Essays and rants on libraries, technology, webdev, etc. by Ruth Collings

Conference Accessibility


Today I would like to talk about conferences. As a student, I have organized two conferences: Combining Two Cultures (C2C) and Information Without Borders (IWB).

C2C was an idea that came out of a year-long revisioning process started by students in my undergraduate program, Arts & Science at McMaster University. I joined that revisioning process as the representitive of the second year students. It was largely a critique of the stagnance of the content and pedagogy of our courses and a push for professors (most of whom were very eminent and had been teaching for decades) to start trying new things. One of the recommendations of our document was for the students to start a conference on undergraduate interdisciplinary education to try and pull ideas and foster more connections between all the similar programs in Canada. I ended up taking on the Finance Chair for this conference because, frankly, it seemed like nobody else wanted to. I had never even been to a conference before. The total budget was about $9,000, all raised from grants with no commercial sponsorships or fundraising. We came about $300 under budget and there were no disasters of any kind during the two-day event. The conference has since moved on to be hosted by different programs over the years and continues to be a national, student-run effort.

IWB was, by contrast, easy. It is a long-running conference hosted by the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University also largely funded by intra-university grants. I was in my second year of my MLIS and this time I took on the role of Registration Chair and occasionally helped out with the website or organizing volunteers. The previous year had run into some difficulties with their registration system so I re-assessed all our options and decided on a new system. In short, we used locally hosted survey software provided by Dalhousie and Paypal to integrate with our website. While there were a few tense moments (mostly over requisitioning cheques from the government) everything worked out in the end. The conference recieved a lot of praise from attendees as the best one in years.

Why you should care

Since I graduated from my MLIS I have been lucky enough to attend a few academic conferences, from small (Social Media and Society) to insanely large (OLA Superconference). While I have a lot of opinions on conferences in general, the one thing that I really want to focus on for a minute is accessibility.

It is my opinion that if you are running an academically-minded event you probably want as many people as possible to come. You especially do not want to alienate potentially really smart and interesting people because they ran into difficulties just getting there. As an event planner, there are lots of things you try to keep as frictionless as possible by default: registration, the food line at lunch, and making sure projectors work come to mind. These are the things that make people really remember a conference positively or negatively. We've all been to conferences where what you really remember after leaving is that the wifi was terrible or by the time you got to the front of the line at lunch everything was cold. Or there weren't enough chairs in a popular talk. Or the IT glitched out during the keynote. There are so many things that can go wrong. Good event planners make sure nothing goes wrong by thinking them up beforehand and then putting plans in place.

If you accept the premise that people with disabilities are people you want at your event, you also want them to have as good an experience as everybody else. I would further argue that improving things for people with self-identified disabilities improves things for every attendee at your event. For every person who will self-identify as having a problem, there are dozens more who won't. They'll just have a bad time at your event and recommend to other people that they don't go.

For example, many buildings are still not very wheelchair-accessible. They do not have ramps or they do not have elevators. I have been in buildings that had doors too narrow for a motorized wheelchair. Are there wheelchair-accessible washrooms? These might seem like just more things to add to a very long list. However, once you make sure you have a wheelchair-accessible building you are also helping people who: have difficulty climbing stairs, prefer not to do their insulin test in a public washroom, and need to bring a trolley of food into the lecture hall.

Things to consider

Microphones: Some people have a hard time speaking loudly, some might have a cold, and some listeners may have difficulty hearing. Having a speaker without a mic do a "sound check" to ensure everyone can hear them is not sufficient because nobody wants to be "that guy" who complains and because the speaker may unconsciously lower their voice while they are speaking or speak too quickly. Having half a room of people leave a talk saying they couldn't hear a thing is the worst.

Food: Man oh man, is this ever a problem. If I were to invite all my family and friends to my wedding here are all the dietary concerns I will have to consider: kosher, halal, vegan, vegitarian, no red meat, gluten-free, lactose-free, nut-free, strawberry-free, and low on salt. Those are just the ones that come to mind immediately. If you were the event planner for my wedding, would you be the one to tell my grandmother there's nothing she can eat on the menu? I have been to so many conferences where there was maybe a salad for the vegitarians and nothing else. People literally go hungry at conferences because the organizers did not consider them. There is an easy solution! Ask people if they have any dietary resitrictions in the registration form and get them food they can eat!

