The nerves kicked in the day that my research abstract was submitted. It was a big deal, to be preparing for a presentation at an international conference so early in my graduate school career, but it wasn’t that I was scared of. My mind was already racing; car transportation, the airport, the plane ride, the hotel, the conference venue, the room I would be presenting in. As excited as I was for the opportunity, I was preparing to travel halfway across the country with only Fisher at my side, with no idea what I would be walking (or rolling) into. My biggest fear? Accessibility.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the 2019 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting and the chance to present my first year master’s project there. meeting was held in the beginning of January in Tampa, FL, a 1100 mile stretch from my home in Ann Arbor. One of my greatest reservations in traveling is dealing with accessibility issues, a primary reason that I haven’t really gone anywhere since I began using a wheelchair nearly 3 ½ years ago. The odds are that, if you aren’t disabled, you probably have never even considered the accessibility concerned associated with travel. When you are able-bodied and traveling to any sort of event, you don’t have to worry about things like whether the venue will have (functioning) elevators or truly accessible bathrooms.
This post is going to focus on accessibility concerns associated with the housing, the venue, and conference events. I will save my discussion of airport and plane accessibility because they don’t reflect on the conference itself. My conditions affect my mobility, but through the post I will also touch on aspects of accessibility pertaining to other types of disabilities such a hearing or sight impairments. My main goal of this post is to provide a perspective on how the accessibility of an event like this can shape the experience of a disabled person. Conferences are an integral part of academia and STEM research, so assuring accessibility should be standard.
The first day of the conference was probably the most intimidating because, again, I had no idea what to expect. Thankfully my trip from Detroit was uneventful, and after a few hours of recovery in my hotel room it was time to head to the conference venue. My hotel was only about a block from the Tampa convention center, but a significant amount of construction meant that the most direct pathways were blocked. I followed the detour out and around the back of the hotel and was excited to see ramps were already in place, assuring access to the venue. I’m unsure if this was the doing of the conference, hotel or city, but either way it was a pleasant turn of events to not need to seek out a different route or make a request for a ramp to be installed. Detours around construction sites don’t always considered disabled individuals, and they can be forced into difficult or dangerous situations like having to bypass the site by going on the street.
The convention center is new enough that I expected basic accessibility to have been considered in its design. The elevators in the building were functional, although the downside was that there was only one set of them and it wasn’t very convenient in location in relation to where many of the events were occurring. This slowed me down a bit in trying to dash between events and I often ended up coming into talks late, which I don’t like to do. These rapid room changes were also made more difficult because the lower floor of the convention center was primarily carpeted and if you’ve ever used a wheelchair, you will know how much harder it is to move than on hard flooring.
Just as important as having functional elevators is whether the bathrooms are *actually* accessible. You would be amazed at what can pass as an accessible stall (trust me, it’s bad – I have a whole post planned out for discussing that issue). It was again a great surprise to find some of the best designed accessible stalls I’ve ever seen. They had plenty of space for my wheelchair and Fisher, a private sink, well-positioned transfer bars and there was at least one or two in every restroom in the building. Now you may be thinking, how does this relate to the conference if it’s just part of the building Here’s the thing – when you are planning an event of any size, doing your research on the location it will be hosted in and assuring it is accessible is of great importance. Choosing a venue designed with accessibility in mind says to disabled attendees that their needs were considered, and I can say from experience that it means a lot.
Beyond the building itself, there were some other important points I wanted to make. Attending an event as large as this conference was can be daunting when you have a service dog. With so many people around, you are almost guaranteed to be dealing with individuals petting or distracting them. Although it doesn’t necessarily reflect on those running the conference, it does say something good about the scientific community that over the five days I spent at the conference I didn’t have issues with a single conference attendee trying to interfere with Fisher while he was working. If anyone wanted to interact with him, they asked first and did so politely. It’s an amazing experience to be surrounded by people that actually respect the fact that a service dog has a job to do and isn’t there to be a source of entertainment.
The majority of the events that occurred during the conference were short talks, and because of the size of the venue there were often a dozen or more occurring simultaneously in different rooms. Some of the larger rooms had stages, and I had my concerns about how I would present given that there were no ramps. Thankfully the room I gave my talk in didn’t have one, but the staff assured me they would have arranged something if necessary. Additionally, most people spoke from a podium that had an attached microphone, and again the staff were amazing and assured me that a hands-free one would be available for me. In going to listen to talks, there was always plenty of space for me to park my chair to listen and at some of the busier sessions, my chair offered the added bonus of not needing to find an empty seat!
The other major events were poster sessions in which 100+ posters were on display and you had a chance to interact with those who had made them. These were admittedly a bit of a challenge to navigate in a chair. It was crowded, meaning it was very hard to move around, and with so many people around I wasn’t able to get a proper look at many of the posters. The alternative was to come and look at the posters before the official sessions started, a time when very few people were present, so I did this often. The downside of this was that one, the presenters weren’t there to speak with and two, it meant skipping other events to come look at the posters. Improvements in accessibility could be made by the increasing the space between rows of posters as well as the posters themselves to open things up a bit. This may be limited by the space available in the venue, but it something to consider.
As I said in the beginning, my focus in this post would be on accessibility for individuals for mobility impairments, but I have a few points left to make. For one, almost every talk I saw used color-blind friendly color palettes in making their slides, and most used large fonts that were easy to read even from the back of the room. Encouraging these in all talks and posters would assure someone colorblind or visually impaired could view any material. While sign language interpreters weren’t present at every single talk, assistive technology was available to those who are deaf or hard of hearing upon request. Many presentations included different forms of media, including videos. Presenters should be encouraged to caption any dialogue in videos, and to also provide warnings for bright or flashing lights that could be dangerous to individuals with light sensitivities and seizure disorders.
The things that I’ve discussed in this post are just some of the features and improvements that should be considered in event planning. I was very nervous at first, but was absolutely blown away at the care that was taken to assure this conference would be accessible to anyone. . I want to thank everyone who helped to run SICB and made sure I had the same awesome experience as everyone else there – I can’t wait to come back next year! Encouraging accessibility in STEM is important in many ways, and if it can be done at an international conference there is no reason we can’t integrate it into labs and universities across the country and world.