Accessible conferences – where to start?

Trying to design an accessible conference can be a confusing, even intimidating, process. The experiences of disabled people are so varied that there’s no way you can predict the appropriate accommodations for everyone, and sometimes an accommodation for one disability can be actually be hindrance for another. It can be hard to know where to start. But while we probably won’t get things exactly right, I suspect that in philosophy we could be doing much better.

Here are a few basic recommendations from my own (extremely limited) conference-organizing experience, plus a bit of a priori extrapolation (I have more experience with that).

Ask ahead: I’m a longtime vegetarian. It used to be very uncommon for conference invitations to include a proviso that said something to the effect of “If you have any dietary restrictions, please let us know so that we can accommodate them”. I would always feel awkward about requesting that my vegetarianism be accommodated if the invitation hadn’t included such a proviso. So I’d often end up not attending conference dinners, going hungry, etc. These days, almost every conference I go to asks about dietary requirements. Whether you’re vegetarian, vegan, lactose or gluten-intolerant, eat kosher, etc, they’ll try to work something out for you, and they make that clear. It’s amazing the difference that a simple proviso (“Dietary restrictions? Just let us know!”) makes to the conference-going comfort of us non-standard eaters. But I have never – ever – gotten a conference invitation that contained a similar proviso about disability accommodation. It would make such a difference – even if the difference is just to signal a helpful, understanding attitude – if conference organizers proactively asked about disability accommodation.

Invite disabled speakers first – Have a speaker that you want to invite to your conference, and you know that they’re disabled? Invite them first – before you’ve set the schedule, the venue, whatever. Say to this person: “We really want to have you at this conference. How can we make this conference as accessible to you as possible?” Then build your conference around what’s best for your speaker, rather than designing your conference and expecting your disabled speaker to conform themselves to what you’ve set up (or, perhaps more likely, being a bit sad that the disabled speaker turned you down).

Allow flexibility – If at all possible, don’t force all conference-goers to do everything the same way. Is your conference in an urban area where most people walk, and you’re assuming that everyone will walk from the conference venue to dinner? That’s fine, but have info about cabs or public transportation available. And have other people ready and willing to use these options with a conference-goer that needs them. You don’t want to put your disabled conference-goer on a bus by herself and say “we’ll see you at dinner!” Can you have the conference sessions near the conference accommodation, so that conference goers who need breaks can easily and non-obviously take them? (They’ll appreciate this, trust me.) And is that beautiful old stone building that has narrow hallways, twisty staircases, and no elevators really the only place you can hold your conference? Really?

Take advantage of university services – Once you find about about the accessibility requirements of the people attending your conference, talk to the people at your university (if you’re holding the conference at a university) in charge of accessibility. You probably associate these people primarily with those endless, often highly impractical emails you get about making your classes more accessible to dyslexic students (I remember in particular a very long one I got about the importance of minizing the use of symbols and technical jargon the semester I was teaching intro logic. . .), but they really do have a lot to offer. You’ll be surprised at the range of software, presentation aids, even furniture and equipment that many universities can provide for you.

These are just some starting thoughts. More suggestions?