Accessibility at ASECS and Beyond: A Guest Post by Dr. Jason Farr and Dr. Travis Chi Wing Lau

Title page of book manuscript

Title Page of Sarah Scott’s _Millenium Hall_ (4th ed., 1778. Photo credit: Kristin Distel, Ohio University)

In Sarah Scott’s Millenium Hall (1762), a group of women who have each escaped the dreadful consequences of toxic heterosexual courtships and disastrous marriages come together to establish a community of industrious laborers who work together for the common good. As the novel’s narrator, Sir George Ellison, and his “coxcomb” nephew, Lamont, are shown around the grounds of Millenium Hall (the name of the estate and namesake for the novel), they marvel at the variably-embodied, sensory impaired, and neurodiverse individuals that they encounter there. At one point, an aging woman reveals the core principles behind the estate’s organization through her description of her neighbors: “Now, there is neighbour Susan, and neighbour Rachel; Susan is lame, so she spins cloaths for Rachel; and Rachel cleans Susan’s house, and does such things for her as she cannot do for herself” (66). As the woman indicates to Ellison and Lamont, Susan and Rachel, and the estate inhabitants generally, depend upon one another for subsistence. Despite the individualism of their life there (they each live in different homes, for instance), the labor they perform is based on a communal and interchangeable kind of accessibility. Susan and Rachel, though each impaired in their distinctive ways, assist each other by completing tasks that the other would not be able to accomplish on their own. Each of the estate members works toward the common good of caring for one another, which in turn keeps the estate prosperous. Through this mindful organization of labor, the estate becomes accessible to figures from across the body and mind spectrums.

            We are fascinated by Scott’s portrayal of the utopian estate of Millenium Hall for the way that it balances the needs of the individual with those of the community. We might look to Scott’s portrayal of accessibility as a model for what we could achieve at ASECS meetings and in conference settings generally. Academia is, of course, a profession that demands individualized intellectual labor, but one of the most rewarding times of the year is when we all come together to share with each other what we have been reading, writing about, and teaching. And like Scott’s variably-embodied inhabitants, we all bring our unique embodiments to these meetings in shared space. We like to think of accessibility–in our panels, in the various social events we plan, and in the conference generally–as a collective way of both celebrating and including every body and mind. We see accessibility to be a cornerstone of scholarly community where there is space and time for everyone who attends.

If part of what we train our students to do is enter into scholarly conversations, how we go about that conversation in our own professional settings matters.

            Successful conferences can bring about transformations in the methods, archives, and topics within our field. Such substantive dialogue requires an ongoing attention to who has access to these spaces and conversations. If part of what we train our students to do is enter into scholarly conversations, how we go about that conversation in our own professional settings matters. The format of conference panels, which include both the delivered papers and subsequent Q&A, remains primarily aural. Papers are typically delivered sequentially in spoken form and sometimes accompanied with audio-visual presentations. However, those who may be hard of hearing, deaf, or have cognitive disabilities may not find the conventional spoken paper accessible even when delivered at the podium with a microphone.

While not every panelist may be working off of a scripted talk, accessibility copies can take the form of lists of key points or even sketches of the talk—any form that might guide your audience member.

A primary accessibility strategy widely adopted at many conferences including the MLA annual meeting is accessibility copies of individual given papers. Accessibility copies are typically large-print versions of the talk’s script, which attendees can use to follow along or refer to if they miss something. The Disability Caucus requests all of its panelists to have these copies regardless of whether or not an attendee requests accessibility copies in advance. This takes the pressure off attendees having to disclose any disabilities or having to constantly ask the chair of each panel they are interested in to provide copies. Most importantly, it does not make the assumption that all audience members’ bodyminds are the same. Papers are simply there if you need one, no questions asked. While not every panelist may be working off of a scripted talk, accessibility copies can take the form of lists of key points or even sketches of the talk—any form that might guide your audience member. Attending to accessibility involves an ongoing process of thinking through the inclusions and exclusions of a paper. How might you extend the reach of your ideas and thinking?

While there is no universal design that will make conferences perfectly accessible to all bodyminds in attendance, we want to stress the value of accessibility in the way it benefits every attendee. By enabling every attendee to engage with the presentations and feel more comfortable in conference settings, prioritizing accessibility actually improves the circulation of new ideas and new voices. We echo the principles guiding the Society for Disability Studies: foster community, strive to connect; think access, model access. This project is a collective one from which all of us in the field have to gain.

…We can work toward the creation of a community that accounts for everybody.

            We have included a link to a handy guide that includes different strategies–ranging from describing visuals in detail to chairing sessions–to improve accessibility at conferences. We hope that you will integrate these relatively easy accessibility tips into your experience during #ASECSat50. If you have any questions or concerns, please write to us or find us during the conference. Please do not be afraid to ask if you are concerned about an access issue, which we know can be hard to talk about. We are always happy to talk about accessibility and other disability-related issues as we ourselves learn new ways to make our own research and pedagogy accessible to not only our colleagues but our students and the wider public. Let’s make this a shared conversation so that, like the inhabitants of Millenium Hall, we can work toward the creation of a community that accounts for everybody.

Link for: “Toward a More Accessible Conference Presentation”

Jason Farr, Marquette University

Headshot of man wearing suit

Jason Farr is assistant professor of English at Marquette University and adjunct assistant professor in the Institute for Health & Equity at Medical College of Wisconsin. His book, Novel Bodies: Disability and Sexuality in Eighteenth-Century British Literature (Bucknell), will be out in June of 2019. His writing appears in venues such as Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, and The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation. He is currently working with colleagues at Marquette to establish a health humanities minor and serves on the board for Marquette’s Center for Gender and Sexualities Studies. He can be found on twitter at @farr_jason.


Travis Chi Wing Lau, University of Texas at Austin

b/w headshot

Travis Chi Wing Lau received his Ph.D. in English at the University of Pennsylvania and is a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Texas at Austin. His research interests include eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature, the history of medicine, medical humanities, and disability studies. His academic writing has been published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Romantic Circles, Digital Defoe, Disability Studies Quarterly, and English Language Notes. His creative writing has appeared in Wordgathering, Glass, The New Engagement, Nat. Brut, Matador Review, Impossible Archetype, Hematopoiesis Press, and Rogue Agent. His chapbook, The Bone Setter, was recently published with Damaged Goods Press. He currently serves as an editor for The Deaf Poets Society and a reviews poetry for publications like Up the Staircase Quarterly and Tupelo Quarterly. [ / @travisclau]


Works Cited:

Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. Edited by Gary Kelly. Peterborough: Broadview Press, 1995.


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