presentations

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.

Show explicit respect for your audience

When you’re giving a presentation, it’s important to show explicit respect for your audience.

Good presentations are essentially a collaboration between the presenter and the audience. You try to teach in a way that they can understand — and they try to listen and understand.

It’s hard to get anywhere with a hostile audience. When an audience thinks that you have contempt for them, they’re not likely to put much effort into listening to you. They’re actually likely to actively avoid listening to you. Presentations go best when you can get a significant percentage of your audience on your side as soon as possible.

One way to do this is to show explicit respect for your audience as soon as possible. It’s very helpful to find a point of genuine connection, and to name it explicitly. It doesn’t go without saying — especially if you’re addressing an audience that is used to people like you showing contempt for them.

For instance, if you’re teaching educators, it’s often worth acknowledging that their job is hard. If you’re teaching marginalized people, it’s often worth acknowledging marginalization. If you’re teaching a group of people who have an attitude or accomplishments you respect, it’s often worth saying what they are explicitly. Showing this kind of respect tends to make for a much more productive conversation.

Tl;dr If you’re giving a presentation to a group, it’s very helpful to show explicit respect for the group in your introductory remarks.

mathionalist:

“Does everyone understand?”

realsocialskills:

When you are making a presentation or giving a speech, it can be really helpful to check in with your audience about whether they’re understanding.

It’s also helpful to think carefully in advance about who your audience is and what it’s likely that they will already know,…

mathionalist said:

As a teacher, very much yes. In addition, I like to ask “What questions do people have?”, because it assumes there will be questions, and I ask “How do people feel about this? Confused? Ok? Totally got it?” and then scan the room making eye contact. This gives people time, it gives them scripts for saying they’re confused, and the eye contact sometimes makes people speak up.

realsocialskills said:

I really like that script.

Does this also work with the students who never make eye contact?

culturestress:

Planning decisions and activities when you are presenting

realsocialskills:

If you’re asking a group you’re presenting to do an activity, it’s important to decide in advance how the activity will work.

If you want your group’s input about the activity, plan in advance how you will solicit it. If you want them to choose a topic, plan in advance how that choice will…

culturestress said:

I often give a presentation where there’s a choice to be made by the audience that most people in it don’t care strongly about. (“Which one of these types of systemic oppression would you like to examine closely?”)

In these situations, I ask, “of these choices (written on board), is there any particular one anyone would like to investigate in-depth for our next exercise?”

I then wait for five seconds. This is usually enough time that someone will pick something. If not, I propose a topic. I then ask:

“Would anyone like to advocate for another choice?” and wait five seconds. Repeat process as necessary to accumulate options, and then allow each chooser space to advocate for their choice. Then call a vote.

Usually, everyone is okay with whatever the first choice is. This is a good way to pick an option from a large slate of choices, IMHO

realsocialskills said:

Do people ever advocate for a particular choice when you do that?

Planning decisions and activities when you are presenting

If you’re asking a group you’re presenting to do an activity, it’s important to decide in advance how the activity will work.

If you want your group’s input about the activity, plan in advance how you will solicit it. If you want them to choose a topic, plan in advance how that choice will happen. Just asking the group what they want isn’t enough. Things go much more smoothly when you plan the ways input and decisions will happen.

Some examples of how to do that:

  • “Break up into small groups. Your group can talk about either popsicles or hamburgers.”
  • “There are two options. We can either talk about experiences with discrimination or tactics for countering it. Let’s vote. Raise your hand if you want to talk about experiences. Raise your hand if you want to talk about tactics.”
  • You can also gauge which direction to go in by questions or comments your audience is making.

Don’t ask your group to make a complicated decision without support. Either make the decision in advance, or plan a straightforward way to make it in the moment with your group. Winging it is generally awkward and ineffective.

Something simple that can make presentations more accessible

If you will be using a handout in your presentation

  • Make more copies than you think you need. (Accessibility is more important than conserving paper)
  • If it seems like you don’t have enough copies, ask if anyone needs their own in order to be able to follow
  • Wait 10 seconds to give people a chance to respond.
  • If anyone needs their own, give it to them before you pass the sheets around to everyone else
  • (Some people need their own because they have to hold it in a particular way to be able to see the print clearly. Or because they need to write on it in order to follow. Or because they have communication problems that make sharing a document difficult).
  • Before your presentation, upload your handout file to dropbox or another file sharing site
  • Before you begin, let people know that it is available and where to find it
  • Put the URL on the print copies and the board
  • This is helpful because some people need large print or other modifications, or can turn pages on a computer but not a printout, and making files available makes the content usable