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Amy Lobben, AAG President

Many of us “went” to the AAG annual meeting last month, scheduled to take place in Seattle. Of course, we all attended virtually from separate isolated locations. I attended from my living room, my kitchen table, and my bedroom floor. Though just to insert some sense of the old days, for one committee meeting, I invited one of my University of Oregon colleagues (Alec Murphy) to the “Presidential Suite” (my kitchen table). I mistakenly thought the meeting was scheduled for later in the day and in my email invite, I offered to serve charcuterie and wine. Alec corrected my timing mistake and suggested that 8am might be too early for wine. I’m not so sure.

Amy Lobben at her kitchen table with laptop
President Lobben opening up “the Presidental Suite” (her table at home, and a laptop) at AAG 2021.

Keeping with my personal mission and my conference theme of Access, now is a good time to discuss how we all can participate in enhancing inclusion of attendees with disabilities at our meetings, whether they be national, regional, or in our departments. And wouldn’t it be nice if we all could be disciples, each carrying this message forward into our sister organizations when we attend meetings in cognate disciplines? My hope is that this column will be useful going forward, in particular for people who are as yet less familiar with disability and other accessibility issues, not just at AAG but at other conferences as well.

Let me start with a bit of background. Over its lifetime, members of the Disability Specialty Group have spent significant time and effort working on issues of access, inclusion, and optimal integration at the AAG Annual Meetings. These efforts have included advocating for accommodations, sending advance scouts to venues, reporting on mobility strategies, and developing guidelines for conference assistants (for example, identifying an accessible route between the Marriott Wardman Park and the Omni Shoreham Hotels in Washington, D.C; it’s certainly not a direct one).

These efforts are beyond helpful—they are necessary for many of our members. But, these are not the sort of activities in which AAG Specialty Groups should have to engage in on their own. Imagine tasking members of the Water Resources Specialty Group with mapping access to safe drinking water at each conference.

As a result, AAG Council approved the creation of an Accessibility Task Force to ensure structural foregrounding of accessibility for all in all AAG’s operations. While I hope that this Task Force will continue to work on additional issues of accessibility, the initial charge was to address physical barriers to access and inclusion in the AAG. The first report has been drafted and submitted to Council and focuses on three issues: the website, Meridian Place, and the annual conference. AAG staff are already working on implementing nearly all of the report’s recommendations. Task Force members and I are thrilled by this progress and applaud our AAG leadership for taking these steps.

While I hope that this Task Force will continue to work on additional issues of accessibility, the initial charge was to address physical barriers to access and inclusion in the AAG.

But there are substantial barriers to access—socially situated barriers—that AAG cannot legislate or manage centrally. The social model of disability recognizes that disability manifests in cultural attitudes embedded in social practices. It’s the social model that suggests our society has to change to remove disabling barriers to access.

At the AAG annual meeting, many of these socially constructed barriers to access are created by other attendees. This is something that is in your control.

If you want to take small, individual and significant steps to foster inclusion, consider making the following social and behavioral changes outlined in the table below. This list is put together from a short survey I sent out to members of our Task Force and from my own personal experiences. It is by no means inclusive of all the measures we can take, and does not touch on other sets of measures that would help inclusion for other marginalized groups, but it is a starting point. And it is often taking that first step that opens us up to being more aware of how our actions affect others.

  • Don’t block ramps.
  • Adjust microphone heights as necessary.
  • Ensure equal integration in spaces (don’t relegate people with mobility devices to areas just for them or to the margins of the room).
  • Don’t move chairs around and block access corridors.
  • Avoid wearing scents.
  • Respect independence.
  • Don’t pet service animals unless invited to do so.
  • Talking louder doesn’t improve clarity. Be clearer rather than louder.
  • Don’t use flash photography or other strobe-like devices.
  • Avoid low lighting. It’s not safe for anyone, but especially unsafe for people who are blind or have low vision.
  • When communicating with someone using a sign language interpreter don’t talk to the interpreter, talk to the person with whom you’re communicating.

I want to spend some time contextualizing four important issues: judging others, bathrooms, language, and presentation guidelines.

Judging others: We all know that we’re not supposed to judge others based on appearance. And, yet we do. People who are visibly different from the majority of others that are present in a space are judged differently and assumed to be unable (or able). It’s an age-old adage: Don’t judge people by their appearances. This is especially true in the world of ability.

Bathrooms: I have to admit, I’m obsessed with bathrooms. They seem to be the battleground for so much of our collective history and ongoing exclusions – notably also around gender non-conformity and transgender rights in present times.

I also have deeply personal experiences navigating public toileting with my son with cognitive disabilities. Many of his and our experiences have not been easy, nor dignified. There have been many times when assisting my son has involved both of us finding ourselves on filthy public bathroom floors because public bathrooms are not designed for adults in his situation. Fortunately, my son can now use the family bathrooms or men’s bathrooms with Andrew (my husband). If Andrew isn’t with us, he and I go to the women’s bathroom. That often incites negative comments and critiques from others.

I’ve been asked not to use profanity in my columns. Too bad. If I could I’d be able to convey what I think about the judgement of others in the women’s bathroom in those circumstances.

