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?

8 thoughts on “Accessible conferences – where to start?

  1. Thanks for bringing up this important topic, Magical Ersatz! As a deaf philosopher, one issue that comes up for me is cost of accommodations. Small conferences do not always set aside funds for ongoing accessibility needs (i.e. interpreters, captioning) and are sometimes caught off guard when these requests come in. Depending on where the conference occurs and who is sponsoring it, this can be a real issue. Countries and institutions have different mechanisms for handling accessibility costs – some provide annual accessibility funds to the person with a disability, others attach these funds to the university, still others expect the society offering the conference to cover these costs, and so forth. International conferences present a challenge if there are no qualified interpreters of the required signed language in the area – when I presented in Saudi Arabia a few years ago, we brought our own American Signed Langauge interpreter.

    Another huge issue for me (the APA is great about this, but other large organizations have not been) is providing qualified interpreters. As an example: an interpreter who works with kindergarteners *is* an educational interpreter, but the skill set needed for interpreting academic philosophy is highly specialized, and not all educational interpreters will be a good fit to this assignment. (Real life example, this!) Conference organizing administrative staff who do not know American Sign Language and who are not philosophers are not qualified to assess whether an interpreter’s skills are sufficient for interpreting academic philosophy or related subfields.

    I’ll conclude this by giving a special shout-out to those who have provided accessibility accommodations for me at conferences and meetings this past year. I appreciate your time and effort in getting this done right – you’ve been great!

  2. Yes indeed, thanks Magicalersatz!

    In relation to Teresa’s point raised above, about accessibility costs – my understanding of the situation in the UK is that any funds for researchers with accessibility costs tend to come from devolved (i.e. school/department or subject) research budgets (whilst funds for taught students (BA, MA) tend to be provided from central institutional funds). This seems like a pretty bad state of affairs which could disincentivise inviting to events (or even hiring?) philosophers who would require such funds.

    My understanding of this is somewhat limited, so I’d be interested to learn from others who know more (either about the legal requirements on this, or the situation at their institutions).

    However, it is worth noting that (following discussion at a conference at Cardiff last year, on under-representation) the British Philosophical Association has been lobbying on this.

    As a result, some learned societies have decided to advertise their willingness to assist with such costs (see e.g. the Analysis Trust conference grants page, here )

    Does anyone know about whether other organisations have also considered the BPA’s request? I’d be interested to know about that too.


  3. Great post!

    Conferences’ days excursions can get very difficult if the organizers assume everyone can walk for much distance. I don’t look disabled, I think, but I can’t always manage more than a quarter of a mile.

  4. Thanks all for the very helpful comments.

    The issue of cost is a difficult one (especially because, as Teresa notes, funding conventions differ from country to country, and often from university to university). I wonder if it would be helpful to organize a centralized resource for conference organizers about potential sources of accessibility funding?

    And Anon, too true – it can be pretty depressing to sit in your soulless hotel room while the rest of the conference wanders off for their scenic fit-people outing. That’s not to say that conferences shouldn’t organize excursions like this, of course. But again, flexibility is key. If you can provide an alternative “low key” excursion that’s more accessible, then people have more options.

  5. Stoat, a few points on cost:

    – In the UK, some disabled people will, for some work-related purposes, be able to get funding for adjustments from Access to Work (which is government-funded and applied for by the individual, not by the institution). Obviously, there’s the usual bureaucracy involved in getting AtW – see – and I’m pretty sure I heard in the last year that they’d cut the budget. Still, it’s, um, not nothing…!

    – Most disabled students, including research students, will be eligible for some support through the Disabled Students Allowance (which is also independent of the institution and applied for by the individual).

    – As you rightly say, many institutions do not have central budgets for reasonable adjustments, so small cost centres have to cover the costs. This is absurd and – if it led to denying someone reasonable adjustments, probably unlawful – so institutions should be urged at every opportunity to consider creating a central fund for this purpose. (Institutions may be more likely to have created funds to cover the costs of reasonable adjustments for international students who are not entitled to the DSA, which may be a useful precedent.)


  6. and magicalersatz, I’m sorry you’ve been sent impractical advice about teaching dyslexic students! If I’d been writing it I’d have said:
    (a) choose a proof system which uses layout as well as annotation to show which lines depend on which others (for instance, by indenting sub-proofs), and recommend your students work on squared paper
    (b) make mistakes when you’re demonstrating how to work through problems, and then show how to extricate yourself.
    Practical? it’s my middle name…

  7. Regarding dietary issues, I think it’s great when conferences are pro-active about asking people about less common dietary issues. But vegetarianism and veganism are such common dietary preferences (and sometimes health requirements) among academics that I imagine it should probably just be the default to have only vegetarian and vegan meals at conference dinners. There are plenty of rice/bean/cheese-based vegetarian meals that would appeal to almost all meat-eaters. If I were organizing an event and wanted two standard meal options rather than three, for cost reasons or other reasons, I can’t see why those options wouldn’t be one vegetarian option and one vegan option. I say this as someone who is a regular meat-eater.

  8. Thanks Heg. I had wondered about the legality of current arrangements. I hadn’t been aware of AtW though.
    In terms of other sources of funding in philosophy, at least, I understand that Mind Association is also making available funds for access costs (these can be built into applications for conference support, and (if I understand correctly) can legitimately take the overall bid over the standard limit).

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