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The Invisible Blind Man

Over this past weekend, I attended the Center for Inquiry (CFI) sponsored, Women in Secularism (WiS) conference in Washington, DC. I have had a total vision impairment for about 15 years, I've attended a lot of conferences during that time and, I have never faced discrimination as badly as I did at this event.

Approximately six weeks before the conference, my friend Amy Davis Roth (@surlyamy on Twitter), a leader in this community and one of the individuals who made the conference bearable for the two blind people in attendance, sent me the contact information for Melody Hensley, the WiS conference coordinator, so I could send her information about accessibility for people with disabilities. I first complained that the conference web site used a CAPTCHA with no audio alternative which, to a blind person, is equal to hanging a "whites only" sign on the door. I explained that it was impossible for a blind person to register for the conference and that we couldn't enjoy the "early bird" special - a savings of $50 afforded the people who could see. Melody's response was that we'll try harder next year and she did not offer blind people the early bird price even though it was impossible for us to access it on the site.

I wrote to Melody saying that the one really easy thing to do regarding the conference and people with disabilities who may attend was to add a simple link to send an email from the web site that just says, "If you need any special accommodations, please click this link to send us a note and we'll do our best to accommodate you." This wasn't added to the site (about a 30 second job for anyone using Wordpress) and the Canadian woman who came to the conference in a wheelchair found that the conference room had no aisles wide enough for her to go anywhere behind the front row of the chairs.

I understand that technological accessibility and web site stuff might not be the forte of a conference coordinator but I also asked Melody to email me the files containing the conference handouts and told her that if anyone else showed up at the conference who has a print impairment could then find me and I'll give them the handouts. Instead, Melody did nothing and the blind people in attendance couldn't read the information available to everyone else. How much effort is it to attach a few files to an email and send them to someone requesting such?

I recently attended the QED conference in Manchester, England. Before that conference, I sent Mike Hall, one of the Merseyside Skeptics and the host of the terrific Skeptics With A K podcast, an email similar to the one I sent Melody in advance of his conference. A few weeks before QED, I received an email with the PDFs of the conference handouts. Mike had already followed the accessibility guidelines and, voila, I had the handouts in hand. I told Melody that I would make her handouts accessible for anyone else but, alas, I didn't even have the opportunity to do a volunteer project for WiS that would have my own experience and that of any other blind, dyslexic, deaf person who understands sign language but can't read English or people with all sorts of other disabilities that might have been able to enjoy such when they can't handle printed documents.

When I, along with the only other blind person and our dogs arrived at the conference registration table, one person there offered the only helpful bit of advice given us at the conference by a conference official. He said, "This is a badge on a string, you put the string around your head!" Well, fucking duh, perhaps telling us how to get from the table to the conference room could have been helpful but, sigh, that simple courtesy seemed impossible for this conference to do for us.

Other very simple courtesies, things I would never have thought to even mention regarding accessibility for blind people included:

* No one told us that there were tables set up selling cool stuff. I'd have never found my friend Amy had she not shouted out to me as I walked passed her table.

* When we entered the reception on Friday night, not a single conference official or volunteer told us that there was a buffet nor did they offer to help us get some food or drinks. I'm happy to report that my new friend Shelley Segal, someone I met for the first time at that reception, was willing to shlep around getting us things to eat and cocktails for my friend.

* No one at the conference told us that there was free coffee and sodas available all day during the sessions. On Saturday morning, I heard the sounds of coffee pouring and shouted, "Can someone help get us coffee?" and a nice stranger helped us get our morning beverages.

* The only way to ask a question of the speakers was by writing your query down on an index card. Not a single conference official asked us if we might need help asking a question this way until Rebecca Watson alerted them to our dilemma.

* Only one speaker, one of the last speakers to do a presentation, actually thought that the two blind people sitting in the front row with their dogs, something obvious to anyone at the podium, might want her to read the things on her slides aloud so we might also know what the other people were laughing at. This presenter, though, is from Iran and she's experienced tremendously horrible discrimination up close and personal. It didn't matter how much diversity was being discussed on the stage, our abilities were simply ignored.