The only time I went into panic mode during the IWB conference was when I realized the Head of our program hadn't formally registered so I didn't have her in the list of people for vegan meals. Our person in charge of food called the chef and they whipped another portion up for us, but I was ready to run down the street to the nearest café and just buy something and run back if that's what it took. She never knew how close we were to not having food for her and everybody was extremely pleased that we were able to accomodate them. All this took was caring enough to make sure it happened.

Presentations: While microphones can help people hear the presenter more clearly, what if they can't see the presenter's slides? Sometimes I forget my glasses. Sometimes the text is just too damn small. Sometimes the presenter goes too fast to read and listen at the same time. Sometimes your first language is not the one the presentation is in, or the topic is so esoteric it might as well be in another language. These are all arguments for requiring presentations to be recorded, transcribed, and made available online (for free). If you can't afford video recordings or transcription services, you can ask presenters to provide their slides and a script. I personally don't talk from a script or always make slides, but I will write something else out anyway so people can read it. Everyone loves having something to refer back to after your event is over and you'll get bonus points from people who weren't able to attend.

Safe Spaces: Identifying an acceptable standard of conduct and making it explicit makes everyone's lives better in the long run. I'm talking about Codes of Conduct. But I'm also talking about things like open bars. Plenty of people don't drink, for an array of reasons, and might be uncomfortable around drunk people. Are they expected to just not be social for the duration of your conference? I am the kind of person who loves a pub night, but you know what else is cool? A walking tour of the city with ice cream at the end. A comedy show. An "interactive" movie event. Whatever is appropriate for your audience. I'm not that kind of programming librarian, but I'm pretty sure alcohol isn't the be-all and end-all of socializing.

Safe spaces also means helping attendees who aren't locals around the city, making sure your event is hosted in an area that isn't dangerous or otherwise inaccessable for your attendees, and recruiting minorities for your speakers and organizing committee. No woman likes being the only one on a panel discussion and a person of colour as the keynote speaker is more likely to encourage other people of colour to attend. If you really do not want to exclude people from your event you have to walk the walk. If you are hosting a large enough conference it can even be helpful to have explicit "decompression" spaces for people to be by themselves and de-stress in the middle of the event and signage reiterating your conference's CoC.

Cost: My first conference was the lowest of low-frills events, but the IWB conference was a one-day event that cost $20 for students and $90 for professionals. There was no early-bird or day-of pricing differences. So I find it somewhat startling when conferences sponsored by professional organizations frequently cost upwards of $250 per day and at the same time are heavily sponsored by businesses and subsidized by membership fees. The biggest costs in a conference are space and food, but there are ways of reducing those costs if you are willing to try something other than a hotel conference space.

If a conference is priced as a luxury (or in a pricy neighbourhood!) only people at Dean/Head/CEO-level with expense accounts will be able to afford to come. If that is the topic of your conference then that might be fine, but otherwise you will be missing out on all the students, public library workers, people on contract or part-time, the unemployed, and the far away. As a Finance Chair I think my job is to say "No" to a lot of unnecessary things. In short, be frugal! The people are there for the content of your conference, not for flashy knick-knacks. Focus on improving the things that matter most to your conference and cutting away the excess. "We've always done that" is never a good excuse for anything.

The moral of the story

I would like to reiterate that none of these things necessarily require a whole lot of extra money in your budget. Most of the time it just requires being thoughtful and expecting the best of your suppliers and volunteers. If your conference is an event sponsored by an organization, more people will think well of your group if your event was a positive experience. If your event is smaller, you will quickly develop lots of interest and demand by reaching out to people who are usually excluded. All this is aside from the fact that including as many people as possible is just the right thing to do.

So: Be considerate, ask people what they need, and keep everybody safe. It's not really that hard if you keep it in mind from the beginning.

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