The Real Reason Why Going to Conferences Is So Exhausting to Me

I came home this weekend from two back-to-back conferences in Chicago that left me exhausted. I only spent one full day at each conference, so I shouldn’t be that tired, but navigating conferences as a disabled person takes a lot of stamina. This is true even though accessibility gets talked about a lot more now than just a few years ago and academic conferences seem to all have accessibility guides.

The accessibility issues I ran into happened even though everyone I interacted with was kind and meant well. Many people helped me in different ways. But people’s good intentions and my positive attitude don’t make the world more accessible. As Stella Young put it in this fantastic TED Talk, “No amount of smiling radiantly is going to make a staircase turn into a ramp.”

Things started off a bit tricky, with a flight delay that caused me to arrive at my hotel after dark. With no natural light coming in, I bumbled around my hotel room, having to rely on the inadequate lamps. I have described before what I like to do when I first arrive in a hotel room to make it accessible; with it being dark outside, I wasn’t able to do everything I like to do until the next morning. Luckily, the room did have better-than-I’ve-come-to-expect lighting by the bed, but much of the room was just a shadow to me until morning and I have the bruises on my hip where I walked into the dresser to prove it.

The bigger challenge was navigating the conferences themselves. The first conference was an International Writing Centers Association event at DePaul University in a space that was well-lit, but the room numbers were tiny and hard to find. I had to walk up to each room’s door, locate the sign, and put my face an inch or two from the sign to find the room number. Luckily, other conference participants were kind about noticing my trouble and helping me find the rooms I needed; but the stress of frantically trying to find presentation rooms made me feel worn out by the time I got into the right rooms.

 The conference session themselves were excellent, but the accessibility was not. Despite the IWCA having a top-notch accessibility guide, speakers used the microphone and provided printed scripts in only one of the three sessions I attended. In the other two sessions, presenters had no handouts and did not use the microphone. One of these sessions was a roundtable in an auditorium, so the sound just disappeared into the ether. Normally I would have asked the speakers to use a microphone, but there was some confusion at the beginning of the session and by the time I realized speakers weren’t going to use the microphone, I would have had to interrupt the proceedings quite awkwardly. In hindsight, I wish I had done just that, but in the moment, I was discombobulated.

The second conference was the Conference on College Composition and Communication at the Hilton Chicago. I encountered so many unexpected steps and tripping hazards there that by the time I headed home, my neck hurt from looking down to watch my step. The room numbers were just as challenging to find as they had been at DePaul, with the added twist of seemingly random placement of room number plaques. At least at DePaul, all the room number plaques were to the right or left of the doors and looked similar; at the Hilton, some were to the left, some to the right, some above, and some I never found. Some plaques were electronic and others were not. Some had high contrast and some did not. Plus instead of room numbers, the rooms had names, so there was no internal logic; while I know room 5 is likely to be beyond room 4, where might the Lake Ontario room be in relation to the Buckingham room?

Finding room numbers was frustrating, but the surprise elevation changes with unmarked steps were truly treacherous. In one of the conference spaces, there were at least two little sets of 2-3 steps that almost killed me. Both were carpeted and blended in with the surrounding flooring. After almost tripping down each one, I turned to get a good look at them. One set did have a gray stair marker that I could see after the fact; the carpet was blue and gray, so the gray stair marker didn’t stand out and thus, didn’t really do the job it was supposed to do. This is a great example of focusing on legal compliance without considering the real purpose of accessibility: to make a space safe and navigable by a person with a disability.

I entered each room completely frazzled. Like the IWCA conference sessions, the Cs conference sessions were a mixed bag in terms of accessibility. Cs also has an excellent accessibility guide; still, speakers in only three of the four sessions I attended used the microphone and speakers offered scripts in only two of the four sessions. Slides in all the sessions were illegible to me, but I suspect part of that is because the projection screens were smaller than speakers may have anticipated and often positioned awkwardly so that not everyone in the room had a clear view of them.

Both of these conferences relate to literacy and the teaching of writing. The presenters are people who value reading and communication, and yet, clearly, a large proportion of them have not read the wonderful accessibility guides available to them.

My plea to people who give presentations:

  1. Read the accessibility guide. If the conference planners have created an accessibility guide, read it and follow the guidelines in it. If you don’t know how to do something the accessibility guide recommends that you do, learn how.
  2. Use a microphone. I understand why people don’t use a microphone. If you’re not used to speaking into one, it can feel awkward. But in 2023, if making presentations is part of your job, then you need to get comfortable using a microphone. Consider it part of your professional development.
  3. Create accessible slides. When you create your slides, assume that the presentation situation will be less than ideal: the room’s lighting won’t be great, the screen will be smaller than you’d like and farther away from participants than you’d like. And for the love of whatever you hold dear, please observe the rule of 5. Again, if you are not good at creating accessible slides, consider it part of your professional development to get good at it.
  4. Make a script available to participants. Yes, I know, it uses paper and is a bummer to have to have your presentation written up in advance rather than writing it feverishly the night before. Again, part of being an academic professional these days means making your materials accessible.
  5. Advocate for accessible conference spaces. If you have anything to do with planning a conference, ask pointed questions of the host facility about accessibility. How will folks who use wheelchairs access spaces? How will vision-impaired folks find rooms? How will hearing-impaired folks hear presentations? Where can folks go for a quiet space if they are over-stimulated? And have a back-up plan in case ASL interpreters call in sick or get stuck in traffic (this is another great reason for presenters to have scripts available).

