There’s no “r” in “fee.”

I reread the e-mail to make sure I had understood correctly.

It said I had to pay $60 for a LCD hook-up at my workshop, even though I was bringing my own LCD projector, cables, and laptop. Oh, and I wasn’t getting paid for my presentation—nor for travel or lodging.

Reading that e-mail was one of the many scratch-my-head moments I had last year. I’ve provided countless presentations at various conferences and events over the years, but I now usually decline the invitations if they’re unpaid. After all, I spend hours preparing. Add the travel, and it just becomes too energy-consuming. Even so, last summer I decided to do a couple of free presentations as a way to market my company, T.S. Writing Services.

The first presentation was at a national conference in Washington, D.C. Initially, I submitted a proposal. When it was accepted, I learned that not only would I have to cover all costs to present at this conference—travel, lodging, meals—but I also wouldn’t be paid for my presentation. A few weeks after I declined the opportunity, the organizers asked me to reconsider. After some negotiation, I agreed to pay for my travel. They still didn’t compensate me for my time, though.

I wasn’t entirely comfortable with not being paid. I spoke with other presenters, who said they felt similarly. One mentioned that if it hadn’t been for his company paying for his time, he wouldn’t have even bothered coming. At least we got a nice lunch out of it from the conference organizers.

The $60 LCD fee was for another national conference in September. I wanted to go to this conference because it was in my hometown of Chicago. The $60 LCD was apparently a hotel stipulation. Why the organizers expected the presenters to absorb this fee when we weren’t being paid a single cent was beyond me. Additionally, I had asked the organizers to schedule both of my workshops on the same day so I could save time and money on travel. They scheduled my workshops on different days. When I reminded them of my request—after all, I was paying for all expenses, including the $60 LCD fee, and would be nine months pregnant, they responded with:

“You’re in luck … I’ll switch your Sat morn workshop to Fri @ 2:30. It ends at 4:30 (two full hours) – that’s the deal. :)” [sic]

Did they forget I was doing this for free as a favor to the organizers? I had also donated hundreds of dollars in writing services. In that scratch-my-head moment, I debated whether to proceed with the conference or not. Fate intervened; the conference was canceled.

A Deaf colleague told of how he was asked to speak at Gallaudet University multiple times, never once being offered compensation. He stopped volunteering his time the day he found out that a hearing presenter commanded $5,000 just for an hour-long presentation at the university.

I’ve presented at countless Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf state-level conferences and local events. I’ve been paid for every single presentation: presenter fee, lodging and transportation, and so forth. Yet I can think of so many conferences hosted by organizations where I wasn’t given a single cent—not even complimentary registration or banquet tickets. This no-fee presentation mentality exists at many Deaf-run national conferences, especially among non-profits. Generally, interpreters, captionists, and hearing presenters are paid, with their expenses built into the budget. But Deaf presenters? Nah. They’re expected to donate their time, expertise and wisdom because that’s part of giving back to the community. While I’m a strong proponent of giving back to whatever community you’re part of, there are certainly more efficient approaches.

This doesn’t make sense. If Deaf presenters are to be taken seriously as a group of professionals and experts, we must be treated the same and paid the same as hearing presenters. Perhaps Max Kalehoff states it best: “Why would a conference producer pay presenters if there already are so many people jockeying for the spotlight? First, many of the smartest, most relevant presenters won’t show without pay, or some other significant incentive. Secondly, if presenters are what drive paying attendees, shouldn’t conferences share in the financial gain? Thirdly, paying presenters would create demand for such presenter opportunities and drive the quality of the talent pool.”

The solution is ridiculously simple. If there isn’t money to pay presenters, don’t host a conference. Sure, it’s always a good idea to try to get people to donate their time and knowledge—but don’t bristle when they ask if they’re being paid. Build the presentation costs into the budget, and find money for the presenters.

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