Why Aren’t Writing Retreats More Disability-Friendly?

Inaccessible retreats put an unfair burden on disabled writers, who wind up competing for the very few slots they can use

Once a year, I fill out an online application for Hedgebrook, a writer’s retreat in Washington State. I attach a writing sample and send it off into the ether. Seven or eight months later, I get an email with a denial. In the past, this hasn’t been too upsetting; Hedgebrook is incredibly competitive. When I began applying to residencies a few years ago, I thought that if I didn’t get into Hedgebrook, I’d just go somewhere else. Unfortunately, as a writer with a disability, I’ve learned that there aren’t a lot of “somewhere else”s. 

This year, my friend Elsa Sjunneson-Henry also applied to Hedgebrook and was also not accepted. This year, we were both crushed. Unlike many other writers, we don’t get to just apply to a bunch of retreats and go wherever we’re accepted. Elsa is deaf and blind and uses a guide dog, and I’m chronically ill, have multiple food sensitivities, and am a wheelchair user. Hedgebrook is one of the few writing retreats that could have accommodated us—and even then, probably only one of us at a time. 

I find myself competing with my disabled friends and colleagues, a hidden competition within the competition.

Many writing retreats are far from accessible, and even retreats that claim to be accessible according to the Americans with Disability Act often have only one cabin or workspace per residency that is designated for the use of disabled participants. Not only does this mean that it’s nearly impossible that Elsa and I would be able to attend the retreat together, it also means we’re pitted against each other—not only for the available spots, but for the one spot that’s assigned for our use. As in so many other areas of a disabled person’s life, we are given the message, albeit unintentionally, that we should only take up so much room: the room we are allotted. I find myself competing with my disabled friends and colleagues, a hidden competition within the competition. 

Sandra Beasley, a poet and nonfiction writer who has multiple severe food allergies, points out there currently aren’t any residences that are fully accessible. “I can’t identify a single residency that uses universal design throughout the entirety of its space, furnishes safe and nourishing food options for everyone, implements accommodations at the outset for those who are blind or visually impaired and provides ongoing interpretation and access services for those who are D/deaf and hard of hearing,” she told me. This is not an easy problem to solve. Accessibility is far from cookie-cutter, and what is accessible for one person, such as a location that allows emotional support animals, might then become inaccessible for someone with allergies. True accessibility requires both knowledge of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the tenets of Universal Design, and the flexibility to make changes if needed. It takes resources and effort—but writing residencies should be making it a priority, and not simply paying lip service to the idea of diversity while excluding participants with disabilities.

For me to attend a residency, it would need to be wheelchair-accessible. I would need a single room since I sleep poorly and don’t want to disturb a roommate. I’d need a bathtub or a shower with rails and a shower chair. Due to the unpredictability of my disabilities, I need a program that is loosely structured; I can’t commit to showing up to lead workshops or teach, and I can’t cook and clean for myself or others if I also want to have the energy to be able to write. I need air conditioning during the warmer months. I need lighting that is bright but not fluorescent, or I’ll get migraines, and I need to maintain a strict diet due to food sensitivities. In the future, I’ll also travel with a service dog. Even listing these makes my stress level rise. I’m a disability rights activist, and I fight against ableism, including the ableism I’ve internalized. But scrolling through residency after residency that wouldn’t be able to welcome me, I begin to feel worthless, and a burden, all over again. I’m too much trouble, I think. This is just too much. 

Some disabled writers avoid applying for residencies at all. Kimball Anderson, who writes comics and fiction, hasn’t gotten very far into the process of applying for retreats: “[I] found them enticing, looked into them, and came to the conclusion that while they seem lovely I probably couldn’t do them.” They said it comes down to “spoons,” or energy levels. Kimball has concerns about not being able to do the same activities as others at the retreat: “What is a relaxing, creative experience for others just would not be that way for me.” 

