Accessibility at conferences impacts academic debate

4 minutes read

Lack of accessibility at conferences doesn’t just exclude disabled delegates, it damages the quality of academic debate.

Packed programs that leave little time for fresh air or relaxation breaks, venues unsuitable for people with mobility issues, and lack of awareness of individual needs. Dr Kate Sang is Professor of Gender and Employment Studies at Heriot-Watt University. She recently carried out qualitative research on the experiences of disabled academics, and what she found speaks volumes about the lack of accessibility at conferences.

She spoke with delegates who had found themselves stuck at airports, with no information on accessible transport routes to the accommodation or conference venue. Academics who spent money on attending “accessible” conferences abroad only to find out they couldn’t enter the venue because there was no ramp.

One interviewee had fallen asleep on a table at a conference. “Fatigue is a side effect of her condition and there was no break for her to go and get some fresh air,” says Kate.

Accessibility: more than removing physical barriers

Making conferences accessible to delegates is about more than removing physical barriers. Séan Richardson, a first-year PhD student at Nottingham Trent University, wrote Mental Health and Conferences: A Practical Guide. “If you have a condition like anxiety often you can be present at conferences, but it puts a different strain on people,” he says.

“Some of the biggest conferences I’ve been to don’t even have a room for access breaks where you can sit and be quiet. I was recently at a conference that ran from 8 am to 6 pm every day. With 15 minute breaks. And there was no quiet space to break away for anyone who needed it.”

“I don’t think ‘accessibility’ should be used synonymously with ‘disability’. It’s about enabling people to come to conferences no matter their requirements,” he says. “For example, you might not think about food allergies as an access issue. But if you can’t be around nuts and the conference food has nuts, you can’t come to the conference.”

Séan also spoke about the fact that people who are non-binary or transgender often find it hard to navigate conference spaces. “I work in queer theory so I’m at conferences where a lot of people might not use he/she pronouns. If people are misgendering you at a conference, that can become an inaccessible conference.”

Lack of access is impoverishing academic debate

Kate has presented her research at several conferences and recently wrote a piece on disability at academic conferences for the Guardian. She’s had a lot of interest from conference organizers looking to do better. Because to not make academic and research conferences accessible has clear ramifications.

The first is purely financial – inaccessibility limits the number of delegates who can attend your conference.

The second is bad press. “People pay an awful lot of money to come to academic conferences,” says Kate. “The last thing you want is for people going on social media to say, ‘I wanted to go to this conference but I can’t physically get into the building.’”

There’s also the issue of removing the voices of certain researchers from the debate. In one of the conferences at which Kate presented her research, she did so in a room that wasn’t accessible. When access issues are an afterthought, whose voices are the organizers excluding from the room?

“I’ve been to conferences when it’s Ramadan and they don’t have rooms for prayer time,” says Séan. “Or for people who are fasting,” In some cases, he thinks conference organizers may be preventing a large swatch of scholars from attending. “Not having an accessible conference – especially if it’s an international conference – slims down the potential for discussion.”

Lack of accessibility also hinders research. For example, not providing food that works for everyone means some delegates will be forced to skip the meal – and the networking opportunity it offers. “If you’re a delegate who’s not able to interact with people at a conference, how do you then build new research teams to apply for funding?” asks Kate. “So as well as the personal implications for the researchers who are excluded from discussions, there are long-term implications for research itself.”

Building accessibility into conference design

“There’s no deliberate effort on the part of conference organizers to exclude,” says Kate. The problem seems to lie in the fact that delegates’ accessibility needs aren’t embedded into the conference planning process. “My experience of organizing conferences is that I’ll ask, ‘Is the venue accessible?’ And they’ll say, ‘Yes, there’s a wheelchair ramp.’ And that’s the end of the conversation.”

She recommends that conference organizing committees include someone whose job it is to embed accessibility into the decision making, right from the start. “So that you don’t need to know that a delegate who’s a wheelchair user is coming to that event. You assume they might be, so you make that room accessible. Or you have regular breaks during a conference, because people with chronic fatigue syndrome, or any kind of health problem, need a bit of downtime.”

Accessibility at conferences benefits all

The benefits of making conferences accessible extend to more than the people who require adjustments. More thoughtful program planning, quiet spaces to reflect, and consideration of people’s differences boosts the experience – and the level of debate – for all delegates.

“Delegates should just be able to go to the conference and know that they’ll be able to access the rooms and they’ll have food they can eat and somewhere they can sit.

“Then you’ve saved yourself a whole lot of hassle,” says Kate.


Further reading on accessibility at conferences

Ideas on Fire have an exhaustive list of issues to consider around accessibility for your next conference.