Accessibility is a social justice issue, one that academics have addressed head-on in their syllabi, university policies, and student services. But many events planned by and for academics still are not accessible to most bodies, which greatly limits events’ intellectual significance, pedagogical effect, political impact, and audience experience.
Accessibility refers to how people with various bodies, abilities and disabilities, gender/racial/sexual/class identities, economic and cultural resources, citizenship statuses, relationships, and responsibilities can participate in something—in this case, an academic event.
So how can you make your event more accessible to a wide range of attendees, speakers, and staff? We put together this guide to help.
Making your event accessible is not as hard as you might think, but it does require planning. We realize that most individuals and organizations who host events cannot control everything about the location, space, and infrastructure of their event. Some universities, nonprofits, cities/towns, and community spaces are more accessible than others. But you can work within the limits of any space to make it more inviting to more people by considering the following strategies.
Similarly, event budgets and fundraising possibilities vary widely but even events with small budgets can make their events more accessible. You might not be able to afford all of these strategies, but you can and should consider them and do what you can.
Using the principles of universal design ensures that your event is open to a wide variety of people with a wide variety of needs. Accessibility shouldn’t have to be done on a case-by-case basis, which puts the burden of accommodation on the person requiring it. Instead, design your event for the widest audience possible.
Where your event will be held
In general, cities are more accessible than more remote locations because of regional infrastructure and transit, lodging, and food availability. Similarly, some countries are more accessible than others because of visa requirements. This doesn’t mean great, accessible events can’t happen in other locations—it just means you might have to get more creative to ensure lodging, food, and transit options are accessible to those attending your event.
Consider the costs for everyone to attend (not just people with your resources, body, and preferences) when deciding on a location.
Multiple transit options
Aim for your event to be in a place for which long-distance transportation costs are cheap and options are plentiful (plane, train, bus, car). Consider where your attendees will be arriving from when figuring this out.
Make sure your event location is also accessible by multiple local transit modes including car, train/subway, bus, walking, and/or bikes. For example, you could ensure that bike racks and free event parking are available, and tell attendees and speakers where they can find them.
Multiple food options
If you are providing food, make sure that cheap and diverse food is available. We recommend not including the food fee in your registration fee if you have one so that folks can opt out of the event food if they desire.
If you’re sending attendees off on their own for lunch, make a list of nearby restaurants and food carts with diverse prices, cuisines, and dietary options (vegan, halal, gluten-free, vegetarian, kosher, etc.).
A note: After attending hundreds of academic and non-academic events with food, we strongly urge you to not assume that a plate of vegetables or pasta constitutes a vegetarian/vegan meal. Please give us protein!!! Beans/legumes, tofu, seitan, and tempeh are the easiest ways to do this.
Further, we advise making most or all of the food you provide vegan and/or gluten-free. It is possible to feed everyone this way, as few people require a 100% meat and gluten diet 🙂 Making all the food vegan, for example, lets you use the principle of universal design—designing for more restrictive diets lets you feed everyone, while designing for omnivorous diets excludes anyone who doesn’t or can’t eat meat.
Multiple lodging options
Make sure there are a variety of places people can stay at while attending your event. Some options include affordable hotels and motels (beyond just the conference hotel if you have one), Airbnb and couch surfing options (these are much more prevalent in cities than in more remote locations), a homestay program (where the event organizers help match attendees and speakers up with local organizers who are willing to host them in their homes), and campus dorms. Obviously not every event or location will have all these, but do what you can to ensure folks have as many options as possible.
We recommend a sliding scale, where attendees pay what they can. If you want, you can offer a payment range ($5–200), suggested donation, or tiered payment system (tiered by employment condition, income, UN/World Bank country tier, etc.). You can also make your event free of charge, which is a great option for events that have other forms of funding.
Don’t include registration and food fees together
If you are charging people for food, have them pay for that separately so that people can opt out and thus don’t have to pay for food they won’t eat.
For multi-day events
Allow people to pay for day passes so that folks who can afford to only attend one day (either for financial or schedule reasons) can still attend.
