David Perry

Associate Professor at Dominican University

Removing the Barriers to Participation for Disabled Scholars

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Image: Keep Out! (Photographer: Flickr user Craig Sunter)

We know academic conferences matter. When they are affordable and meaningful, they provide opportunities to network, improve our CVs, and allow those of us mired in teaching and bureaucracy to reconnect with our scholarship. But not if you are disabled, in which case the barriers to full participation are many, stubbornly hard to remove, and likely not even visible to conference organizers.

If you know any disabled academics, then you almost certainly know someone who has encountered obstacles at conferences. In the last month or so, I’ve communicated with dozens of academics with all types of disabilities – including wheelchair users, people with hearing or vision loss, and people with intellectual disabilities like Autism and psychiatric disabilities such as bipolar disorder. They all had many bad stories to tell about accessibility at scholarly meetings, and those stories are especially worth telling as we approach the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Some conference organizers just don’t think about disability. Others are outright prejudicial, dismissing these needs as imaginary or trivial. Fortunately, there are people trying to make a difference by demonstrating ways to make conferences accessible to all.

The core problem here is that conferences involve a set of normative activities that most academics take for granted and feel are mandatory to the enterprise. We go to new spaces, whether campuses, hotels, or convention centers, and learn to navigate them quickly in order to find exhibit halls, presentation spaces, food, lodging, and restrooms. We often must move quickly from location to location. In sessions, we sit in rooms often with bad lighting (either very dim or extremely bright). We listen to talks, process information aurally, and look at images. We engage in both planned and impromptu social networking, often over food or drinks, making our way through loud and crowded reception areas.

Every one of those activities, and likely some I’ve missed, potentially present accessibility challenges.

If we are willing to think about accessibility, however, solutions are possible. I interviewed – over an Internet chat program for accessibility reasons – Stephanie Kerschbaum and Margaret Price. Kerschbaum, who is deaf, is an associate professor of English and a disability studies scholar at the University of Delaware. Price, an associate professor of English (rhetoric & composition) at Spelman College, identifies as mentally disabled. In a column on the need for name badges at job interviews, Price wrote, “I’ve received a range of DSM diagnoses, including major depression, severe anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), agoraphobia, and borderline personality disorder.” Both professors agreed in this interview to disclose their disabilities.

In fact, disclosure of disability is a topic they study. Price is involved with Composing Access, a website that evolved out of a tipsheet on making conferences more accessible. In 2013, the two scholars organized a conference on disclosure in higher education that many of the people I spoke with for this essay described as the most accessible conference they had ever encountered. In a write-up about the conference in the Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies, one participant called the accessibility of the conference “dreamy.”

Both professors have personally experienced distinct barriers to participation. Many meeting organizers, Price said, simply refuse to consider simple accommodations even when asked, as if somehow their conference format is inviolate. “We've heard an amazing array of reasons and excuses for not doing simple things toward access,” she said. “People will come up with the most creative rationales for showing images without describing them.”

Another simple accommodation for someone who is deaf, like Kerschbaum, would be to provide a printed copy of a paper (especially at small conferences where hiring interpreters might prove too expensive) that’s being read aloud. I get why. My conference papers are usually works in progress and the idea of handing out a permanent copy to someone, especially a stranger, makes me uncomfortable. But my comfort is not more important than someone’s ability to participate fully in the conference.

For Price, the problem is that too many academics simply don’t understand that her needs are real. “When I advocate for my own needs at conferences,” she said, “I often find that the needs themselves are ridiculed or dismissed” – with people telling things like: "Well, everyone needs rest,” or "Well, no one likes crowds. We just have to deal with it."

I heard much the same comment from many other people with hidden disabilities for whom the need for a quiet space wasn’t just a preference, but a mandatory accommodation in order to make participation at the meeting possible. (One scholar told me she hung out in a nursing room a lot).

In setting up the format of the disclosure conference, the organizers sought to build access, as Kerschbaum said, into the “infrastructure of the conference (financially – by sponsoring interpreting, captioning, and other access moves that can be expensive).” The idea was to set up the meeting in such a way that participants would be able to be responsible for managing their own access needs. That way, the full burden of accessibility didn’t fall on the organizers. The whole culture of the conference changed, and everyone took some responsibility.

That was critical when, as happens, one person’s accommodation becomes another person’s barrier to inclusion.

For example, at the conference, Price said, one participant had a flare-up “during a session that necessitated applying a topical medicine – some kind of skin cream. The participant next to her had a chemical reaction to that medicine and developed a migraine. On the spot, we had to negotiate with the participants how this would go – both people had an access need, and the two needs (in that moment in time, in that space) conflicted. The eventual negotiation was relatively simple, but the point is that there's no way to ‘anticipate’ all access-related events. Another access-conflict issue is that some people might need the lights on and some might need them off.”

There is no simple list of rules a conference organizer can follow that will resolve these issues for all participants equally. The key is to be flexible, to make accessibility a priority, and make it clear that attendees should feel comfortable asking for what they need.

Not every academic conference will be able to mirror what Price and Kerschbaum accomplished, but their experiences can serve as a model for what’s possible. Moreover, they are far from alone. The Society for Disability Studies (SDS) works very hard at accessibility and this year launched DAFT: the Digital Access Facilitation Team. DAFT was intended to make the annual SDS conference accessible to people who could not be physically present. Other good models can be found outside academia, including the feminist science-fiction convention WisCon and its emphasis on universal design in all its complexities.

Last October, I hosted a successful conference at my university that attracted 50 participants. Despite being a disability-rights advocate and journalist myself, it never occurred to me to think about accessibility at my own event, and I’m ashamed of that now. My website had no accessibility statement, not even the bare minimum inviting attendees to contact me to request accommodations. I can and will do better. I suspect your scholarly organizations, whatever they are, can do better, too.

Disability is diverse. For the deaf participant, access to the spoken text is critical. The wheelchair user may be more concerned with ample time to move from session to session and the need for clearly -indicated accessible restrooms. Another person may need a designated quiet space or a safe way to signal that they are not able to engage in casual chit-chat. That diversity is a strength. It may take some creativity to make your conference accessible, but the first two steps are easy:

  • Make it known that accessibility is a priority.
  • Then listen when disabled people tell you what they need.

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