Part of a Whole

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

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Excluded from Confoo speaker dinner – what happened and how it made me feel.

I was an invited speaker at the Confoo YVR conference in December 2017. I gave two talks, both on accessibility. I was the only speaker presenting accessibility-related topics. There was a dinner organized for all the speakers. I was precluded from attending that dinner because the organizers selected a venue on the second floor, with no elevators. There was no way for a wheelchair user to access the venue. I felt embarrassed, and angry.

As I said in a tweet shortly after I discovered the place was not accessible, it is ironic that the wheelchair user invited to speak about accessibility could not go to the speaker dinner because the venue isn’t accessible. And this on the day after the International Day of People with Disabilities!

Long and narrow stairs leading to the second floor
The steps I saw when I opened the venue’s door.

One of the event organizers was there. We’ve known each other personally since 2013. He was at the top of the stairs when I opened the door. I asked him if “this was a joke”. He took a moment and I saw the moment he clicked. He looked crestfallen. I don’t believe he, or the other Confoo organizers actively meant to exclude me. But it did not lessen my humiliation.

I was feeling very upset, embarrassed and hurt.

There were two speakers at the door, having a cigarette. They witnessed the events. One of them suggested that perhaps they could get strong guys to carry me up the stairs. I pointed out I was not going to be carried up. It is dangerous to do so (I spent nearly a week in hospital the last time I let someone carry me, because they dropped me). The event organizer joked (I think it was a joke) that he could do a safe fireman carry. That might be safer, but just as importantly, it is not a good way to make an entrance to a speaker dinner, among your peers: being carried in like a sack of potatoes. It would have been even more humiliating.

The speakers at that event seeing me being carried in like that would likely have had many reactions ranging from finding it funny to pitying me. And there were people during the conference, who were aware of the situation, that came to talk to me later, tears in their eyes. I don’t want pity. I don’t need pity. And you’ll forgive the strong words, but piss on pity.

Not just wheelchair users

I want to quickly point out that such stairs are a barrier to wheelchair users, obviously. But also to a multitude of people who have mobility impairments. People may be able to walk, but could not easily, or safely, use these stairs.

Mistakes do happen

Yes, I’m aware, mistakes happen. Things go wrong. All the time. I acknowledge that. The thing is, often, it’s not so much about the mistake itself but about how the organization that made a mistake handles the problem.

I feel the situation was handled particularly badly by the conference organizers. Had they reached out promptly after it was discovered there was a problem with the venue, a lot of the angst would have been avoided.

A lesson in how not to handle things

I am not posting this to bash Confoo. I’m not taking pot shots. I am taking the time and energy to write this post in the hope that Confoo, and other conference organizers, will gain a better understanding of the very real and significant negative impact excluding people can have on the people that are directly excluded (intentionally or not), as well as their loved ones.

Not the first time

This is not the first time something like that happened. There was a similar issue with the Confoo speaker dinner in 2013. Both the 2013 and 2017 editions of Confoo were organized by the same people. I was annoyed the first time it happened. I mentioned it at the time to one of the organizers who didn’t appear to really get the problem. I wrote about that evening, where many problems happened (not all of Confoo’s doing).

The second time, well, I wasn’t merely annoyed. I was quite angry. I was outraged. I felt rejected. I left the venue and headed back towards the hotel. I contacted my wife, and told her about it. She had to change her plans.

Impact on others

This is not the first time plans are broken. My wife has seen the discrimination (intentional or not) targeting me over and over. And she hurts for me when these things happen. We’ve been turned away at too many social events that did not, and would not, cater for a wheelchair user. We’ve been unable to accept invitations for events when we knew they were being held in non-accessible venues.

It happens too often

The thing is, event organizers, like the folks at Confoo, sometimes appear to think these things merely an inconvenience. A “small silly mistake” that has little impact beyond the fact that someone can’t participate in their event.

I dislike having to pull the “privilege” card, but let’s face it, there’s an amount of able body privilege at play here. It’s not a small silly mistake. It’s not “just an oversight”. It’s not a minor thing. It may appear that way to someone who doesn’t live day-in, day-out with access problems.

But the reality is that when you encounter that so often that you stopped counting decades ago, every time it happens again, it is a bit more soul destroying. And my patience grows thinner and thinner every time it happens.

Organizing events that are not accessible has more than a trivial impact on the people being excluded.

Tweets

I waited a bit to hear back from the main event organizer after I discovered the premises weren’t accessible. Giving him a chance to reach out and apologize. It seems to me that the moment he heard about the problem, he should have reached out. But he did not.

So I tweeted about it. I stated the facts. I remained neutral in what I said. But it raised quite strong reaction on people in the Twitterverse. Other people were outraged on my behalf.

It was not until the following morning that the main event organizer tweeted back at me. And it wasn’t to apologize. It was to make a sarcastic comment of “thank you” in response to someone pointing out it wasn’t the first time this had happened.

I suggested that the appropriate thing for him to do, instead of a passive-aggressive response, would have been to have apologized. But he said that the appropriate thing would have been for me to talk to him in person instead of going public because that never solves anything.

Taking it in private

Telling me, the injured party, that it was my job to reach out and try to make things right is a little bit like driving your car through a red light, damaging someone else’s car and telling them they should apologize. It’s not on.

That said, I did reach out a couple times. Including on Confoo’s final day:

There are many reasons one doesn’t try to settle things in private. This excellent article by Annalee spells many of them out. It’s highly worth a read.

Asking why people didn’t speak to you privately is centering yourself in the conversation–treating yourself and your wish to save face as the most important issue at hand. If you want to be the kind of person to whom people speak privately, you’ve got to cede the floor. Instead of asking why they approached their grievance the way they did, ask what you can do to make it right.

Reading this, I was able to verbalize part of what had upset me so much about the organizer’s response. He made the whole thing about him, rather than about fixing the issue.

Organizers finally speaking to me

I was at the conference for two days after that event. I was there, and available for the organizers to come and talk to me. I was on several occasions within a few meters of the organizers who plainly saw me, but turned around and ignored me to speak to other people.

On the final day of the conference, the organizers and a dozen speakers went out for drinks and dinner at the end of the conference. One of the people that was heading out told me he’d asked the organizer to make a point of inviting me. I was not invited. The only reason I knew this was happening was because someone else told me about it.

The day after the conference, the organizer emailed me saying “now’s a good time to talk, come meet me”. Unfortunately, I had work to complete and a couple meetings to attend remotely. I was unable to drop everything and go meet him.

On Thursday late afternoon, he phoned me and we spoke. I explained all that I have written about here to him. He explained that he had delegated the venue selection and that there were a lot of moving parts and that they’d dropped the ball. He did apologize. He did not make any offers or gesture of good will.

While I appreciate the verbal apology, 3 days after the events happened, it seems too little and too late.

The future

He said that in the future, he would make sure to add a field in their RSVP forms to ask if people have dietary or accessibility needs, and that these requests would be respected as much as possible.

That is a good idea. Provide a way for people to inform the organizers of their needs. Perhaps having something in writing will help ensure such an excluding event doesn’t happen again.

On a positive note

Conference organizers often do many things to improve accessibility. That’s awesome and I’m happy to see that happening. I offer many ideas on how (and why) conferences can be more accessible. And I’m more than happy to discuss specific points with conference organizers.

Clarissa Peterson suggested to me that perhaps conferences should adopt an accessibility pledge, a bit like they’ve adopted a code of conduct. That’s certainly something that I’d like to see happen.

Post-scriptum

As agreed during my conversation with the main Confoo organizer, I sent him the first draft of this post ahead of publication and gave him an opportunity to comment. He refused to comment on the basis that I was taking cheap shots. As I said earlier in the post, I’m not trying to tarnish Confoo’s reputation.

I am trying to educate. I am hoping that people will read this and understand: Holding events in non-accessible places means you reduce the diversity of attendees, of speakers. In effect, you silence the voice of entire groups of people that have a lot to bring. You are, in fact, doing your event a disservice.

3 thoughts on “Excluded from Confoo speaker dinner – what happened and how it made me feel.

  1. Your stance is not only warranted, but a valuable lesson for those who have an opportunity to avoid making the same error.

    At the end of the day I guess he realized that being singled out is not so much fun, Nic.

  2. I’m ambulatory disabled, but I have issues with stairs. Even though it has rails on both sides, it would have given me second thoughts. Not cool.

    You are perfectly reasonable in publicly pointing out the event. You are also under no obligation to spare the organizers’ face or feelings. After all, they didn’t spare yours.

  3. It’s clear the organizer has no clue and is sufficiently secure with his privilege that he likely never will gain said clue.

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