Today I was talking to a friend about my project of filing an IRS Referral to investigate the tax exempt status of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, following yet another year of disability exclusion and ADA violations at the annual conference:
My friend is a lawyer, so she very gently and sweetly wanted to make sure I understand I have zero chance of winning–not to discourage me from trying, but just to make sure I know what I’m up against. This is a very tough area of law.
She was much relieved when I said, “Oh, of course I am going to lose!” (Followed by my foghorn laughter!)
I told her about my ongoing performance series called Losing Propositions, in which I barrel into battle knowing full well I have no chance in hell, and in fact, it is the entire point: It’s the performance I am interested in, the idea that having nothing to lose is, in its own way, an extremely powerful position from which to operate.
I can scream and yell about AWP online because everything they could take away from me — seats on panels, a slot at a reading, maybe a guest post on their site — is already gone.
And here is a space in which I feel extremely comfortable. Happy, even. Is that weird? It’s my happy place, diving deep into legal research knowing full well the deck is stacked.
In 2015, when I was applying to PHD programs, it started as a performance, too. I was angry about AWP’s systematic rejection of every single disability panel, and I had always wanted to earn a PHD. These two things are not disconnected: AWP is primarily a network of member educational programs, and those programs are inherently ableist at their core. I thought, OK, I will apply to programs and seek accommodations in the process (primarily, a waiver of the GRE), and I will Facebook-blog each response publicly.
I expected every single program to slam the door in my face.
But do you know what happened? The very first school — my dream school, in fact — said yes. And then another school did, and another. Each one that said yes made a stronger case for the next school because I could list them all and say, “Seven other programs have granted this accommodation, which speaks to it being reasonable under the ADA.” It snowballed. By the time it was over, I had applied to so many programs I cannot remember the number now.
When schools denied my accommodation request, I argued my case and asked them to reconsider. If they continued to dig in their heels, I sent them research into the futility of the GRE in predicting success, particularly for underrepresented groups. When they dug their heels in deeper, I FOIA’d them, seeking very specific data that might help me estimate how many people in their programs are disabled, since schools do not keep track of disability as a form of diversity.
I got data dumps like you wouldn’t believe.
I posted everything on Facebook. Again: performance. Nothing to lose. Performing my losses.
But see? It was the “not having anything to lose” that fueled it. Thinking of it as performance made me powerful. Made me invulnerable to the pain of losing. Made me BOLD. But then, as often does in my work, performance became reality. In fact, some of those programs have since dropped the GRE requirement altogether. I can’t take credit for that development, but I can take satisfaction that my “test case” was on the right track.
That’s what my friend said when I told her about this performance series. “You’re a test case!” She told me about historical cases where activists essentially did the same thing: they knew they were going to lose, but they had to at least try. Sometimes they won. Sometimes they lost, but — and this is key — got their enemies to come out and state their true position so they knew what they were really up against. And from there, they formulated new strategies.
I never thought of what I’m doing that way, but I like this framework. When I approach things like filing an ADA complaint against AWP in 2015:
I think, somebody has to do it. Why not me?
Back in 2016, when I got that letter from the DOJ, I didn’t know what I had in my hands. I had a right to sue letter. Again: losing can be powerful all on its own. And as another disability activist told me, this letter is beautiful. It shows how long we’ve been fighting.
Every year, AWP treats our disability access & representation as a brand-new problem, as if we haven’t been fighting this fight, traveling in this same circle, over and over. But here we have proof. Legal proof. It is beautiful.
This is why I do it publicly: on social media, on my blog, in essays, in Twitter rants. I am performing justice. I want to show people it matters enough to fight–even if the odds are stacked against you. The process, the fight, the boldness, are what matter.
I know I have less than a 1% chance of winning on this 501(c)3 thing. That’s OK with me because … what if I do win? What if I’m the test case that becomes case law?
In 2016, when I moved to Colorado, I made protest art about the missing sidewalks and curb cuts. Everyone told me it was a waste of time. They had never seen a city respond to such a thing.
Do you know what happened by the end of that year? That sidewalk above got paved & the curb cut installed. The City saw my protest photos and just did it.
Sometimes, once in awhile, you fucking win.
But Losing Propositions–that’s where I find my power to keep going.
When I go in with the intent to lose, you can’t take my hope. You can’t take my dreams. You can’t even take my time.
If you tell me I am wasting my time studying 501(c)3 case law, I will tell you about how much I learned about the history of disability rights in education, like this case from my hometown. I will tell you how much I loved formulating a strategy, looking for ways to push disability justice forward. How can that be a waste of time?
Losing, sometimes, is winning.