Attending a Conference As A Spoonie

by: Alandis Johnson, Ph.D.

Conferences can be so draining. I’ve always felt this as a massive introvert. Surrounding yourself with thousands of others in a city that you may not be familiar with sets the stage for stress, fatigue, and mental overwhelm. But what happens when you add chronic illness into that mix and make the decision to attend a conference?

In March 2016, I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. After stealing six months of my life with multiple rounds of intense chemotherapy, life-altering surgeries, and four weeks of radiation, I returned to my life a bit battered and bruised–mentally, emotionally, and physically. I know I’m not the only person in student affairs who has lived through something so tumultuous, and there are plenty of us in the field dealing with the impacts of chronic illness and/or disability everyday.

As I was transitioning back into the world of student affairs, finishing up my dissertation, and trying to negotiate where I fit now that my life was forever changed, it illuminated so many things I did not recognize before. One of the biggest realizations was conferences can be exceptionally hard for people with chronic illness. I speak only from my perspective, but I’ve found that some good preparation and self-awareness can be vital tools to navigate a conference, should you make the decision to attend.

First, it’s important to make preparations and get to know what’s available at a conference. Conference planning teams, like the convention team for ACPA19 in Boston, make lots of preparations for its attendees; they’ve also visited the conference site and know where things are. It can be difficult to plan for everything, though, so it’s important to reach out if you need specific accommodations or need relevant information about something in the area. Not having to do all the research by yourself can be a huge time-saver and energy saver, especially when you have few spoons to give each day to these tasks. Spoons refer to the analogy where everything requires your time, energy, and attention spend the “spoons” you have available to give. When I attended ACPA17 in Columbus after finishing my treatment, I went to ACPA specifically because it was within driving distance to where I live (Cincinnati), and I stayed in the conference hotel to make sure I didn’t have to walk a lot to get back to my hotel room to rest in between sessions. Another preparation I made was to bring snacks and comfortable clothes to ensure I felt good about my appearance, nourished, and ready for presentations I was giving.

The second recommendation I have is to recognize your limits. Conferences can be valuable learning experiences, but for folks with chronic illness and/or disability, the full range of programs and offerings may not be doable. Taking care of yourself should be a top priority, versus attending another program that may or may not be helpful to you in the long run. I struggled daily with chronic fatigue, brain fog/chemo brain, chronic nerve pain from surgery, neuropathy, and impacts to my speech and cognition after finishing cancer treatment. I knew ahead of time I would not be able to attend most sessions – even if I wanted to – simply because I did not have the energy to sit through them. I chose not to attend every single session I could, because it would have been too much for me. This allowed greater flexibility to reconnect with others who hadn’t connected withme since pre-cancer days, and it made our reunion that much sweeter because I had the flexibility to say no to sessions and yes to reconnecting with others I care about. Often, presenters are more than willing to share materials from their presentation with you on a conference website or the ACPA app, or you can also email the presenter to see if they will send you their powerpoint slides or other materials.  

Attending conferences can be costly, and you feel you need to get the most out of your conference attendance by attending all the sessions you possibly can, going to all the speakers, networking with tons of new people, and maybe even presenting your own work. All of that can take an emotional or physical cost. The term “spoonie” refers to the ability to give your time, energy, and attention to things, and each task has a physical/emotional cost, which might be one spoon, or many.  It’s important to acknowledge the financial barriers that make conference attendance prohibitive and/or more difficult for people with disabilities. Health care costs can be outrageous. Conference attendance can also be expensive–with hotels, membership, conference fees, travel, and meals, and those costs can increase when working to accommodate specific health needs. It can be helpful to know when employers or schools are able to help with the expense of attending conferences, while also checking if the association has scholarships or any other means to support people with limited finances to attend.  No matter the type of “cost”, it’s important to evaluate all the costs prior to deciding to attend and figure out what works best for you.

Most importantly, do what is good for you. Don’t worry about what others may or may not be doing. Comparison is the thief of joy, and health is one of those things that you don’t recognize how precious it is until it’s gone. It felt that way for me, and whether that is true for you, I encourage you to think about what it would be like to have your health status change, even in a small way. Making conference attendance part of your life can have lots of rewards, but ultimately, the attendance part is your decision. I still believe conference attendance is a valuable source of professional development, and my changed health status didn’t lessen the value I gained in attendance–it just changed my approach to attendance.

Alandis Johnson, Ph.D. (they/them/their), serves as the ACPA19 Equity and Inclusion Convention Experiences Coordinator. They can be reached at for further questions or dialogue.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *