Conference accessibility: avoiding some common pitfalls

[Thanks to Teresa Blankmeyer Burke for help and discussion on this post.]

Summer conference season is upon us! In a perfect world, all our conferences are perfectly accessible. But it’s an imperfect world – our conferences are run on limited budgets, our university accessibility teams are often less than ideally helpful, and many of us who are organizing events are scrambling to keep our heads above water as we juggle a sea of logistical details with little help and even less time. Managing accessibility in imperfect circumstances like these can be hard. It’s especially hard for disabled people, in ways a lot of non-disabled people don’t realize – Teresa Blankmeyer Burke has written beautifully about the hidden labor of disability, including all the time and energy spent arranging accommodation. But it’s also just generally complicated and complex. This post offers a few troubleshooting guidelines for how to approach conference accessibility. Hopefully readers can add more in the comments. (And there are some starting points for particular things to think about regarding conference accessibility here and here – lists like these are invariably controversial and imperfect, so if anyone has alternative suggestions please feel free to raise those in the comments as well.)

  • Ask. – This is maybe the most important thing. Ask about accommodation requirements. And don’t just ask the people you know to be disabled – lots of people might have accommodation needs you don’t expect or know about (and they might be uncomfortable bringing them up if you don’t ask). Ask as a matter of course.
  • When people answer, listen. – This may seem obvious, but it’s really important not to second-guess what someone tells you about accessibility on the grounds that it will ‘probably be fine’. So, e.g., someone tells you they need an accessible hotel room. You can’t get one in the hotel you’re planning on using for the conference. But you can get a hotel on the ground floor, so you figure this will probably be fine. The person isn’t in a wheelchair, so they don’t need all the bells and whistles of an accessible room, right? Turns out, though, that many disabled people need the accommodations of accessible rooms – especially the bathroom set up – for reasons far beyond extra space for wheelchairs. Lots of disabled people do lots of complicated things in bathrooms. None of them want to explain it in detail to the person organizing a conference they’re attending. If someone asks for an accessible room, don’t reinterpret that request on the assumption that something else is ‘probably fine’. Similarly, don’t rely on your own judgement about which accessibility requirements are necessary. If someone has asked speakers to use a mic, and a mic has been provided in the room, don’t allow speakers to ignore the mic and say ‘It’s fine, I’m sure everyone can hear me.’ If someone has asked speakers to use a mic, it’s probably because they really do need speakers to use the mic.
  • If in doubt, ask for clarification. – So suppose you’re in a bind. Your conference is over budget, the hotel you’re getting a group rate for doesn’t have any available accessible rooms, and you think maybe the person attending your conference just needs to avoid a specific thing (stairs, narrow halls, etc.) Don’t just assume this is fine, but also don’t approach this issue by saying ‘So I’m planning to book you this basic ground floor room – is that okay?’ If it’s not okay, the person in question will have to respond with many a disabled person’s least favorite phrase: ‘I can’t. . .’. Disabled people, especially successful ones, are socially conditioned to hate this phrase. There’s so much pressure on disabled people to say that everything is fine, to never admit that they can’t do something, to internalize accommodation requirements as their own weakness. They will often go to great lengths just to avoid saying they can’t do something. Don’t put them in that situation. Instead, you can ask something like this: ‘Just to clarify so I get this right: do you need a fully accessible room, or will a room without [this particular thing] work?’
  • Don’t ask for justification. – For the love of God, please don’t make a disabled person explain why they need a particular accommodation. Maybe one day we will live in a world where none of the realities of disability are stigmatized or verboten. But we are not there yet. See above re bathrooms. We also, unfortunately, live in a world where non-disabled people often assume they understand disabled people’s experiences and/or their real (rather than their stated) accommodation requirements. When a disabled person has asked that speakers use a mic, and a speaker assures them ‘Don’t worry, I talk loud, you’ll be able to hear me!’ it’s then up to the disabled person to justify and explain why that’s not true and why they really do, honest to goodness, need that mic. That’s a crappy position to put them in, and it’s requiring them to divulge information they may prefer to keep private.
  • Give details. – Give a conference schedule and give details about that schedule. The last talk ends at 5pm. Dinner is at 7pm. How are people getting to the restaurant? Is it tacitly assumed that everyone will be going for a drink between the talk and dinner? Many disabled people need to plan their schedules with extreme precision. They need to know what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen. They also need this information as far in advance as possible. For some disabled people, planning for accommodation needs to happen well in advance of the conference. Details, for many disabled people, are an accessibility issue.
  • Once you’ve given details, stick to those details. – Again, this comes down to the fact that being able to plan reliably is a huge issue for many disabled people. If you’ve given a schedule, stick to the schedule. If you’ve promised breaks, don’t treat them as opportunities for the talks to run longer than scheduled. And if for some reason you’re hosting a conference in an atmosphere where you just know things will be chronically late and not run on schedule, at least flag this in advance so that people can try to plan accordingly.
  • Be transparent. – If you’re having a conversation with a disabled person about accommodation, give them as much information as you can about what you can provide. Be honest about what you can’t provide. Real information – even if the information is about what you can’t do – is so much better and more helpful than ‘We’ll do our best – I’m sure we’ll figure something out!’ If you’re corresponding with university administration about a particular accessibility issue, copy the disabled person into the emails so they know what’s going on.
  • University equality/accommodation services are a good resource to use, but may not be as helpful as you’d like. – These offices are often entirely student-focused, and can easily forget that disabled faculty exist. Asking for help making sure your conference is accessible to your disabled visiting speaker can sometimes be met with a perplexed stare. Often asking about a specific piece of accommodation for a specific venue will get you more traction than asking for general help with making your event accessible. But even then, the helpfulness can vary a lot from place to place.
  • It’s complicated, some things won’t work like you hope, and that’s fine. – Working on accessibility – especially when you have incredibly limited resources and time – is hard. And it’s never perfect. Providing specific accommodation is, in so many cases, a matter of trying to provide individual bandaids for a deeply structural, systematic problem. Sometimes you don’t have the resources to do what you’d like. Sometimes the technology screws up. Sometimes you overlook something. Sometimes different accommodation requests conflict. But just having a conversation about accessibility with openness and goodwill – and being willing to do what you can with what you have – goes a very, very long way.

One thought on “Conference accessibility: avoiding some common pitfalls

  1. Great starting point. I would add that as a conference organizer, you can alleviate some of the hidden work of disability by making sure other attendees comply with access requests. If you have an organization behind you, get this organization to make clear statements that access requests must be met. Also do what you can to make it easy for conference-goers to comply with access requests. If you ask for print copies of panel papers for deaf or low vision attendees, have a grad student assistant ready to xerox (because we all know that lots of people finish their papers the night before).

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