Organizing More Accessible Tech Events
Wide accessibility must become a part of everything we do in the tech industry, and our events are a critical part of that mission.
When we think about diversity in the tech industry, we often think about race and gender diversity. But it’s also vital that any discussion of diversity includes ways to make our apps, websites, and events more accessible. On this very site, we’ve heard from Liz Henry in “Unlocking the Invisible Elevator: Accessibility at Tech Conferences” how difficult it can be for wheelchair users to participate in events, even when that conference has advertised itself as being accessible.
Accessibility at tech events hadn’t occurred to me until I started organizing my first Django Girls workshop, a free, one-day workshop aimed at teaching women how to program. At the time, their organizer’s manual didn’t include information on making the workshops accessible. When I realized that I wasn’t sure how to make sure the event was inclusive, I sent an email to Stephanie Wheeler, a disability studies scholar at the University of Central Florida, asking for her advice. Her response led me to add a chapter on accessibility to the Django Girls Organizer’s Manual. The Django Girls core team was thrilled to have this chapter included, which makes access a priority and encourages local organizers to book venues, prepare materials and host events that will be accessible to all attendees.
Appropriate planning and accommodations make your event more open to many groups, including people with disabilities, Deaf attendees, attendees with mental illnesses, people with allergies, new parents, people with diverse learning styles and more. William Albright speaks to this in “Emancipation of Deaf Voice”:
“…accessibility takes time and sometimes money. Oftentimes that’s the reason why folks mean mug Deaf people when they request reasonable accommodation. Many just don’t want to take the extra time to make sure that a small group of people are able to enjoy their product on the same level as other so-called ‘normal’ people, and to some, the thought simply never occurs to them. However, what most don’t realize is that general accessibility is a step towards… environments that are inherently accessible to older people, people with and without disabilities, and other groups. For example, TV captioning at a bar will be beneficial for people that sit away from the speakers, the elderly, those who don’t identify as deaf but cannot hear well, or are new to the spoken language.”
Priorities are set from the top down, so make it clear to all involved that access is critical to the success of your event. Send this message by doing your research beforehand, and including the topic prominently in planning and budget meetings, outlines, goal-setting and retrospectives. Recruit a diverse organizing team and consult diversity and accessibility experts in your community. Ask for their thoughts and suggestions, and listen to them.
Be upfront with your potential attendees about the accommodations you’re able to provide. A line on your website saying, “If you need an accommodation, contact us,” doesn’t cut it. That tells your attendees nothing about what to expect, either from your venue or from you, and moves the responsibility onto attendees, creating (at minimum) extra work for them.
Being specific with your list of accommodations helps potential attendees know what to expect, plan and make the right decisions for them about attending. Follow it up with a message about reaching out if attendees notice you’ve missed something, have questions or require other accommodations. Consider adding an online form with checkboxes, or a similar simple and ready-made way to request additional accommodations.
Example from DjangoCon Europe
There are so many ways your venue can help attendees, or fail them miserably. Before booking a space, do a site visit and keep these things in mind:
- Make sure your venue complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act, or similar laws in your country. If your space isn’t as compliant as it should be, work with the venue to improve access, or select another one.
- Mobility: Make sure escalators and elevators are unlocked during your event. If they require a key, get the keys in advance to give to attendees who’ll need them. Venues are often resistant to keeping lifts open for the duration of the event, but can usually be convinced if you advocate up front. Consider requiring this in the event contract, and escalating through the venue management if needed.
- Accessibility isn’t just about on-site elevators and escalators. Are off-site events and meeting places like dinners and restaurants accessible in addition to the main venue? How far away are the rooms from one another? Are you using rooms on multiple floors, or worse, in multiple buildings? If so, make use of clear signs to help guide attendees from one space to another. Thinking even further ahead, what is the flooring like? If it’s slippery (think crutches or even new shoes), people might easily fall. If it’s carpeted but the carpet is bumpy, walkers, crutches, wheelchairs and other mobility devices can get stuck.
- Blue tape: Use blue tape to designate lanes for walking and people using mobility devices, as well as wheelchair parking places in session rooms and communal spaces (tip via Liz Henry)
- Quiet rooms: These rooms can and should serve multiple functions. Quiet rooms can be used as lactation rooms for nursing parents, as rooms where people can privately take medication, or as rooms where those with anxiety disorders can take a few quiet moments. Provide a clearly-marked, easily accessible room where people can take a break from your event, for whatever reason.
- Service animals: Confirm with your venue that they permit service animals, and whether there are nearby grassy areas for them.
- Lighting: The lighting for your event should be good enough for your attendees to work. Conferences especially tend to have power cords floating around, so proper lighting helps everyone avoid injury.
- Sound: Are you booking a room near the entrance where things will be louder? If your event is a conference, how soundproof are the rooms? As a conference-goer, it’s distracting when you can hear the booming voice of the presenter next door to the one you’re in.
- Allergies: If possible, avoid a venue that uses strongly scented cleaners, and avoid having fresh flowers. Consider creating a scent policy and asking attendees to not wear perfume to the event, for folks who have allergies, asthma, or are prone to migraines.
