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Making conferences more accessible

2015-06-18

Now that I have attended several conferences, I feel that I want to share some information I've been thinking about as to how to make conferences/events more accessible to academics who are neurodivergent. I imagine some of my ideas will be useful to others as well, and I think overall any conference/event could benefit from them. I will also add here and there some things I've thought of in terms of general accessibility but this is not my main focus here and there's people much more qualified than me talking about this already.

My friend Naomi Jacobs for example is writing about neuroqueering academia and will touch upon accessibility in several ways.

I want to emphasise that I am not listing these as "things people haven't done when organising their conference/event"... I know lots of these things already happen, which is why I want to point them out!

Autistic people have anxiety levels that are much higher than the general population, so a lot of my advice has to do with predictability. And it starts from the call for papers...

Call for papers

What format do you want the abstract in? By that I mean both in terms of .docx versus .pdf versus whatnot, but also in terms of the formatting itself. You think it doesn't matter? Let me tell you it does, because it saves me wasting time wondering if I should put keywords or not, a bio or not, have my affiliation at the top or at the bottom...? It's trivial, but it IS anxiety-inducing to some of us.
(I know bigger conferences tend to have an actual special system for submission, which serves that purpose.)

How long will the paper be? As of now I am going to a conference in a few months where I'm unsure how long my timeslot is because the call for papers did not say it, and the timetable only gives the start/end time of the whole session.

What is the exact deadline? (e.g. by midnight on the day given, or by 5pm?)

When will you tell people whether their submission has been successful or not? Seems obvious to you? Well I've seen several calls for papers that did not state that information or were vague such as "around mid-August" - that's not good enough! Additionally, if you get delayed... tell people! (And yes, seems obvious again, but again, it is based on experience.)

Also...

Don't make the only way to read your call for papers an image.

If you do use an image (e.g. I understand it is practical for twitter to have one), always provide a link to the website or such!

Conference itself

Information about accessibility should be embedded in the call for papers/announcement of the conference or event. Seriously. There is no reason why people should have to email regarding basic accessibility requirements such as lifts. Whatever you know regarding how accessible the conference is, SAY IT. Don't add to the administrative burden by providing a blank statement "contact me if you have any access requirements" (although yes, you should provide an email address so that people can email you about it if needed). If you still have doubts, read PhDisabled about providing upfront information about access.

Will there be a quiet room? I have now been to a few events that had a quiet room, which is very useful, but knowing in advance would have delighted me extra! Also this room is much more useful if it can be accessed without needing to ask for permission.

Is there going to be any "discussion" component? Tell people in advance. Make it clear. Make it very clear. I still have nightmares about the day I went to a training session where I thought I would be talked at and was told the whole 6 hours was actually talking to people and sharing ideas. Similarly, if there IS going to be any discussion component, be flexible about grouping. Don't insist that people must be 2 or 4 or whatever else. Try to limit the amount of people in one room as it can become very noisy and cause sensory issues to some people.

Recently, I went to an event in Sheffield where a workshop happened. The facilitators of the workshop, Jenny Slate and Charlotte Jones, used a guide to safer spaces as guidelines, which made the workshop a very welcoming space.

Even in events that have no specific discussion component, there is sometimes the expectation that you will have to introduce yourself. Tell people in advance, too. I had a training once where the very first task was to do a "speed dating" introduction thingy. I had to introduce myself/get introduced to people for about 10 minutes straight to about 10 different people and it ruined my morning because after that I was just wiped. (The point of the exercise was actually to show just that, but it worked a little bit too well on me.)

Give information about the facilities. Do you need cash to pay for the car park? Is there going to be food provided on the day? If not, where can people eat? Make it clear where the building is, linking to maps if possible (yes, we can do that work ourselves, but you could have one organiser do the work and put the links or 100 people looking for the same info...).

Information to presenters

What exact facilities will the presenters have access to?

A pulpit, a regular desk? Yes, it matters. I use an iPad for my notes and at my first conference ever the only place where I could have put the iPad was kind of hidden away and would have looked a bit awkward in terms of interacting with the audience. A kind member of academic staff went to get me a pulpit and I am very grateful for that!

A pointer or just the keyboard to switch between slides?

A Windows computer or a Mac? (I am super special about how I organise my slides and was horrified when I had to use a PowerPoint presentation on a Mac which did not have the Windows font I had used. It messed up the size of the writing. Autistics are detail-oriented. It's better to use a PowerPoint so you can use the animations if necessary, but now I will definitely always have a pdf as backup.)

Yes, this information is perhaps not always easy to know in advance but surely if the conference is happening at a University, someone can snap a picture of the room? Even just that would be useful.

