Disabled at the NNPHI Conference

Melissa Marshall, an older white woman with COVID-gray hair sitting in a scooter, smiles next to Meg Traci, a white woman with brown hair.

Continuing my blogs about my recent travels on behalf of The Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, this is an update about my latest trip to the National Network of Public Health Institutes (NNPHI) conference. Note that despite airline wheelchair hijinx and flight delays, I experienced exponentially less anxiety than I did on my first post-pandemic business trip. Special thanks to Meg Traci of the University of Montana Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities for this opportunity and to NNPHI for funding a team of disability and health experts to attend the conference and provide technical assistance on including people with disabilities in the work being presented and conference events.

From May 9 to the 11, I had the privilege of participating in the NNPHI 2023 annual conference. The theme of the conference was “Bridging Partners to Advance Health Equity.” According to the conference app, in order to achieve this theme, the NNPHI “engaged in intentional health equity discussions between the planning committee and the Health and Racial Equity Portfolio,” offered “more curated high quality health content,” and scored and “selected session abstracts based on health equity practices.” Highlights included keynote speakers Feminista Jones, feminist thought leader, community activist, and social media influencer, and Dr. Sacoby Wilson, Director of the Center for Community Engagement, Environmental Justice and Health. Both of these keynotes had an equity focus.

Smaller group sessions focused on equity-related topics, including (session titles are summarized):

  • Decolonizing and indigenizing public health evaluation approaches;
  • Seizing opportunity through the American Rescue Plan; 
  • Advancing community engagement and health equity for state, local, and tribal health departments;
  • Fostering tribal and nontribal allyship to strengthen public health; 
  • Collaborating on a just recovery;
  • Lessons from a community-led grantmaking process;
  • Public Health workforce development needs for rural versus urban settings; 
  • Methods of effective rural public health education; and 
  • How the Community Health Inclusion Index can advance equity among those with a disability.  

It was phenomenal that there was an equity focus on race, class, geographic location, and other factors that lead to oppression. The sessions that I attended were high quality and provided valuable information as promised. Historically, equity has been neglected by public health. 

As a woman with a disability who is a lifelong disability rights and anti-ableism activist, I would be negligent if I did not mention that near complete absence of disability from the agenda. I heard disability referenced in a 30-minute session presented by a public health professional who was a parent of a child with disabilities on “How the Community Health Inclusion Index can advance equity among those with a disability.” The only other time I heard disability mentioned was when one of the keynote speakers identified as having a psychiatric disability but did not go on to delineate it as one of their sources of their intersectional oppression. I do not recall hearing the word “ableism” mentioned at all. It was another instance of a good group doing the right thing, except for disabled people. As is too familiar, disabled people were erased. Once again, I was in the position of choosing to ignore my erasure or to appear not to value important equity work.

I did not attend the poster session primarily because the posters were not at a wheelchair-accessible height. In addition, the room was very crowded; there were only pub-height tables for people to network with drinks and appetizers. However, my colleagues told me that there was some very good equity work, including work with disabled people, demonstrated in the posters.

And the hotel was inaccessible. This is not to say that it was not ADA compliant; for the most part it was. However, and this is a huge however, many of the sessions including the keynotes were only accessible via lift after taking an elevator to a sublevel. People who walked had to descend or ascend a few stairs to get to a meeting room. Wheelchair users had to navigate to the space using an elevator, then a lift. To people who don't use wheelchairs this might seem like a non-issue; we both got to the same space after all. Except on three occasions, I was at least 15 minutes late for meetings because neither the hotel nor conference staff escorting me to the meeting could figure out how to access the meeting space via elevator and lift. This is not to mention the dexterity required to access and operate lifts as well as the physical discomfort of using them.

The conference was not wrong in selecting a relatively compliant venue. Its mistake was in selecting one without input from the disability community, specifically wheelchair users and other people with mobility disabilities.

I realize that the venue is selected for next year and we all must deal with the level of existing structural access. My hope is that for next year’s conference, NNPHI will seek input from the disability community to remedy non-structural barriers that occurred at this year’s conference. This included lack of mics and mic use, slide accessibility, chair removal, and table spacing. Equally importantly, I hope to see disabled public health professionals as presenters and disability-related topics both as distinct session content and infused throughout all sessions.

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