tips for universal access at conferences: image of a conference room with light streaming in. there are many chairs surrounding very long tables and big windows

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This is about universal design in academic conferences.

It contains specific suggestions for how to improve universal access, that while specifically geared towards academic conferences, is applicable to all meetings

This essay is available in distraction-free (- no ads) at the end of this post for people who benefit from access to PDF’s.

Disability and Universal Design in Academic Conferences and Meetings

1 in every 5 people has some type of a disability.  Yet, accessibility is still a topic that is not discussed in mainstream conversations.  Perhaps more perplexing still is the amount of misunderstanding and in some cases push-back disabled people confront when speaking up for equitable access in all types of places and spaces.  

Traditionally, academia has been ableist towards people with a variety of disabilities. 

Quickness of mind, clarity of sight and hearing, fluidity of fine motor skills, and eloquence of speech are prized traits in academia, as scholars, speakers, and communicators are trained to spread the ideas learned in the academy throughout the world using written and spoken content.  Accessibility in higher education is still an on-going issue of debate that folks with disabilities are attempting to address with legislation such as the Aim-High Act

Language such as “blind review” or “double blind study” pervades academic writing and conversation. 

And although many more disabled students attend college, the graduation rate is relatively low compared to their non-disabled peers.  It is no surprise that academic ableism, as discussed in Academic ableism by J. T. Dolmage, seeps into conferences and other professional events.  

A Blind Example of the Need for Universal Access at Academic Conferences

Imagine yourself as an undergraduate student, eager to attend your first professional conference. 

You and your classmates plan to carpool after your last class on a Wednesday and arrive at the hotel that night.  On Thursday morning, you discover that the hotel is much bigger and more complex to navigate with your white cane than you had thought it would be.  There are more people here than you anticipated, and the signs outside the session rooms have LCD screens that update with information on the presentations but no braille.  You approach each presenter in advance to ask if they can email you their slides and hand-outs so you can read them on your braille display or with your screen reader, and they just smile and say, “Sure, I can email you them after the presentation.” 

You sit in the lecture and wonder how much information is on their PowerPoint but isn’t being verbalized as you take your own notes.  You wonder what good getting the hand-outs everyone else can see in the context of the session will do for you after the fact.  Navigating the exhibit hall or internship fair is a pain as well.  You eventually leave because after asking “Excuse me, can you tell me what your booth is?” with white cane in hand, presenters launch into the full spiel about their product or organization. 

You stand there and politely listen, even though you just didn’t know who you were speaking to and wanted to move on to ask the next person at the next booth what they were representing. 

You’re tired of getting turned around, not having access to information, and feeling like conference maybe wasn’t set up for blind people to participate.  

A Deaf Example of the Need for Universal Access at Conferences

Or maybe you’re a new professional, excited to have been chosen to deliver your first conference presentation.  You prepare all of your materials and arrive to the conference with the intention of networking with other forward-thinkers in your field. 

Your presentation goes fine, but you struggle to sit through presentations by other professionals because presenters won’t consistently use the microphones provided in each concurrent session space. 

You eventually get tired of asking people to use the mic, or to restate questions that audience members ask off the mic before answering their questions. 

At a networking luncheon, it’s so noisy that your hearing aids aren’t that helpful to you.  You get hearing fatigue.

You rely upon reading lips, which is complicated as people turn their heads to follow the flow of conversation around them.  You likewise get tired of gesturing to your hearing aids and asking people to stay facing you so you can read their lips.  You make an excuse to leave the luncheon early.  

A Mobility Example of the Need for Universal Design Conferences

Or, you’re a seasoned professional who uses a power chair to get around. 

You’ve spoken up about conference accessibility in the past, and every time organizers say they’re committed to making the conference a great experience for all.  Some have implemented very reasonable accommodations that made a difference, but others not so much. 

Still, you attend every year in an effort to pursue professional growth and development. 

You have all your sessions for the weekend picked out in advance, but have to make changes at the last minute when you see some rooms are so tightly packed with people that the aisle ways are not big enough for your chair to pass through.  You also can’t access a wing of the hotel at all because you were informed upon check-in that the only elevator providing access to it is out of service. 