Stop telling people facing loss that they are strong

Grieving people are frequently complimented for being strong. I have been told some variation of “you are strong” hundreds of times since my husband’s stroke. I know people mean it as a compliment or an assurance that I have what it takes to make it through the grief I am experiencing. 

But it gets old. Folks who are grieving get really tired of being strong. A fellow griever recently said to me, “I don’t want to be strong anymore. I want to be weak.” But when I asked what “weak” would look like, my friend said, “I don’t know.” This post on What’s Your Grief captures some of the other problems with telling someone grieving that they are strong, most significantly making them feel like they haven’t really been seen. 

In addition to it getting old and causing the problems What’s Your Grief describes, it’s also just not an accurate assessment of what healthy grieving requires of us. 

It may be true that grieving calls upon us to be strong, but I think we conflate “strength” with other qualities that grievers rely upon, such as the ability to prioritize, flexibility, courage, self-compassion, and mindfulness. I wonder if people recognize these and other qualities in folks who are grieving, but lack the emotional intelligence or emotional vocabulary to articulate them and default to complimenting strength. 

But focusing the compliments on strength implies that strength is the most important quality one needs during a trying time. To be strong is to be firm, immovable, stoic, unbending, powerful. 

When my mother died 41 years ago, I put my head down and barreled through it, an approach that seems to exemplify pure strength. But because that approach led to me having issues with death, mothers, holidays, and more, I very deliberately took a different approach when my husband died.

Since my husband’s death, “strength” is not a character trait I’ve focused on. The compliments I get on my strength don’t feel accurate. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may recall that I’ve talked about my ability to set boundaries, my patience with myself, and my willingness to feel sadness. These qualities have helped me much more than strength has. 

As I reflect back on the conversation with my friend who wanted to be “weak,” I realize that because our minds automatically go to “weak” as the only alternative to “strong,” those very qualities that I just listed as having been crucial to my ability to navigate grief might be seen as “weakness.” 

I was recently reminded of what happens when you focus on strength to the exclusion of other things. After my unexpected brain surgery in the fall, I wasn’t able to do ab work in my workouts for a few months. I was so excited to get back to ab work this winter that I overdid it. I got a massage last week and when I told my massage therapist I was having some lower back pain and general lower body stiffness, she immediately pinpointed my tight psoas muscles as the culprit—a result of my keen focus on my abs. 

The remedy? Backing off of strength training and focusing on flexibility. 

Oh, the irony! That’s exactly what I’ve done emotionally! Now I need to treat my body the way I’ve treated my heart. 

The next time someone suffers a loss and you want to wish them strength, stop. Consider what might be a real struggle for them and offer them that thing. Are they often hard on themselves? Wish them self-compassion. Do they like everything done just so? Wish them flexibility. Are they highly independent? Wish them the freedom to depend on others. 

Our focus on strength as a positive trait minimizes the value of other traits. This quote from the Buddha captures the fallacy: “In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins—not through strength but through persistence.” 

How to Stop Trying to Fix Grief + Just Listen

Last week, a friend whose mother is dying called me. She is experiencing intense anticipatory grief. On our call, she expressed sadness and feelings of powerlessness. I listened to her, acknowledged the sadness of the situation, and reassured her that her feelings were normal. Our call ended with her still feeling very sad. She thanked me for listening.

I did something very simple on that call but it is something it has taken me years to learn how to do: I listened without trying to fix anything. Nothing about her situation can be fixed; her mom will die. Watching her mom dwindle away will hurt intensely. There was nothing I could do to change the outcome or make her hurt less. All I could do was listen—and yet, by simply listening, I was able to make her feel less alone and help her face her feelings rather than turn away from them.

Listening without trying to fix is something I’ve had to learn how to do, and maybe you need to learn it, too.

Many people think that trying to fix things is an issue for men but not for women, and it may be more of an issue for men than for women, but since my husband’s stroke and death, I’ve had plenty of women as well as men try to “fix” my grief. Perhaps we have so much trouble accepting grief as normal and healthy that even women fall into fixing mode when faced with it. Whenever someone says, “How can I cheer you up?” or launches into explaining to me what worked for them when they were grieving—that’s fixing.

And it’s not helpful.

Grief is not a problem to fix or an obstacle to overcome. It hurts and is messy and may be painful to watch, but it is also a completely normal response to loss. Focusing on making the grief go away misses the point that grief is how we process loss.

