conferences

Disabled presenters tend to face really intense ableism. One way this plays out is that audiences laugh at us when we talk about serious things.

This happens particularly frequently when:

  • Nondisabled professionals or our parents are also on the panel, or presenting right before or after us.
  • The audience is primarily parents of disabled children/adults.
  • The audience is primarily professionals who work with people with intellectual disabilities.
  • We talk about a desire to be taken seriously.
  • We discuss our objections to being treated like children.
  • We describe being proud of a personal accomplishment.
  • We describe being treated inappropriately by a professional.
  • We describe how we felt as disabled children.

When audiences do this, it’s not nice laughter. It’s a way of asserting power. That laughter means “I don’t have to take you seriously”.

As a disabled presenter, it’s often possible to insist on respect. It’s easier said than done. It gets easier with practice, but the practice often hurts. Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

It can help to remind yourself that you know what you’re talking about, and the things you’re saying are important:

  • You’re presenting because you know what you’re talking about.
  • People should take your expertise seriously. When you talk about the things you know, they shouldn’t laugh at you.
  • Your accomplishments are not a joke. People should not laugh or be condescending about them.
  • People who treat you like a baby are doing something wrong. Your desire to be treated in an age-appropriate way is not a joke. People shouldn’t laugh at you for talking about it.

When an audience laughs at you, it can help to make it uncomfortable for them:

  • Don’t smile, and don’t laugh yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing. 
  • Wait a second before going on to make it feel awkward. 
  • One option: Ask the audience “Why is that funny?” then continue.
  • Another option: Repeat what you said before people started laughing.

Try to avoid nervous laughter and nervous smiles:

  • It’s taboo for disabled people to talk about disability.
  • Talking about taboo topics can be embarrassing.
  • When we’re talking about embarrassing things, it can be natural to smile or laugh nervously.
  • If you seem embarrassed, the audience is more likely to feel like the topic is embarrassing and laugh to get rid of the embarrassment.
  • If you laugh, the audience is more likely to feel like it’s ok for them to laugh.

Making jokes on purpose:

  • Making jokes can be a way to control what people are laughing about.
  • This can be easier than getting them to not laugh in the first place. 
  • In these contexts, it can be better to avoid self-deprecating humor. 
  • It’s usually better to make jokes about ableism.
  • (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule though, do what works for you.)

For instance, say you’re giving a talk about educational discrimination:

  • This is self-deprecating: 
  • “I was this ridiculous little kid in third grade. I was so enthusiastic, but I couldn’t even read. I’d hold up the books and pretend. My imaginary friend may have stolen the cookies, but she sure didn’t read for me.”
  • This is making fun of ableism:
  • “My teachers kept assigning me worksheets that I couldn’t do. They kept making me read in front of the class, even though I could never do it. They kept telling me to just do it. And they say we’re the ones who lack empathy and theory of mind.”

Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong:

  • Presenters/panelists with disabilities face intense ableism.
  • It’s going to hurt sometimes.
  • The problem isn’t that your skin is too thin; the problem is that people are hurting you.
  • A thick skin is still worth developing.
  • If an audience laughs at you, it’s their fault, not yours. They shouldn’t act like that.
  • It’s messed up that we have to develop skills at deflecting ableism and insisting on respect. 
  • It’s also worth knowing that these skills exist and can be learned.
  • It gets much easier with practice, but no one succeeds all the time.
  • When a talk goes bad, don’t beat yourself up, and don’t blame yourself for the audience’s ableism.
  • You’re ok, they’re ableist, and the things you have to say are still valuable when they’re not valued.

These are some of the methods I’ve used to deal with audience ableism. There are others. What are yours?

Tl;dr Disabled presenters face a lot of intense ableism. In particular, audiences often laugh at us. Scroll up for some methods for insisting on respect.

When audiences at disability conferences laugh instead of listening

A challenge to disability professionals and disabled presenters at conferences and panels: Please find a way to respond to the routine contempt that presenters with disabilities are treated with.

I’ve gone to a fair number of disability-related conferences in the past few years. At nearly every conference, I saw an audience laugh at a presenter/panelist with a developmental disability. This happened particularly often to presenters with intellectual disabilities, but I also saw it happen to autistic presenters and presenters with speech disabilities. 

