Disability Studies and..., Events and Conferences

Event Report: Gender and Dis/ability Day – thinking about ‘access’ #gendisability

I’ve finally got around to writing up a report from our Gender and Dis/ability day. Here it is:

In the final chapter of her brilliant book, Feminist Queer Crip, Alison Kafer poses three points of coalition to help us move towards ‘accessible futures’: 1) talking about access and toilets; 2) linking disability and environmental justice movements; and 3) having feminist-disability conversations around reproductive justice. All were topics discussed by around 50 people in Sheffield on May 10th 2014 at Gender and Dis/ability: Asking Difficult Questions; a one day event co-hosted by the DRF based at Sheffield Hallam University, people from the University of Sheffield (including members of the Postgraduate Gender Research Network [PGRN], Sociology and History departments) and Lancaster University.

The idea for this event began when I (Jenny Slater) presented at the Troubling Gender conference hosted a year earlier by Charlotte Jones and Jennifer Kettle, convenors of the PGRN. The Troubling Gender conference was great, stimulated much discussion, and a credit to those who presented and organised. However, despite an intersectional focus, mine was one of the only papers to ‘trouble gender’ alongside dis/ability. Noting this, conversations began with one of the organisers, Charlotte Jones, as to how we could explicitly address an often missing analysis of dis/ability in a future gender-based event; and the Gender and Dis/ability event was born.

Gathering a number of interested people together, conversations began. As an organising team we were committed to thinking holistically about ‘access’; we wanted this to be apparent discursively, theoretically and experientially throughout the day. We thought about ‘access’ along the lines of gender and disability, but also in terms of cost (we wanted a free event), and who would feel expected and welcome (we made a call which we hoped would attract people outside of academia).

We managed the above to varying degrees; without a budget, some things were tricky. Everyone involved in organising the event were employed and/or students in a university so we could book a space free of charge within a university building. Yet, a university building wasn’t our first choice of venue because, whilst university buildings may make some feel welcome, they’re not places everyone feels they belong. Those who haven’t been to university, for example, may not feel they are (to use Tanya Titchkosky’s words) ‘expected participants’ at such an event. Furthermore, one only has to look at the architecture of most university buildings to find that disabled people are not the ‘expected participants’. Although finances meant we had to settle on a university building, finding a building we felt was suitably accessible within the university was difficult.

We settled (eventually) on the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Sheffield. This offered us three rooms, in addition to toilets, a foyer and a small kitchen on a ground floor, with some parking outside. The building was in no way perfect – for reasons none of us could fathom, a cobbled floor inside separated the main conference rooms from the toilets (including the accessible toilet). The foyer was small with little room for seating and there wasn’t a space for us all to ‘be together’ during the day. Working within university regulations, we couldn’t offer an informal crèche to allow access for those with children, as is sometimes done in other radical/DIY spaces.

We deliberated over how to overcome some of our access dilemmas. We relabelled toilet doors so, rather than the gender binaries presumed and concreted through ‘male’, ‘female’ and ‘disabled’/‘accessible’ toilets, we had ‘toilets with urinals’, ‘toilets without urinals’ and ‘accessible/private’ toilets (something I’ll come back to). We discussed whether it was better to have less general conference space in order to provide a quiet room for those that may need it for a variety of reasons including taking time out or administering medication (and decided yes, it was). We wrote notes to people chairing sessions asking them not to presume pronouns of participants. As people signed up to join the event, we asked what we could do to make the space more accessible to them (and after the event, we asked again – so we can continue to struggle towards ‘access’ in the future).

So, access wasn’t ideal – there were things we would have liked to have done differently. Yet, we wondered through the conference what it would mean to have a ‘fully accessible’ space. We asked this question of our participants overtly through our wall of post-it-notes for people to add their thoughts. One delegate asked ‘can access needs clash?’ to which someone responded, ‘yes – I trip on the textured pavement which is put down for visually impaired people’. We also borrowed a toilet door from Sheffield University’s students union on which participants scribbled their toilet-related thoughts. As well as some ‘bog’ standard puns (‘URINE TROUBLE’; ‘this event is THE SHIT’; ‘FLUSH AWAY YOUR PRECONCEPTIONS’), delegates’ scribblings made us think about what it means to have access to toilets. This included having changing places (most ‘accessible toilets’ aren’t accessible enough); having more space to manoeuvre in toilets, more toilets in non-commercial spaces (‘FREE TO PEE!’); and relabeling doors with what’s inside rather than who’s allowed or expected to enter to try create spaces away from the (cis) gaze.

