Between Routine and Utopian: Accessibility at Lit Events
September 10, 2020 § 4 Comments
By Amy Berkowitz
A few months ago, a friend told me they were watching a concert on YouTube Live when they were suddenly overwhelmed by grief. They were enjoying the music so much, and then they thought about how temporary the pleasure was: once quarantine was over, they wouldn’t be able to go to shows anymore, as most venues aren’t accessible to them.
The amount of high-quality arts programming that’s been made available online during COVID is dizzying: on any given night, I can check out a poetry reading, an artist talk, a concert, and a comedy show. But while this glut of diverse entertainment is exciting, it’s also bittersweet. For one thing, well, it’s the result of a devastating global pandemic. And on top of that, it’s only being provided now that everybody can’t go to live events. For sick and disabled people, it’s been painful to watch accommodations that have been denied to us—or even framed as impossible—for decades immediately manifest as soon as able-bodied people need them too. All of a sudden, remote work and virtual learning are the norm, and you can go to a reading without getting out of bed.
As a chronically ill writer who wrote a book about chronic illness (Tender Points, rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019), much of my experience navigating accessibility has been around literary events. Right before shelter in place started, I did two readings back to back in New York and DC that have made a lingering impact on how I think about accessibility.
I generally make an effort to read in accessible spaces, and I was particularly committed to finding one for the New York event because I was appearing in conversation with a filmmaker whose work also centers chronic illness. I emailed my disability community friends, my art friends, my publisher—do you know an accessible, large-ish space that we could use for free?
I got a lot of almost-but-not-quites: it’s accessible, but the bathroom isn’t; or it’s accessible but it’s small, so the audience will have to stand. And then my publisher put us in touch with Mara Mills, co-founder and co-director of the NYU Center for Disability Studies, and all of a sudden our event was being hosted by the NYU Center for Disability Studies.
The reading at NYU was the most thoughtfully accessible event I’d ever been part of. It’s not that I hadn’t been around accessible events before; in 2016, I co-organized Sick Fest, a free Oakland event that featured readings and performances by sick and disabled artists and writers. We did our best to make Sick Fest accessible, but we were winging it: we had no budget and none of us had ever organized a large event before, accessible or not, so we had to educate ourselves about what accommodations to provide and then somehow figure out how to provide them for free. While we did manage to find a wheelchair accessible space and arrange for ASL interpretation and other accommodations, some of the logistics weren’t sorted out until the last minute.
But at the Center for Disability Studies, as you’d imagine, accessibility was built in. There was plenty of space for audience members in wheelchairs; a CART captioner typed our words as we spoke and they appeared on a big screen. I’d never seen CART captioning before, and I was a bit distracted by it, in part by the narcissistic pleasure of seeing my speech appear in big green letters and in part by the joy of seeing this accommodation provided for the first time. And it hadn’t even been something I had to ask for or fight for or scrounge up funds for. The Center for Disability Studies provided it because that’s how their events are. For them, it was routine; for me, it was utopian. What if all events were CART captioned? What if accessibility was a thing you didn’t have to wrangle? What if it was always built in, assumed, part of any space?
Three days later, in DC, I appeared in conversation with a memoirist whose publisher had arranged for our reading to be held at an independent bookstore. It was a great venue, except for one thing: the event space was down two flights of stairs. I have a couple of friends in the DC area, a fiction writer and a poet. The fiction writer came to the reading; the poet, who gets around on crutches, did not. As I walked down those stairs to the event, I thought about how they were keeping my friend out and I wondered who else they were keeping out. But once the reading started, the venue’s inaccessibility fell from my thoughts, replaced by nerves and excitement about the memoirist’s book. For the two or so hours we talked and answered questions from the audience, the fact that we were in an inaccessible space didn’t cross my mind.
Remembering my reading at the bookstore helps me understand how easy it is for most people not to think about accessibility. If you’re able bodied and go to events in lots of inaccessible spaces, you might think there’s no need to have your event in an accessible space because you don’t know any wheelchair users who like poetry or film or memoirs.
And thinking about my reading at the Center for Disability Studies helps me envision exactly how beautiful access is, how it brings people together, makes everyone welcome, includes everyone in the conversation. How access is an act of love, as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes.
I don’t know what will happen when the pandemic is over. I can’t say I’m too optimistic about these gains in accessibility lasting any longer than able-bodied people need them, but maybe the future will prove me wrong. I don’t think we’ll have live streams of every reading and show, but I could see some arts organizations rethinking their online offerings. I do think this is a great time for everyone—including and especially (currently) able-bodied people—to be thinking and talking more about disability and access.
Amy Berkowitz is the author of Tender Points, originally published by Timeless, Infinite Light in 2015 and rereleased by Nightboat Books in 2019. Other writing has appeared in publications including Bitch, McSweeney’s, and Jewish Currents. She lives in a rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco, where she’s writing a novel.
Brevity‘s special issue on Experiences of Disability launches on September 15, 2020