This isn’t a matter of random jerk encounters; it’s a major cultural problem. Even disability professionals who pride themselves on inclusivity and respect tend to behave this way.

This isn’t nice laughter. It’s not a response to something funny. It’s a response to presenters talking about what they’re proud of, what they’re good at, or talking about wanting control over their own lives. People also laugh similarly when parents and siblings talking about their disabled relative wanting autonomy or objecting to being treated like a little child. This happens all the time, and it needs to stop.

If you’re moderating a panel and the audience laughs at a panelist, here’s one method for shutting this down:

Be proactive about taking the panelist seriously:

  • Don’t look at the audience while they’re laughing, and *especially* don’t laugh or smile yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing.
  • Pause briefly before going on. This will make the laughter feel awkward.
  • Ask the panelist a question that makes it clear that you respect what they’re saying.
  • You can explicitly ask “Did you mean that seriously?”
  • You can also be a bit less direct, and say something like “That sounds important. Can you say more?”
  • You can also ask a follow-up question about the specific thing they were saying. 

I think that we all need to be proactive about changing this culture. (Including disabled presenters who get laughed at; we need to insist on being taken seriously. More on that in another post).

There are more ways to shut down disrespectful laughter and insist on respectful interactions than I know about. What are yours?

when conferences have bad speakers

arobotstolemyuterus:

realsocialskills:

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

I suspect I may be on the autism spectrum, and when I found out that the keynote speaker at an upcoming conference is someone whose books have been extremely helpful to me, I strongly considered registering. I am not a member of the local advocacy and self-advocacy association that is hosting the conference, but I have had some contact with them in the past.

However, there is another conference speaker who is there to promote mindfulness. I looked her up online and she has no degree or similar professional credentials, just “life coach” certification and some “training” from someone from a pseudo-scientific organization.

I looked at her profile on a website and found simplistic new age victim blaming. I would like to contact the conference organizers about this to express my concerns, but I am not sure how (or even if) I should go about this.

realsocialskills said:

I’m not sure either. I’m posting this in part because I hope others have better suggestions.

It’s pretty much par for the course for conferences related to autism, disability, or self-advocacy to have at least some of this type of nonsense. There’s unfortunately a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense. (Including pseudoscientific nonsense like ABA that makes a lot of noise about being “evidence-based”.)

I think that the presence of bad speakers can’t always be dealbreaking. Most organizations who value good things enough to bring them to conferences also make a lot of mistakes and bring in bad things too. It’s hard to get access to the worthwhile stuff without being willing to tolerate some of the bad things to an extent.

There’s also a line. And it can be hard to know where to draw it. For me, one line is torture — I don’t go to conferences at which the JRC is presenting. I don’t know where you should draw lines about that kind of thing. I think it’s ok to decide that for you, speakers who promote victim-blaming ideas of mindfulness are dealbreaking. I think it’s also ok if you don’t. And that either way, commenting may be worthwhile.

If you decide that it’s not dealbreaking and that you’d like to go to the conference anyway, the way to do that might be submitting conference feedback. Most conferences solicit feedback from participants in some way. And most conferences take feedback into account at least a little.

In the immediate term, they’re probably going to keep making this kind of mistake, but I think it might be worth reaching out anyway. They might understand where you’re coming from, and they will definitely understand that a disabled person who wants to be involved is put off by their choice of speakers. It might plant seeds — especially if others also express this.

One way is to email them. There will probably be contact information on their website. (Or on the sponsoring organization’s website).

If they’re on Twitter, Twitter might be the best way to have this conversation. People generally feel more pressure to listen and respond to Twitter conversations than to emails. Also, other people can see what you say on Twitter. Which matters both because what you say might influence other people, and people who agree with you might come out of the woodwork and comment. (Which will make them see it as an concern that people have rather than an issue that one person has).

If you decide to contact them, it’s probably best to be polite and to refrain from insulting them. (Eg: Don’t say “you don’t care about disabled people” or “You’re terrible at picking speakers” or “You probably won’t listen.”) Instead, explain who you are in a way that makes it clear that you’re in their target demographic, and explain what your objections are in a way that a person who listened could understand.

It would probably be best to explain a bit what you mean by victim-blaming, because if they already understood that they probably would have selected another speaker. (Maybe along the lines of: “She implies that we can fix things by positive thinking. That’s a really hurtful thing to say to a roomful of people who experience discrimination. It makes it sound like it’s our fault.”)

