Sam Berman on This Year’s #TechInclusion in New York

Thanks for your honest write-up Sam!

I agree with this very much:

This exemplifies to me a larger systemic problem in that so frequently when conversations turn to diversity and inclusion, the focus is on gender and racial equality. If the disabilities community gets any attention in these conversations, it’s an afterthought, and even then it’s usually the person with a disability calling attention to that in the conversation.”

But am really disheartened that you felt that way about our event. We’ve learned a lot since we had our first Tech Inclusion Conference in 2015 — I credit William Albright and Zeeshan Khan for helping us take our first steps at our very first event. Here are some of the things we do to try to make our event more welcoming for people with disabilities:

  • Ensure we have people with (visible and invisible) disabilities represented as speakers. Part of this is ensuring that we have speakers with disabilities who are not necessarily talking explicitly about disability. We had a couple of speakers with hidden disabilities on panels at Tech Inclusion NY this year who chose not to talk about their disabilities but instead to talk about other issues. The other part of this is making sure we have people with disabilities and allies both talking about the importance of accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities, and sharing their experiences.
  • Provide live captioning for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, and/or do not speak English as a first language.
  • Provide ASL interpretation— during the panels and Q&A and also during the happy hours (something other conferences don’t do, but duh — speaking while networking is obviously important too).
  • Provide wheelchair ramps on the stage as needed. I’ve become an expert at finding them in each city we go to — many times we have had to build our own because they don’t exist. It’s really terrible. In some cities, we have decided not to use a stage because we couldn’t find a ramp and we didn’t have the funding to build one. We believe everyone should be on the same ground literally, so we decided no one should have a stage if everyone couldn’t. At Tech Inclusion NY, we asked Xian and she said she did not need a ramp, so we used the $1500 we would have spent building a ramp to instead offer scholarships.
  • Provide volunteers for anyone who would like a guide throughout the day — generally attendees who are blind or have low vision take us up on this.
  • Partner with advocacy groups working on issues of accessibility and empowerment for people with disabilities, to help us spread the word and to provide free tickets for some attendees. Diversability has been a great partner of ours — we give Diversability free tickets to each of our events in cities where they have members. I’m really glad you were able to hear about the event this way, and you were able to join us!
  • Work hard to find Meetup groups, Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups and ERGs at tech companies for people with disabilities. I spend many hours doing this research in every city.
  • Make sure our website indicates that everyone is welcome, that our event is accessible, that we will have live CART captioning and ASL interpreters (we do this even if no one requests them, just in case, which costs our small scrappy organization several thousand dollars per event but it’s something that is extremely important to us), that we will have volunteer guides, and to please let us know of any additional accessibility needs so that we can accommodate.
  • Make sure our venues are accessible. It’s amazing how many event spaces have never thought about it. We find ourselves doing a lot of education of facilities. (Also about LGBTQ+ issues, btw.) Part of accessibility of a venue also includes making sure it’s near public transportation.
  • Provide quiet spaces for people who need to regenerate throughout the day, often people on the autism spectrum need this.
  • Provide PDFs of our agenda, so people can read it using screen readers.
  • Ask our speakers to adhere to our sensitivity guide, which includes tips for using inclusive language, broadening their definition of diversity, creating more accessible slides, etc.
  • Try to create a safe space for people with disabilities to talk about their experiences, ask hard questions of panelists, and be able to “come out” if they have a hidden disability. In tech there are many people with disabilities who hide and/or cover their disability. As a result, they often feel more alone than they are, and they aren’t able to be their full selves at work.
  • Reserve seats in the front row for wheelchairs. I can’t tell you how many events I’ve been to where they technically thought about accessible seating but put them in the back row. Included in the many problems with this is the fact that people can have intersectional disabilities — someone in a wheelchair may need to see the CART monitor, for example.
  • Have an Ability in Tech track at our biggest event in San Francisco, which includes solo talks, panel discussions and workshops focused on solutions to diversity and inclusion for people with disabilities.
  • Educate our partners about accessibility and inclusion for people with disabilities. And push them. To build ramps, to create signage going not just from the stairs to the event but from the elevator to the event, to include people with disabilities on the panels and in solo talks, to change their language to be more inclusive.
  • Train other events organizations to be diverse, inclusive and accessible. We have consulted with a few companies, and given a TON of free advice. We also have given our providers of CART and ASL a lot of extra business from referrals. Even the Viacom CEO saw the live captioning and said, “wow we need to do that at all our events!”
  • Develop a free online toolkit for Creating Inclusive Events, which includes instructions and checklists for many of the above bullets.

I am still working on how to best be an ally to people with disabilities. I have learned that the more marginalized people are, the less likely they are to find our events or even think they will be welcome at any event let alone a tech event. So I personally spend a lot of time doing outreach, building trust, talking with friends with disabilities and learning. I also know it takes time. Last year at our Tech Inclusion NY event there were 3 attendees with visible disabilities, this year there were 8 or so (more who identified as having hidden disabilities). Growth in our attendees means continuing to build trust with the community as well as growing our personal networks.

Through our events, I do know that we have changed the way many people think about diversity and inclusion to consider people with disabilities. I’m on a plane coming home from Tech Inclusion Nashville today, and it’s incredible how many people told me at that event that their biggest takeaway was to think about people with disabilities in their diversity and inclusion work. One of our attendees at Tech Inclusion New York said this was the first conference where she did not have to advocate for herself — we just had CART captioning and interpreters, and she didn’t have to ask for it. Another attendee said after last year’s Tech Inclusion NY event, she hired a woman of color who is deaf, because our conference demystified disability and showed that she could. A year after supporting our Ability in Tech Summit in Berkeley focused on diversity and inclusion in tech for people with disabilities, Oracle received an award from the USBLN for their high score on the Disability Equality Index. At our Ability in Tech Summit, several tech companies made pledges to employ programs for people with disabilities in the tech workforce. Dreamforce pledged to be the most accessible tech conference by 2020 — which included partnering with Ava to pilot captioning at many of their stages at the very next Dreamforce.

I know we are not perfect, so I’m glad you have called us out. I’d love to know specifics so that we can continue to do better. I know it sucks to be asked (as a woman in tech who focuses on diversity and inclusion I very much understand that unfair burden)- but if you have any time, I’d appreciate your letting me know other ways we can do better.

I will say I have thought a lot about it over the last 2 years, and I do not like the idea of adding accessibility to “diversity and inclusion” because what I find is that this framing makes ableist people think only about people with disabilities as consumers, not as creators and technologists. To me, diversity and inclusion includes people with disabilities at the core of its definition. Accessibility is a part of inclusion, but there are LOTS of other important ways to include people with visible and invisible disabilities. But please let me know if this rings true for you.

Obviously I think a lot about this, given the length of my writing here (!) — if you can afford the time, I’d appreciate any guidance. Thank you!