Later, your colleagues realize the group cannot go to the lounge for drinks because without that elevator, the only way to get there is down a set of stairs.  You order pizza and a friend takes a trip to the store for some wine and finger foods the group can eat in your room, and no one seems to be having any less of a good time; but the stress of making it across the hotel for sessions in the short breaks allotted for passing time, dealing with the restricted access, and the occasional patronizing comment from other conference-goers has just added up. 

You appreciate how resourceful and inclusive your small circle of professional friends can be, but are frustrated that plans had to be changed for everyone because the environment wasn’t accessible for you even after all your advocacy work.  

Academic ableism and a lack of accessibility are problems which are slowly being addressed. 

It is quite possible that conferencing may not become accessible for some time, or possibly not at all without significant advocacy from disabled people.  However, one need not wait for conference committees to post guidelines or for disabled people in your profession to speak out, and especially as it pertains to the latter you shouldn’t wait. 

Be an Ally to Us Now

You can take proactive, simple, and reasonable steps to choose to be an ally for accessibility and integrating universal access in your academic conference presentations. 

Doing so will demonstrate to disabled and non-disabled attendees alike that you truly care about accessibility and inclusion for all, and don’t just see it as something you turn on when you arrive at the office and turn off before you leave. 

In helping professions especially, this double standard has been difficult for disabled teachers, social workers, therapists, and others to swallow or take seriously.  Accessibility matters all the time, and isn’t that hard to plan for in conference settings.  

Before we discuss specific steps you can take or things you can do, it’s important to have a basic understanding of Universal Design, and Universal Design for Learning.

What is Universal Design?

Universal Design is an architectural concept, meant to describe elements of a building that can be functional for as many people as possible without modifications. 

For instance, Universal Design could be:

  • Ramps: installing ramps instead of stairs allows mobility device users as well as walking people with heavy carts, bikes, or strollers to move from one level to another. 
  • Braille signs: Signs posted with both print and braille allow for blind and sighted people to find rooms or locales independently. 
  • Visual and audio cues: Flashing lights on fire alarms aren’t just there to get the attention of non-disabled hearing people, but to alert Deaf people who can’t hear the noise that there is an emergency; similarly, they don’t just flash so that blind people can hear the sound and know to get out. 

We see elements of universal design every day, but its one thing to have some elements of universal design and another to plan for universal design from the get go. 

Retrofitting inaccessible building elements takes time and money that could be saved if buildings and structures were built with accessibility from the start.  

Similarly, Universal Design for Learning aims to create learning experiences which are accessible to the most learners as possible. 

Universal Design for Learning works by offering experiences in multiple learning modalities, such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic or hands-on experiential experiences.  A teacher might show pictures of a rocket to a middle school science class as she describes how the fuel propels the rocket forward against air resistance, play a rocket launch clip so students can hear what the ignition and propulsion sounds like, and replicate the experiment on a smaller scale using water and Alka Seltzer tablets outside. 

Universal design for learning also involves thinking ahead to anticipate student needs in advance, and considering all student needs in the creation of materials. 

For instance, rather than making one hand-out with large print for a single student, an instructor can simply make the print larger on all the hand-outs. 

Most features of universal design or universal design for learning impact everyone, not just disabled people, in a positive way. 

As I mentioned, mothers pushing strollers of small children, or people pushing heavy carts benefit from using ramps that wheelchair users rely upon as well.  Signs with both braille and print on them help everyone to know where to go around a building, whether they’re blind or sighted.  Clear, concise instructions posted make actions or directions easier for everyone to understand, regardless of whether or not they might have a cognitive disability, brain fog, or something else which impacts their ability to think clearly and follow instructions. 

Students who learn from a variety of learning modalities are more likely to retain and fully understand concepts taught in school than students who just learn using one method of instruction. 

Universal design is not merely an accommodation strategy, but an inclusion and clarification strategy which can help everyone feel valued, be engaged, and benefit from participation. 

Ways to Make Your Conference Presentation Accessible

Here are some suggestions, based on ways that I make my own conference presentations accessible.

  1.  Make your materials available digitally. 

I always do print materials to have on-hand for anyone who wants them at conferences, but I also make materials including my slides available digitally.  I use a few different methods of sharing because people come to conferences with differing access to technology, so I don’t want to assume everyone will be able to use just one platform.  