Many times since my husband died, I have wanted to share my complicated thoughts, fears, and emotions with others. I have felt the truth of Maya Angelou‘s statement that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Talking about my grief helps me make sense out of it. When I am sharing my grief with someone else, I am looking for connection and acknowledgment. It can be helpful for someone to paraphrase back to me what I’ve said or point out patterns. To do that, the person I’m talking to needs to really listen, not just hear.

When I first began taking listening seriously, I found it very difficult to stay present. My mind wandered, much like it does sometimes during meditation. Sometimes my mind wandered to possible solutions for the person speaking. But just like when I’m meditating, I can notice the wandering and bring my mind back to the present. I can notice solutions or judgments rising up in my mind and let them go without giving them voice.

When you’re listening to someone who is grieving, you may wonder what to say if you’re not trying to fix the situation. You can say, “If you want to talk, I’m happy to listen, but I’m also ok sitting here in silence with you.” You can say, “It totally sucks that your person died.” You can say, “I’m right here. You’re not alone.” You can ask questions about how they feel, how they want to feel, or what they want or need from you.

If you want to offer advice, ask first. You can say something like, “I have an idea of how I might approach this situation. Are you interested in hearing it?” And if they say no, shut up.

I think the urge to fix grows out of a desire to “do something.” When we are quietly listening, we can feel like we aren’t doing anything. It can take some time to learn to be ok with that.

Grief is hard. Listening is hard. Not trying to fix things is hard.

Stop Telling People “I’d Love to Help, Just Let Me Know What You Need”

Being on the receiving end of a lot of kind and generous offers for help in the last few years has taught me a lot about how to offer help to others. I realize now that the help I’ve offered others has often been too vague and open-ended to be really helpful. Inspired by what I’ve learned, I’ve made one of my 2023 resolutions to offer specific help instead of the blanket “let me know what you need.”

“Just let me know what you need”—it sounds perfect, doesn’t it? When I have said it in the past, I meant that I wanted to help and was willing to do whatever needed to be done. I was always sincere in being willing to do whatever needed to be done. But having been on the receiving end of that statement many times since my late husband’s stroke, I realize how unhelpful the phrase is. And having uttered the phrase many times myself, I can’t think of too many instances in which someone actually took me up on the offer.

In the midst of my husband’s stroke and then death, most of the time I was too overwhelmed to know what I needed, so I asked for nothing in the moment. Later, when I recognized a need, I either couldn’t remember who had offered help or I felt sheepish calling in that help so many days/weeks/months/years later.

I found it a lot easier to accept help when it was offered with a specific outcome and even time, like this: “I’d like to bring you a meal. Would Tuesday night about 5 work?” When people said, “Let me know when I can bring you food,” I appreciated the offer but following up took more organization (who offered food? What exactly did they offer?) and effort than I was able to muster most of the time. And I sweated over how to phrase what now felt like a needy request; “Hi, I think you offered me a meal a while ago . . . can you bring it over tonight?” seemed obnoxious.

I also found that the phrasing of the offer makes a big difference. Although “let me know how I can help” totally doesn’t work for me, a similar offer phrased as a question does. When someone asks me, “What do you need?” I can actually think of things, whereas when they say, “Let me know how I can help,” my mind goes blank. Perhaps it’s the question structure that prompts my brain to answer it, while the statement feels almost like something else to be added to my to-do list—“figure out what I need and tell so-and-so.”  

Sometimes after my husband’s stroke or death, someone asked me, “What do you need?” and I answered with something they couldn’t possibly help with or with a need so big and vague it was unclear how it could be met. But the lovely thing about people asking “What do you need?” is that when my answer doesn’t net a concrete thing for them to do, they typically ask follow up questions, like this:

Friend: What do you need?

Me: Ugh, I need to not feel overwhelmed.

Friend: Hmmm. What have you done in other situations when you felt overwhelmed?

Me: I don’t know. Drink. Just kidding. Um, I’ve made a list of everything that needs to be done and then prioritized it.

Friend: How about if I come over and help you do that?

Another time I told a friend who asked what I needed that I was trying to figure out how to get out of a project I felt committed to. She offered to do some roleplaying to help me figure out how to have a conversation about leaving the project, which turned out to be quite helpful and empowering.

I also appreciate when people’s offers prompt me to recognize a need. For example, when someone told me they could help me with organizing and planning activities for a memorial event, I realized that a memorial event could be more than a simple gathering with eulogies. That friend ended up helping me plan an amazing memorial event that was so great the bartender told me, “This event was more fun than the last few weddings I’ve worked.”

When I reflect on the times I’ve offered help, I see that specific offers have been much more readily accepted. When I’ve offered to write obituaries, collect remembrances in a book, write thank you notes, organize belongings, or make difficult phone calls to banks, insurance companies, and other institutions, my offers have often been accepted. When I’ve said, “Let me know how I can help,” the story is different. Occasionally someone will contact me to ask for company or help doing something tough, but it’s rare.

To take action on my resolution, I’ve made a list of the skills I can offer to others: writing, listening, organizing, having difficult conversations, and cooking. I will no longer say, “Let me know what you need.” From here on out, I will either offer to do specific tasks related to my skills or I’ll ask, “What do you need?”