Accessible Conference Design

One of the barriers to participation in academic philosophy consists in events being inaccessible. Unfortunately, a common approach to this problem is to ask would-be conference goers to announce their needs to the conference organisers in advance, who will then attempt to accommodate them. This is not optimal for various reasons. The individual has to declare that they are disabled to the conference organisers, and the onus is on the individual to do extra work to negotiate with the people in charge to make it possible for them to attend. The implication is also that the would-be participant requires others to make a special case for him or her. I’m often reminded of the system that operates at many UK railway stations, where to use the disabled toilet – which is kept locked – one must traipse around looking for someone with the key. Not only one must announce to the key-keeper that one is disabled and that one needs the toilet. One must also do all the extra moving around the station trying to find the person with the key.

A far better approach is that known as ‘Universal Design’, where the event is designed with different people’s needs in mind from the outset. Conference-goers with varying needs can then all participate on the same terms, without any of them having to do lots of extra work just to access the conference.

Of course, running a conference that meets such standards of accessibility requires some knowledge on the part of the organisers. How should one organise a conference to be as accessible as possible?

Shelley Tremain has recently addressed this issue over at Discrimination and Disadvantage, where she has published an excellent set of guidelines to help conference organisers.

The following accessibility guidelines are intended to improve access to the conference, through thinking of it as a shared space in which all should be able to participate. We are making these guidelines available now so that conference attendees can plan their papers and presentations with them in mind.

Note that there are guidelines for both presenters and for moderators. If there are any concerns that arise during conference events, please let the moderator know. Moderators will be asked to help facilitate accessibility during sessions. You may ask the moderator for assistance before, during, or after your talk. If needed they will be in touch with Jane Dryden (local conference organizer) or a designated student volunteer.

NB: These guidelines represent a starting point for thinking about access during CSWIP 2016. Please note the limits of guidelines, and be attentive to other ways of enhancing access. Access is best achieved if we think of it as a shared community project.

As the last sentence of this quote makes clear, Universal Design is an ideal end-state. People need to work together to develop ideas about accessibility, which will allow the profession to improve accessibility standards. You can read more here.

Shelley also suggests reading this article, that discusses the issue in relation to psychiatric disabilities, although it maybe doesn’t do enough to distinguish between accommodation and accessibility.

EDITED TO ADD: I strongly encourage people with questions and queries about these issues to head over to the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog, where Shelley and other bloggers there will be able to help.

2 thoughts on “Accessible Conference Design

  1. This is a genuine question and not a criticism from a conference organizer who has done a poor job of making conferences accessible in the past but would like to do better. There are two concerns I have about universal design. The first is that, I suspect, some features of conference design will work very well for some participants and badly for others. For example, low light might be good for people who get migraines from bright lights, but bad for people who have difficulty seeing in low light. The second is that some design features which make conferences accessible are costly. At my university the conference budget (not some central university funds) must pay for things like translators. A universally designed conference would presumably prepare for the possibility that someone wants signing. But this is costly and is something an organizer might be hesitant to undertake the cost without being certain that it will actually be used. I would think an alternative way forward is for people to have an anonymous (say web form) option where they can specify what features they would need to see present for the conference to be accessible for them. Then the conference organizer a) knows which features will be used and b) can adjudicate between what might be sometimes competing interests (ie bright light and low light).

  2. Yes – I had wondered if there would be features that were in competition with each other in the way you suggest. People may have competing dietary requirements, for example. That’s why I gestured – vaguely! – at the idea that Universal Design might be an ideal end-state of things that people should do their best to reach. There may also be people with access needs that are so unique that it’s difficult to anticipate what they are in advance.

    Another thought about signing – I gather that the language used in philosophy is so specialised that people who use sign translators will often have specialist people with whom they work – not just any old sign translator will do.

    An anonymous web-based form sounds like a good way to deal with *some* issues.

    I guess the problem at the moment is that accessibility standards fall SO far short, and there are some fairly easy straightforward things that people could do, yet don’t. Also, the need to budget often seems to be used as an excuse for not doing more (I’m not suggesting that this is how you’ve presented it in your comment – just generally musing), when this is, of course, a question of what is considered to be important and a priority.

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