When do you want the presentations, if people use them? So far my favourite option has been the ability to either send it by email until a specific given time, AND have a specific timeslot to give it on the day of the conference.

Your room is accessible... is your presentation area accessible, too? aka the horror of rooms which are wheelchair accessible... for the audience only. Who designed that shit?

Question time?

Make it clear whether questions will be after each paper or at the end. I've actually enjoyed best a format where there's 5 minutes at the end of each paper AND time for questions at the end but that's an ideal world. A very ideal one.

Have a microphone! Obviously there's settings where going at the front is a must (if you're going to use British Sign Language!) but having to get up and go to the front to ask a question can prevent people from doing so. I really loved going to a conference where speakers & audience had a microphone!

Schedule

KEEP TO IT. 'Nuff said. I'll elaborate anyway. For some of us, the 1-hour lunch is pretty much the only thing allowing us to get through. When that lunch gets cut down to 35 minutes because of weak chairing... it can prevent us from going to the rest of the event. Personally I generally manage to hold on because I don't want to miss anything, but it means recovery time will be longer post-conference.

Avoid last-minute changes. If there is a change the day before the conference (about anything: room, time...), don't think you can just tell people the next day. Even a short warning time can be useful.

Socialising

I hate the whole "peppy student" thing, where if you don't go and talk to people somehow you're not peppy enough or surely you're not passionate enough about what you do. Not everyone can just walk up to people and start chatting, even if they have a reason to. I have missed countless opportunities to talk to people because I am clueless as to how to get a conversation started. I am pretty sure I have also looked like a strange person hanging around because I will stand next to people hoping I can say something at some point and get magically included (it never happens).

In my ideal world, everywhere would have those badges that say whether you can have a conversation but can't start it, whether you can regulate your own interactions, or whether you should be left in peace. And yes, they are getting used at actual academic conferences, sadly my memory faults me and I can't remember the hashtag for the conference that used them recently. Give me a shout if you see what I'm talking about!

But hey, I know this is probably not happening anytime soon, so...

If specific socialising is planned, warn people ahead of time. If you plan on going to the restaurant afterwards... tell people you are thinking of doing that. While it may not be possible to know any more details than that, early warning is always key (e.g. recently I went to a conference where the restaurant had been booked, and we had even ordered our food early as we were a big group, which was super practical but obviously sometimes things are more spontaneous especially in small groups).

Why not create a directory with names of presenters and their details? (With their permission, of course. In smaller events, you could even do that with all the participants.) I rely a lot on social media to network. People sometimes give their social media info during their presentations but you don't always have time to write it down. Having a list of presenters with their twitter/blog/email address or whatever else they have can be a good way to avoid having to think of the best google query that will find you THE Jane Smith you met today. It doesn't even need to be a burden on a given person to collate the information: make a basic table in a google document and ask people to add their details. Done!

Don't be harsh towards people. I'd much rather not maintain eye contact but I do it so that I am not perceived badly, but it's actually more distracting than anything. Acknowledge that not everyone communicates in the same way and not everyone can come across well in spontaneous speech/conversations. If someone is standing a bit far, no need to get closer, they are probably standing exactly where they are comfortable. I went to an event where I sat "in" the circle but also a little bit "out" of it and was asked to join the circle. Look, if I felt comfortable enough to fully join the circle, I would. Singling me out isn't going to change a thing.

Finally, if you are someone who's great at networking... do try to include people! I know people already do that, but often the people who end up included are already quite adept at networking themselves and peppy in all the right ways. Last November I was at an event, sitting down and feeling useless while everyone was happily networking, when a kind academic sat down next to me and engaged conversation with me. I have no idea if this was a conscious effort on her part because she saw I looked uncomfortable, but whatever it was, it helped make me feel included. Don't be patronising about it though...!

This is only based on my own observations, based on my own needs or the needs of people I know, so it is in no way complete. For example I don't have a huge amount of sensory issues so I've barely touched upon that but noise/lights etc can be hugely problematic.

Below you will find a list of extra resources:

If you are keen to read more, and from a different point of view/approach, get on reading neuroqueering academia by my friend Naomi Jacobs!

The website "Composing Access" gives a great amount of tips about access in general.

This post shows you that making your events more accessible is not that hard. No excuses!

If you have resources/ideas you think I should add to this post, do contact me!

PS: check out the conference bingo because it is awesome and while not specifically related to accessibility, it's fun to do. Not that I've ever kept a tally of how many people ran over time or things like that. I would never do that.

Tags: academia, accessibility, autism, awareness, conferences, disability