Toilet Door Graffitti

Moreover, conversations of access, inclusion and belonging continued through workshops and presentations (we tried to have one workshop and one presentation session running throughout). The first few sessions, for example, included Hannah Paterson running a workshop asking how activism and protest could be made accessible; Naomi Jacobs thought about in/exclusions of stories of women and disability in the bible; and Peter Fuzesi and Melania Moscoso addressed questions of bodies, autonomy and power.

Frances Ryan, journalist for The Guardian and The New Statesman, was one attendee at the event. In an article written after attending she noted that “some of the differences that disability provokes can complicate feminism’s understanding of female bodies and the oppression of them”. Cat Smith and Mathy Selvakumaran‘s presentations on fashion, desirability and norms highlighted some of the often uncomfortable relationships between ‘disability’ and ‘femininity’. We wanted to make recordings of the event available to those who could not attend, however, our technical failings meant only one of these recordings worked – you can, however, listen to Cat and Mathy’s discussions on our new DRF SoundCloud page. I’d also recommend Cat’s article, Normcore is Bullsh*t, and Mia Mingus’ blog to think some more about the issues raised in these talks.

Similarly important discussions carried on after lunch with presentations on queer disabled identities. Alexa Athelstan introduced the work of Peggy Munson in an important talk which included bringing our attention to fragrance free as an access requirement (something I myself need to learn more about). Following this Suchitra Chatterjee discussed hate crime in a presentation called ‘Race, Gender and Disability – or the Physically Disabled Bisexual Transgender Woman of Colour in the Room’. For Frances Ryan, the feminist-disability dilemmas are perhaps “never […] more riddled than with abortion”.  Hazel Kent facilitated a workshop on reproductive justice to ask some difficult questions regarding the exclusion of disabled women from abortion debates and the conflicts between pro-choice arguments and reproductive rights which are fully supportive of parents with disabled children.

For the penultimate session I attended Jude Woods’ workshop on doing intersectional, participatory community work. We talked about the tensions of working intersectionally with groups of people whose priorities may differ. The struggles and complexities of coalition through social movements was a theme running throughout the day, and immediately on leaving this workshop a friend told me I had missed “a GREAT panel” next door – where Míriam Arenas-Conejo and Anna Wates were discussing dis/ability and/in social movements. Two pertinent tweets (#gendisability) after this session read: “Walking as action and agency linked to political protest but little thought given to pace or visibility” and “The Street romanticised as place of political action, but gendered as male space, exclusionary for disabled people”.

One of the parallel sessions in the final slot of the day was cancelled so we ended on a workshop which everyone was invited to attend – and again, the conversation came back to toilets. Charlotte Jones, Hari Byles and myself facilitated a workshop called, On the Toilet: the Politics of Public and Private Space. In the book aptly named, Toilet, it’s pointed out that toilets are spaces often considered mundane, amusing or unimportant; they’re often left forgotten or ignored… until, that is, they are inadequate or unavailable. Charlotte and I met Hari through a shared conviction that toilets as more usually inadequate for some than for others. As our toilet door graffiti showed us, toilets are places which bring up issues of in/exclusion, public/private, identities and norms. During the workshop we discussed people’s feelings on our toilet door relabeling. Some thought it was a good idea to label toilets by writing/showing what’s inside them. Some felt relieved to not have to worry about the problematic gender binaries toilets presented them with. Others pointed out, however, that they were still searching for the ‘right toilet’ (i.e. the one that they thought coordinated with their gender identity). Whilst some with physical impairments felt oppressed by the relabeling of the accessible toilet, as they worried that they’d be waiting even longer than usual for the only space accessible to them.

I could write about toilets for ages. Instead though, I’ll direct you to People In Search of Safe and Accessible Restrooms, or PISSAR, who are worth looking at for more on access and toilets. The point I want to end on, though, is that the conference finished with some of the dilemmas we as an organising team started with: conversations around what it means to ‘have access’. Issues of ‘access’ are never straight forward; yet, like Kafer suggests, moving towards accessible futures is about struggling together through coalition – moving forward with some of the difficult conversations we had on that Saturday in May. We believe these conversations are always worth having and we hope that that dialogue/action though the Gender and Dis/ability event will continue. You can join the conversation through twitter via @shudisability @gendisability #gendisability (you can also see some of the tweets made through the day here). Alternatively, I (j.slater@shu.ac.uk) or the Gender and Disability team (gender.disability@shef.ac.uk) can be contacted through email. We hope the event will happen again somewhere and in some form– so watch this space (and, if you’re interesting in getting involved in helping to organise, get in touch!).

Thanks to Charlotte Jones for her feedback on this blog post and all that contributed to what was a brilliant day.



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