Anyone else want to weigh in? What’s the best way to give feedback to conferences that make poor choices about which speakers to invite?

arobotstolemyuterus said:

Do her beliefs contradict the advocacy/self-advocacy group’s platform? 

I would send an email to the organizers of the conference offering evidence (links, screenshots, etc) of what you saw when you were researching the speaker (You can just say “I was curious about her background, so I looked her up”) and explain how, to you, that appears to go against their mission, citing specific examples and how it will likely make other conference attendees feel unsafe. 

Sadly people don’t always vet conference speakers, especially if they aren’t the keynote and she might have been invited because a member of the group saw a single presentation or something like that. They might pull her from the conference (it happens), they might tell you that they can’t do anything to cancel her right now, but they will express their concerns and make sure she sticks to certain topics and be more careful when choosing speakers in the future, or they may do nothing.

 How they respond might give you an indication as to whether you want to go to the conference. If they listen, even if they can’t cancel the speaker, it’s probably okay if you go. If they don’t, you might not want to go.

realsocialskills said:

Has anyone else tried this? How well did it work?

When conferences have bad speakers

Anonymous asked:

I suspect I may be on the autism spectrum, and when I found out that the keynote speaker at an upcoming conference is someone whose books have been extremely helpful to me, I strongly considered registering. I am not a member of the local advocacy and self-advocacy association that is hosting the conference, but I have had some contact with them in the past.

However, there is another conference speaker who is there to promote mindfulness. I looked her up online and she has no degree or similar professional credentials, just “life coach” certification and some “training” from someone from a pseudo-scientific organization.

I looked at her profile on a website and found simplistic new age victim blaming. I would like to contact the conference organizers about this to express my concerns, but I am not sure how (or even if) I should go about this.

realsocialskills said:

I’m not sure either. I’m posting this in part because I hope others have better suggestions.

It’s pretty much par for the course for conferences related to autism, disability, or self-advocacy to have at least some of this type of nonsense. There’s unfortunately a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense. (Including pseudoscientific nonsense like ABA that makes a lot of noise about being “evidence-based”.)

I think that the presence of bad speakers can’t always be dealbreaking. Most organizations who value good things enough to bring them to conferences also make a lot of mistakes and bring in bad things too. It’s hard to get access to the worthwhile stuff without being willing to tolerate some of the bad things to an extent.

There’s also a line. And it can be hard to know where to draw it. For me, one line is torture — I don’t go to conferences at which the JRC is presenting. I don’t know where you should draw lines about that kind of thing. I think it’s ok to decide that for you, speakers who promote victim-blaming ideas of mindfulness are dealbreaking. I think it’s also ok if you don’t. And that either way, commenting may be worthwhile.

If you decide that it’s not dealbreaking and that you’d like to go to the conference anyway, the way to do that might be submitting conference feedback. Most conferences solicit feedback from participants in some way. And most conferences take feedback into account at least a little.

In the immediate term, they’re probably going to keep making this kind of mistake, but I think it might be worth reaching out anyway. They might understand where you’re coming from, and they will definitely understand that a disabled person who wants to be involved is put off by their choice of speakers. It might plant seeds — especially if others also express this. 

One way is to email them. There will probably be contact information on their website. (Or on the sponsoring organization’s website).

If they’re on Twitter, Twitter might be the best way to have this conversation. People generally feel more pressure to listen and respond to Twitter conversations than to emails. Also, other people can see what you say on Twitter. Which matters both because what you say might influence other people, and people who agree with you might come out of the woodwork and comment. (Which will make them see it as an concern that people have rather than an issue that one person has). 

If you decide to contact them, it’s probably best to be polite and to refrain from insulting them. (Eg: Don’t say “you don’t care about disabled people” or “You’re terrible at picking speakers” or “You probably won’t listen.”) Instead, explain who you are in a way that makes it clear that you’re in their target demographic, and explain what your objections are in a way that a person who listened could understand. 

It would probably be best to explain a bit what you mean by victim-blaming, because if they already understood that they probably would have selected another speaker. (Maybe along the lines of: “She implies that we can fix things by positive thinking. That’s a really hurtful thing to say to a roomful of people who experience discrimination. It makes it sound like it’s our fault.”)

