Last night I dreamt of an inclusive conference…

Perhaps it was after reading a comment on another thread… everything went kind of blurry…

I found myself at the back of a large lecture theatre, but I could see the powerpoint slides just fine, because the speaker had used a large sans serif font, in a dark colour on a plain pale background…  Just then, she started speaking, and I could hear every word – I realised she’d just used the microphone, without waiting for anyone to complain. I particularly admired the way her slides just reinforced the structure in her talk, without ever replacing the content she was conveying – she managed to articulate each point made on the slides, without mechanically reading them out.  She moved her wheelchair comfortably as she talked from behind the adjustable-height podium.  As the session ended, I noticed the questions seemed to be particularly incisive and on point, and then I realised the papers for plenary sessions must have been sent out in advance – next to me, one person had printed it on pale yellow paper, and on the other side someone had printed in large font….

Then I dreamt I was floating down a corridor, past parallel sessions.  In one of them, everyone was sitting in a circle, so the participant who was lipreading could see everyone’s faces.  In the next, people were saying their names before speaking, so the blind participant could identify the speaker.  In a third, the University’s daycare centre had provided staff – paid overtime, of course – to offer child care on site…  I floated on, into the dining area, where a meal had been laid out, each dish clearly indicating whether it contained milk, meat, fish, nuts or gluten products…

In the lobby, several people were clustered around a computer terminal, where they watched yesterday’s plenary sessions, already turned into vodcasts synchronised with the slides and transcript. A lively discussion was already taking place with virtual participants from around the world…  As I drifted past, I noticed the conference flyer on a table – as well as the programme of speakers, it included a description of the venue, mentioning (among other things) provision of hearing loops, parking, location of accessible entrances and bathrooms, and an invitation to contact the conference organisers with any individual access requirements… It even said they’d established contacts with the University’s Student Disability Service in order to find support workers, such as sign language interpreters, if needed… 

But then I woke up.  What else would I have noticed, I wonder, if my dream had gone on longer?

Perhaps the organisers had been reading this organising accessible events publication…

15 thoughts on “Last night I dreamt of an inclusive conference…

  1. Thanks for the inspiring vision and v. useful information! (Did you *really* have that dream? I need to get a more productive sleep-life, clearly.)

  2. The idea of a fully accessible conference does indeed (sadly) sound almost magical, but from a practical standpoint I’ve often felt a central confusion. Should the conference organizer aiming at inclusivity make *predictive* arrangements, or should they (warmly and repeatedly) invite information from speakers and delegates about desired accomodations and then try to ensure that these are met? My basic concern is that — apart from the obvious, like making sure facilities are wheelchair accessible — it can be difficult if not impossible to make predictive arrangements. The experience of disability is so myriad that it would be almost impossible to predict the invidual requirements of each disabled individual who might attend your event. But more importantly, accomodation for some disabled people is going to directly conflict with accomodation for others. Asking speakers not to move around during they’re talks will help lip-readers, for example, but it can be a disadvantage for the speaker if s/he has certain types of arthritis. Likewise, asking everyone to speak slowly will disadvantage the person who speaks very quickly to overcome a speech impediment. And so on. It would be tempting to just try to accomodate preemptively the most commonly seen forms of disability, but I worry that this is privileging the needs of the many while ignoring the claims of the few — which is exactly the kind of thinking that disabled advocates have told us is so wrong-headed!

    What’s a disability-conscious conference organizer to do?

  3. Interesting questions, confused! Might it be a solution to simply be careful how requests are phrased, e.g. “If it’s comfortable for you to remain stationary while speaking, that would be very helpful for lip-reading attendees. But we quite understand this may not be a good idea for all speakers.” ??

  4. it could also be the case that certain inclusivity measures might conflict with each other just so far as attendees goes. so for example, using a mic might be good for an audience member who’s hard of hearing, but might be bad for an audience member who’s trying to lipread. making clear that you want to cater to the needs of your participants, and encouraging people to get in contact regarding those needs seems like it must be an important part of being inclusive.

  5. Hi confused,

    I agree it can seem overwhelming. One can find oneself thinking: “Where does it end? Do I have to become an expert on every kind of impairment?!” That’s not only overwhelming, it’s impossible! So here’s where I’ve got to…

    1. I do think it’s useful to distinguish, as you have, between predictive and reactive measures. Predictive – or anticipatory – measures try to make the environment as inclusive as possible to start with, whereas reactive measures respond to specific individual requirements. And however inclusive you make things, individual measures will always be needed from time to time, like putting things into braille or arranging a sign language interpreter – it would be wasteful to do either of those things unless you had reason to think someone was going to use them. So you always include an invitation to participants to contact you if they have individual access requirements.

