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My Panel Discussion Highlights & Conference Recap from AWP’s 2023 Conference

I’ve just returned from an Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Seattle, Washington! It was a joy to attend—and I also got to speak as part of a panel titled “Different, Disabled, Diverse? Exploring the Liminal Space Between Identities.” In this blog, I’ll talk about my highlights from the conference and recap some of what I talked about in our panel.

This year’s conference was held at the brand-new Seattle Convention Center on Pine Street, a few blocks uphill from the Seattle Westin Hotel where I stayed. According to AWP’s press materials, over 9,000 people had registered for this event! It was an amazing experience, and I loved connecting with so many wonderful people.

Among the attendees were writers, publishers, students, university reps, journalists, poets, agents, administrators, editors, and not-for-profit advocates. Presenters filled over 350 events for attendees to navigate

and engage with. Over 250 off-site events were held throughout Seattle as well. These details I learned from board member Regina Brooks. AWP was originally established as a nonprofit organization in 1967 by fifteen writers representing thirteen creative writing programs. Now they’ve grown into a larger advocacy and community group for writers.

Disabilities and Accommodations at AWP23

I was happy to see that accommodations were high on the priority list for AWP. My friend and fellow panelist Leticia Garcia Bradford was equipped with an electric scooter. This helped her navigate the five floors of the conference center. Each room had a designated area reserved for wheelchairs and scooters. It was nice to see many of the attendees benefiting from this.

Front-row seats were available to accommodate other disabilities and provide space for Deaf patrons to be situated in front of the interpreters.

The thing about disabilities is, I believe we all have one, visible or not. Two women on our panel suffered from multiple sclerosis. Panelist Tamara Sellman, author of Intention Tremor, said, "My leg tremors when I stand up to speak. It creates a huge distraction—my brain focuses on the movement when it should be focused on my speaking, as I have word-finding and speech issues due to MS. If I focus on my jittery leg, I lose my words.” For Tamara, the simple offer of a stool from an event organizer can offer inclusivity for those with physical needs.

Through slurred speech, the practice of stage presentation, and oral training, panelist Leticia Garcia Bradford commanded the articulation of her thoughts, unapologetically grasping the attention of the audience—and they loved her.

Later on, I’ll discuss Jim Kwik, but I often think about his sentiments on our brains’ amazing adaptive abilities. These women contended with medical challenges—and overcame them using techniques they’d learned and practiced. I find this inspiring for myself and others with disabilities.

Disabilities come in all shapes and sizes, leaving no one out. Panelist Dianne Bilyak has an older sister with Down syndrome, and she shared their personal experiences in her novel Nothing Special: The Mostly True, Sometimes Funny Tales of Two Sisters. I think of the people with Down syndrome who I've met. Dianne said to me, "They connect equally to all people, and are often unashamed, adding value to the full spectrum of humanity, and what we take for granted.” Dianne joined our discussion from her home, where she cares for her adult sibling and advocates for the disabled. Through her role as an advocate and caregiver, she is learning how entrenched systemic ableism is, and how often employees, who get paid to support folks living with disabilities, don’t even know what ableism is.

Making New Connections

I am so happy I challenged my fears and attended this event. This was my first time at an AWP conference. While waiting in line to register and receive my name tag, I met Dr. Carla Caglioti and Scott Sullivan from Stony Brook University and The Southhampton Review, who threw out the name Lou Ann Walker! I thought, I know that name! She’s currently the editor of the Stony Brook’s literary journal. I was introduced to her work while earning my B.A. in Deaf Community Studies at Madonna University.

Lou Ann is a CODA, a Child of a Deaf Adult. Her 1986 book, A Loss for Words: The Story of Deafness in a Family, was required reading at Madonna. Lou Ann shares that by writing this book she unveiled the unspoken secrets of her heart. She revealed truths never spoken about or written about before—at that time there were no books that discussed Deafness the way she did. The writing process was therapeutic for her, and she learned that Deaf people, CODAs, and hearing individuals can all relate to the experience of isolation caused by feeling different. She, like so many authors, found the courage to speak from the heart to heal all the broken places. Her story could be ours too. This moment—meeting others who knew about Lou Ann—set the tone for my conference experience—I felt excited to meet new people in my field who shared my passion!

I attended a panel on a topic so many wanted to know about, “Book Promotion by the Numbers: A Transparent Discussion of Costs and Benefits.” This was all about how authors and writers can earn a good living, and even more importantly, get their messages out into the world. The room was overfilled to the point that security requested that thirty-two people leave to avoid having to shut down the event. This was the moment I saw an interpreter signing and a seat opening in the front row, which I quickly scurried to. When the talk was finished, I had the pleasure