  • Dropbox—I create a public dropbox folder and put all my finished materials inside.  I then create a or tiny URL link to the dropbox folder, which I put on the first slide for all to see and read over the microphone at the beginning of the presentation.  
  • Flash Drives—For anyone who might not have a device that can access dropbox, or who might not have wanted to pay for wifi access in the conference center, I also bring flash drives with the exact same folder I put in the dropbox.  I typically bring about 10 of them.  These can be given to anyone with a computer, as well as those with some kinds of tablets or other forms of assistive technology such as braille displays.  
  • Sharing After—After conference, I’ve shared the tiny URL or link to groups on social media connected to the conference sometimes.  This allows for anyone who perhaps lost the link or didn’t get to come to the session during the conference to still receive the information.  

Benefit for all: I know several non-disabled people also appreciated the digital content because they didn’t have to line up and write their email down on a sheet for me to email them materials at the end of the session. 

Our room cleared out quickly which helped the next presenter, and attendees were able to move on to their next sessions.  It also accommodated me as a blind person because I didn’t have to get someone to read the handwritten email addresses to me later on.  

Note: I also have provided hard copy braille in a limited capacity at conference presentations.  I would recommend doing so if you have the resources and/or financial means to do so.  I brailled packets myself which helped eliminate the cost.  

2.  Always Use the Microphone. 

As a hearing person, I can’t stand it when people mumble or I can’t catch their words, especially if I’m listening to important things they have to say. 

For a hard of hearing or d/Deaf person, the need for clarity and volume of speech is even greater. 

Not only will you be committing to accessibility by using your microphone, but you’ll be more clear and easier to understand for hearing folks.  Here are some general tips for using the microphone as a presenter.  

  • Don’t eat the microphone.  This means don’t hold it so close to your mouth that you hear wooshes of air from speaking letters like S or F, or pops from sounds like Ks or Ps.  Hold it far enough from your face so that you avoid these sounds, but close enough that your voice is picked up. 
  • If taking questions, encourage those who can come up to speak into the microphone to do so, or pass them the wireless mic if you have one.  If these things are not possible, restate their question into the microphone before giving your answer so the context of your response is clear.  For instance, “The question was, how do I implement the intervention with groups of people rather than individuals,” can be a concise, clarifying statement made before giving the answer to the question.  
  • Do check in with attendees about volume and adjust it if you can.  Don’t just ditch the microphone entirely because you feel, or someone in the audience feels, that you can talk loudly enough without it.  Not only can this exclude hard of hearing or Deaf folks in attendance, but it also isn’t helpful for your own voice.  As a performer, I also use a microphone when speaking to a large audience whenever I can for my vocal health.  

3.  Less is More

When using Microsoft Office, I like to keep hand-outs simple and clear to read. 

Doing so will avoid cluttering them up visually, but also can help everyone see your hand-outs better, and access them more easily on a computer. 

Here are some tips. 

  • Use the accessibility check.  This is a quick extra step you can take to assess the accessibility of your completed hand-outs. 
  • Image description: When using charts, pictures, or other images, include a simple image description.  The image description not only describes the image for anyone who can’t see the picture, but can explain what the image is showing, or how it relates to your topic for everyone.  
  • Use high-contrast.  Avoid printing yellow on white, or mixing black with dark blue.  Most hand-outs will call for white backgrounds with dark text, and that works fine for most people who will be visually reading them.  I like to make my font a little bigger, usually 18 point or 20 point, and bold to also make it easier to read.  The beauty of making your materials available digitally is that if the font or contrast doesn’t work well for someone, they can use a device to access it and make changes to suit their needs and preferences.
  • Language Matters.  Academics like to use big words, and sometimes tend to assume that people will know what those words mean.  Other times they define the big words using complicated language which they don’t further define or explain, or they define the new term once and expect everyone to remember what it means.  It’s okay to use plain, easy-to-understand language for clarity.  I try to make sure my hand-outs are written at a 5th grade reading level or lower, and don’t mind creating a glossary of terms which people can refer to whenever they need a reminder of what a word means.    

4. Think About the Environment. 

We’ve talked a lot about materials, but there are also environmental concerns to be considered at conferences. 