Pay your speakers and waive their registration
Even a small speaker fee is important to honor the labor that speakers provide. Here is where a sliding scale registration fee can come in handy. Many attendees are willing to pay more on a sliding scale if they know that money is going directly to speaker fees. Always build speaker fees into your event budget—speaker fees should not be optional or something you only offer to the keynote but deny to panelists.
Visa issues and undocumented status can sometimes complicate payment through university departments. If this is an issue for you, see if there is another way to pay speakers.
To process honoraria (speaker payments), US university departments require speakers to fill out a federal W9 tax form that includes the speaker’s legal name, address, and social security number or employee ID number (EIN). This can be fraught for people whose gender presentation/identity and/or name do not match their legal ID documents. Make sure your speakers know this information will be kept strictly confidential: designate a person to process these forms and make sure they don’t share them with others.
Pay your staff and waive their registration
Same deal as speakers.
You can designate restrooms as gender-neutral even if they are not currently labeled that by the building—create a sign, tape it up for the duration of your event, and make sure you have event organizers checking in on those regularly to make sure the signs stay up and folks are being respectful.
Having a list of gender-neutral, gender-specific, wheelchair-accessible, family-friendly, and single-stall restrooms in your event program or at the registration table also can be super helpful.
Ensure that doors can fit wheelchairs, rooms have ramps for entry and speaker stage access, and seating is moveable and varied (for example, multiple spaces in the room for wheelchairs, rather than only 1–2 fixed spots in theater-type seating). Additionally, double check that the building itself has curb cuts, a working elevator, and ramps.
To ensure breastfeeding parents can attend your event, consider setting up a lactation room for those who need time and a private space to pump and/or breastfeed. This can be pretty simple: reserve a room that is private (close the blinds, etc.), has a working outlet, is ideally near a sink, and has a comfortable place to sit. This should not be a restroom. For more on lactation rooms at conferences and other academic events, check out Miriam Posner’s great post about this.
Consider setting aside a quiet space for people who want to recharge after long conferences sessions or decompress from sensory overload. Again, this can be really simple: reserve a quiet, private room separate from the event rooms where folks can go to chill out. This should not be the lactation room or the single-stall restroom (Do we even need to specify this? We hope not.).
Varied seating options
Make sure there is varied seating in public areas like hallways and atriums, as well as the rooms your event is held in. Think about a variety of body types and sizes here, as well as physical abilities. For example, try to include benches without center dividers, multiple kinds of chairs (with and without armrests and with and without backs), left-handed as well as right-handed desks, and moveable seating.
American Sign Language (ASL) translation
To allow D/deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees to fully participate in your event, you should hire professional ASL translators. (This ASL advice is for those scheduling events in the United States. If you are scheduling an event in another country, research the sign languages commonly used in your region.) For a multi-hour event, or an event with multiple sessions (like a conference with simultaneous panels), this will mean hiring more than one.
Please note that this can get expensive, and not every event can afford it. But if you can, please do rather than requiring people to specifically ask for this service. Build it into your event budget and fundraise for it, either through grants, department funds, selling merchandise before or during the event, or by charging a sliding scale registration fee.
If you know that you definitely can’t afford translators, be honest about this and let your attendees know why. Our goal with this suggestion isn’t to make you feel bad for not having a large event budget but to ensure that the widest audience possible can attend and is welcomed at your event. ASL translation is one big way to do this.
Offer child care options to allow people with children to attend and/or speak at your event. This can mean many things, including organizing email lists where attendees trade child care with one another, putting parents in touch with local child care providers, asking people to volunteer their services as babysitters during the conference, and/or hiring professional child care providers and setting up a dedicated child care space. Your options will depend on the size and audience of your event, as well as your budget.
Please note that if your hire child care providers or your organization provides child care on-site, there are specific local laws governing this. Research these ahead of time to figure out what works best for your situation.
If you start from a place of assuming you need to provide child care options, it will be easier than if you have to arrange it at the last minute because a speaker unexpectedly brought their child along.
