A couple of weeks ago I got to go to a writers’ conference that happened to be in my city this year. A local nonprofit offered scholarships to low income writers, so I decided to take them up on it. I was impressed by their accessibility during the registration process – their website had a very thorough information page and things like a quiet room were already planned for. But I had to decide: should I request additional accommodations?
The main thing that came to mind that might help me enjoy the conference more was live captions, but I had never used those before. I always use captions for watching TV, because it eases the demands on my not-so-effective auditory processing, but I’d just never had the opportunity to maybe get that need met for a live event. After lots of imposter-syndrome-management and reassurance from friends, I decided to indeed ask for captions for the panels I planned to go to.
They arranged for a captioner, but an unfortunate disappointment was that they didn’t project the captions for everyone to see! Statistically there were probably at least a few other people who could have benefitted from it but that didn’t ask for captions for themselves. So my captioner streamed their typing to an iPad for me personally to hold and watch throughout the panels. That means anyone else in the audiences with auditory processing issues, d/Deaf and hard of hearing folks, English language learners, and others who might have benefitted missed out. Or from another angle, the conference missed out on an opportunity to more effectively engage as many writers as possible.
There were a few other accessibility problems I noticed (and I think anyone following the wonderful @DisDeafUprising during the conference learned about some of the other barriers people faced throughout the weekend – thanks to them for their presence and solidarity). For me, the time between panels was just not workable. Fifteen minutes is not enough time for me to find the gender neutral bathroom and hike across the convention center (let alone stop by the quiet room or stand in line for coffee or just breathe), and it is definitely not enough time for my captioner to hike across the convention center and then get equipment set up (let alone take a break of their own). The effect was that we left each panel before the Q&A even started, and I wasn’t able to connect with presenters I wanted to meet at the end.
The other issue that affected me and my captioner was overcrowding. I know that it’s nearly impossible to predict how big of a room will be needed for any given panel, but for accessibility (not to mention probably fire codes) there should be someone at the door of every room of a conference turning people away once all the seats are full. This can be a bummer; I’ve been at cons where I had to miss a session I was interested in because not everyone could fit in the room, but disabled people need to be able to navigate through aisles throughout the presentation. Panic attacks, incontinence, IBD, sensory overload, and many other conditions could lead to an urgent need to leave the room. Personally, I got trapped in a session that I couldn’t even slightly follow because 1) the outlet didn’t work, so no captions – already a problem – and 2) what I could make out of the content was seriously cognitively inaccessible. So I just sat there stuck and not taking anything in. Another problem was that although the organizers hired a captioner, they didn’t mark out seats next to an outlet as reserved for disabled folks – so if my captioner and I didn’t arrive early to every session we might not get the spot we needed.
All that said, am I glad I went – and asked for captions? Yes! Even with the issues the organizers didn’t plan for, the fact that I got any captioning at all (and had access to a quiet room and etc) did help me focus and understand the material being discussed, managing to last the weekend without a meltdown. If you’re an event organizer – or an abled attendee who can use your privilege to advocate for accessibility – please make sure there is a way for attendees to request live captioning (projected for everyone to see!), ASL interpreters, and other accessibility measures you’re not already accounting for as baseline universal design. For additional recommendations, see the handout my student group and advisor developed for a presentation we gave last year on making activist spaces more accessible. And if you’re disabled – ask for any accommodations you think will help you! Your access needs are valid, whether they’re common or not, and you have a right to request the appropriate supports. (Of course other disabled people in the same space may have conflicting access needs, but that’s a whole other blog post.) You deserve to participate fully in events and spaces you’re part of, and while I know it’s exhausting to have to self-advocate all the time to get your access needs met, in my experience it can definitely be worth it.
I’d love to hear from readers about the first time you got to use an accommodation that helped you, or experiences asking for accommodations ! Please feel free to leave comments below.
