AWP, disability, and have you read… Buffalo Steel?
I won’t be attending the AWP conference this year. Not because it’s in LA and I’m on the East Coast. Not because flying there would be prohibitively expensive, or because none of the panels interest me. Not because I don’t want to see my friends and cohorts who will be attending, or hawk my book alongside my publisher, or network with the hundreds of like-minded individuals, or become inspired by the panels and talks presented.
Because I wasn’t invited. No, I wasn’t only not invited, I was directly and deliberately excluded. And I don’t go to parties where I’m not welcome. That’s poor form. That’s intrusion and as a woman with a disability, liberal politics and a propensity for falling in love with other women, I’m intrusive enough as it is.
The national AWP conference gathers writers, teachers and students of writing together every year in a different location across the country for the intended purpose of sharing ideas, strategies and best practices. Writers of some acclaim speak there every year, and it’s generally regarded as an excellent place to speak on and hear about what’s new and important in writing today, from a wide range of disciplines and sources from an equally wide array of backgrounds. This year, out of thousands of proposals for panels and presentations, the AWP chose not one disability-related panel. Imagine, for a moment, the AWP had chosen no panels by people of color. None by women. None by LGBT people. There would be an uproar. That uproar, except within the still fairly insular disability writing community, did not happen.
And why not? Because disability isn’t sexy. It’s messy, it’s inconvenient and it’s pushed (sometimes literally) to the side of the national conversation, because some of us don’t “speak” in the same way as the rest, because we have scary metal protrusions as part of our movable bodies, because we come with wigs and ostomy bags and assistive devices that don’t look like we want people to look, because we require “special” accommodations and a separate office to provide them and really, who has the time or money for all of that?
What I want to say – no, what I want to scream from the roof of the capitol building – is that disability rights matter. Because at any moment, any one of us can join the disability community and that should matter to you, if your own autonomy matters to you and dear reader, I highly suspect it does.
I don’t think anyone joins the disability community willingly. When I awoke in the back of an ambulance almost a decade ago, I didn’t expect that would be my end game. I exist within the community from a place of privilege, since my disabilities are intermittently invisible. I can “pass” as normal, most of the time, so it’d be easy for me to ignore the issues, stay off the battlefield. But that’s never been my M.O. When I learned disability would be my life, first I got angry. Then I got to work. Because I already get shit for being a queer female. I’m not taking it for the way I move, too.
Disability literature has historically been excluded from the major publications we think of as canon. Sure, we have our own lit mags and journals, our own “binders,” if you will. But as other minority groups will agree, separate but equal isn’t equal at all. Until disability is seen as just another intersection of the broad community that makes up our beautifully diverse world of writers, we’ve still got work to do. I’m challenging the Goddard community, as a people of action, change and speaking truth to power, to join that fight with me.
If you’re going to AWP this week, you may notice there’s a disability caucus on the list of events. I encourage you to attend the caucus, whether or not you think you’re “into” disability literature. Check out the books for sale, open your mind to what “crip lit” means. There’s a misconception that disability is sad, pathetic, a downer. Or worse, that it’s inspirational, uplifting, filled with grace. I encourage you to think of disability literature as another section of the canon, just like literature by women, by people of color, by LGBT writers. We’ve stopped accepting writing by old, white men as the only books worth reading. Isn’t it time we expanded our palate to include disabled writers too?
I won’t be attending the AWP conference this year, but I won’t be sitting here silent about it either. Because I don’t have the luxury of ignoring the issues surrounding disability rights and equal access. It’s time we realize that someday, chances are, neither will you.
March 30, 2016 — VIDA: Women in Literary Arts announces our 2015 Intersectional VIDA Count! http://www.vidaweb.org/the-2015-vida-count/
Lizz Schumer is the author of “Buffalo Steel,” a re-imagination of her Goddard thesis, as well as a freelance food writer, journalist, photographer and disability rights activist. She teaches journalism at Canisius College and creative writing for National Geographic Student Expeditions and works as the PR and marketing director for Resurgence Brewing Company. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming on Buffalo.com, Buffalo Spree Magazine, Block Club Magazine, Wordgathering, Minerva Rising, The Cronium Review, Love Your Rebellion, Breath & Shadow, Salon.com, xojane.com, Themighty.com and many others.