away, humbled and defeated.
Brandon presents a paper
“Try to make more eye contact with the audience,” someone once advised me after I presented my work. Rather than explaining the trouble I have just focusing on the enlarged font on my paper or how looking up could mean losing my place, I let it go. Why is eye contact with the audience key to a good presentation? Isn’t it unfair to those of us who struggle just to see well, much less use our eyes to make “contact” with others? I’ve lost my place over my insecurity that I am not making eye contact, doubted myself and my work, and questioned whether I should attend conferences at all. In high school, I was a state finalist in Lincoln-Douglas debate and extemporaneous speaking, learning to adapt and eventually mastering my oratory skills. As a PhD student juggling the many anxieties of becoming an anthropologist, it sometimes feels like I’m having to learn those skills over again, even while holding onto the idea that public speaking performativity norms are largely bs.
In Vancouver, I opt to read from my laptop. I find out on the second day that the room for my panel is on the top floor of the convention center toward the back area that looks out onto the bay. I catch fellow conferencegoers staring peacefully at the water and the mountains in the background. But since I have albinism, the bright sunlight that drenches the convention hall is a burden and I’m forced to awkwardly put on my sunglasses when I’m in this part of the building or squint to provide some relief. My room is the last one along a row of glass walled rooms, with a side wall that is also glass and lets in even more light. The sky is overcast for our session, a blessing, and rain falls at various intensities throughout the afternoon, offering me a brooding background for my presentation. This is what Vancouver in November is supposed to look like, but nonetheless I feel relief as I conclude my paper and take my seat at the table. No one remarks on my eye contact.
Kevin attends a panel
My interviews were going better than expected, but I’m running late to a panel. I make my way into the Pan Pacific Hotel after someone finds me trying to enter through a window and kindly shows me the door. Once I make it in, I start to panic because I can’t figure out where the ushers are located. I try to blend into a group of people heading to the second floor; luckily they are also going to a panel. I make it to the hotel ballrooms, but now I have to figure out how to find the right room. I have enough residual vision left to just make out the room numbers, but I have to get intimately close. If you don’t know me, it could easily appear that I’m giving each placard a good sniff. At last, I find it.
Once seated, I am eager to see how or if the panelists would incorporate Nell’s guidelines into their presentation. (Nell Koneczny is the AAA accessibility and meetings coordinator.) One presenter does a nice job of describing her slides. Her technique demonstrates that describing images on slides doesn’t have to disrupt the flow of a presentation, nor does it have to become an awkward sidebar. Since I can’t see her, I am guessing that she wrote in the descriptions as part of her prepared talk, rather than shifting from her talk to the slides and back again. Another panelist made a strong effort at accessibility by explaining that people could access his slides online, but he didn’t do so until his talk began and I didn’t have time to find the materials online. It takes screen reader users longer to navigate than sighted people. Unfortunately, the other panelists do not describe their slides and I miss a lot of information.
The reason that describing images with clear and descriptive language is important is that low-vision and blind people use mental maps to create images based upon descriptions they hear.
Committing to accessibility
Accessibility is concerned with the social starting point, the “initial design” that ensures an environment is as inclusive as possible. This is distinct from accommodations, which are individually tailored remedies to ensure an environment is accessible for a specific person. While there might always be a gap between the accommodations a person needs and how accessible society is, the aim behind accessibility work is to strive to make this gap smaller by highlighting the ways particular practices can exclude particular groups of people. Efforts to make society—and our own Annual Meeting—more accessible is the result of hard-fought advocacy and struggle that are not just concerned with making the lives of people better, but with fostering a sense of mutual recognition meant to strengthen social bonds that tie our community together. In this sense, accessibility is as much about critically changing cultural practices as it is about addressing the material barriers that might make a particular space inaccessible.
We welcome the emphasis placed on accessibility at last year’s Annual Meeting in Vancouver. The materials created by Nell Koneczny offered a number of best practices and helpful tips addressing a range of accessibility concerns. It was great to read the various suggestions related to our needs, such as large font for handouts and PowerPoint presentations, reserved front-row seating, and a clear and easy process for requesting specific accommodations. At the same time, we became cognizant of other accessibility needs we hadn’t previously considered as well as practices we should follow when presenting.
Taken together, the suggestions can seem daunting if they are something one has never considered and is just now beginning to put into practice. Learning something new takes time and meaningful social change often requires diligence, repetition, and commitment before it is fully incorporated and carried out unconsciously. Our own experiences of adaptation have taught us to be patient, and we believe that ethos of patience is necessary if we as an anthropology community are going to commit to making our meetings and our profession more accessible. For many (including ourselves), a more accessible Annual Meeting cannot happen soon enough, but as each of our experiences in Vancouver suggests, this will be an iterative process filled with trial and error. The experiences we write about here are unique to low-vision and blind people, yet the marginalization, exclusion, and call to action might resonate with your own experiences. Are there aspects of your identity that marginalize, exclude, or make you feel a similar call to action?
Those who experience oppression know that addressing it is not an academic exercise. It is not enough to undertake initiatives that point to accessibility and create an illusion of inclusivity within anthropology. Our Association has demonstrated its commitment to accessibility by hiring an accessibility coordinator. Now it is our turn, as individuals and a community of anthropologists, to rise to the challenge and play our part.
Thank you for reading our stories. You’ve taken the first step in joining us.
For more information about AAA accessibility initiatives and resources, please visit our Accessibility & Accommodations web page.
Kevin Darcy is a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Colorado in Boulder where he researches caretaking relationships and interdependence among blind people in Colorado.
Brandon Hunter-Pazzara is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Princeton University where he researches labor unions and political-economy in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
Cite as: Hunter-Pazzara, Brandon, and Kevin Darcy. 2020. “Accessibility at the AAA Annual Meeting.” Anthropology News website, May 21, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1405