As you probably know by now, conferences are a huge part of life as a researcher. They’re a fantastic way to learn about key breakthroughs in your field, share your research across institutions and disciplines, network with other academics, and pursue opportunities for collaboration.
While conferences can be immensely rewarding experiences for participants, it’s no secret that attending such events can sometimes feel like a feat of endurance. And for researchers who are managing an illness and/or a disability, conferences can often be especially intimidating, demanding, and exhausting.
When you’re planning a conference it’s paramount that you anticipate and address the needs of all your participants. There are so many ways to improve the accessibility of your event, and this is by no means a comprehensive list (follow the links at the end of this post for more advice and ideas), but here are a few key issues you should consider when planning and delivering your event:
1. How accessible is your venue?
Accessibility doesn’t start and end with wheelchair ramps. When selecting your venue, be sure to thoroughly check whether buildings have the correct facilities by consulting with management, and, if possible, visiting the site yourself. You can also use AccessAble.co.uk, a website that gives detailed access information on thousands of UK venues, including many universities.
Check whether there are accessible doors outside and inside the building, whether there is ramp access to lecterns on stages, that lecterns and microphone stands are adjustable, that networking spaces have tables and chairs for those who are unable to stand for long periods of time, and ensure that there’s plenty of space in smaller panel rooms to manoeuvre wheelchairs and mobility aids.
It’s also worth considering how much moving around will be required of delegates between panels. For larger conferences it’s common practice to move between floors, and even buildings. If this is unavoidable, be sure to allow for extra time between sessions to get to panels. Creating signage towards wheelchair-friendly routes will also ensure that attendees can get to panels safely and efficiently.
2. Ask delegates about their needs well in advance
The conference registration form is a great opportunity for speakers and delegates who may want to register their access needs or special requirements to do so. Make sure you provide space to give participants the option to disclose this kind of information on the form, and, where appropriate, respond to their requirements with an email that acknowledges their needs and opens a dialogue about how you can support them best. This will give you ample time to make special arrangements and consult with relevant services.
It’s worth considering, however, that many participants with special requirements may not want to disclose this information. With that in mind, having a page on your conference website that clearly states the measures you’ve taken to make sure the conference is accessible will also help reassure delegates that you’ve considered their needs. It reduces the need for delegates to disclose information they may not wish to, and also gives them the opportunity to flag up things you may need to arrange. It’s also a good idea to include information on this webpage about accessible transport options, such as wheelchair-accessible taxi companies and disabled parking.
For more information on why making this information available upfront is necessary, have a look at this post: https://phdisabled.wordpress.com/2014/10/30/event-organizers-give-access-information-up-front-please/.
3. ‘Can everybody hear me?’ – Microphones and why you should always use them
Providing microphones for speakers, and ensuring that speakers use them, is vital for hearing-impaired individuals. So be sure to check that microphones are available, charged (if they’re wireless), and that you can provide roving microphones for questions, too. You should also consider using lapel-microphones, which are incredibly useful to speakers who are unable to stand at lecterns.
4. Consider providing quiet spaces
Quiet spaces are highly beneficial for delegates who find conferences excessively straining physically and/or mentally (such as those with anxiety, autism, and chronic fatigue). They are designated spaces that can be used at any time to recover from stress, tiredness, and sensory overload.
Find a room that’s out of earshot of the main conference, but close enough to be accessible. Spread out chairs so that delegates can have space and time to sit on their own. Roll down blinds to block out invasive, direct sunlight. And finally – let people know it’s there! Make a note of it on the conference website where you detail all your other information on accessibility.
5. Is the menu fully accessible?
Choose your caterers carefully to accommodate for a range of dietary needs, including vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options. Including a full ingredients list in menus or alongside buffet options and snacks will also help delegates filter out any allergens and other problematic ingredients, which is particularly important to those on special diets and pregnant attendees. Set aside any pre-prepared meals for delegates with dietary restrictions and label them with the delegate’s name (you’d be surprised how many times meat-eaters have snapped up a vegan meal that’s not made for them!)
6. Fire evacuation preparation
Have you considered whether there any planned fire alarm tests planned for the event? What provisions are in place to ensure delegates who may need assistance in leaving the building have adequate support? Remember that lifts cannot be used during a fire alarm, so consult with building management when planning your event to create an evacuation plan that anticipates the needs of all attendees.
While these are just a small number of things to consider when planning a conference, there are many other resources that have more information and ideas on delivering a truly accessible event (listed below). If you have any thoughts or experiences you’d like to add, then please comment below!
SIGACCESS Accessible Conference Guide: https://www.sigaccess.org/welcome-to-sigaccess/resources/accessible-conference-guide/
‘Your Accessible Conference Guide’: https://www.exordo.com/blog/accessible-conference-design-10-things-to-consider/
‘7 Tips for Designing Conferences for Disabled Delegates’: https://www.citmagazine.com/article/1661095/7-tips-when-designing-conferences-disabled-delegates