    2. But you can reduce the need for individual measures by doing some generally inclusive things. Checking for wheelchair accessibility may be obvious, but it’s still not done often enough or early enough! Check before booking the venue and include the information on the conference website, and do the same with induction loops, microphones and accessible parking. Provide as much written material electronically and in advance as you can, so people can do their own reformatting, converting or printing for themselves, and if it can’t be done in advance, then print using an absolute minimum of 12pt font, preferably 14pt. And when the conference opens, make a brief statement about access as a routine part of the housekeeping. Say that you’re aiming to make the conference accessible, but that people should tell you if you’ve missed something, and remind participants that they’re all responsible for talking clearly and for keeping sessions starting and ending on time.

    3. Make use of sources of advice like the University’s student disability service, who will probably be glad to tell you about campus facilities, and may even lend you things like portable induction loops if you need them. Most universities in North America, UK and Australasia will have such a service. In those countries both university and commercial venues will have their own legal obligations in relation to access, so there should be someone who can give you relevant information (apologies to people based outside those regions, I just don’t know enough about disability laws elsewhere!).

    4. Include a space on the evaluation form for commenting on access and ease of participation in the conference, inviting suggestions for improvement next time.

    Finally, on the possible tensions – well, yes, those might happen (though if the lipreader has written materials to supplement her understanding, that will help). My experience at events where organisers have made a genuine effort is that things usually sort themselves out, perhaps with a bit of confusion and humour, and then everyone gets on with the main business. But if we don’t do the basic things, we can be sure some people will end up excluded and frustrated!

  6. Heg, what about braille printers that can ‘translate’ ordinary texts. Do you have any idea about how common they are? Would it be worth trying to bring handouts in braille too? I have no idea…

  7. jj, I think this is one of those cases where it’s not worth doing unless someone asks for it – braille texts are hugely bulky, so many braille users prefer to use a laptop with a braille display to read from electronic files. Technology has transformed things: so long as you produce your documents electronically in a format like Word or rich text, people can usually manipulate the files themselves. (There’s useful information at – thanks, techdis!)

    It’s when you can’t get the files to people electronically that it’s trickier (like when you were up until 2am writing them) – I usually print out one copy in about 16pt or 18pt font in case anyone needs it, and also try to make sure I speak out loud the ideas that are on paper, so the methods of presentation supplement each other.

  8. Thanks so much everyone for the very helpful comments. I do still worry about potential conflicts between various disabilities, particularly with respect to predictive measures. (Case in point from a non-conference setting: my university recently painted bright neon lines along the edges of each step of a flight of stairs in order to aid visually-impaired students. But a student of mine with a particular form of visual impairment that gives her double-vision now can’t use those stairs at all, because they bring on horrible bouts of vertigo and make her stumble.)

    My basic worry was of the form: that someone could accuse you of discriminating against the disabled if you hadn’t done x, y, and z in advance, while at the same time someone could just as reasonably accuse you of discrminating against the disabled (in the form of their particular disability) for having done x, y, or z. But it does seem as though the crucial elements here are awareness, pre-availability of as much information as possible, and invitations for event delegates to make requests for their own particular requirements. And none of that is that complicated. . .

  9. Confused – I wonder if there are two slightly different kinds of potential conflict of the form you describe.

    In the case of practical design of spaces, a very useful approach is that of Universal Design – see for instance and – which is “…the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Ron Mace) Now, I have no idea what the solution to the stairs problem is, but I bet a universal design enthusiast would be excited about the challenge. In my experience, university estates managers in the UK (I don’t know where you are) don’t know much about universal design, and tend to fix one problem in a way which creates another. So whether there are any cases where a tension is inevitable I don’t know, but I’m guessing that at least some of them are just bad design.

