Whenever a big conference is about to happen in the language services profession, I always get a flood of messages asking me if I’ll be there. While I’m grateful to have so many people in my life who are looking forward to seeing me (and I’m looking forward to seeing too), when I say I’m not able to come, the line of questioning often leads to a discussion about my health.
You see, I have struggled with chronic migraines since I was a teenager. To spare you a long story that spans a decade and a half at this point, my migraines are currently well-controlled. The only exception to this is when I fly. I get lots of questions. Here are some answers.
- No, there is realistically no way to pinpoint exactly what causes it. It just is. Accept it. I have.
- Yes, I have likely tried the thing you are probably about to suggest I try to fix it.
- Yes, I even get migraines on short flights.
- Yes, I get very very sick every time I fly.
- No, I can’t just grin and bear it. It affects my cognition and motor skills, among other things that are extremely unpleasant and difficult to manage.
I’m in the U.S. and as most of you already know, our healthcare system is a mess. The only thing that has helped me during flights is a medication that is $900 per pack. I managed to get a sample from my neurologist, who is the sixth neurologist I’ve seen for my condition. However, no insurance will cover this medication while I am on the treatment that currently keeps my migraines under control.
- No, I cannot get this medicine cheaper from another country yet. It’s only available in the U.S. and Europe.
Even with this medication, I have to sleep a LOT to feel functional. So, even if I manage to get my hands on it, I have to arrive to my destination much earlier and leave my destination much later. This means taking more time off from work, on top of the toll this takes on my body.
I’ve been responding to people asking if I’m going to a particular conference by sharing my health issues right off the bat. I’ve found if I don’t do this, people often try to persuade me to go, or even try to “fix” whatever issues they think may be preventing me from going. More times than not, this conversation already leads to me disclosing my health issues anyway. Then, people often offer unsolicited health advice, which is rarely, if ever, helpful or productive. I often leave these conversations feeling guilty and disappointed that I can’t do all the things I’d like to do with my life.
I limit myself to one flight per year, and I usually reserve it for Americans Against Language Barrier’s (AALB) events. I am an interpreter trainer with them and I’m also the director of member engagement of our Society for Professional Interpreters (SPI). AALB has treated me really well, and my colleagues at AALB are incredibly accommodating of my health needs.
Unfortunately, many conferences for interpreters and translators are not as accommodating. One silver lining from the pandemic is that almost every conference was virtual, meaning anyone could attend. However, as we move back to in-person conferences, I find myself feeling left out more and more. Conferences must have options to attend virtually for them to be accessible. People with chronic illnesses, who are immunocompromised or immunosuppressed, people with disabilities and other conditions need to be included in these conferences.
This also means being inclusive of people of all economic backgrounds. If a conference is going to cost someone $3,000 to attend, you’re only going to have a certain privileged population being represented. If it costs $30 to attend your conference, but someone has to miss two full days of work to attend every session live in order to get their CEUs, your conference does not cost $30. It costs that person $30 plus whatever their lost wages are for those two days. Very few interpreters or translators are employees, meaning a privileged few interpreters and translators have PTO (paid time off).
If it costs $30 to attend your conference, but someone has to miss two full days of work to attend every session live in order to get their CEUs, your conference does not cost $30.
In this day and age, we have the tools to seamlessly integrate BOTH live virtual participation AND asynchronous (self-paced) participation into conferences. I’d like to bring AALB back into the conversation for a moment, because when I attended the AALB SPI Conference in July of 2023, I witnessed something I had never seen before. Virtual attendees were able to see us, be seen by us, and speak to us. It was absolutely brilliant and I felt like the virtual attendees, many of whom were former students of mine, were right there with us. Sure, it wasn’t 100% the same as them being there in-person, but when I was recounting experiences from the conference, I realized I was actually talking about the virtual attendees as if they were there. That unconscious shift in language is powerful!
I share these observations, not to throw any particular entity under the bus, nor to place the organization I work with on a pedestal. I hope it can open the door to some honest conversations about how we can improve accessibility to conferences in the language services profession. At the end of the day, if we’re effectively barring certain groups of people from participating in our events, we’re silencing diverse voices and creating echo chambers.
I share my personal experiences, not to make anyone feel bad for me or to get attention, but hopefully to give folks some insight into the experiences of people who can’t do the things they’d really love to do because of things outside of their control. So often, out of genuine desire to have someone participate in something, we may venture into prying questions or giving unsolicited advice.
If I’ve sent this article to you personally, it’s not a criticism. I’m planning on sharing this article whenever I get that flood of messages again asking if I’m attending this or that conference, just to save me some of the labor of having to explain things over and over again. It’s my hope that in addition to letting you know why I’m unable to attend, that you can also have some important takeaways to advocate for accessibility.
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