Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

How to make your conference accessible – and why you should care!

I remember the time I was invited to speak at a large conference and I was scheduled to speak in the only room that had a raised stage. This presented a problem because I use a wheelchair and there was no way to get on the stage to give my presentation! You’ve probably been at conferences where you had difficulties reading name badges because the font selected was very small. These are just two examples of where conferences could do better at inclusion and accessibility – both for speakers and attendees.

Originally published on LinkedIn.

Your event or conference will be more successful if everyone is able to participate fully. The suggestions in this post are going to help you include all participants and speakers, regardless of their abilities. This is not an exhaustive guide to making your conference inclusive and accessible, but a starting point to get you thinking, with concrete actions you can take to improve the accessibility of your event from start to finish. Should you need further information, do feel free to contact me. I’d be happy to help.

Diversity, accessibility, inclusion

As an event organizer, you probably have heard that diversity is good. There’s been pushes for increasing diversity at tech conferences – particularly gender and racial diversity. No less important, but less discussed are the benefits of having people with diverse abilities attending the conference. The melting pot is good! Whether you are getting speakers or attendees who are women, or have different racial backgrounds, or have disabilities, they will bring different viewpoints, different work and life experiences. This generally improves the quality of your event for everyone.

Keep in mind that including people with disabilities isn’t simply about people who are blind, or deaf, or are wheelchair users. There are a wide variety of impairments that can affect one’s ability to function at a conference. A lot of these conditions are “invisible” – unless the person tells you about their condition, you’d never know it’s there. Someone might have dyslexia and have trouble reading the program. Someone else might have suffered a traumatic brain injury while playing sports as a teen and have problems concentrating in noisy environments. Yet another person might have problems differentiating colors, a somewhat minor impairment, but it could cause problems if the speakers are relying on red and green on their slides or you are using green and red to differentiate two streams of talks. Some people have mobility impairments – they use a cane, or crutches. Long distances between venues could cause them problems. We live in an aging society. Many people are experiencing changing sight, making it difficult to read name badges or slides with a lot of text and tiny font. And remember that some impairments are temporary, like the speaker who broke her leg a week before the event.

Increased accessibility and inclusion will make everyone feel welcome. But a one size fits all approach isn’t likely to work for everyone.

Beyond specific elements that will increase accessibility, your willingness to adapt on the move will prove your inclusive mindset.

Accessibility and inclusion can happen at all stages of your conference. We will discuss some items related to your website, venue, presentations, social events, and more.

Website

Your website should be accessible. This means that it can be used by people who have different abilities, and may rely on assistive technologies. The guidelines here would be to adhere to WCAG 2.0. This post isn’t about web accessibility, so I won’t go in depth about it. But here are a few things to consider:

  • Can you navigate your site using only the keyboard?
  • Can text be resized without losing information?
  • Are links easily identifiable?
  • Is the color contrast sufficient?
  • Do all informative images have alternate text?
  • Are labels associated with form inputs?

Consider this for all areas of your site including, but not limited to:

  • Information about the event
  • Information about the venue
  • Directions to the venue
  • Registration
  • Payment
  • Call for paper
  • Paper submission
  • Schedule

People need to be able to access the information and get registered.

A quick sidebar about call for papers – make sure to mention your desire to have talks about accessibility! It seems like a silly detail, but too often accessibility isn’t mentioned as a possible topic. Mention it, show you’re inclusive, and be pleasantly surprised by the topics you hadn’t considered that tie your event theme and accessibility together.

And a note on schedules published on the site. Schedules are often complex information delivered through one or several HTML data tables. Ensure that these tables are coded according to standards so assistive technologies can interact programmatically with them. This is especially true if you are running several streams in several rooms on different days.

Name badges

The purpose of a name badge is to identify people easily. As such, it should be easy to read! You should use a large, easy to read font. Sans serif fonts are generally regarded as a good choice. Make the name stand out and contrast well – avoid grey on grey! A font size of 18 points or bigger if you can make it fit would make a difference.

It’s not just people with sight impairments that will thank you – but all of us who have tiring eyesight from staring at computer screens all day!

Venue

Is your venue accessible? This topic also could be a post on its own. But here are some possible barriers to consider when selecting a venue, or to address if you’ve already selected a venue that is not as accessible as it could be. For in depth information, albeit very dry, refer to the ADA Standards. A shortened checklist (PDF) could be used as a reminder when visiting venues. . Don’t automatically assume that the venue is accessible because it often holds conferences! Things are getting better, but there’s often issues.

Accessible route

Are there steps to get into and through the venue? If so, is there an alternate way to get in and around? For example, there was a conference that was held in the lower level of a large hotel. Attendees reached the conference rooms by using an escalator. A wheelchair lift had been installed recently, but it was kept locked so children couldn’t play in it. People with reduced mobility needed to find a staff that knew where the key was. This routinely took between 15 and 20 minutes each time. This is sub optimal.