    But there might be other areas of real tension when it comes to equality. We blogged about one case here: Another I can imagine is where a woman wearing niqab, which covers her mouth, has difficulty communicating with a deaf person who lipreads. (In fact, I wonder whether this wasn’t part of the problem when Jack Straw complained about a constituent who wouldn’t remove her face veil – except he wasn’t all that open about his deafness. See He said he wanted a true ‘face-to-face’ conversation in which he could ‘see what they meant’ as well as ‘hear what they said’. I wonder if that means he thinks a blind politician couldn’t properly understand his constituents? Perhaps he should have asked David Blunkett…)

    These latter tensions seem more problematic when they arise from fundamental needs and beliefs. But I still don’t think that means there are no solutions, they just take some thought and care and commitment to respecting the other party. My impression is that Jack Straw wasn’t really doing that.

  10. Heg,
    I think that your initial post and comments in this thread have been very instructive. However, I would like to underscore the importance of philosophy associations establishing guidelines and policies that ensure the involvement of disabled philosophers in their events. (Your advice seemed directed for the most part at the organizers of one-time events; I’m not sure whether or not this was your intention.) I would also like to offer a caution in regard to the suggestion that disabled delegates should address conference organizers directly about what is required for their involvement in events.

    While simply asking people what accessibility provisions they require may seem like the appropriate (and adequate) thing to do for a one-time event, it’s not a sufficient mechanism for ensuring accessibility to the events organized by ongoing philosophy associations whose leadership changes from year-to-year. In such cases, the conference organizers of one year’s program may be concerned to involve disabled philosophers in their event, but the next year’s organizers may display an utter disregard for this. Establishing policies and guidelines that not only conference participants *but also the conference organizers themselves* must adhere to, and abide by, would prevent this sort of piece-meal, ad hoc approach which relies upon the goodwill of individuals.

    Often conference organizers do little more than provide a contact email at the end of a conference announcement. In such cases, I believe, disabled philosophers are in effect put in the position of having to ask for admittance to an event at the discretion of the contact person. This procedure could actually reinforce the asymmetrical relation of power in which disabled people as a social group stand to nondisabled people. Because this asymmetry bestows a degree of social privilege and authority upon nondisabled people, many of them are defensive about, and resistant to, information (knowledge) that disabled people provide about accessibility and what is required to promote their equality and inclusion. Not everyone has the sort of social consciousness that “Confused” has displayed. An approach that may seem “more feminist” (direct contact with individuals, etc.) might actually have very unpleasant consequences depending on who is at the receiving end of the information.

    I would like to recommend a policy that would be quite easy for an association such as the APA to adopt, one that would address the issue of inaccessibility which I mentioned in another thread and which you have discussed at length here:

    Those whose papers are accepted for a session at one of the conferences should be given a deadline by which they must electronically submit a *final* version of their paper, as well as any material they intend to distribute at the session. These electronic files will subsequently be made available on a conference website. And this deadline should be strictly enforced. Anyone who does not submit the final version of her or his paper by the deadline should not be permitted to deliver the paper at the conference (should be removed from the program). Nor should anyone be permitted to distribute material in a session which she or he has not made available on the conference website by the designated deadline. If someone can abide by the initial paper submission deadline, there is no reason why she or he cannot abide by this one.

  11. Wow, what a fantastic post Heg, many thanks! As someone who has helped organize/run around a dozen academic conferences, I am ashamed to say that these practical, common-sense strategies never occurred to me.

    Some points about conferences outside the US/UK/1st-world: conference organizers in the developing world (myself included before coming to the UK) are often totally flummoxed by requests that would be completely reasonable in the 1st world but totally bizarre to many of us in the developing world, for example requests for gluten-free or vegetarian food, or adjustments for disabled people. Where I come from, sub-saharan Africa (where I learned my trade as an academic, and organized several conferences), malnutrition and starvation are often very much a fact of life, so the (to us) fussiness of Western eaters is something people can find extremely offensive. Likewise, in countries dealing with brutal dictatorships, civil wars or massive developmental issues, disability rights and accessibility are unfortunately pretty low on the agenda (and, sadly, very low on the scale of what people consider to be important). I have witnessed – and dealt with the aftermath – of numerous situations where extreme offense was caused to or by conference attendees who made what they thought was a simple request about food or accessibility.

    But these issues can be mitigated or managed by good conference planning. As Heg mentioned above in a slightly different context, conflict does not have to be inevitable, it may simply be a case of bad design. When you plan a conference in another country or you’re expecting a lot of attendees from abroad, make sure that the organizing committee is culturally representative. Build into the planning sessions some dedicated time to discuss expectations from all sides about accessibility, food, cultural background, etc. Organizing committees would prefer to spend all their time planning the academic make-up of the conference programme, but life could be so much simpler for everyone if the same effort went into designing a menu that took account of culturally diverse needs, and discussions about required standards of accessibility and how to achieve those practically.