7 thoughts on “Requesting and using accommodations”
Hi there, I sat beside you and your captioner at the overcrowded panel you mention in this post. I wanted to speak with you afterwards, but I had to leave early to go and meet a friend. I briefly spoke with the captioner as she left right after me and apologized for not noticing her equipment or considering the fact that she needed the chair for something else. When I got to the panel it was already packed so I just filed into the first free chair I noticed. My eyes were scanning for seats, not people, and I realized my mistake as soon as I sat down and actually started paying attention. In retrospect I should have gotten up and given the seat back, but by the time I made that connection the room was packed and I didn’t want to deal with barging my way out. I also felt very rushed between panels and as an introvert was generally overwhelmed the entire conference, but sitting beside you and the captioner during that panel raised my consciousness and made me realize that I have to conduct myself with more awareness and not allow the hecticness of conferences to blind me to the needs of people who are exponentially grappling with how these events are structured. I was so bummed that the outlet beside you wasn’t working and I felt your frustration as you were definitely trapped in a situation and space that was very difficult to get out of. I was amazed that you seemed to handle it all with such grace and humor, but I’m sorry that you had to handle it at all, and I’m sorry for not paying enough attention. In future, as much as it might inconvenience me or disrupt my plans and preferences, I will not try to enter a panel that’s clearly packed and I will pay more attention to the people occupying the row I want to sit in. Having said that, I’m grateful that I sat beside you as, sadly, I don’t know if I would have ever noticed any of these things by myself. In future, I’ll also try to actively look at a situation and try to figure out what I might not be seeing or paying attention to. It’s not enough to learn from our mistakes, we have to try to prevent them from even happening in the first place or relying on other people to open our eyes for us. Best wishes, Deborah
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Oh my gosh, thank you so much for this sweet comment!! I super appreciate what you had to say. It would have been lovely to chat in person; please say hello online anytime for any reason! As for the panel – yes, definitely it is important for everyone individually to be aware of what people around them might need for accessibility, but ableism is also inherently structural/institutional in nature – the real onus of providing accommodations and avoiding the scenario we ended up in should fall on the organization setting everything up. In this situation, not only should they have ensured seats next to a working outlet were reserved, they should have trained volunteers better re: overcrowding. My hope is that the organizers are responsive to this kind of feedback so that future events will get more and more accessible for all attendees. But definitely I love that additionally you individually are looking for ways you can be more inclusive as a co-participant, it honestly makes my day that you noticed the situation, ended up on my blog, and reached out. Thank you, and like I said, get in touch anytime. 🙂
I totally wish I’d made an effort to chat with you in person. I saw you again at the “protagonist as activist” panel but I’m really awkward at initiating conversation with people I don’t know so I just sat by myself. I think I talked to like four people the entire three days LOL (including the captioner). Anyway… really love your blog and getting to know you a bit more online 🙂
“The other issue that affected me and my captioner was overcrowding. I know that it’s nearly impossible to predict how big of a room will be needed for any given panel, but for accessibility (not to mention probably fire codes) there should be someone at the door of every room of a conference turning people away once all the seats are full.”
I’m in the performing arts as a profession. I’ve never attended a convention, but I’ve heard some…stories…from friends who do so regularly. And so, so often, when things have gone catastrophically wrong, it seems like basic safety and logistical requirements of event management have been given short shrift or not considered at all. Like house management, security… yup, every room needs a staff member monitoring the door, whether attendance is over capacity, and empowered to eject people breaking clearly stated safety rules.
And I know that for many of us, the point of “too crowded” comes well before fire code capacity is reached, but yes, fire codes and venue capacities are a thing, and at *minimum,* and not just for the comfort of disabled and neurodivergent attendees, responsible convention running needs to require that somebody be ensuring those things are abided by.
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Yes totally! Thanks for your comment, it sounds like we’ve had the same trains of thought. 😦
Oops, that was supposed to be a 🙂 !
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Like apparently it turns out that a lot of autism conventions are just… An organization rented out some hotel conference rooms, planned panels, invited some presenters… but the people in charge are all from a volunteer advocacy background and not from any kind of event planning or management background, and presenters are being expected to conduct their own house management, basically, and when it comes out that somebody got hurt or there was an altercation, I’m like “…Where was security? Venue staff? Anyone in an impartial organizational capacity?” and they’re just “?????”
Or I volunteered once for an org holding an event in a large convention center, to help direct people using wheelchairs or who needed mobility help to and from elevators…only the organization had designated literally no one to orient and train volunteers at the beginning of shifts. I arrived for mine and it took me half an hour to find a person who even knew I was supposed to be there.
So much of what would keep events safe and accessible…is also just basic planning experience.