Registration desk

How high is the registration desk? Is it a regular table, or a taller reception desk? If it is a high surface, offer an alternative location for wheelchair users or people of short stature to be able to interact with staff/volunteers.

Conference rooms

Are the presentations held in amphitheater style rooms? Or in large meeting rooms? Are there stages in the rooms?



Large amphitheater room at Le Web. By Phil Whitehouse. CC By 2.0

If you have presentations in amphitheater, ensure there are spaces available for a wheelchair user to “park” themselves to follow the presentation. Ensure entrances to the amphitheater aren’t at the high end of the room, and if they are, that there is a low gradient ramp to be able to go down. Avoid placing the wheelchair seating area at the back of the room only.

If you are using large meeting rooms with rows of removable seats, make sure to leave enough space for wheelchairs to move around. Avoid people over crowding the room. It can be difficult to gauge how popular a specific presentation will be, but if you are able to get a feel for how each presentation will be attended (from historical data for instance), avoid scheduling a popular presentation in a smaller room.

If the presenter is expected to speak on a stage, is there a ramp or level entry to get on the ramp. If there isn’t, find another room for wheelchair using speakers. Don’t offer to lift them and their chair bodily up on stage. It is neither dignified nor safe!

Bathrooms

Are there accessible bathrooms near the conference and dining rooms? This includes having stalls large enough to permit a wheelchair to go in, as well as sinks and taps that can be reached from a wheelchair.

Accessible bathrooms should be in near proximity, but sometimes accessible bathrooms are only available on different floors of the venue than the one where the conference is being held. If that is the case, ensure appropriate signage and information so people who need accessible toilets will know how to get to them.

Also, in the housekeeping address to attendees, it’s worth reminding people to avoid using the accessible stall. It’s not unusual for wheelchair users to be stuck waiting for people who could have used a different stall.

Carpets

Solid surfaces like polished concrete or varnished wood floors could cause a hazard for people who are ambulatory but unsteady on their feet. They are slippery, especially if liquids were spilled.

Yes, carpets are generally a better solution. However, carpet should have high density, low cut pile. Otherwise it acts a bit like quicksand for wheelchair users who have to work a lot harder to move from point A to point B.

Hallways

Hallways should be wide and clear of obstructions. This will help mobility for wheelchair users, but also for people with sight impairments, particularly if they use a cane for mobility.

Dining halls

If you offer meals, such as lunch, plan the layout of the dining hall carefully. Ensure there is enough space between the tables (including with people seating at chairs) for a wheelchair user or someone using a guide dog to be able to navigate through. Otherwise you risk forcing people with limited mobility to sit near the doors, or be unable to reach the buffet table.


The round tables and chairs in the photo are for a presentation, but imagine if they were setup like this for a dinner – No room to move around. Photo by William Boyes. CC SA-By 2.0

Are you organizing dining “tribes”, or interest group tables? How are you going to deliver that information to attendees with visual impairments? How will they know which table might host a tribe they relate to? You could make an an announcement with offer to direct people could be made, or a listing of the available tribes could be provided on the website, again with an offer to have a volunteer direct people to the right table.

Evacuation plans

When you talk to the facility manager about the evacuation plan, discuss with them what their procedures are to evacuate people with disabilities. Share that information with your attendees.

Presentations

Accessibility can be improved in many ways during presentations.

Interpreters

People who are Deaf or hard of hearing may require the assistance of a sign language interpreter to benefit from the presentations. Hiring interpreters to cover all sessions may turn out to be cost prohibitive if you have a particularly large event. Or you may even have a hard time finding interpreters in your area to cover all events. Where possible, all efforts should be made to ensure interpreters are available, if you know that you will have attendees that need interpreters.



Sign language interpreter working at a conference. Photo by US Department of Agriculture. Public Domain.

Instead of interpreter, you could organise for CART (Communication Access Realtime Transcription). Basically someone is typing what the presenter says and the transcription is projected on a screen near the main display screen. This has the added advantage that you end up with a transcript of the presentation that you can use to create subtitles for your videos (more on that later), or simply to provide for the attendees after the presentation.

Or you could rely on some imaginative use of technology. This can be tricky, so make sure you thoroughly test whatever solution you come up with ahead of time and in context. For example, I once setup Dragon NaturallySpeaking at a church a Deaf colleague was attending. The church could not afford interpreters, yet they had a few Deaf and hard of hearing parishioners that would have liked to attend services but couldn’t. So a used laptop was donated, a cheap overhead projector was acquired and Dragon was trained for the priest. His sermon were projected on a screen and people who couldn’t hear him speak could read the text. They discovered shortly after they implemented that system that many of the elderly parishioners also benefited from this reasonable accommodation. And the priest realized he now had access to all his sermons in electronic formats, indexed, searchable, etc. As with CART, you’d end up with an exact transcript. BEWARE! This solution worked well in the context of one person speaking in one environment. It may not be optimal when speakers haven’t had time to train the speech-to-text solution.

