Op-Ed: Economic Barriers in Disability Studies

By Corbett Joan OToole

Conference registration: $230

Hotel room (3 nights at $159 * 17% for tax and lodging fees): $558

Airfare (roundtrip): $325

Transportation from airport to hotel (round trip): $54

Food (hotel restaurant per day * 3 days minus conference meals): $90

Required costs for this conference: $ 1,257

These are conservative numbers, particularly the food costs.  But often that is the only place where I can cut costs. So when I attend a conference, I eat as little as possible outside of meals covered by registration, and I bring food containers from home to save part of each meal to eat later. On the first day I find a local store and purchase drinks and nonperishable food to stretch my money.  Hotels are rarely near grocery stores so I am usually paying for overpriced, highly processed foods.

I do this not because I want to. I do this because I am poor. I am a Disability Studies scholar. And like many other disabled scholars, I am poor. I receive $1,100 a month in government benefits and a pension from when I worked.  Soon my pension ends and I will live on $810 per month.

If the Disability Studies conference chose to meet in less expensive places, organized for regional rather than national gatherings, and included all meals in registration fees, poor disabled people who are also professional scholars, could attend.

It’s a dirty little secret in Disability Studies that only people with a lot of disposable income can participate. If you have no money, you have little or no participation in Disability StudiesEconomic Barriers in Disability Studies

It’s not that people don’t know that disabled people are poor. The statistics are quoted often. People who are “severely” disabled (meaning disabled more than one continuous year according to the U.S. Department of Labor) have a permanent unemployment rate over 70%. According to the Committee on Improving the Disability Decision Process, “About 77 percent of those ages 25-64 with severe disability had an annual income under $20,000.”

How does Disability Studies address these economic facts? By ignoring them.

Disability Studies is a self-feeding system of public speaking and publishing. People develop their ideas through engagement with other thinkers. Having new ideas makes one desirable for speaking engagements and publishing opportunities. These interactions mostly happen at conferences that are economically inaccessible to nearly all disabled people and many nondisabled people.

A few examples of economic gatekeeping:

  • Having high conference registration fees and telling people to apply for a scholarship if they cannot afford the fee. The scholarship process only covers registration fees, not housing or accommodations. Scholarships usually aren’t awarded until close to the date of the conference, leaving recipients without time to plan affordable travel.
  • Asking poor disabled people to be on boards for Disability Studies organizations. However, board members pay their own way to meetings, pay for their own hotel and food. There is no financial support offered to board members. It would be a nice idea if being a board member came with the financial support to let a person fulfill their obligations as one; it would be a different story.
  • Disability Studies conferences expect people who need accommodations outside conference rooms to pay for and provide their own. This can include interpreters, orientation and mobility trainers, personal care attendants, and other professionals. This prices people with greater access needs out of attending conferences, excluding people with disabilities from the study of their own lives.
  • Panelists who cannot afford to attend the conference ask permission to Skype into their panel. Conference organizers inform the panelists that any participation, even by Skype for only one session, requires that the panelist pay the registration fee. This creates an economic barrier that prevents even remote participation.

The economic ableism is overwhelming and defeating. Disability Studies purports to encourage dialogue and inquiry among all people interested in the study of disabilities, yet the economic barriers are insurmountable for most disabled people. Additionally, language barriers often overlap with economic barriers. Even at multidisciplinary events, presenters often chose to use academic discipline-specific language instead of accessible language. Anyone not thoroughly trained in that precise vocabulary is excluded from the purported conversation.

This economic oversight is built into nearly every Disability Studies environment, from the cost of DS classes to the ability to participate in DS events. It is extremely rare to see these economics addressed and when they are, the event planners tout their provision of a few generally insufficient accommodations as if they were a precious gift and not a basic requirement for allowing disabled people to participate in conversations about ourselves.

Economic Barriers in Disability StudiesNo money means you cannot attend the events, buy the books, subscribe to the journals, take the classes, get the degrees, and be a part of the “club.”  This means the Disability Studies crowd is primarily employed, nondisabled, and/or able to function easily in nondisabled environments.

Class privilege drives Disability Studies, yet it is almost never discussed by those who benefit from it. The poor people, mostly disabled, try to find resources so that we can attend an occasional event. We address these exclusions by creating online environments where we notice and admire each other’s work. Some of us are tokenized in Disability Studies. Our work may be referenced, shown, and discussed, but we are not included because we cannot afford to be at the gatherings where we are referenced and discussed.

Why is Disability Studies so committed to mimicking the white, male business model so common in academia? Why do so many disciplines with activist roots commit to this replication as they move into the academy? Has it worked so well for oppressed groups that we need to imitate it? Do we really believe that having a hotel-based conference confers us with academic legitimacy? At what cost does it do so, if it even succeeds?

What would economic justice look like in Disability Studies?

  • Events would begin with the reality that disabled people are poor.
  • Poor people do not fly across country, stay in expensive hotels, eat at expensive restaurants, pay hundreds of dollars in registration fees, and provide their own accommodations.
  • Disabled people and allies in committed community with each other find ways to create mutual access. We share resources, support each other, and collaborate to find solutions that work for all of us.
  • Gatherings would take place in environments with access to fresh air; people could participate in places where they could sit or stand or lie down or walk; knowledge could be shared over meals, through dance, or through singing, as well as by reading and talking.

When economic barriers create a Disability Studies without a majority of publicly identified disabled people, it is an oppressive enigma wrapped in a conundrum hidden beneath a patina of deceit.


Committee on Improving the Disability Decision Process. (2006). Improving the Social Security Disability Decision Process. Institute of Medicine of the National Academies.  http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=11521

Elizabeth Grace, Cognitively Accessible Languate, Why We Should Care. The Feminist Wire, Nov. 2013. http://thefeministwire.com/2013/11/cognitively-accessible-language-why-we-should-care/


Economic Barriers in Disability StudiesCorbett Joan OToole’s forty years of disability activism and scholarship creates ongoing networks and discussions among people concerned with intersections of disability, gender, queer, and community.


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