    Some equality & diversity or cultural awareness training/briefings for both conference staff/helpers and conference attendees would be useful too (along the lines of genuine respect for human rights and human diversity, as opposed to the “silly foreigners with their ridiculous notions, this is what we must do to humour them because we need their money” approach beloved of some UK universities’ international offices). Such sessions would have the added advantage of reducing the cultural misunderstandings that often lead to sexual harassment problems at conferences.

  12. Posting for a friend, EA, who’s been dreaming, too:

    “What a dream! Oh yes to it all, and it certainly got me thinking. There are a few other things I might see:
    1. The ppt slides did not contain any diagrams with text crossing though the lines and were not crowded with text.
    2. A roving microphone was available for speakers, so that they could move around and still be heard.
    3. Your idea of daycare got me thinking. Too far maybe. Would adults who are being cared for by conference attendees be offered something? And, if yes, at this conference they were given choice from a range of activities and supported by properly educated staff who listened to their preferences and what carers said too. And for older adults, it was not be assumed that they are all, by virtue of age, appropriately entertained by watching daytime TV on a large screen for the entire conference. Or by playing bingo.
    4. The dining area. At the buffet, the plates had a glass carrying attachment and/or drinks were available at the dining tables, so that stick users weren’t left with food in one hand, stick in the other and thirsty. There were plenty of places to sit around tables and space to move around without crowd avoidance, so that stick users weren’t left dodging around with food in one hand, stick in the other and no free limb left to eat with or wheelchair users left sitting while everyone else stood, chatted and spoke downwards. And there were plenty of cheerful staff around who offered help to carry stuff when asked and never assumed what someone needed.
    5. Poster presentations in the lobby were produced to guidelines ensuring that they were large and used the best font/colours etc. They were displayed in a way which avoided crowding and also on screens which were accessible to wheelchair users or people with VI.
    6. The programme scheduled activities so that individuals could pace themselves and did not become too fatigued or lose concentration and feel excluded from the ‘add on’ events because they simply hadn’t got the energy to make it. It didn’t span several days, each starting with a breakfast session at 08.00 and running until 18.30, with interesting fringe events scheduled through lunch and the conference dinner/cultural events scheduled to begin at 19.00 every day – a whole 30mins after the last session ended.
    7. The conference goody bag was designed to wear across the body.
    8. Signposting for break out session locations was clear and there was an identifiable meeting point with seating.
    9. There was a seating area for people who want to take time out or network without distraction.
    10. Attendees shared business cards or v. business cards which were easy to read.
    11. There were no trailing wires for spotlights, laptops, projectors and the like. Not even if covered in places with random pieces of sticky tape. And no awkward steps up to stages.
    12. Seating was comfortable and with good leg space, any steps or stairs had properly spaced treads and handrails were well fixed.
    13. Fire exits were accessible and well marked, visually and audibly.
    14. There were no ‘musical table’ style group activities during sessions.
    15. The conference hotels were chosen specifically for their truly accessible rooms and their being close to the venue.

    And then I woke up too… “

  13. Let’s think of a way of making this impressive post permanently & easily available – maybe after the page with ‘our policies’

  14. Shelley – there’s a lot in your post which I think is right, and I want to comment especially on the point about inviting people to contact conference organisers about their access requirements. If that is all an organiser does, the disabled would-be participant faces not only the extra burden of effort but also the uncertainty about unhelpful responses. And it normalises inaccessibility: after all, if most conferences were mostly accessible, people would have no idea whether they *needed* to request anything individually.

    That’s why I think the *first* step for an organiser is to announce what access arrangements have already been made – describe where the conference is and how it’s going to be run in a way which allows people to judge whether there will still be barriers for them. Inviting people to contact you about further individual needs is the *second* step. Now, in this case, the disabled would-be participant not only knows whether their individual request is necessary, they also have an indication of the attitudes and efforts of the organisers, which gives a good idea of how an individual request is likely to be handled.

    I think what I’m saying is there’s a world of difference between a request sent off into the unknown and one sent to an organiser who has already demonstrated a bit of commitment and awareness. It becomes a dialogue, not a plaintive entreaty.

    And of course, that’s exactly what would be promoted by the sort of institutional commitment to accessibility you’re calling for.

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