Accessibility often requires lateral thinking.

Slide color scheme and font sizes

Remind speakers that their slides should rely on colors that would be easy to distinguish for the roughly 8% of people who are color blind.

Also, less text per slide, with bigger font is generally better and easier to read. For everyone!

Slide description

I like to ask at the start of each presentation I give if there are people in the audience that would benefit from a description of the slides. If they have a vision impairment, even if they sit in the first row, they may not be able to tell what is on the slide. If anyone signals that they would like it, I take a few seconds to describe the visuals on the slide.

Handouts

Are there handouts available during the presentation? Ensure that speakers provide them in alternative formats. Braille is an expensive proposition, and while it’s always neat to have that available if you have someone who could benefit from it (only about 10% of people with sight impairments rely on Braille as their primary reading medium). A more affordable method would be to provide the handout in electronic format on a website – as long as the site itself is accessible and the handout text is also accessible (especially if it’s a PDF).

This goes for speaker evaluations often handed out at the start/end of each presentations.

Questions

If questions are permitted, ensure that the speakers repeats or rephrases the question before answering it. A lot of people, even without hearing impairment, can’t hear the questions being posed, particularly when they are seated towards the back of the room.

Alternatively, provide portable microphones with volunteers to deliver the mikes to people wanting to ask questions. This is better than a microphone on a stand at the front of the room as moving to the microphone may not be easy.

Videos of the presentations

If you film the presentations and make the videos available afterwards, consider providing closed captions and/or transcripts. This will help people with hearing impairments, but also those of us who don’t have time to sit through a video and can read faster than listen at a whole presentation. It will also help people who do want to watch the video, but are in large open offices or busses that either can’t have the sound turned on or can’t hear the sound well because of the environment they are in.

Social events

Conference often have official social events in the evenings. There are also social events organized by sponsors or attendees. These events are part of the conference experience, whether official or not and should be as accessible as possible. When selecting a venue for a social event, whether it is the speaker’s diner or a networking meetup, keep in mind the accessibility of the venue, like you would for your conference venue.

I remember being invited to a speaker dinner, held on the second floor of a posh restaurant that had no elevator. There were a couple tables setup on the ground floor for “overflow”, and that is where I ended up eating, with a handful of other people. It was an embarrassing experience for me, and I imagine for the event organizers as well.

Transportation

If you offer transportation from the airport to the venue, consider whether or not the shuttles are wheelchair accessible. It is obviously not always possible to organise accessible shuttles or busses (lack of availability or high cost). When that’s the case, think of alternate solutions: Can you organize taxi vouchers for your attendees/speakers who are using wheelchairs? Can you rent an accessible van to organize pick up and drop off at the airport?

Scent free

More and more people are having problems dealing with scents. Some people may have allergic reactions that cause lips to tingle, nausea, severe headaches, or full blown asthma attacks. Even for those who don’t have such strong reaction, it can be really unpleasant to be sitting near a guy who bathed himself in Lynx!

Make your event scent free. Advertise this on your website and on the registration form so everyone is aware ahead of time.

Identify needs early

It will be easier for you to accommodate people’s needs if you are aware of them early on. Ask on the attendee or speaker registration form if they need reasonable accommodations. This will give them a chance to explain their needs and give you an opportunity to meet those needs.

You can do this by providing a free form textbox for people to tell you what accommodation they need. You could also provide a series of checkboxes with some of the most usual requests for accommodation (in no particular order):

  • Wheelchair access
  • Allowing a personal attendant to get in for free
  • Sign language interpreter
  • Video captioning
  • Alternative formats (Braille, large print, electronic formats)
  • Dietary restrictions
  • Scent free
  • Do point out that you will attempt to provide the accommodation but that you make no promise! If for any reason you end up being unable to hire an interpreter and you promised one, it will not only make for a bad experience for the Deaf attendee, but reflect badly on your event.

Conclusion

If you’ve read this far, you realize how many things could be done to reduce barriers to participation at your event.

As I said early on, this is not an exhaustive list. It is a series of items to help you get started on your journey to improving accessibility. Don’t be daunted. It could feel overwhelming. You might decide that perhaps if you can’t do all these things, you might as well do none. In fact, you are better off implementing as many as you can, even if it’s just a handful.

And if you feel bogged down, reach out to me! I’ll be glad to assist.