Unlocking the Invisible Elevator: Accessibility at Tech Conferences

Instead of complaining that disabled people just don't come to your conference, do something that would make them want to come to it!

by Liz Henry on October 27th, 2014

I’ve been speaking at tech conferences for the last ten years. I’m usually the only wheelchair user at the conference. Every time, I tell conference organizers how to improve access. It takes years to make minor improvements. The culture is hard to shift.

Even when I’m an invited speaker, I find that conference organizers don’t listen to my advice about access. They can’t tell me if I’ll be able to get into the conference. As soon as I realize I have to explain that “accessible” isn’t binary, I know there’s an uphill slog ahead metaphorically — and that literally, I’m going to have to hobble up some stairs or bump down them on my ass.

My number one request is for information. Have you looked at the conference venue from the point of view of a wheelchair user, or someone on crutches? Can you tell me how to get from point A to point B by the shortest path, or without stairs? Is the elevator locked?

I’ve had people assure me that of course their venue is accessible, and then it isn’t.  When they can’t answer my very specific questions, it’s obvious there’s going to be access fail.

Event organizers persist in treating access needs as special individual requests. This is absolutely wrong, and will not help “diversity”. In fact, this attitude contributes to my tokenization. I am expected to feel grateful for opportunities to represent people with disabilities and to simply “be visible”. That’s all very well, and yet I maintain it is tokenization. I appreciate all the great opportunities I have had over the years, and I absolutely love that people love my talks! Those things don’t change the fact that my work is co-opted to make organizations feel good about themselves and look good to others. If I’m the only person at your conference who has a visible disability, if I’m the only wheelchair user, guess what, I’m pissed. And you’re most certainly doing something wrong.

Picture this. I get to a hotel. Or a conference center. Or a school. Or a corporate office. I’m there to be a speaker and the conference is quite aware that I’m a wheelchair user. There are signs directing attendees where to go. The signs direct us right to a majestic flight of stairs. Maybe a three-story glass escalator, for dramatic effect. The crowd goes on without me.

A sign for breakout sessions for an event positioned in front of stairs.

Photo CC-BY the author, filtered.

I ask a hotel employee. I ask another conference goer. I find a conference organizer. The hotel people go and find other hotel people. There is a hubbub. Facilities people with walkie-talkies show up. I am polite and not angry, over and over. Everyone stands around wondering what to do. There is a freight elevator that is locked that you can only get to from the back alley around an enormous city block. I end up in the basement. There is a tiny airlock-style lift but it’s locked and no one is sure who has the key. I demand the key. Consternation. No one has ever thought about this, ever, in the history of the known universe!

I often invite able-bodied strangers and friends alike to find, and ride, the locked, blocked, garbage-filled elevators in the basement with me; to stay by my side and witness how it goes. I have to laugh all the way through it. It’s more than inconvenience. Crappy access says, like a slap in the face, that we aren’t wanted and no one gives a fuck.

A cluttered corridor on the way to a freight elevator.

Photo CC-BY the author, filtered.

If there’s a part of your venue that has stairs, or is half a mile away over a gravel path, just tell me. Tell all of us. Then we can make our own decisions about how to spend our energy and what kind of help we might need to navigate the barriers, and whether we want to bother to come to your conference. Personally, I’d also like to have some time to psyche myself up for that special moment when I’m going to have to crawl onto a stage in front of 1000 people and haul myself back into my wheelchair. Of course, I’ve done this. Multiple times. I’d just rather not do it as a surprise.

Some Information, Please

A prominent outdoor sign displaying accessibility information for a facility.

Photo CC-BY the author, filtered.

Some information is great to have in advance. Maps and explanations of access paths work well. It helps if they’re in web-accessible formats, usable by screen readers, and downloadable.

Some information has to be embedded in your conference venue. Signs should clearly mark the accessible paths. Maps are very helpful so that people can estimate distances; this is a big deal for those of us who are exhausted and in pain. Put maps next to your signs please!

Instead of complaining to me that disabled people just don’t come to your conference, do something that would make them want to come to it!

Do a walk through and at least imagine a roll through. Iterate. Make your venue unlock the elevators. Make good signs. Remind everyone to use microphones so they can be heard by more of the listeners. Hire someone for CART captioning of talks. And tell us right up front on your conference site that you’ve done these things.

If your site has zero access information, that tells me right away I’m heading for a world of alienation, in a place where no one has put thought into accessibility.

What the Signs Mean

Blue tape accessibility lanes. Reads 'Walk n Roll'.

Photo CC-BY sandphin, filtered.

While those things help immensely, they aren’t enough. You have to educate and change the culture of your community. People have to know what the signs mean.

AdaCamp recently started to implement some of the things that the access committee does at WisCon. They marked travel lanes, for walking and chairs (not for standing). They took time every morning of the conference to explain to us what the travel lanes, or specially marked off seating and wheelchair parking places, meant. At WisCon and at AdaCamp, I could get into and out of all the rooms. People didn’t pile up their backpacks and crowd me into a corner. Everyone got told, all at once, to leave guide dogs alone.

This isn’t the article where I try to persuade you that you want diversity. And yet, keep in mind that improving access improves things for many people. The curb cut I fought for in my neighborhood helps everyone who uses the sidewalk with wheels. Tons of people appreciate CART captioning, or are pleased to have seating at the front marked off for people who need to be closer to the front to hear or lipread, even when they don’t identify themselves to you. These are commonplaces of universal design. People will thank you —  people with invisible or less visible mobility problems or disabilities, and people who don’t think of themselves as disabled.

Nothing About Us Without Us

Stop thinking of this as an individual problem. I don’t want a concierge. I want structural change. The world doesn’t have to be inaccessible!

Thinking through physical event accessibility will reveal to you some principles of other kinds of access. Nothing about us without us. One kind of access doesn’t fix things for everyone who needs access. Ramps don’t help if you don’t know where they are, or if they’re locked and blocked, or if they’re full of people standing on them, or if they’re two blocks away. Culture and information are an important part of infrastructure, just as much as architecture. Changing your culture to be more accessible will reveal important design patterns, useful in general for thinking about technology. I promise it will blow your mind.

So… you want “diversity” at your conference? You could put your money where your mouth is, and hire an accessibility consultant.