Accessible conferences – what can organisers do?

Attending a conference can be an affirming, confidence boosting, and intellectually stimulating endeavour for the archaeologist – but it can also be intimidating, physically and mentally challenging, and fraught with anxieties. For conference goers with disabilities, health issues, and additional needs, there are several hurdles in the way of a positive conference experience that could be ameliorated or avoided entirely with some forward planning by organisers and genuine engagement with all attendees to find out their needs and requirements.

The first step, as pointed out by Hanna Marie Pageau at the recent CAA conference in Atlanta, is to ensure that anyone registering to attend a conference or event should have the opportunity to state their requirements at the point of sign up – a simple text box upon registration. This achieves two things; it gives conference organisers a heads-up of the kind of facilities and adjustments they will need to provide, and it enables the attendee to state their needs without having to chase up (frequently very busy and difficult to contact) conference organisers, scour web pages for any mention of access or available facilities, or face the anxiety of feeling “awkward” for requesting reasonable adjustments by email, phone call, or social media.

So you are organising a conference. Just what kind of facilities, adjustments, and processes should you be considering when planning for your attendees? You may have considered the basics of level access, accessible toilets, hearing loops – but it goes much deeper than this, and in most cases, is not costly or difficult to achieve. Consider reading up on Scope’s research on current attitudes towards disabled people or definitions of some invisible disabilities and illnesses, and how they affect everyday life. Although no replacement for formal disability access training, these resources are a good initial eye-opener into life with an illness or condition that affects your ability to attend events such as conferences.

The following seven points are key areas to address:

  1. Quiet spaces – conferences can be busy, bustling, crowded spaces. Consider that your attendees are a neuro diverse group; individuals with sensory processing conditions, on the autistic spectrum, and with Aspergers, may find dealing with this atmosphere difficult for extended periods of time. Set aside a room or a suite of rooms that are designated quiet areas, with the option of low lighting and space to be in comfortable personal space. This will allow recharging of batteries and could be the difference between people making it to afternoon sessions or walking away from the conference.
  2. Fridges – some medication, such as insulin, can be temperature sensitive. It only takes a small portable fridge to be located at a secure location, such as a constantly occupied reception, to allow those with such sensitive medication to attend.
  3. Adequate seating – welcomed by all conference attendees, but particularly those with conditions that limit their mobility or stamina for standing for extended periods of time. Common areas such as corridors and halls should have plenty of seating, with seats designated for people who identify as needing to get off their feet. It’s important that all staff and volunteers are aware that this may often be people with “invisible” disabilities and health issues that are either not immediately apparent or that the person involved does not wish to disclose the nature of.
  4. Toilet facilities – beyond the obvious need for accessible toilets that have facilities for those with limited mobility or the need for space to check and change medical equipment such as colostomy bags, invisible disabilities and health issues often result in the need for easy and quick access to toilets. Conference facilities should have toilets that are quick to access from all seminar rooms, as individuals with conditions including Coeliac disease, IBS, endometriosis, Crohn’s disease, and colitis needing speedy access with limited warning time.
  5. Dietary Requirements – Conference food should be accessible to all, especially in cases where other dining options are not readily available. As well as providing vegetarian and vegan option, there should be options for gluten free (with 1 in 100 people in the UK a Coeliac, that could be a significant number of your attendees), lactose free (often those with gut health issues need to refrain from eating lactose), and plain options that are free from common IBS triggers. Although this may seem daunting from a catering point of view, with forward planning and facilitating the statement of dietary requirements a compulsory part of conference registration, there will be enough forewarning to plan accordingly.
  6. Written resources – when producing abstract booklets, conference packs and other written materials, consider large print, printing on difference coloured papers, and producing PDFs of the materials that can be downloaded onto smartphones or tablets then read aloud by accessibility software.
  7. Information in advance – for facilities such as parking, nearby food facilities, venue layout, it’s of high importance to make the information available as early as possible, in a prominent and easy to find location on the conference web page and social media. Knowing that parking is within tolerable walking distance, or that there will be a toilet within two minutes of the room you’re speaking in may make the difference between attending and not.

This list is not exhaustive, and is designed to give a basic guide to good practice rather than be definitive. These simple steps could make the difference between your conferences and events being welcoming or daunting prospects.

Penelope Foreman

PhD Candidate, Bournemouth University

Follow Penny on Twitter through @Susmounds

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