Anyone else want to weigh in? What’s the best way to give feedback to conferences that make poor choices about which speakers to invite?

Thoughts on asking better panel questions

At panel discussions, there is usually a chance for members of the audience to ask questions. If you want to get good answers to your question, it helps to ask the question a certain way. These are not absolute rules, but these general principles often help:

Ask one question:

  • If the panelists are interesting, you will probably have a pile of questions you want to ask them
  • It can be tempting to try to ask all the questions together in one long paragraph
  • That never works, because the panelists don’t actually have time to answer all ten of your complicated questions
  • And if your question gets overly long and complicated, they quit paying attention and just talk about what they want to talk about
  • If you want them to answer a question, you have to pick one.

Make sure your question is actually a question:

  • The point of asking questions is to get the panelists to share their perspective on something you care about
  • The question you ask should be possible to answer, and you should be interested in what the panelists think of it
  • Otherwise it’s not really a question
  • Sometimes people who think they’re asking a question are actually presenting a long monologue about their views on something
  • That really annoys everyone.
  • The people in the audience came to hear the panelists, not you. If you monologue instead of asking a question, it will annoy them.
  • (There’s almost always at least one person who does this.)
  • (There are some exceptions to this: if you’re sufficiently popular in that group that people are likely to be just as interested in what you say, *and* the panelists hold you in high regard and won’t mind, sometimes it’s ok. That’s rare.)

Questions to panelists should be specific, and easy for the panelists to understand. They should also be at least somewhat open-ended, so that the panelists will be able to give substantive and nuances answers. A few possible scripts for forming good questions (there are many others):

Asking how something works, or how something will happen, eg:

  • “How will the new version of your app support VoiceOver?“
  • “How do you decide what to put in the parameters for casting calls?”
  • “How do you respond when the alarm goes off in the spaceship?“

This can also be a short statement, then a question, eg:

  • “A lot of comedians tell offensive jokes. When you’re working on a routine, how do you figure when a joke you’re considering is crossing a line?”

Asking them to expand on something interesting they referenced by starting with “Can you say more about…”, eg:

  • “Can you say more about the time you quit a job at the Very Highly Regarded Charity for ethical reasons?“
  • “Can you say more about your methods for attracting butterflies without also attracting wasps?”

“What do you think about..?” or “Here’s a statement. What do you think about that?“

  • This can be good, but it can also be hard to make it specific.
  • Example of an overly vague question: “What do you think about pie?”
  • A better question: “What do you think of replacing cakes with pie on ceremonial occasions?“
  • Another example of a question that would be overly vague in most contexts: “What do you think about progress?”
  • A question that’s more likely to be answerable: “What do you think about the role of People in Our Field in making the world better?”
  • another example: “Some people say that if we wait long enough, things will get better on their own. What do you think about that?“
  • “What do you think about Other Person’s Theory? Does that seem true in your work?”

“Do you think that…"

  • This can be a good way to ask stuff
  • The problem is that it’s prone to cause a question to be overly closed
  • Eg: “Do you think that you will enjoy your next job?” is very unlikely to get a good answer
  • This might get a good answer: “Do you think that other women are still facing obstacles in your field?“
  • Offering alternatives can sometimes make the question seem more open, eg:
  • “Do you think that standardized testing is a good approach to improving special education outcomes, or do you favor a different approach?”

Asking about a rumor:

  • Make it clear which rumor you’re talking about, then ask about it (Asking “So, are the rumors true?” will not generally get an interesting answer).
  • “Is there any truth to that?” will often get a better answer than “Is that true?”
  • Example: “I heard that you’re working on a book of poetry about cats from a laser pointer’s perspective. Is there any truth to that?“

Questions that start simple and also ask for an explanation. There’s sometimes another way to phrase these too:

  • Adding “why or why not?”
  • eg: “Did you enjoy being a voice actor on the Simpsons? Why or why not?“
  • you could also ask that question this way: “What were some things you liked and disliked about being a voice actor on The Simpsons?”
  • another example: “Do you think that there is life on other planets? Why or why not?“

There are also questions that are challenges. These are harder to pull off. They still should be real questions, that it is actually possible to answer in a substantive way.