But, my obsession with bathrooms isn’t really about the bathroom itself. It’s about how we have designed and legislated our bathrooms to control access to public space. From Victorian-era gender discrimination (which extended far beyond just public bathrooms), to Jim Crow racially segregated bathrooms (also extended far beyond bathroom spaces), to recent battles over transgender people’s rights to bathrooms (think North Carolina’s HB2 law), it seems that people only want to drop drawers in spaces that include people who only look like them or suspect they are like them.

The ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) ensures that public bathrooms provide accommodations for people with disabilities. But accommodation is not inclusion. ADA laws mandate separate spaces, including bathrooms (but also: building entrances, classrooms, hiring process, educational practices, work environments…). You’ve seen these bathroom spaces on campuses and in civic venues, airports, and conference settings–rows and rows of stalls for non-disabled people and merely one or two “disabled stalls.”

I’ve paid attention to our public bathrooms at the AAG annual meeting venues. Without exception, the gendered public bathrooms at our venues have been airport style; only one or two stalls for people with disabilities, but rows for non-disabled people.

Until our society implements universal design and access for our public bathrooms, in our future meetings, attendees can focus on two key things to ensure dignified access to bathrooms: 1. when both an accessible stall and standard stall are available, use the standard stall if you don’t need the accessible stall; and 2. avoid judging others for seemingly inappropriate use of an accessible stall; you cannot judge by appearance alone who needs to use those stalls.

Language. We must condemn the use of derogatory slurs about marginalized groups, and that includes words that are considered “metaphors” (e.g., “stupid” “crazy” “lame”) but really point to ableist thinking. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review provides a good overview on the use of ableist language.

I don’t think that most people are intentionally derogatory about or towards disability when they use such words. But, these are not used as words of praise, and their usage upholds stigma for many groups with cognitive impairments and/or mental health diagnoses.

For a handy guide on when it’s OK and not OK to words like those above, consult the chart below (which I developed from a chart from the Military Special Needs Network).

If/then chart showing that it is never okay to use a disability slur.
Adapted from the Military Special Needs Network

The National Center on Disability and Journalism (https://ncdj.org/style-guide/) lists some excellent guidelines for referring to people with disabilities. To paraphrase:

  • Refer to a disability only when it’s relevant to a conversation and when knowledge of the disability is certain (e.g. not based on appearance alone).
  • Be sensitive to preferences for people-first or identify-first language. For example: “People who are blind…” rather than “Blind people…” This is intended to emphasize an individual’s personhood rather than their disability. However, there are critiques against the use of people-first language, including that it is often imposed by non-disabled people on disabled individuals and that the use of people-first language does not address the social injustices faced by the disability community. Also, many disabled people prefer identity-centric language because their disability is an important part of their identity and because it facilitates activism based on identity. In any case, people have the right to refer to themselves however they want.
  • When possible, ask the individual how they would like to be described.
  • Avoid made-up words like “diversability” and “handicapable” unless referring to them in a quote, a movement, or an organization.

None of us can be perfect and language preferences are subject to change. In fact, the very term “disabled” is contested as pejorative and biased. But we can all try to be better in how we use language around ability. Be open to self-correction.

Presentation Guidelines. One of the primary goals of our annual meeting is to exchange scholarly findings and ideas. We mostly use an audio/visual format for that sharing. Yet not everyone uptakes audio/visual presented information in the same way. Fortunately, presenters have a few options for enhancing the accessibility of their presentation and, happily, these guidelines by the APHA will improve the effectiveness of presentations more generally. Moderators and organizers must also stay aware of the needs of all of their presenters with regard to disabilities and access.

Going back to the inclusion diagram I referenced in the March column. We all decide what sort of Annual Meeting we want to host and attend. We can reject the medical models that suggest that disability is a personal problem and can only be ‘fixed’ by medical intervention. Instead, we can embrace universal access, and a space, a culture, and an annual meeting that moves beyond individual accommodation so as to be truly inclusive.

If you’re wondering which disability model you embrace, answer this question: What do you think needs curing, the body or the society?

Thank you to the Accessibility Task Force for their efforts in drafting the first report: Audrey Kobayashi, Deborah Metzel, Katherine Ericson, Sandy Wong, Hamish Robertson, and Leonor Vanik. Thank you to several others who shared their conference experience with me as I gathered input for the foundation of this column. And thank you to Sandy Wong, Diana Beljaars, and Stephanie Coen for their feedback on initial drafts of this column.

—Amy Lobben
AAG President and Professor at University of Oregon
lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu

FURTHER INFORMATION

AAG 2021 sessions on disability, mental health, and access (for registrants’ view until May 11)

Accessibility Guidelines for Presenters, American Public Health Association

Disability Language Style Guide, National Center on Disability and Journalism

Knowledge base, including chart of definitions toward inclusion, Think Inclusive

Why You Need to Stop Using These Words and Phrases, Rakshitha Arni Ravishankar, Harvard Business Review

Military Special Needs Network and EFMP Coalition

Disability Justice, from Showing Up for Racial Justice, including these Google Docs:

Disability Home Manners

Disability Justice, anti-ableism and access resources, and 

Nuts and Bolts of Disability Access.

Is there a resource you’d recommend? Email us at newsletter [at] aag [dot] org.


Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at lobben [at] uoregon [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.