I could add more, the insults we endured kept coming. If it weren't for friends like Amy, Rebecca Watson, Carry Poppy and two new people we met at the conference (Shelley and a lovely woman named Debbie from Rhode Island Humanists), this conference would have been unbearable for us.

After the conference ended, I stood with Shelley in the hallway. We told her about our experience at the conference and she dragged Melody over to us so we could tell her our story directly. Then, we experienced first hand the words of privilege and the total ignorance, a willful ignorance as I had, six weeks earlier, offered to help her with these issues and our outrage only grew.

Melody tried the oldest ablest argument in the book when she said, "I know how it's like to be disabled because I once broke my ankle and couldn't go upstairs." I say, "I once dressed up as a nun for Halloween but that doesn't give me the experience of a Catholic woman." I have since spoken to Melody on the phone and she explained that she had hoped to tell us her story of being temporarily disabled as a way to described how she came to realize her own privilege. At the time of the discussion, though, I was very angry and didn't give her the opportunity to complete her story.

Then, as we described the constant insults we endured, Melody tried to sound sympathetic (a bit too late) and then she started to cry. I felt bad but also realized that, when I got to my room on Friday and Saturday nights, after spending time at the conference, that I wanted to cry too. At the time of our conversation, I hadn't heard about the shitstorm caused by Ron Lindsay's presentation and his incredibly offensive blog post filled with all sorts of ad hominem attacks on my friend Rebecca nor did I know about all of the women who came to Melody in tears that morning to talk about Lindsay's stupidity. In our telephone conversation, I expressed my sympathy to Melody for Ron having hijacked her conference and caused a change in focus from a really great set of presentations and panels into this year's US skeptical/atheist side show.

While talking to Melody in that hallway at the Marriott in DC, she apologized profusely and my friend and I accepted her apology and I expect that Women in Secularism will take accessibility seriously and will probably do a good job in the future.

I cannot blame the conference coordinators for the behavior of the attendees but this was also a downright surreal experience for both me and my blind friend. Lots of people approached us but, with very few exceptions, they talked to our dogs and not to us humans. A lot of people asked our dog's names but not ours. Those who actually engaged us in conversation talked only about dogs. I don't like telling people that I'm smart or whatever but my friend graduated from Princeton, works for the government in software accessibility, has been involved in feminism for a long time, is a humanist/atheist and would have all sorts of interesting things to talk to people at a secularism conference about if they showed any curiosity. This did not happen with anyone at the QED conference in the UK. Maybe the british public education system does a better job of teaching people about diversity in general or disability in specific, I don't know but I felt like a dog walking bot and not a human at WiS.

Then, after the conference had ended, I read Ron Lindsay's blog post attacking Rebecca Watson with a pile of ad hominem statements and a pathetic attempt to defend his own privilege. Rebecca is my friend and one of the only people at WiS who made it bearable for us unprivileged people with disabilities. He says that Rebecca must live in an "alternate universe" which may be true, she inhabits the universe where the glaring privilege of someone like Lindsay is so thick that the only three people with obvious disabilities attending the conference were made by his organization to feel invisible. I can't say that my universe is any different from Rebecca's so, maybe it's us who live in the real world and Lindsay, with his white male privilege, his fancy PhD, his working eyeballs and body, his intellectual friends and his conferences in luxury hotels has trouble with the realities faced by us with less power?

I will conclude by saying that I never felt "mistreated" at WiS. Instead, I felt invisible or, at best, like some sort of robotic dog handler there to amuse the other attendees. I'm not sure if I would have preferred out and out mistreatment as, then, I would have felt as if people held me in high enough esteem to hate me. Instead, I felt like the rock in the stream around which the water must flow - the stream indifferent to the rock.

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