Conference Inference blog has already highlighted a great variety of concerns around conferences, discussing how conferences are not holidays, and how conferences can create exclusionary conditions for delegates managing childcare commitments. Furthermore, attending a conference as a deaf person has also been discussed on this blog. Anyone who has experienced illness, knows how different life becomes with a bad cold or flu. However, what about those amongst us who are disabled, chronically ill and/or neurodiverse?
Together with colleagues, I have published guidance on what can be done to make conferences more accessible. However, it is often the case that organisers do not ignore or side-line accessibility issues because of logistical or financial reasons, but rather because they are simply not aware of the impact that an inaccessible conference has on individuals.
In this post, I would therefore like to illustrate what it means to attend a conference when your body and/or mind are not typical, and what the realities are of navigating and negotiating conference spaces under the influence of visible and invisible conditions. In doing that, I provide a critical insight into the role conferences play within an academic career and consider questions of responsibility and ownership over conferencing.
To elicit what conferencing “disabled style” feels like, I draw on the many conversations I have had as part of my research into the lived experience of disabilities and chronic illnesses in academia (see e.g. this project and this article), but I also incorporate my personal experiences as an immune-compromised and deaf academic, whose strategies to manage symptoms include specific dietary requirements.
Getting to the conference
Organisers are nowadays often in tune with accessibility issues, and make sure that rooms and conference halls are wheelchair accessible (see e.g. this post on Critical Event Studies). What tends to be overlooked, however, is how individuals are actually getting to the conference venue in the first place. This may mean getting off a train with no ramp at the ready, navigating tube stations with no lift access, “just a couple of steps” to get onto street-level, wheeling around the corner to the delivery access and using the goods elevator to enter the main building. Given the stresses and strain involved in getting to a conference, disabled and chronically ill colleagues often prefer to travel a day early. This in itself can create more issues when you cannot be sure that the hotel is accessible and close-by. It is not surprising that ultimately those with visible and/or invisible conditions often arrive at a conference fatigued, physically exhausted and emotionally drained.
Sitting in to listen to presentations
Many of us attend conferences at least in part to hear colleagues present their work. But how often does it happen that a presenter goes up to the podium, calls up the PowerPoint presentation with lots of small black writing on a white background, and commenting on the smallness of the room states “I can talk without a microphone, you can hear me like this, I can project my voice”. The assumptions that are made by that presenter are ableist, even if they are neither malicious nor intended.
Preparing accessible presentation slides is an art, and should not be taken lightly, easily, nor should that process be rushed in a last-minute dash to get the presentation together. Using too many words on a slide makes it difficult to focus on the spoken presentation; not using enough words disadvantages those who may struggle with focusing; using black writing on white backgrounds causes individuals with dyslexia and/or Irlen’s syndrome struggle, but this also affects people with sensory overload issues. Getting the slides just right is not an easy feat, but at least an attempt should be made to support as many different ways of working as possible – off-white background, words but not too many, one-page summaries and reading lists to hand out.
Moving on to the microphone – yes, it may feel strange to listen to one’s own voice via the speakers, but can we truly know that everyone will be able to hear us without the microphone? And should we expect that one individual who cannot hear to make themselves vulnerable in front of an entire room full of strangers will feel able to say “Actually, I need you to use the microphone”? Of course, there are venues where there are no microphones available, which is a shame and shouldn’t really happen, but if microphones are there, it is good practice and a sign of good manners to pick them up and use them. After all, we cannot expect the individuals to make themselves vulnerable and uncomfortable, just because we ourselves are not comfortable listening to our own voices.
Imagine! As you are reading this, picture yourself at your last conference, where there was a buffet. Remember how you walked up to the tables to pick up a plate, cutlery, napkin, possibly a glass of wine, and how you then walked along the tables to help yourself to your favoured choice of foods.
Now let’s imagine that same routine, but with a walking aid, like a cane or mobility frame. How will you now manage that lunchtime buffet? Or imagine that same routine sitting down in a wheelchair, where you are positioned so low that you can only just reach the height of the tables.
This scenario is already difficult, but what happens when you are restricted in your diet? Many conferences cater for vegan or gluten-free, but do not allow that socially unacceptable combination of someone who is a vegan celiac, therefore requiring food that is vegan AND gluten-free. Occasionally, conference organisers have a separate table with foods for those with specific dietary requirements. Reality is that sometimes those with no requirements change their minds when they see specific foods or plates, and reach to the gluten-free options when they would not need to, so that by the time the person with specific needs gets to the lunchtime queue their plate has disappeared. In practice, individuals with food issues therefore know not to expect too much from conference food as most often they end up with a plate of raw salads and raw fruits, when others have opulent dishes of pasta and risottos followed by cakes and ice-creams as desserts.
If it is so hard, why bother going to a conference at all?
There are two answers to this: (i) because you have to go, (ii) actually many don’t go. Academic careers frameworks and promotions require evidence of conference attendance for national and international reach and standing. Having said that, how many disabled professors are there?
My case in point.
There are many academics who experience the exclusionary effects of conferences, but academic twitter (e.g. @AbleismAcademia; #AcademicAbleism) and the discussions around ableism in academia show how often disabled and chronically ill individuals are not able to attend conferences. Those disabled and chronically ill academics who withdraw from conferencing forfeit their opportunities to gain that national or international standing, and therefore are bypassed or overlooked when it comes to promotions.
Is there a solution to this conundrum?
There could and should be. The higher education sector needs to recognise that different ways of working are not “worse” or “lesser” ways of working, and that disabled or chronically ill academics can offer expertise and experiences that no other academic can. And then everyone in academia needs to take responsibility for inclusionary rather than exclusionary practices. Checking for accessibility cannot be a tick-box exercise, but must be a matter of course. Yes, institutions need to take an emphatic stand, but each and every one of us organising events and conferences needs to get involved. It is all-too-easy to brush off the responsibility to someone higher up the food chain, but things that have been mentioned here, such as microphone etiquette or the navigating lunch, is something that even delegates, not just organisers, can get stuck in with.
If the 2020 pandemic of Covid-19 has proven anything, then it is that the sector is more malleable and flexible than it had presented itself in the past. Suddenly, it is possible to hold conferences online, present remotely and allow different forms of contributions to the academic world.
So ultimately, the solution lies within each and every one of us.
About Nicole Brown
Nicole Brown is Lecturer in Education and Academic Head of Learning and Teaching at UCL Institute of Education. The underlying principle for Nicole’s work is that research, teaching and social activism are inextricably interconnected. As a consequence, her personal practices in research, teaching and dissemination are also interwoven. The constant in the narrative of her work is to give voice to the unheard and empower the marginalised and to provide those with quieter voices with means and tools to explore the unexplored and express the in-expressible. Nicole’s website can be viewed here and she Tweets as: @ncjbrown @AbleismAcademia @FibroIdentity