  • For instance “Isn’t it true that you’re an ableist and only care about yourself?” isn’t a good question because there’s no good way to answer it.
  • Asking that way makes you look like a jerk, even if you’re completely right in your assessment
  • It’s much more effective to challenge them on something specific, and to ask a question that it is possible to answer
  • (This can sometimes force them to consider the issue, or to reveal publicly that they’re getting it wrong.)
  • Example of a better question: “Why doesn’t the board of your Disability Organization About Disability have any openly disabled members?”
  • Or, you can push harder and say something like: “There are no openly disabled members on your board. What are you doing to address this problem?“
  • How far it’s useful to push depends a lot on context.
  • (The rule of only asking one clear question at a time is particularly important with challenges. If you ask a complicated or ambiguous challenge question, it makes it easy for them to evade it.)

If possible, keep your question short:

  • Most people don’t like to pay attention to long complicated questions
  • If your question is short and easy to understand quickly, you’re likely to get a better answer
  • Short questions are easier to understand
  • They’re also harder to evade
  • If your question is 1-3 sentences long, you will probably get a better answer than if it is substantially longer.

Think about your question before you start talking:

  • You will probably have to wait your turn to ask
  • While you’re waiting to be called on, it’s worth planning what you want to say and how you want to say it
  • If you wait and don’t figure out what you’re going to say until you start talking, it will probably be more verbose and less clear
  • If you can, it’s worth planning
  • (For some people, writing the question down first helps) 

None of these things are absolute rules, but all of them are potentially helpful. If you can’t communicate this way, you still have the right to ask questions. These are suggestions, not rules.

tl;dr If you’re at a panel discussion and want the panelists to give interesting answers to your question, there are things that make that more likely. Scroll up for some general principles and some scripts.


How to talk to strangers in social situations

It’s ok and socially expected to initiate conversations with strangers at certain kinds of gatherings. If a lot of people who don’t know each other are at the same gathering, and there is a social element to the gathering, it’s considered normal to initiate conversations with strangers.

Some examples of this type of environment:

  • Parties
  • Conferences
  • Freshman orientation
  • Kiddush after services at a synagogue

A script that usually works well for initiating conversation with a stranger:

  • You: Hi, I’m [Your name].
  • They will usually reply: I’m [their name].
  • Then the next thing you do is ask them a question that is slightly, but not very, personal based on the context
  • Then they usually answer and ask you the same question
  • This tends to result in you discovering something of mutual interest and having a conversation

Some examples of contextually appropriate questions:

  • If you’re at a party someone is throwing: “How do you know [host’s name]” usually works
  • (Even if they don’t actually know the host, this still usually works because they can answer something like “Actually, I came here with my friend.”)
  • If you’re at a conference: “What brings you here?” usually works. (And will usually get to an area of mutual interest quickly, since being at the same conference with someone implies that you care about some of the same things).
  • This is a better question than “What do you do?” because asking about someone’s job as an initial question is often interpreted as you asking them “Are you high status enough that I should bother talking to you?”. “What brings you here?” is more neutral
  • If you’re at a kiddush at a synagogue: “Are you a member here?” usually works, so long as you’re not asking it in an accusatory tone. 
  • If there’s a bat or bat mitzvah, “Are you relatives of the bar/bat mitzvah?” usually works (even if you’re not and they’re not. The question works no matter what the answer is
  • At freshman orientation or similar: “Where are you from?” usually works well as an initial question.

If you’re not sure whether you’ve met before, you can still introduce yourself. This is a script that works:

  • “I’m not sure if we’ve met before - I’m kind of bad with faces. I’m [Your name]”.
  • Then, if they don’t know you, you can use the usual script.
  • And if they do know you, then they’ll usually explain the context you know them in.
  • And then you can talk about that.

tl;dr It’s ok (and can be fun) to initiate conversations with strangers at parties and conferences and suchlike. Scroll up for some scripts.

Anyone else want to weigh in? What are some initial questions that work in other contexts?

Electricity is an access issue (short version)

A lot of people with disabilities need reliable access to electricity. If you don’t make electricity continuously available at your event, your event is not accessible.

Some people need electricity in order to breathe. Some people need electricity to be able to move across a room. Some people need electricity for life sustaining medical treatments. Some people need electricity to communicate.


All of these people, and anyone else with an access need for electricity, should be welcome at your event. They can be, if you make proper plans and make sure that electricity will be reliably available. 


(For further details, see this post.)