Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

Conference Challenges for People with Psychiatric Disabilities

Full full pryal disclosure

For people with psychiatric disabilities, attending an academic conference can be hard in unexpected ways.

Usually, when we talk about helping people get what they need to make their way in the world — whatever their disability — the standard is “accommodation." That term connotes "doing something extra” to meet someone’s needs. It should surprise no one that people with disabilities, if they can find any sort of workaround, will avoid seeking official accommodations. We don’t want to feel like our existence requires something extra — especially since getting that something extra requires interacting with gatekeepers, who, as I wrote in an earlier column, often do not want to give us that extra thing.

That’s the beauty of taking an “accessibility approach” to meeting people’s needs — the idea is that “a space is always, 100 percent of the time, welcoming to people with disabilities.” With an accessibility approach, accommodations are integrated into a space — say, an annual conference — and not particularized to an individual. Most important, the burden shifts from the individual to society.

What does that mean for the particular challenges that people with psychiatric disabilities face in attending academic conferences?

Those of us who fall into that category are not a monolithic group, because psychiatric disabilities manifest in a variety of ways. But I will give some examples to illustrate how certain changes in the physical and interpersonal qualities of academic conferences could — with little cost or effort — make those meetings more accessible for us.

My ideas on this front are aimed at making space for people who need space away from other people, even just for a moment. I’m talking about small changes that might be overlooked because they seem so inconsequential. But for someone like me — someone who wants to participate and who wants to be there, but can’t be “on” for hours on end — these small things can make a big difference.

Hallway seating. The last conference I attended was a big one, with several thousand attendees, and it was held in a large conference center. There were four floors of conference space. The main lobby area had plenty of seating. The second, third, and fourth floors were composed of wide hallways — like, really wide — and really long as well. Curiously, though, there was no seating in these really long, really wide hallways. If you needed to take a look at the program to find your next room, you just had to stand. Imagine hundreds of feet of hallway, and not a single place to sit.

The problem with that arrangement is this: Sitting connotes a private moment in a way that standing doesn’t. While I’ve been standing, I’ve had total strangers approach me to strike up conversations. Yes, I’m at a convention, but sometimes I need a breather. I need to sit in semi-privacy, just for a moment, so that I can keep going.

Conference organizers should make sure that plenty of chairs and benches are available outside of meeting rooms to provide a quiet place to sit and take a short break rather than have to stand there looking lost, fumbling with your things, and getting bumped into by crowds of people.

Secret staircases. Conference elevators are notoriously crowded. I have a friend who has severe claustrophobia. I have something similar. So I’ve become adept at discovering the secret staircases that lead from floor to floor. At the many hotels I’ve stayed in for meetings, I have never, ever seen another person in these staircases. It’s weird. Most of the staircases exist as fire escapes — another reason I like to familiarize myself with them — but they’re an excellent, private way to move around the conference space while taking small breaks at the same time.

The thing is, they’re often not well marked. When I show the staircases to my fellow neurodivergents, they’re amazed, relieved, and then annoyed. Why didn’t they know about these staircases sooner? Why didn’t they have access to this private, quiet way to get around that didn’t require use of the horrid elevators? I don’t have an answer. I just show them the doorways and where they lead.

Secret staircases are another way I balance my desire to participate in a crowded conference with a brain that overloads more easily than that of other people.

My suggestion for conference planners: It’s as simple as hanging a sign. Like the Quiet Rooms that more and more conferences are finally figuring out are an important thing to have, signs could point the way to a “Quiet Staircase.” Those few peaceful moments can make all the difference when you’re neurodivergent at a massive conference.

No more shaming for reading papers aloud. This is a pet peeve of mine. Many speakers at conferences get slammed either in private (by gossips) or on social media (by what I would consider trolls) for reading their conference papers out loud on a panel.

Now, some presenters read their papers because they lack audience awareness. They read fast to cram in all of their oh-so-important ideas, or they read the paper because they just didn’t prepare well. I’m not talking about these people right now.

I’m talking about another group of presenters — the ones who read their conference papers because they have to. Many of these people read their papers in a captivating manner. They have fabulous audience awareness. But they still read.

I am in this group of readers. We read because reading, itself, is an accessibility measure for us— for a whole host of individual reasons such as anxiety or disfluency.We read because doing so makes our participation at a conference possible. It’s makes the conference accessible.

Don’t shame presenters who read their papers. Don’t tweet snarky comments with the conference hashtag, e.g., “Ugh stop reading papers already! #conference2016.” First of all, we see those tweets. Second of all, you just might be attacking someone who reads because she doesn’t have a choice.

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