  • Encourage movement.  Sitting through 75 minutes or longer can be challenging for attendees with disabilities such as autism, ADD/ADHD, chronic pain, or sensory processing disabilities.  It also may be uncomfortable for participants without these disabilities if the chairs aren’t that comfortable.  I give attendees permission to move, switch seats if they need to move to a new location to hear or see better, etc.  I’m also not offended when people move around because sometimes sitting in one place can hinder someone’s ability to pay attention or participate in my presentations.  
  • Consider having fidgets available.  At my most recent conference, one of my co-presenters brought fidgets along.  These were inexpensive things she picked up in the conference city from a store like 5 below or Dollar Tree.  Things like stress balls, fidget cubes, fidget spinners, play-dough or clay, or slinkies can help people with some disabilities to pay attention and relieve anxiety.  
  • Lighting and interfering sound.  Often hotels and conference centers use florescent lighting, which can be distracting or irritating to people with sensory disabilities.  If you have control over lighting conditions, using a softer form of light may be helpful.  Similarly, while dividing walls between concurrent sessions are often thin, and we can’t control what other presenters do in their sessions and the sounds that might result, we can take some steps to insulate sounds in the room.  If it is possible, shut the door to the session room to limit background noise from the hallway.  You can also ask attendees to silence phones or other devices so ringing or notifications don’t interrupt the session. 
  • Consider social expectations.  Don’t force people to engage in social situations if they don’t want to.  I am a big fan of using breakout groups for conversation, but I always make it clear that anyone who doesn’t want to speak doesn’t have to.  
  • Enforce disability etiquette.  I mention disability etiquette such as saying your name before speaking, asking others if they would like help before assisting them, and facing listeners while speaking at the beginning of the session.  It helps people who might not know the rules and expectations I set for presentations to know what to expect moving forward.
  • Consider Physical Space. How is the room set up?  Can people using walkers or wheelchairs get down the center and side aisles?  Can chairs be moved to allow them to sit in the rows with everyone else if necessary?  Are chairs spaced so people aren’t having to sit on top of each other or so closely that they bump elbows while taking notes?  Are there any chairs directly next to a wall? 

You’re asking people to buckle in for an hour or more of you talking.  The least you can do is make sure the room is accessible for them to get around, and that they don’t feel uncomfortable for lack of personal space. 

At the last conference I attended, my first session of the first day had me sitting beside a wall with someone in the seat beside me, and we were so close together that I felt cramped.  30 minutes in I wanted to leave even though I was very interested in the topic because sitting like a packed sardine was so uncomfortable for me. 

Some people, like me, would feel more comfortable sitting on the floor or standing.  Don’t discourage sitting on the floor as being unprofessional..  I’d rather people think I’m a little less professional for sitting on the floor, which I do when I work with kids anyway, and be comfortable for 75 minutes while learning than sit in a chair and feel the need to move or leave for the majority of the time.  

What If I Mess Up, or If Someone Has a Need I Did Not Address?

It’s difficult to anticipate who will come to your presentation in advance. 

These universal design considerations take several social, environmental, and physical aspects of disability into account, but are not exhaustive by any means. 

As a blind person I don’t expect most presenters to have braille in hard copy format for me, but can appreciate the effort it took to make the content available to me digitally.  In spaces where I can’t access the presentation at all, I am more likely to appreciate the presenter for trying if they have some materials in an alternative format even if I can’t use them out of disability solidarity. 

For instance, I once thanked a colleague of mine for having large print hand-outs available at a presentation of hers I attended.  She asked if I could use them and I told her no, but I appreciated that she at least thought about accommodating blind or low vision people because no one else at the conference had brought large print materials. 

That led to a conversation about making the materials available digitally using dropbox, and why I encourage dropbox over using google drive. 

Most disabled people know that the world was not set up with people like us in mind, which is the whole basis of the social model of disability.  However, we’re much more likely to engage you in positive conversation about accessibility if we see some kind of effort taking place, even if it isn’t personally useful to us. 

Sometimes it’s just great to see that someone was thinking about disabled people at all in a space that was intended for non-disabled people primarily, even if they weren’t thinking specifically about blind people, d/Deaf people, wheelchair users, etc. 

The most valuable thing you can do as an ally for accessibility is not to anticipate every need under the sun, but to demonstrate and model for other non-disabled people in your conference spaces that accessibility for all shouldn’t be an afterthought.  

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