- Restrooms: There should be a gender neutral restroom available at your event. Period. See Lambda Legal for some example inclusive restroom policies, and be mindful of the laws in your state/country. It’s infuriating that some states are attempting to pass laws preventing trans people from using the bathroom they want, and those laws make it all the more vital that your event provide the freedom for all attendees to safely use the restroom of their choice. Restrooms should also be accessible, include grab bars, and have lowered sinks.
Example from AlterConf
Accommodations for Blind and Low-Vision Attendees
Not all attendees who will require these accommodations are blind, so make sure that any presenters are using a large font on their screen. Either get the slides in advance so you can provide digital copies to attendees to follow along, or ask your presenters to prepare handouts in large (17-point) and regular (12-point) font sizes (per Tara Wood via Composing Access). Code in particular can be hard to see on a screen for anybody: the font tends to be small and not double-spaced, so if you’re doing any demonstrations, make sure your font is very large. Any materials you prepare should pass the Web AIM Contrast Checker, and signs should also have a sufficiently large font and high contrast.
Reserve space at the front of the room for attendees who would benefit from a closer seat. Ask presenters to verbally describe any images, graphs or other visuals that are in their slides or materials — let presenters know up-front so they’ll be prepared. In the venue space itself, something as simple as a volunteer greeter can be helpful. Have a staff member, volunteer, or session chair at entrances to your event who can help describe the event space, or escort those who need it to convenient seats. On your website or in preparatory emails, describe the layout of the event venue, restroom locations and seating.
Tweet about live-captioning from PyCon
Accommodations for People Who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing
There are several ways to welcome participants who are Deaf or hard of hearing. Live captioning your talks is a great option, projecting the words of the speaker onto a screen with excellent contrast so that everyone can read along. You should also hire sign language interpreters for Deaf attendees and presenters who sign. Services like Linguabee can help. Keep in mind that some attendees will benefit more from ASL interpreting or captioning depending on their learning style and preferences. Don’t make providing these services the responsibility of your attendees: make room in your budget!
Ask your presenters to speak slowly and clearly, and remind them to either provide a script or a handout for their presentation. Presenters should look at the audience when speaking, helping people who read lips. Remember that a hearing impairment doesn’t always mean total hearing loss. People who are Deaf, hard of hearing, find it hard to concentrate in loud rooms, or for whom English (or whatever language your event is in) is not their first language can all benefit from these tips.
Your website should be accessible, especially screen-reader friendly. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide some specific goals, including:
- Use alt text for all images on your site
- Provide captions for multimedia
- Make functionality available from a keyboard (users shouldn’t have to use a mouse)
- Have friendly and intuitive navigation
- Text should be clear and readable (See also the Center for Plain Language)
WebAIM also offers the WAVE toolbar, an extension for Firefox and Chrome that can check your page for accessibility, reviewing your rendered source code and alerting you to accessibility violations. Passing the WAVE toolbar is no substitute for consulting a human being, however. You should beta-test your site with real users, and if your budget permits, a great option is to hire an accessibility consultant who can help you craft your site and event with a direct focus on access.
Code of Conduct
A clear, specific, and visible code of conduct helps ensure the safety and comfort of everyone at your event, especially people from marginalized groups. A code of conduct is a document with expectations for behavior that attendees agree to abide by, and should “list specific common behaviors that are not okay; include detailed directions for reporting violations; and have a defined and documented complaint handling process”. If your organization hasn’t adopted a code of conduct that you can reproduce, there’s a great example at the Geek Feminism wiki.
Having your attendees agree to abide by a code of conduct can help you prevent harassment at your event before it starts. If harassment does occur, your code of conduct outlines how you will handle it. And a code of conduct doesn’t just outline expectations for behavior at your event; it can also set expectations for mailing lists, forums, pre-event meetings, and other interactions that take place before, during, and after your event, both on- and offline.
Making the Event Accessible to People Who Couldn’t Attend
A feature of many conferences recently is making slides and videos of the presentations available after the fact, and this is a great way to include community members who couldn’t attend your event. If you video your events, caption them before you post them online, or include a full transcript. WebAIM has more information about the benefits of captioning and providing transcripts of video media.
Think about other ways you can include people who couldn’t attend; Django Girls, for example, doesn’t currently video our workshops, but our tutorial is available online (in five languages) for anyone to work through at their own pace.
Wide accessibility must become a part of everything we do in the tech industry, and our events are a critical part of that mission. While it’s not realistic to plan perfectly in advance of every event, developing a culture of openness, prioritizing accessibility, and actively listening to your community members and attendees will ensure a better and more inclusive experience for all. This article contains only part of the picture, and is just one of many past and future pieces on these topics, but my hope is that it will give you a firm starting point for making your next event more inclusive and successful.
- Q&A: Making Tech Events Accessible to the Deaf Community, interview with Chad Taylor
- Articulating and Advocating for Accessibility, Matt May
- Accessibility article on Geek Feminism Wiki
- Interaction badges (PDF)
- Composing Access
- Carina Zona, Schemas for the Real World (video) (slides)