We know you want to schedule all the things and pack it all in. Avoid this impulse.
Attendees, speakers, and staff (yes, you too!) are bodies in the world, not heads on sticks. Scheduling a gigantic conference for which you accept every single paper submission might get everyone a CV line, but will make for a lousy event experience that will harm bodies and minds. Quality over quantity is a good guideline here.
Consider your audience when deciding the day(s) and time for your event. Parents, people flying internationally, people from different hemispheres, and/or people from different industries all have very different schedules. You will not be able to find a perfect time for everyone.
So think about who your event’s audience is. If you want a diverse crowd, take these things into consideration:
- Nighttime events are hard for people with kids, as are holidays and weekends.
- Traveling on Saturdays and Sundays is usually expensive (airfare goes up), so Monday–Friday conferences end up being very costly in terms of travel.
- In general, academics have more flexible work hours than folks in other industries, so if you want altac (alternative academic), postac (post-academic), and nonac (non-academic) people to attend your event, don’t have it in the middle of the day.
- Similarly, if you’re scheduling an internal event for your department or organization, don’t schedule it for when everyone is teaching classes, grading finals, or attending faculty meetings.
Schedule of event
Avoid scheduling an event day that lasts more than 8 hours (and please consider shorter times than that).
Relatedly, schedule regular and generous breaks (at least 15 minutes, preferably more) between sessions/events that allow people with diverse body types and abilities to move between your event’s farthest locations.
Food breaks should allow people to leave the event space, find and purchase food, eat, and return. This will probably mean 60–90 minutes at least. Even if you are providing food on-site, schedule large food breaks, as some people will prefer to leave and find food elsewhere and people with various abilities and disabilities take different amounts of time to eat.
Keeping to your schedule is an accessibility issue. People on medications, people who are nursing, people with various forms of anxiety and disabilities, and many others rely on the event schedule to make health decisions. Additionally, folks stopping in between child care and job responsibilities need to know when to arrive and depart.
Tell your speakers well ahead of time how long they have to present, and remind them often. Designate a staff person sitting in the front row to hold up signs letting speakers know they have 10 minutes left, 5 minutes left, and 1 minute left. When time is up, an event staff member or the panel chair should cut in, thank the speaker for their talk, and let attendees know they can follow up with that speaker during Q&A or after the event. Gongs and vaudeville/shepherd hooks are optional 🙂
And when you’re a speaker at an event, don’t be a jerk. Time your presentation, cut material if you’re going over, and stop when your time is up.
Don’t require IDs for entry to your event. Many people do not have IDs or have IDs that do not align with how they identify or present (names, gender markers, etc.). If you need to monitor entry into your event, try using tickets or registration emails rather than legal documents like IDs.
Many universities require photo IDs for entry into buildings. However, you can often talk to the security guards or building manager ahead of time and request that people arriving for your event sign in or show a ticket instead of providing their ID. This varies from university to university, and sometimes building to building. So take this into consideration when deciding where on campus you might hold your event.
We strongly encourage you to allow speakers to present via teleconferencing systems (Skype, Google Hangout, etc.) if they cannot attend in person. This ensures a much more diverse speaker lineup.
If on-site wi-fi doesn’t allow for streaming video, you could have remote speakers record their presentation, play the video during the event, and have the speaker respond to Q&A in real time via social media or instant messaging applications (Twitter, Slack, Facebook Live or Messenger, etc.: these require less bandwidth than video calls).
Write up an explicit inclusivity policy stating the community standards everyone is expected to uphold during the event. Make it more than a list of what not to do; provide active suggestions for how attendees, speakers, and staff can build a welcoming space. Also include explicit instructions for what to do if someone is violating the policy.
Some great examples include the Different Games conference inclusivity statement and the Queerness and Games Conference inclusivity statement.
Filming and/or photographing your event is a great tactic for marketing, institutional memory, funding reports, and future event planning. However, not everyone is comfortable being filmed and/or photographed and you should respect that.
