Opinion: The importance of Accessibility in the upcoming SIGCHI Election

May 1 · 5 min read

As a community-run organization, AccessSIGCHI’s role has evolved over time, but has always included advocating for disability visibility with a focus on making conferences and the publication process more accessible within the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM)’s Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI). Although AccessSIGCHI has a volunteer status outside of the SIGCHI hierarchy, many of the reforms it has called for over the years have required buy-in from more official parts of SIGCHI. One of the most important of those is the SIGCHI Executive Committee (EC), the group that has final say over SIGCHI rules, regulations, budget, and representation.

Representation, money, expertise, and enforcement: These are the things we asked the EC for after the CHI 2019 protest. And, eventually, after more upheaval and over a year’s delay, the EC added two temporary chairs for Accessibility. These temporary chairs, who remain so at the discretion of the EC, have made a substantial impact in the few months they’ve been on the EC. For example, they have ensured that all SIGCHI EC events are both live captioned and translated into American Sign Language and they have overseen a tripling of the accessibility budget from $20,000 to $60,000 annually.

Why is it so important that the EC have an accessibility chair? Over recent years, AccessSIGCHI’s strategy has shifted to a focus on representation rather than requests. Representation has helped to move the conversation from whether conferences could possibly have a single page on their websites mentioning accessibility to how EC-level decisions and policies affect accessibility.

It is in this context that we enter a SIGCHI Election cycle, with two sets of candidates running for office as President/Executive Vice President. We enter this election with three key questions:

A striped button. The top, red stripe has 5 white stars. The middle, white strip says VOTE. The bottom, blue stripe has 5 white stars.
  • What are the top 3 accessibility priorities you plan to address during your term?
  • Will you support the creation of a permanent position to address accessibility on the EC?
  • How will you work collaboratively with AccessSIGCHI and other community organizations to improve SIGCHI?

To find out more about candidates’ positions on these questions, AccessSIGCHI reached out to the two pairs of candidates for EC President/Vice President. In brief, based on our interaction with both pairs, we endorse Kumar and Bardzell. They had a clear agenda for accessibility which best matched our own. Below, we summarize interactions with each pair of candidates.

Kumar and Bardzell:
Kumar and Bardzell spoke with AccessSIGCHI and solicited feedback on their accessibility plans. In the course of these conversations, their ability to listen and wish to work together shone through. Furthermore, they expressed multiple examples of concrete support for our most important request: modifying the SIG bylaws to create a permanent, appointed VP of Accessibility. Some other highlights of our conversation with them include:

  • Addressing infrastructural inequalities and biases by implementing services such as closed captioning (CART) as a part of SIGCHI’s regular workflows and creating feedback mechanisms for reporting of problems.
  • Working collaboratively with the AccessSIGCHI community to achieve positive change, with concrete examples of regular communication plans.
  • Integrating this work into a larger agenda within SIGCHI that prioritizes equity and inclusion.

We note that Kumar has already demonstrated her commitment to this final principal in her current role on the EC and we appreciate the recent series of equity talks, including one focused specifically on the disability community (recording here), which have brought many previously unheard voices into conversation with the EC. These are candidates who have a demonstrated track record of community-informed action. In addition, their official statement mentions accessibility standards.

Kumar and Bardzell closed our conversation with these words “we aim to ensure that there is abundant room for all to participate and flourish, while also preserving respect for and being in solidarity with each other.” AccessSIGCHI shares these goals and appreciates your collaborative approach to developing a concrete agenda for accessibility.

Bernhaupt and Quigley:
AccessSIGCHI met with Bernhaupt to discuss her platform. Bernhaupt and Quigley have consistently shown a commitment to process and policy, and their volunteer work within SIGCHI, including on the EC and the CHI Steering committee, has reflected this. For example, Quigley led the EC’s effort to push conferences to have an accessibility chair. Their priorities are focused on improving how the SIG operates through changes to its bylaws and that they have a track record of making “changes which are sustainable and improve the diversity and inclusion of SIGCHI as an organisation.” Although, their official statement does not mention accessibility, in our conversation Bernhaupt discussed the importance of making Accessibility a first principle rather than an add on, and investing in the education of SIGCHI members to make this a reality, as well as to invest financial resources in accessibility. Finally, she emphasized her goal of moving SIGCHI toward a consensus-based organization that would include multiple stakeholders, including the accessibility community, in its decision making process while continuing to have a small group that would then execute on the decisions made by the community. This structure, she believes, would help to support and solidify systemic change.

We ended our conversation by discussing the importance of tolerance, and of understanding. Bernhaupt talked about the many cultures and countries that SIGCHI members come from (only 40% are from the United States for example) and how much we have to learn from this vast variety of perspectives. To conclude, Bernhaupt and Quigley have a solid and long history of service with careful attention to organizational structures and intend both to finance accessibility and to work toward improved community input and structural change. AccessSIGCHI agrees with the importance of both for sustained change and a commitment to tolerance through giving each other the benefit of the doubt.

We are excited to see the emphasis on inclusion that came across clearly in our conversations with both sets of candidates. Bernhaupt and Quigley’s emphasis on consensus-driven policy change was appealing to us — if successful, in the long term this will lift up multiple communities together — a goal we share. Addressing accessibility without other aspects of inclusion would be a loss to us all. However, Kumar and Bardzell’s more concrete short term agenda for accessibility, specifically their plan for addressing important infrastructural inequalities, is what we need now; and their longer term plan to prioritize equity and inclusion broadly within SIGCHI appeals to us as well. Thus our endorsement goes to them. If you’ve read this far, thank you for your commitment to informing yourself and please vote for whomever you believe is right!


News and thoughts about accessibility in SIGCHI


We advocate for disability justice in conference organizing within SIGCHI, with a focus on making conferences and the publication process more accessible. Our goal is to move the SIGCHI community forward to the point where accessibility is the default in conference organization


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AccessSIGCHI Community


We advocate for disability justice in conference organizing within SIGCHI, with a focus on making conferences and the publication process more accessible. Our goal is to move the SIGCHI community forward to the point where accessibility is the default in conference organization

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