On Virtual Readings and Accessibility

August 17, 2020 § 10 Comments

Nancy NguyenBy Nancy Nguyen

Recently, I attended a knockout virtual reading highlighting writers with disabilities. Not only was I introduced to work that would otherwise be disregarded under “normal” circumstances (“normal” meaning auditoriums with steep ascending seats or the upstairs of a seedy bar that doesn’t have an elevator), but I found myself paying more attention than usual. Seamlessly, the facilitator handed off hosting privileges to each reader, and the highlighted reader shared their screen while they read aloud. In any other virtual reading circumstance, I would’ve opened my spiral notebook and sketched flowers as I listened, but this reading took accessibility a step further by sharing their manuscripts on the screen to accommodate the hearing impaired. As I read and listened, I was astonished by how easy it was for me to follow along.

Growing up, I was a quirky kid, whimsical with a limitless imagination. I would later learn that these descriptions were euphemisms for my chronic inability to focus. I was a habitual procrastinator, often guilty of overlooking small details, and I would automatically zone out upon hearing the monotonous drone of the priest’s homily during mass. It was only in graduate school, at the age of 28, that I went to see a therapist for the first time. After our second session, she graciously referred me to an ADHD specialist, who said I am textbook inattentive: limited attention span, good at cramming, painfully late diagnosis.

After shelter-in-place, I was lucky to find a job teaching writing to kids online. For the first time in my teaching career, I have been able to create my own work schedule and found a rewards system that works the best for me. For instance, I set up a timer for grading, bracketing fifteen-minute internet-browsing breaks between papers. When I have to buckle down and grade several papers or write up performance evaluations, I put on pants and sit out on my porch, which activates the Pavlovian part of my brain. I have also found more time to read, about half my reading made up of audiobooks I listen to on my walks. And of course, I’ve been spending my free evenings at virtual events.

Attending a virtual reading usually only requires an RSVP and a Zoom account. As the days in quarantine melt together like Jolly Ranchers in the cupholder of a hot car, I have been taking advantage of Zoom’s option to turn off my laptop’s video camera. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter how many days I’ve gone without showering, and I no longer worry about appearing like a well-behaved attendee. When I went to obligatory readings in graduate school, I practiced good attendee manners (left my phone in my backpack, refrained from doodling in the margins of my notes, kept foot-tapping to a minimum), but I usually came away having not retained much information. In the unchecked safety of my own home, however, I’ve been trying out ways to focus my attention. I’ve been sketching objects around my room and folding origami. Lately, I’ve been playing the online board game Ticket to Ride on my phone, which has been the best method thus far.

Unexpectedly, the pandemic has encouraged me to realize the value of my unique perspective, how much it lends to my sense of humor, my ability to problem solve, and of course, my writing.  During lockdown, I’ve discovered virtual readings, writing groups, and discussions. I’ve found organizations that uplift marginalized voices, like Radix Media (which organized the reading highlighting writers with disabilities and aims to spotlight marginalized groups in their monthly virtual readings) and Kweli Journal’s International Literary Festivals (a virtual ten-week long event dedicated to BIPOC writers that will recur annually).

No one really knows how long this pandemic will last. We can only glean the infection numbers and the ways our leadership has failed us in order to make conjectures and prepare. My single hope is that we observe all the ways shelter-in-place has improved our lives, that we remember these improvements when things become “normal,” though maybe we should realize by now that “normal” is a mirage. I hope working from home becomes more widely accepted, that we commute less and find more sustainable ways of living. That virtual readings, workshops, and events strive to become even more accessible and recur even after shelter-in-place is officially lifted. That we realize how many people would be excluded without them.

Nancy Nguyen is originally from Orange County, and she now resides in Baltimore. She was a 2019 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow, and she has received support and scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Kweli Journal. A selection of her work can be found in NANO Fiction, Pidgeonholes, and Jellyfish Review. She writes about women, environmentalism, and the ways in which capitalism stands at odds with family bond and loyalty.

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§ 10 Responses to On Virtual Readings and Accessibility

  • dougiej2009 says:

    Yes I am happy to do virtual reading sessions via zoom in the next few days just let me know date and what time this virtual reading session is

  • Modwyn says:

    Nancy, thanks for this thoughtful post! I hosted a few virtual poetry discussions and readings in April, and like you, I was excited by the greater accessibility. As a blind woman, I did not have to struggle with the erratic lighting of a venue or stress about navigating a big crowd. I also appreciated being able to read with authors I had only met virtually. There’s certainly a new variety of collaboration coming out of these stay-at-home readings.

  • juliemcgue says:

    Really nice perspective and well thought words to the page.

  • Thank you for this. I was nodding immediately.

    Like you, I see some positive good coming from lessons learned. Massive meetings are cumbersome to plan and inconvenient for many. I have “attended” readings I would not have been able to attend in the past. Some of us do not enjoy schmoozing. Turning off my image during Zoom worked for me too. Many people are glad to be working from home and may be allowed to continue.

    Perhaps it is not too late for me at 67 to work toward a diagnosis? Or perhaps I know without the name. Determined to get the work done, I set a count-down timer for each paper I graded to keep me moving along (not to get to breaks but to ensure that the work was completed and I did not get up to do other things). I always doodled during my years at university, while also taking notes (other students always wanted to borrow my notes—they made sense to me but likely not to them, and anyway it was the note-taking not the notes that help me). I accepted my own work habits decades ago, bargaining with myself to get to my goals.

  • bethfinke says:

    Interesting take on all of this. I am blind and have been leading memoir-writing classes for older adults — at libraries, cultural centers, and in peoples homes — until March of this year. Was reluctant to start teaching via Zoom but finally gave in and started doing so in May. Guess what? Attendance now is better than it was when teaching in-person! Much easier for people with minor (or sometimes, major) maladies to make it to class. Two of the classes I lead had the choice to start meeting in person again (the facilities they used to meet in have opened back up) but have chosen to stay meeting via Zoom. Keep up the good work you do, and if there’s a link we can use to find out the names of the people with disabilities who read at the virtual event you attended, I’d love to look them up –thanks. _____

  • mslabrat says:

    I am a writer with MS. II kind of LOVE Zoom readings because as an audience member I can get up, move around, stretch, run to the bathroom as necessary, and no one is offended.

  • JeanMarie says:

    Lover this post. I to am disabled (mobility and breathing) and have appreciated the zoom meetings. I’ve seen demand go up for the poetry critique workshop I’m part of when we went virtual for all kinds of reasons. Someone doesn’t have a car. Someone can’t drive at night. etc. Life is never going to go back to the same shape it was, and I’m glad that at least some of it is for the better.

  • Thank you! I got to my ADD diagnosis at a later age than you did. And so much of what you say rings true. Thank you again.

  • herheadache says:

    I am blind too and these things have been the benefits of all this, along with all the rest. I don’t have to worry about how to get to a reading or workshop. The poetry shared on Zoom has been great and I took an online writing class and have been holding writing hours with a few friends I met in that class. I hope things like this stay changed afterword. Thanks for highlighting this.

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