Megan Giller, a food and lifestyle writer based in New York, thought she’d found the perfect opportunity. She applied and was accepted to a residency in New England. When she was filling out the application, there wasn’t a space to write about how she travels with an emotional support dog. Once she was accepted she was sent a form that asked her to list medical or personal info that she would want an emergency provider to know. Megan filled out the form and added the information about her emotional support animal. She received a response that stated she would not be allowed to bring her ESA. After a few emails back and forth, the residency revoked the fellowship.

Sandra Beasley told me that in her experience, “there’s not a lot of opportunity to discuss or acknowledge one’s disability during the application process. That can be frustrating for a potential applicant not sure whether it’s worth their time, effort and money that it takes to apply.” 

Hedgebrook, the residency I apply to every year, is one of the few organizations that has made accessibility a priority. Cathy Bruemmer, Operations Manager at Hedgebrook, told me that in 2001 they hired consultants to improve accessibility. They added a paved path to the garden and converted the caretaker’s house into a residency house that has a first-floor bedroom, bathroom and kitchen/living room with a loft bedroom that could accommodate a personal assistant. The residency house is used when a person has a guide or service dog, which keeps the cottages as allergy-free as possible. An additional cottage has a ramp entrance and a larger bathroom to accommodate a wheelchair. They also have a personal mobility scooter available, and address food needs when the participants welcome packets are sent out, rather than when the participants arrive. The staff continues to address accessibility issues as they come up.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and I sometimes brainstorm about the accessibility options we’d love a retreat to have. A bathtub rather than a shower, for soaking angry joints and tired bodies. There would be labeled, healthy food that I could eat, even with my food sensitivities. There would be private cabins, “with lots of light so that low vision folks can see their work with ease,” Elsa says. “In my perfect world, there would be a dog run.” 

I think sometimes about the art that’s stifled because of ableism and discrimination.

Roughly 20% of the population is disabled. I’m not sure how many disabled writers apply to retreats and aren’t accepted because of their disability but from my personal experience I know it’s more than a few. I think sometimes about the art that’s stifled because of ableism and discrimination. I think about my book that’s on hold, and all the projects that my disabled friends aren’t able to work on. I think about us, sitting at home, combing through applications with a fine-tooth comb, searching for clues about accessibility. I spend an inordinate amount of time on the applications, trying to find some way to distinguish myself from the other wheelchair-using writers, because they’re my competition. I wonder who will get the accessible cabin, or the sole single-occupancy bedroom, and how many other disabled people applied. How many disabled writers are turned away due to lack of accessibility, their earned spots instead given to an able-bodied writer because they’re easier to accommodate? How many of us just give up due to frustration, lack of information and fear of judgment and so don’t apply at all? I added up all the application fees I’ve spent the last few years, and realized that I don’t even know if the judges stopped reading the applications when they read that I’m disabled. I have no idea if those fees were wasted, or if I was denied on my merits. I think about my friends who have traveled to a retreat, spent their own time, money and energy, only to find that it’s not accessible to them. They find they can’t do the work they wanted to do. They find that they are made to feel like a burden. 

So, what can a writer’s retreat to do improve its accessibility? First, consult with an attorney versed in ADA law. At the very minimum, the organization needs to ensure they are meeting the requirements of the law. Next, I’d recommend they hire a disability consultant like Hedgebrook did, who can go through the application, property, activities, food, and any other issues related to attending the retreat. Websites need to have full info about accommodations. The organization should have a point person in charge of accessibility, who has the ability to make changes without having to go through the board. There are simple, easy changes too, like installing non-fluorescent lighting and automatic door openers, and switching to fragrance-free cleaning and laundry products. 

My hope is that this essay can encourage much-needed dialogue between disabled writers and writing retreats. I hope that in the future, disabled writers will not be made to feel like a burden, but that instead we will be fully welcomed into the communities that do so much good for so many writers. Maybe one day I’ll get the chance to write my book after all. 

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