Make clear to all attendees, speakers, and staff whether the event will be filmed and/or photographed, and provide a way for people to opt out. This might entail bringing stickers for people to wear, providing different colored name tag lanyards, or setting aside a physical space in the event rooms that will not be filmed or photographed. Communicate with your photographer and videographer to let them know that they should not film or photograph those people, and review the images or footage afterwards to ensure people who opted out are not visible.
If you are filming speakers, notify them before the event and give them the option to decline. Also, tell them what you will do with that footage and also give them the option to opt out of certain uses of their image. They should also be able to contact you long after the event and request their footage be taken down for any reason.
Live streaming and recording
Although this may seem at first glance to contradict the above recommendation (although as we explain, it isn’t), we suggest you always live stream your event and/or make it available afterwards in the form of a video recording, audio recording, or transcript. Not everyone can attend your event live both because of their own schedules and the fact that no event will be 100% accessible to everyone.
Providing a way for people to attend remotely (through live streaming) or catch up afterward (through video recordings or podcast episodes) ensures a broader audience. In the process, make sure that in Q&A, both the question and answer(s) are audible in any recording or transcript. You can do this while also respecting filming/photographing preferences by having a staff member or speaker repeat the question.
If speakers don’t want to be recorded, ask them if they would be comfortable making the text of their talk and/or slides available afterward (though they should always be free to decline). If you plan to live stream the event, put together a plan for chat moderation ahead of time. Similarly, if you will make the video recording available afterwards, consider creating a comment moderation plan (thanks to TL Taylor for these suggestions!).
Please note that live streaming your event does not substitute for making the physical space accessible. People with disabilities and diverse bodies deserve to be able to attend and participate in the live event, not be relegated to watching it online because you made it inaccessible.
Speakers (including staff) should describe any visual material projected as part of a presentation. For example, if a speaker is discussing an image or video on a slide they should verbally describe it for blind and sight-impaired attendees. Most speakers don’t normally do this and will need to be coached beforehand (a simple email explanation is a good start) and reminded during the event itself.
Strongly consider having a scent-free policy, recommendation, or designated space to ensure that those with chemical sensitivities can attend your event. We know this can be hard, as there are few ways to enforce a scent-free policy, it is often hard to comply as most products are scented in some way, and there are a wide variety of scents that are more detectible or harmful than others. But recognize that chemical sensitivities are a serious issue and deserve to be treated with the same respect and consideration as any other accessibility issue. Do what you can and be honest with your attendees, speakers, and staff.
Here’s a great explanation of scent-free practices by the East Bay Meditation Center and some options for making your event scent free by billie rain.
Accessibility is a process
Accessibility, inclusivity, and diversity are ongoing processes, not static checklists. Even the above suggestions don’t cover everything you might consider in organizing your event. And different organizations have different funding, resources, and support for ensuring diverse audiences can attend, speak at, and coordinate their events.
You may not be able to do everything, but go out of your way to do what you can and educate yourself about what is possible. Be honest about what you are offering at your event as well as what you are not. Own up to the ways your event is not accessible, and be available to those who have suggestions about how to improve accessibility in the future.
Accessibility improves events for everyone, not just people who need accommodations. Think about the last conference you went to that lasted 12 hours, only had food available in the ballroom for 1 hour and none of it was something you could eat, and only offered 5 minutes to get from one session to another. It was probably not as intellectually stimulating and enjoyable as it could have been. Avoid making others suffer through that.
Accessible conferences are happy conferences, and accessibility is both a political and ethical commitment.
About the authors:
Cathy Hannabach is the founder and CEO of Ideas on Fire and loves helping progressive, interdisciplinary academics rock their careers and build the worlds they want to see. She is the author of Blood Cultures: Medicine, Media, and Militarisms as well as Book Marketing for Academics.
Adrienne Shaw is an associate professor in Temple University’s Department of Media Studies and Production, a member of the School of Media and Communication graduate faculty, and author of Gaming at the Edge: Sexuality and Gender at the Margins of Gamer Culture. Her current project is the LGBTQ Game Archive.