Show me the money! Autistic speakers and speaking gigs 

I recently posted on social media about how I feel people delivering a service as a public speaker should be paid for it, regardless of whether the person is autistic or allistic. I understand that there are a number of considerations around being paid and maybe it isn’t always as simple as ‘pay me,’ so I thought a post unpacking some of the issues was in order. 

In some instances there is a really clear case of injustice and exploitation. I remember being invited to speak at a conference some years ago. When I asked about my fee the organisation said they couldn’t pay, so I asked about having my flights and accommodation paid for and they apologised once more before telling me that the non-autistic expert speaker was charging several thousand dollars for their appearance and they had no money to pay other, autistic speakers. Needless to say I have not spoken for that organisation then or since! 

Sadly this is not an isolated incident. There are still some organisations who can pay but seem to not want to actually part with cash for one of us to speak for them. For people who experience a lot of discrimination and ableism, this kind of thing is enough to put anyone off public speaking.

Some organisations will say that they won’t pay and that they are doing you a favour by booking you as a speaker. I have been told ‘it will look good on your CV’ many times. Currently my autism world full CV is 22 pages so I am inclined to ask them which page I should put their exciting opportunity on? However most speakers do not have a 22 page CV or many years of experience at speaking and a sense of their worth as speakers. This often means that they lack confidence to negotiate for a fee or to have their expenses paid. It often means that they will feel honoured to speak and that they may well think it is worth doing in order to look good on their CV. Many newer speakers have not considered what to charge even if they are offered payment. Giving a presentation is in fact an exciting thing to do and quite an honour so it is understandable that many people will do it for nothing but in many instances that is not really OK.

Some aspects of this which I consider to be not negotiable:

  • If allistic / non-autistic speakers are being paid, autistic speakers should also be paid and the rates should be consistent between both groups 
  • If a speaker is invited to speak at an event, even if budget doesn’t allow for fees for speakers, they should not be out of pocket for attending – so travel etc needs to be paid for as a condition of the arrangement
  • The expertise of autistic speakers is valuable and needs to be considered a key part of the event. Autistic speakers should not be tokens or treated as the ‘colour and light’ 

There is another issue at play which involves organisations which actually are respectful and inclusive but which are small and lack funds. They may offer a smaller fee or ask to negotiate. I see a big difference between those organisations and, for example the conference organiser not wanting to pay me due to using all their money to pay the non-autistic expert. There can be a lot of confusion in this space as there are no hard and fast rules as to which organisations genuinely can’t afford to pay speakers much and those who are just pretending and trying to cut costs.

I have a few strategies around issues of fees and speaking:

  • I have a set fee structure. It is a PDF document on my laptop. I based this on what I was aware of other professional speakers charging and what I thought organisations would be OK to pay. My fee structure includes all the incidentals I will charge for (flights, ground transport and accommodation), as well as my fee for presentations of a range of durations (from an hour or less to all day). I also added a rate for consultancy work.
  • I have an Australian Business Number (ABN) and I would recommend if you want to do regular public speaking that you should get one or the equivalent in whatever country your are in
  • When an organisation asks to book me, I will send my fee structure. If the organisation is:
    • Run by autistics
    • Run by parents
    • A school, scout group or other organisation which doesn’t have a big budget for presentations 
    • or if they are another kind of small organisation providing a community service …

I will say that my fee is negotiable. However, I send the fee structure anyway as it is a statement that I need to be fairly remunerated for my time, just like any other speaker should be. 

  • If an organisation such as those listed above cannot pay me I will consider whether or not I will give the talk anyway. Flexibility is important here because it is not always the case that those who won’t pay are intentionally exploiting me. Sometimes they really don’t have the funds. If my message can help the audience I will often donate my time. I think this is a very different situation to an organisation exploiting me but once again there can be some grey areas here.
  • This stuff can tie your brain in knots and is full of unwritten rules and rules of thumb – i.e. stressful for a lot of autistics who prefer actual rules and clear statements. I generally find my gut response is the one to go with.
  • It is important to keep in mind the reason I have a fee structure. It is not so that I make a lot of money. Rather, it exists because I wouldn’t want other autistic speakers not to be paid in situations where they should be, so by having set fees I am stating that autistic speakers are as valuable as any other speakers. People from disadvantaged groups – including autistics – can on occasion be considered of less value than others. This often translates to actual monetary value when it comes to public speaking. This is not on and if I can help address that by requesting a fee for my work then that has to be a good thing.

The main things to know about payment for presenting are that autistic speakers can be exploited and devalued and this is not OK. It can be a complex area with lots of unwritten rules making it challenging to navigate. The best thing for prospective speakers is to be aware of the potential for being taken advantage of, consider what your fees should be and be aware of the value of your your message.

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5 thoughts on “Show me the money! Autistic speakers and speaking gigs 

  1. Reblogged this on bunnyhopscotch and commented:
    Important, key fundamentals from Jeanette Purkis.

    My own experience since returning to Singapore has been a mixed bag of outright exploitation and subtle disrespect. There’ve been people demanding I speak for free at their terribly named ‘Autism exposing’ events because it will give me “exposure” (as if I needed to pay out of my own pocket for any exposure in their tiny weeny blatantly exploitative event), people writing books and asking me to contribute a chapter but refusing to either pay an honorarium or a percentage of royalties just as gestures of respect (I actually told them frankly that they ought to offer some respectful gesture, but “I don’t make much from it” was their paltry and stolidly unmoved excuse), and organisations using an autistic person with a PhD as a token mascot, always polite and always ‘nice’ but no pay whatsoever, not even reimbursement for transport.

    There also have been organisations asking me to speak and offering one-tenth of market rate because of ‘budgeting issues’.

    As outlined by Jeanette, there are the obvious ones to avoid, but also many less obvious ones that perhaps genuinely cannot afford market rate – or perhaps their bosses do not want to sign the cheques for something deemed of lower value. The spirit of neuro-colonialism is dominant here in Singapore. Autistics are deemed unfit to work in certain professions, no matter how qualified or experienced (where experience is garnered overseas). And in general, an autistic person with a PhD is in their eyes worth only one-tenth of a non-autistic person with a PhD.

    Change is needed. But it is no easy task to unravel all the knotted threads of entrenched discrimination and disrespect. Autistic adults and professionals need to practice what we preach, but we also need to have a joint vision for the future supported by non-autistic allies, especially parents of autistic children. Is this marginalising status quo what you parents wish for your autistic children to face when they grow up, or do you want something better? Time to wake up, stand up, eschew all the inspirational porn videos being churned out to make you all feel so gooooood, and start asking for equity and respect. For us now, and most of all for your children’s future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As a public speaker (business, not autism — I wasn’t diagnosed until three years after I retired from speaking) in 1999 due to my voice becoming unreliable, I almost always insisted on being paid because my ideas and experience made money for those attending.

      I started on roughly $1,000 per day in the mid 1980s, graduating to $1,500 per day by the early 1990s. When my business books became hot sellers in the mid-1990s my fees increased dramatically because I began keynote speaking at national business conventions and conferences, and I was charging $3,000 for a 1-hour presentation plus accommodation, flights, etc by 1996.

      By 1998, whoever, the stress involved (I’m an Aspie) began causing me to lose my voice intermittently, and by 1999 I was forced to cancel around $300,000 in advance bookings, but by then I was well established online and could pre-record and edit video presentations around my voice availability.

      Yes, I would regularly speak free for causes I wanted to support, but I chose. If I was delivering value that could be converted into sales or other revenue, I expected to be paid.

      Liked by 2 people

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