Accessible conference design – 10 things to consider

4 minute read

Improving access to your research conference means considering how the whole event is designed, wheelchair ramps alone won’t cut it.

“Having organized a couple of conferences, I don’t think anyone’s ever said to me, ‘Here’s a book on how to make your conference accessible.’”

Professor of Gender and Employment Studies Dr Kate Sang recently carried out research into the experiences of academics with disabilities. She found there’s a lot conference organizers could be doing to improve access to their conferences. “People often assume if a venue has a ramp in it then it’s accessible. But conferences are more than the building that they’re in: they’re how they are designed.”   

For Séan Richardson, a first-year PhD student, accessible conference design is about enabling people to attend no matter their requirements. “Defining accessibility is not easy and it’s not neat. There are so many kinds of access issues. But there are certain things you can do that will generally make your conference more accessible.”  

The implications of ignoring accessibility at your conference

Not considering accessible conference design means you’re limiting the number of delegates who can attend, which can result in fewer registration fees. And by inadvertently excluding certain scholars, you’re reducing the potential for academic debate. You might also be opening yourself up to bad press if delegates who want to take part in your conference have difficulty doing so.  

So, how should your organizing committee go about designing a conference that works for the widest possible group?

10 Ways to make your academic conference accessible

1. Choose a conference venue that’s fully accessible

Accessibility goes beyond whether there’s a ramp to get into the building. Are the toilets a long way from the conference rooms? For people with health conditions like Crohn’s disease, a long walk to the bathroom can be extremely difficult.

Are the networking events in spaces where there’s no seating? “While this setup is designed to get people talking, someone who’s got chronic fatigue cannot stand for a sustained length of time,” says Kate.

Consider the accessibility of the whole building, not just the main entrance.

2. Create a quiet space for delegates

“Designating a quiet space for people to break away from the conference is a common practice outside of academia,” says Séan, “and it can be implemented quite easily in academic spaces. ”

A quiet room can be helpful for nursing mothers, delegates with physical or mental health issues, people who need prayer space, or anyone who finds networking or big groups overwhelming.

3. Build access breaks into your conference program

Are you asking delegates to go from 8am to 7pm with no major rest breaks? “You wouldn’t do that in a workplace,” says Kate.

Consider how the day is ordered and whether people will be able to get downtime, fresh air and refreshments.

Don’t force them to choose between these.

4. Cater to restricted diets

If your delegates can’t eat the conference dinner, they’ll miss out on the networking aspect of it too. So ensure any food caters to a wide range of diets.

“When I organize conferences I organize them 80% vegetarian, 20% vegan, with a certain proportion gluten free. Very few people will complain that there are no meat sandwiches,” says Kate.

5. Publicize transport options on your conference website

You don’t want your delegates to find themselves stuck at the airport, so consider transport options in advance.

Make sure your conference website has information about accessible transport options, for example a wheelchair-accessible taxi company.

And consider options like having an on-call minibus from the conference accommodation to the venue. This will allow delegates to easily leave the conference and return if they need to take a rest.

6. Design social and cultural events for all delegates

“I went to a conference in Athens once where the conference dinner was at the top of a mountain,” says Kate. “The footpath up to it must have been 2,000 years old. The disabled delegates couldn’t attend, and even a lot of the able-bodied people said they felt unsafe.

“The organizers wanted to give us a fantastic night with a beautiful view, but a social event like that means you’re penalizing a certain group.”

Include social events that all your delegates can attend, for example, activities suitable for delegates with mobility issues and some events that are alcohol free.

7. Implement a buddy system

Conferences are not lectures, they’re a chance to meet and network,” says Séan. “But if you don’t know anyone, they can just become a listening experience.”

A conference buddy system pairs up delegates who are attending alone. They’re especially useful for people who have anxiety disorders or who find networking with strangers difficult.

“Even an icebreaker event can help,” he says, “as long as it isn’t: ‘Tell us a fun fact about yourself…’”

8. Reduce or waive registration fees in some cases

Does your conference have bursaries? If not, consider offering some to help fund researchers who otherwise couldn’t attend and publish them on your conference website.

And if it’s an international conference, think about creating reduced registration fees for delegates from developing countries.

“I was at a conference recently and they put on the conference webpage, ‘If you can’t afford to attend this conference, email us,’” says Séan. “It makes people aware that if they can’t afford it there is a way around.”

9. Check in with a disabled staff network

Kate advises running your conference program by your uni’s or your organization’s disabled staff network. (If you’re unsure whether it has one, ask HR or check your intranet.)

This means you can get feedback from people with lived experience on where any access issues might lie.

10. Ask delegates to get in touch about access needs

Séan advises organizers to start having productive conversations with their delegates before the conference. Put an announcement on your conference website and in communications for delegates to get in touch if they have particular needs.

“I used to organize events outside of academia,” says Séan. “It’s a very normal thing to do for people who don’t work in academic spheres. But so many academic organizers don’t do this.

“We can make it obvious that we’re there to respond and help.”

Accessible conferences are happier conferences

Accessible conference design not only benefits academics with disabilities, it means a better experience for all your delegates. Time to digest ideas and return refreshed, more opportunity to get to know new faces, and varied food and social events.

As a conference organizer, you can’t anticipate all the requirements your delegates may have. But you can try to think ahead and design in such a way that will make your conference accessible to all.

Wheelchair ramps alone aren’t enough.

Further reading on accessible conference design

Séan has written a practical guide on Mental Health and Conferences.