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Sunday, 22 June 2014

My SDS Conference Experience

The image shows my official 'SDS Summer Camp Minneapolis 2014' 
T-shirt (by Teddy's T's) and my (stylish yet practical) 
Society of Disability Studies conference bag. 

Almost as soon as I began working in the field of Disability Studies, I started hearing amazing things about the SDS conference, an annual gathering of Disability Studies scholars, students and activists organised by the US-based Society for Disability Studies.

This year was the first that I managed to find the time and the money to make the trip across the Atlantic to the conference which took place between 11th and 14th June in sunny Minneapolis. Aside from presenting the work that I have been doing at the Valentin Hauy archive in my paper 'Sustaining Blindness in Literature; Lessons from French History', I was looking forward to using the conference to make contacts across the sector as well as getting a real sense of current trends and tendencies in Disability Studies.

The first thing that struck me as I perused the programme was that SDS is so much more than an academic conference. As well as the scholarly sessions I was expecting - where 3 or 4 academics present a 20-minute paper and then take questions - there was a huge variety of other kinds of sessions offered, including workshops, meetings, performances and even yoga! I attended a very thought-provoking workshop on 'Disability Culture Pedagogy' in which five teachers shared ideas for bringing disability-centred practice into the classroom. In another session on universal design, we heard about how five 'disability objects' have the power to change the ways in which the non-disabled relate to their everyday environment. I was particularly excited to attend a lunchtime meeting on 'Blogging in the Disability Community' where I learnt more about some great blogs (including That Crazy Crippled Chick, Autistichoya, Words I Wheel By, Bad Cripple, Lead On Network, CP Shoes and Claiming Crip) and shared advice, stories and more. I'm hoping that this will lead to an improved blog presence on the SDS website as well as the establishment of an SDS Bloggers special interest group.

Much more than the content of the panels and sessions themselves, it was the atmosphere of the conference which I found most refreshing and rewarding. It was such a treat to be in a place with 400 like-minded people who understand why disability needs to be talked about. When explaining my work to my non-disabled friends and colleagues, I frequently find myself needing to use all my energy merely to justify the importance and relevance of Disability Studies before I can even get on to the actual work I do. Everyone at SDS is already committed to furthering work in this crucial field of study: it was such a pleasure to share my thoughts and findings with a supportive and encouraging community of scholars and students.

Travelling alone to a huge conference can feel isolating and lonely and I was fully prepared to spend my evenings and lunch hours on my own with my kindle. But it turns out that Disability Studies folk love to party! I made my first new friends in the taxi ride from the airport and within minutes of picking up my registration pack I felt bathed in the warm glow of friendship. I spent more time eating and drinking with friends than I would have thought possible and even ended up sharing my room with a conference delegate and her dog one night. As well as catching up with some of the friends I made at last year's History of Blindness conference in Paris, I made some great new friends whom I'm already looking forward to seeing again as we work together on future projects.

Unsurprisingly, this was without doubt the most accessible conference I have ever been to. There was lots of space for wheelchair riders and service dogs and presenters were issued with comprehensive guidelines about how to make their papers accessible to all. All sessions had live captioning and ASL signing, braille, and large-print programmes were available on request. When I arrived I was given a free and extremely helpful 'orientation tour' of all the conference venues and I was sent a detailed description of the layout of my room (including the whereabouts of crucial items like light switches and plugs), in advance of my arrival. But there were times when blind and partially blind delegates did not have access to as much information as their sighted peers. Neither of the plenary sessions were audio-described and as one involved a certain amount of visual comedy, and the other an extensive and detailed powerpoint presentation, I didn't get as much out of either as I would have liked. The Society's 'silent auction' which raises money for scholarships, was very sight-reliant. Even though the organiser was happy to make time to describe some of the items to me, I found it hard to get excited about bid details that I could not see. There was also an extensive book display which was hard for me to properly appreciate. A digital list of auction items and books on display would have been enormously helpful (and presumably very easy to produce.) These are minor quibbles which did not spoil my overall conference experience. (And next year I'll know to specify these needs clearly on the registration form.) But they did make me think about the differences and divisions which exist even within the disability community.

These worries notwithstanding, I had a hugely positive and life-enhancing experience at SDS and I really hope to be able to attend again in Atlanta next year. It truly is a conference like no other and I'd urge anyone working on - or interested in - the field of Disability Studies to try and get there at least once.


  1. I was fascinated to read your positive account of your experience at SDS after reading several of Bill Peace's articles about the same conference:

    (And parenthetically, I'm surprised to see that you have CAPTCHAs enabled for comments!)

  2. Hi cstokley and thanks for your comments. I didn't mention cost precisely because it is a very divisive issue. I came to SDS via academia and it is no more expensive that other academic conferences I have attended in the States. Having organised conferences myself, I know that it is the service providers, ie hotels, caterers etc who are also to blame: they charge premium rates for conferences because for most conferences, delegates' conference fees are paid by their companies. As this is not always the case for SDS delegates, maybe the SDS should organise a more budget event in a university halls of residence or on a campus rather than in a luxury hotel. But levels of comfort might also diminish and some people wouldn't like that. Or they could be more proactive about room sharing, taxi-sharing and giving info on cheaper nearby hotel accommodation. At the Minneapolis conference there was information about cheap places to eat and so I never ate in the expensive hotel restaurant.

    I have no idea what CAPTCHA is... is this a good or bad thing? Should I un-enable? I've just gone with blogger default settings because I'm not a technical genius... any suggestions welcome

  3. CAPTCHA is a visual image presented to the person posting a comment - it is usually a picture of some distorted numbers and letters, and the commenter has to figure them out and type them in correctly to prove that s/he is not a spammer. Blogger's CAPTCHA implementation does provide an audio alternative, but it can be a roadblock for the visually impaired to navigate CAPTCHAs.

    I don't use CAPTCHA on my blogs. Sometimes I'll experience a small flurry of spam which I then have to stamp out, but my goal is try not to put any obstacles in the way of community. You might try disabling it and see if anything bad happens.

    Thanks for your response - your point is well taken that SDS is neither significantly more or less costly than other academic conferences, and I'm not sure that finding a way to lower the cost for the disabled per se (rather than some sort of means test) is the way to go about encouraging participation by disabled scholars.

    1. Thanks so much for alerting me to the CAPTCHA issue: I've de-enabled it now.
      Perhaps SDS might have reached the stage where it needs to splinter into 2: an academic conference and an activists' meet with much cheaper rates - but that would take away some of the diversity and energy I loved when I was there.

  4. The Club Mates Travel Difference Club Mates is a professional and specialist provider of holidays, touring and travel for people with a disability or maybe just those individuals who require any level of support or companionship when travelling anywhere nationally or internationally.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Wow, we had group shirt and that name was also sds.
    summer camp