I came home this weekend from two back-to-back conferences in Chicago that left me exhausted. I only spent one full day at each conference, so I shouldn’t be that tired, but navigating conferences as a disabled person takes a lot of stamina. This is true even though accessibility gets talked about a lot more now than just a few years ago and academic conferences seem to all have accessibility guides.
The accessibility issues I ran into happened even though everyone I interacted with was kind and meant well. Many people helped me in different ways. But people’s good intentions and my positive attitude don’t make the world more accessible. As Stella Young put it in this fantastic TED Talk, “No amount of smiling radiantly is going to make a staircase turn into a ramp.”
Things started off a bit tricky, with a flight delay that caused me to arrive at my hotel after dark. With no natural light coming in, I bumbled around my hotel room, having to rely on the inadequate lamps. I have described before what I like to do when I first arrive in a hotel room to make it accessible; with it being dark outside, I wasn’t able to do everything I like to do until the next morning. Luckily, the room did have better-than-I’ve-come-to-expect lighting by the bed, but much of the room was just a shadow to me until morning and I have the bruises on my hip where I walked into the dresser to prove it.
The bigger challenge was navigating the conferences themselves. The first conference was an International Writing Centers Association event at DePaul University in a space that was well-lit, but the room numbers were tiny and hard to find. I had to walk up to each room’s door, locate the sign, and put my face an inch or two from the sign to find the room number. Luckily, other conference participants were kind about noticing my trouble and helping me find the rooms I needed; but the stress of frantically trying to find presentation rooms made me feel worn out by the time I got into the right rooms.
The conference session themselves were excellent, but the accessibility was not. Despite the IWCA having a top-notch accessibility guide, speakers used the microphone and provided printed scripts in only one of the three sessions I attended. In the other two sessions, presenters had no handouts and did not use the microphone. One of these sessions was a roundtable in an auditorium, so the sound just disappeared into the ether. Normally I would have asked the speakers to use a microphone, but there was some confusion at the beginning of the session and by the time I realized speakers weren’t going to use the microphone, I would have had to interrupt the proceedings quite awkwardly. In hindsight, I wish I had done just that, but in the moment, I was discombobulated.
The second conference was the Conference on College Composition and Communication at the Hilton Chicago. I encountered so many unexpected steps and tripping hazards there that by the time I headed home, my neck hurt from looking down to watch my step. The room numbers were just as challenging to find as they had been at DePaul, with the added twist of seemingly random placement of room number plaques. At least at DePaul, all the room number plaques were to the right or left of the doors and looked similar; at the Hilton, some were to the left, some to the right, some above, and some I never found. Some plaques were electronic and others were not. Some had high contrast and some did not. Plus instead of room numbers, the rooms had names, so there was no internal logic; while I know room 5 is likely to be beyond room 4, where might the Lake Ontario room be in relation to the Buckingham room?
Finding room numbers was frustrating, but the surprise elevation changes with unmarked steps were truly treacherous. In one of the conference spaces, there were at least two little sets of 2-3 steps that almost killed me. Both were carpeted and blended in with the surrounding flooring. After almost tripping down each one, I turned to get a good look at them. One set did have a gray stair marker that I could see after the fact; the carpet was blue and gray, so the gray stair marker didn’t stand out and thus, didn’t really do the job it was supposed to do. This is a great example of focusing on legal compliance without considering the real purpose of accessibility: to make a space safe and navigable by a person with a disability.
I entered each room completely frazzled. Like the IWCA conference sessions, the Cs conference sessions were a mixed bag in terms of accessibility. Cs also has an excellent accessibility guide; still, speakers in only three of the four sessions I attended used the microphone and speakers offered scripts in only two of the four sessions. Slides in all the sessions were illegible to me, but I suspect part of that is because the projection screens were smaller than speakers may have anticipated and often positioned awkwardly so that not everyone in the room had a clear view of them.
Both of these conferences relate to literacy and the teaching of writing. The presenters are people who value reading and communication, and yet, clearly, a large proportion of them have not read the wonderful accessibility guides available to them.
My plea to people who give presentations:
- Read the accessibility guide. If the conference planners have created an accessibility guide, read it and follow the guidelines in it. If you don’t know how to do something the accessibility guide recommends that you do, learn how.
- Use a microphone. I understand why people don’t use a microphone. If you’re not used to speaking into one, it can feel awkward. But in 2023, if making presentations is part of your job, then you need to get comfortable using a microphone. Consider it part of your professional development.
- Create accessible slides. When you create your slides, assume that the presentation situation will be less than ideal: the room’s lighting won’t be great, the screen will be smaller than you’d like and farther away from participants than you’d like. And for the love of whatever you hold dear, please observe the rule of 5. Again, if you are not good at creating accessible slides, consider it part of your professional development to get good at it.
- Make a script available to participants. Yes, I know, it uses paper and is a bummer to have to have your presentation written up in advance rather than writing it feverishly the night before. Again, part of being an academic professional these days means making your materials accessible.
- Advocate for accessible conference spaces. If you have anything to do with planning a conference, ask pointed questions of the host facility about accessibility. How will folks who use wheelchairs access spaces? How will vision-impaired folks find rooms? How will hearing-impaired folks hear presentations? Where can folks go for a quiet space if they are over-stimulated? And have a back-up plan in case ASL interpreters call in sick or get stuck in traffic (this is another great reason for presenters to have scripts available).