As we start the new year and new semester, it is the season of planning, and we are likely planning for the larger events of next year or years ahead—conferences, speakers, special promotions. Let’s talk about inclusion for these events. I previously talked about sensory-friendly events and things campuses can do, but after a season of conferences—we need to talk about inclusive practices for academic events too. The more I think about how little is typically done in this area, the more embarrassed I am for our industry and for the experiences our colleagues endure or excluded from (Tastrom 2018). I also want to say as someone who has planned and hosted events—this has been a call to myself as well—my lens has not been open to notice the lack of inclusive practices in events I attend and host. This is meant to be a nudge to all of us to put on the antennae of inclusive practices for all our events and for each other. It is way past time to be doing better!

I attended two major interdisciplinary, international conferences this year. At the first one I didn’t notice inclusive practices; I attended as I always do in a context that was seamless for my neurotypical and able-bodied self. At the second conference however, my lens changed because of the expanded inclusion of content specific to parasport athletes at this international concussion conference. The conference attendees were primarily researchers and clinicians in a true call to bring research to practice. The audience included participants from all career stages, including students, and a few people who were directly impacted by the content of the conference—athletes, family of professional athletes, and more. This conference made an intentional move to be more inclusive to disabled populations in the research presentations, including parasport as a topic of the conference. Organizers worked to bring more athlete voices into the space with prerecorded videos highlighting their experiences. All these moves were positive, welcomed, and important for this community. But the lack of accommodations and inclusive practices for the logistics was evident.

Inclusive practices were not embedded in the conference, and it was not only a missed opportunity, but a glaring example that we don’t truly mean to be inclusive. These are clinicians and researchers who work with diverse and disabled populations and speak about the importance of inclusion and bringing diverse voices to the table. Voices of these populations were only lightly sprinkled through the organizing and program committees, and you could feel the weight of responsibility a few individuals felt to remind people in these spaces to not forget about parasport or race and gender in these discussions. This work is not hard—but it does require awareness, focus, and intentionality that needs to be shouldered by all of us.

Planning events includes attention to the built environment of the venue, technology accommodations, and moderator and organizer practices. As someone who has planned conferences admittedly without an eye towards accessibility and talked to colleagues who have had mixed experiences working through venue limitations, this is very much a call for us all to do better. We can and should demand more accessibility within venue options or look for places that can offer them within reasonable budgets. Accessibility for our conferences and events should not be a luxury item. Here are couple of great tools—accessible event planning guidelines from Cornell University and Autistic Advocacy. There are several other resources if one searches “accessible event planning”—I would just encourage people to ask for more than the required ADA guidelines to truly make these events accessible and inclusive.

A speaker's podium with adjustable height and a large desktop surface. On the front face of the podium is the word "podion." A wheelchair is drawn up under the podium, and a laptop sits on top.
This adjustable lectern is sold by and is currently sold out.

What stood out to me in my recent conference attendance were the missed opportunities related to the built environment, technology accommodations, and moderator and organizer practices. Many of these missed opportunities would enhance the experience for all attending, a fact that continues to be the crux of universal design and inclusion. First, let’s start with built environment. Make sure the stage can be accessed by ramp and that you have a podium option for people to wheel up to if your main speakers all “stand” behind the podium—there are adjustable podium options available; invest in them. Similarly, receptions and breaks should not only include cocktail tables meant to be stood at. A variety of table heights and seating/wheel-up options should be common practice everywhere. Aisles and venue seating should have space for wheelchairs and people to stand on sides. We sat in the back near a woman who had a young child with her and had pulled chairs out so her child could play and crawl, and so she could nurse. She continually apologized, and we emphasized that they absolutely were not a distraction and they should be where is comfortable for them. Our venues could have spaces that welcome nursing mothers and babies in strollers. Finally, the poster session venue shouldn’t be an afterthought. It was not the priority of this conference and was barely accessible for any human (narrow-packed aisles), but definitely inaccessible for any wheel-mobile individuals.

In terms of technology accommodations, closed captioning should be a mainstay of any conference—videos, presentations, and announcements. The voice to text technology is readily available at no cost on most platforms, and having the option to read text while listening could be a standard we expect in all spaces. Accommodations such as ASL interpreters are much more costly and range in effectiveness especially in events where the user population is unknown. Having a portion of registration fees go towards accommodations for inclusivity is perhaps a conversation we should be having if we truly value inclusivity and diversity in academia. As an industry we have given rhetoric to DEI, but often done little in the event and conference venues that put action behind these values. We have expertise within our institutions that could help with these technological needs and standards. I did not investigate, but all conferences of any size should have the ability to offer augmented listening technology. There should also be standards sent to presenters for font size. Presenting in a room for 20 is very different than in a room for 1000. Presenters needs some guidance and guidelines—here is a great resource from Web Accessibility Initiative.

In terms of moderator and organizer practices, think inclusion from the start. Moderators or conference leaders want to acknowledge people in the room and often say, “please stand.” This immediately excludes those who can’t stand and so therefore aren’t acknowledged. Rather say, “please stand or wave if you are able” and maybe if a person to be recognized can’t stand or wave you have identified another way to acknowledge their contributions by putting up pictures or bringing them to the stage. Other practices that stood out to me were around language. At one point on a panel the white male referred to the hypothetical doctor as “he” in all scenarios and it really was jarring to hear. When the mic was passed to a female-identified colleague to add her comments, she immediately said, “I think we should first presume the doctor could be SHE or THEY,” and the practice was called out and marked. But these assumptions around gender, race, and identity are everywhere, and organizers, presenters, and panelists need to be acutely focused on dismantling harmful stereotypes.

As an additional aside, this venue was removed from the city center for cost measures, which we all understand. The subway station nearest to the venue had a broken elevator and so was inaccessible. There was another station nearby in the other direction, so potentially organizers could make announcements of access to public transportation and other accessible transport options, etc. But it also just highlights and emphasizes that access and inclusion is an afterthought or a “luxury” in so many spaces of our society still . . . in 2023 . . . oy.

A final note worth mentioning is the message that event organization sends to our students and trainees at all levels. Conferences I attend have significant graduate student/post doc presence, but there are also often undergraduates attending and soaking it all in. When listening to their perspectives of what is noticed in terms of inclusion and accessibility—they are more aware of what is missing and who is excluded; the intentional and unintentional messages and stereotypes we amplify as an industry play into the standard for years to come. I suggest we take the opportunity to model inclusion and accessibility.

I would love to hear your experiences and perspectives. What inclusive practices have you seen at your conferences or events? What opportunities do you see that we could advocate for in the future planning of events?

Additional Resources

Autistic Self Advocacy Network. n.d. “Holding Accessible Events: A Guide to Accessible Event Planning.”

Cornell University. 2019. “Accessible Meeting and Event Checklist.”
Tastrom, Katie. 2018. “I’m Sick of Inaccessibility. Here’s How You Can Make Your Event More Accessible to People with Chronic Illnesses.” Everyday Feminism, April 2, 2018.
W3C Web Accessibility Initiative. 2022. “Making Events Accessible: Checklist for Meetings, Conferences, Training, and Presentations that Are Remote/Virtual, In-Person, or Hybrid.” Updated August 31, 2021.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite This Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2023. “Ableism in Academia: Are Your Conferences and Events Inclusive and Accessible?” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. January 31, 2023.