when conferences have bad speakers

Anonymous said to realsocialskills:

I suspect I may be on the autism spectrum, and when I found out that the keynote speaker at an upcoming conference is someone whose books have been extremely helpful to me, I strongly considered registering. I am not a member of the local advocacy and self-advocacy association that is hosting the conference, but I have had some contact with them in the past.

However, there is another conference speaker who is there to promote mindfulness. I looked her up online and she has no degree or similar professional credentials, just “life coach” certification and some “training” from someone from a pseudo-scientific organization.

I looked at her profile on a website and found simplistic new age victim blaming. I would like to contact the conference organizers about this to express my concerns, but I am not sure how (or even if) I should go about this.

realsocialskills said:

I’m not sure either. I’m posting this in part because I hope others have better suggestions.

It’s pretty much par for the course for conferences related to autism, disability, or self-advocacy to have at least some of this type of nonsense. There’s unfortunately a lot of pseudoscientific nonsense. (Including pseudoscientific nonsense like ABA that makes a lot of noise about being “evidence-based”.)

I think that the presence of bad speakers can’t always be dealbreaking. Most organizations who value good things enough to bring them to conferences also make a lot of mistakes and bring in bad things too. It’s hard to get access to the worthwhile stuff without being willing to tolerate some of the bad things to an extent.

There’s also a line. And it can be hard to know where to draw it. For me, one line is torture — I don’t go to conferences at which the JRC is presenting. I don’t know where you should draw lines about that kind of thing. I think it’s ok to decide that for you, speakers who promote victim-blaming ideas of mindfulness are dealbreaking. I think it’s also ok if you don’t. And that either way, commenting may be worthwhile.

If you decide that it’s not dealbreaking and that you’d like to go to the conference anyway, the way to do that might be submitting conference feedback. Most conferences solicit feedback from participants in some way. And most conferences take feedback into account at least a little.

In the immediate term, they’re probably going to keep making this kind of mistake, but I think it might be worth reaching out anyway. They might understand where you’re coming from, and they will definitely understand that a disabled person who wants to be involved is put off by their choice of speakers. It might plant seeds — especially if others also express this.

One way is to email them. There will probably be contact information on their website. (Or on the sponsoring organization’s website).

If they’re on Twitter, Twitter might be the best way to have this conversation. People generally feel more pressure to listen and respond to Twitter conversations than to emails. Also, other people can see what you say on Twitter. Which matters both because what you say might influence other people, and people who agree with you might come out of the woodwork and comment. (Which will make them see it as an concern that people have rather than an issue that one person has).

If you decide to contact them, it’s probably best to be polite and to refrain from insulting them. (Eg: Don’t say “you don’t care about disabled people” or “You’re terrible at picking speakers” or “You probably won’t listen.”) Instead, explain who you are in a way that makes it clear that you’re in their target demographic, and explain what your objections are in a way that a person who listened could understand.

It would probably be best to explain a bit what you mean by victim-blaming, because if they already understood that they probably would have selected another speaker. (Maybe along the lines of: “She implies that we can fix things by positive thinking. That’s a really hurtful thing to say to a roomful of people who experience discrimination. It makes it sound like it’s our fault.”)

Anyone else want to weigh in? What’s the best way to give feedback to conferences that make poor choices about which speakers to invite?


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