How to make professional conferences more accessible for disabled people

Guidance from actual disabled scientists

Attending professional conferences is a key part of life as a scientist. It’s where we present our research, network, and reconnect with colleagues. But for disabled scientists like me, conferences can be inaccessible and frustrating. I talked to several other scientists with a wide range of disabilities about how conferences could be better, and put their advice together in this short summary (also available in a video, if you prefer that).

You should think of this as an introduction to conference accessibility, at best. There are many disabled consultants you can hire to improve your conference, and I highly recommend you do that! They will be able to help you on a much deeper, professional level, and deserve compensation for their time. I’ve also included links to more in-depth resources at the bottom of this page.

Thank you to my friends who helped with this piece: Dr. Alexandra Schober [1], Dr. Arielle Silverman [2], Dr. Caroline Solomon [3], Dawn Fallik [4], Susanna Harris [5], and several anonymous contributors. This is part of my Science + Disability series, which is supported by Two Photon Art.

Etiquette

If there’s one thing to remember about etiquette, it’s this:

Talk to disabled scientists about their research. We want to be seen as scientists, not just as disabled people. Avoid saying things like ‘That’s such a cool sign for molecule,’ or, ‘It must be so hard to find signs for all those science words.’

— Dr. Caroline Solomon [3]

Remember that being an ally can start by just striking up a conversation. You don’t have to go up to a stranger and say, “Wow, you’re the only scientist I’ve ever seen with a medical alert dog. That must be really tough. Can he go in the lab with you? Wow!” Instead, you can just be friendly, the same way you would with anyone else at the conference. I know that I’m far more likely to ask someone for support if I already have a personal relationship with them.

If you think a disabled person needs help, you should always ask them before stepping in. There’s a good chance that they can manage just fine on their own. You can simply ask, “Would you like some help?” and allow them to indicate their preference.

Tell fellow attendees and organizers about these accessibility suggestions! It is exhausting to always have to speak up and ask for accommodations or point out where the problems are. You can lessen that burden by giving your peers gentle reminders to do a better job with accessibility.

Physical Space

What can I say, we like seating options! [Image description: screenshot of a tweet by @chron_ac, saying “A quiet rest space with seating, enough seating in the lecture rooms, seating at poster sessions… Are you seeing a theme here? (winky face, thinking face).]

Several people had great recommendations around seating. A few of the ideas:

  • Arrange the chairs with plenty of aisles, so that people can easily exit the row to reduce anxiety and/or panic [5] or to allow people with mobility aids enough room to get by
  • Make chairs available for all speakers, preferably without arms to better accommodate people of all sizes [4]
  • Reserve seats at the front of the room for deaf and hard of hearing audience members, or leaving some spaces open for wheelchair users.
Photo by Yomex Owo on Unsplash. [Image description: Pink sign on grass with a wheelchair graphic and “Step free Route” with an arrow.]

In a large conference center, provide clear signage and places to rest when trying to get from one room to another. Some conference centers span multiple city blocks and can be exhausting for anyone to navigate, but this becomes even more of a challenge for physically disabled or chronically ill people.

Provide a quiet room where people can go to relax or have some privacy. There should be guidelines that specify that the quiet room is not a place for phone conversations. Quiet rooms are helpful for everyone who needs a break from the busy conference environment, but are also an important space for neurodivergent attendees.

Ask speakers and participants to be scent-free, meaning that (at a minimum) they don’t wear perfume or cologne or use any other scented products. Strong smells can be migraine triggers or distractions for neurodivergent people. [Edited to make this a stronger suggestion; the first sentence used to say that you should “consider” making it scent-free. Thanks to @ptatisel for the feedback on this!]

Communication

Prepare both digital and printed versions of conference material. Digital materials are more accessible to blind and low vision attendees (for use with screen readers)[2], and printed materials can help people with ADHD or learning disabilities follow along more easily.

Indicate (preferably before the conference starts) whether food and drinks will be present [1]. This helps people with health conditions and/or food allergies plan how much food to bring. Also, make sure you clearly label food with relevant allergens. Food allergies can be life threatening and can be a barrier to full participation if attendees aren’t sure what is in the food.


Specific elements of the conference program:

Presentations and Panels

Photo by Matthias Wagner on Unsplash. [Image description: silver microphone in front of a dark/blurry background.]

Always use a microphone, even if you think you don’t need it, you have a loud voice, or it’s a small crowd. You don’t want to put someone who is hard of hearing or deaf in the position of having to publicly request that you use a microphone. Instead, it’s your responsibility to make your program accessible. If you are organizing a conference, make sure to provide the necessary AV equipment in each room and tell all speakers that they must use microphones.

Poster Sessions

Make sure there are volunteer or staff guides available to give directions and/or read posters to blind and low vision attendees [2]. Poster halls are often giant and difficult to navigate, so this is a great example of a disability-related accommodation that would benefit everyone.

Receptions

Buffets are inaccessible to people who are blind, have low vision, use mobility aids, have arm weakness, can’t stand for long, and many other people. That said, they’re often the fastest and easiest way to feed large groups of people. If a buffet is your only option, have volunteers and/or staff members available to provide assistance [2].

Create opportunities to socialize without alcohol [5]. People with mental illness may avoid alcohol because of medication interactions, history of trauma, addiction, or a simple preference.

If the reception is being held outside of the convention center/main conference location, tell attendees how far away the event is and whether the venue is accessible. It’s always better to be honest than to hope there’s no problem. For example, if there’s one step to get into the restaurant, just make sure the attendees know that beforehand. Of course, it would be better to choose a fully accessible space for the reception!


Other Resources

There are so many resources available to help you make your events and physical spaces more accessible to disabled people. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Please add a comment below with other resources I should add!