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.