It’s sometimes unclear exactly what small, concrete steps can be taken that might serve to improve, drastically or otherwise, the experience of chronically ill and disabled (PhD) students.
We think we’ve found one.
Imagine the scenario: it’s a bright and early weekday morning. Birds are singing outside your window. You sit down with a hot cup of coffee to check your emails. You’ve received notice of a forthcoming event that directly relates to your research interests. Brilliant! You think, proceeding to find out when and where the event is, booking yourself a ticket if needed, and putting the whole thing in your diary.
Except, when you’re disabled and chronically ill, this isn’t how it goes. In this version of events, clouds cover the sun, your coffee is a bit sour, and you let out a sigh at having to undertake the ritualistic rigamarole of having to work out whether the event is set up so that scholars with access needs like you can get in and can participate.
For the disabled and chronically ill researcher who needs any form of adjustment to access an event, you need to know what access is available. And nine times out of ten, this information isn’t provided by organizers of academic events in the information they send out about academic events, including what they publish on the internet.
So what do you do. You check the venue website if physical access is a requirement, but often this isn’t enough if there are multiple possible usable spaces in a venue, and where in many venues, not all usable spaces are physically accessible. You check to find out if the event has provisions to support people who need rest breaks (a nearby rest-room), whether there’s video-recording of the event (in case you miss anything because of your need to rest or leave early), or whether there’s live transcription displayed in the room (so that people who need to lip read don’t have to lip read, and so that people with auditory processing or concentration difficulties can follow everything, rather than just some things). Whether there’s information about disabled parking, or mobility-aid accessible access routes to the venue. Nothing but the schedule, date, time and venue are provided. So you email the organizers.
Hi, I need to know about the disabled access information. Hi, yes, I’m disabled, and no doubt, since you’ve not really thought about how to incorporate good broad measures for maximal accessibility across multiple types of impairment, I’ll need to tell you a bit about what I, specifically, need. Hi, hello, hi.
Some organizers can provide information straight away. Some organizers will, when prompted, make this information public to prevent other disabled people to have to engage the same process. Sometimes you get given a bit of a run around, and you just have to hope it’ll be accessible on incomplete information, or, as is equally common, accept that it won’t be fully accessible to you and you’ll just have to make a judgement call as to whether it’s worth going despite that (caveat: the exception here is, of course, physical access, though other equally egregious failures of access apply for access to persons with access needs arising from being blind, deaf, and so on, that may mean that “going” just isn’t possible, let alone worth it).
ONE – OKAY TWO – SIMPLE SOLUTIONS TO IMPROVING EVENT ACCESS
Here’s the simple, concrete step that would make things much better for disabled and chronically ill scholars:
If you’re organizing an academic event, make sure that information about access is made available along with information about time, date, and venue.
It’s your event, so why should it be the responsibility of the disabled researcher to contact you to find out if you’ve bothered to think about what they might need in order to participate in this event you’re so kindly organizing for everyone? Or, wait. Everyone?
In fact, here’s another simple, concrete step, parasitic on the first, that would make things even better for disabled and chronically ill scholars:
If you receive communication about an event and no access information is given in what’s been posted publicly, contact the organizer and ask them to make this information public. Especially do this if you are non-disabled.
BUT LISTEN… AREN’T YOU FOLKS JUST WHINING ABOUT AN EXTRA EMAIL?
So what? you might ask. What’s the problem with having to send a single email more than any of the rest of us to find out if you can access an academic event?
- By failing to provide public accessibility information about your academic events, disabled and chronically ill researchers are having to “out” themselves as disabled to get it. This is not a good thing. In fact, a great many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses aren’t yet comfortable disclosing their disability, even to close colleagues, let alone effective strangers or distant acquaintances in their academic networks. Forcing people to do this may even be illegal under laws like the UK’s Equality Act 2010 (EA2010) or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This leads to…
- The absence of publicly available accessibility information means that anyone who isn’t happy disclosing their access needs won’t know whether they’ll be able to gain access to the venue. So people who might have attended and contributed wonderful things to your discussion don’t, because they’re not sure if they can.
- It’s never just one email. We all know how it goes. You send an email with three queries, and your respondent sends back answers to one, or two. And because the answers to your access questions determine whether you can attend at all, and how you plan to manage attending, you have to go back and get more information, or pick up the phone because it’s easier (if this is even possible for you, since many with anxiety, depression, Asperger’s, and a range of other conditions find precisely this task challenging as part of their condition). If the answers to your queries can only be solved by yourself providing answers questions like “what are the exact dimensions of my mobility aid?” [“we know manual wheelchairs fit in the lift but we’re not sure that other mobility aids will”], “what access do you need other than ramps?” [“we’ve ensured the venue is accessible: we know there’s ramps!”], then you’ve got at least one, probably two more emails to go as part of the back and forth.
- In all of these communications, you’re engaging extra work to do something others can without having to engage these extra communications. You’re disabled or chronically ill, and you’re doing a PhD. You’ve really got enough to be getting on with.
- In these conversations, you’re having to foreground yourself as someone disabled before you get to present yourself as someone who is a badass researcher. Psychologically, achieving the inverse of this is hard enough with a temperamental body. Additional reasons to reinforce this lexical ordering of identity just aren’t welcome, especially when they’re avoidable if the access information was just made public.
- By failing to provide access information, organizers are implicitly communicating to disabled and chronically ill scholars that they haven’t thought about access issues relating to the organization of their conference, and further, that they don’t really think about disabled or chronically ill scholars as being part of the academic community likely to attend.
There are a variety of other problems we could go into, but this should be enough to give you a sense that there are a range of pretty good (and potentially individually sufficient) reasons why this is a practice of communicative negligence it would be really nice if we all could end, now.
What if every event organizer included this information in their emails, blog posts, and posters about academic events, from seminars and workshops to conferences?
What if everyone who got an invitation to an event – especially non-disabled academics, and especially academics in senior roles – sent a gentle email nudge to organizers to say hey, could you just put access information on the event’s webpage?
Just imagine how much more time disabled and chronically ill scholars could then spend on their actual research rather than on waving their disabled self about trying to get information the rest of the academic community too often doesn’t think to provide, and takes for granted as being only peripherally necessary.
There’s a lot more to say here about the balance between personalised access needs versus generalised universal design for access, exactly what access information to include (and if you know of any good resources on this, do please share them in the comments) and a bunch of other things, so we’ll come back to this with more future posts.If you would like to continue this conversation by writing one for us, do send us an email.
What do you reckon, folks?
[UPDATE: We’ve had largely positive feedback to this article, including emails and tweets from some of you who’ve taken the time and effort to email event organizers not providing access information to ask that they do.
Their response? While they’re happy to do this, they’d like us to provide resources that indicate what this apparently enlarged idea of “access” really consists in.
Listen folks. We’re a bunch of disabled and chronically ill researchers, not any kind of institutionally funded body of specialists on disability access in academic contexts. We’re also grappling with trying to do our research while navigating issues like those described above, in the absence of generally available information to support ends like those we describe. This isn’t easy.
But you know what? If you work in a university, you have access to such specialists in the form of your local Disability Support Services (or whatever their equivalent local nomenclature may be). If they can’t help you, then – if you’re based in the UK – perhaps consider contacting the National Association of Disability Practitioners, the NUS, the HEA, HEFCE, ECU, or Vitae, or any of the other organisations offering resources to support academic practice.
We are working on collating this information, and would be hugely grateful if anyone with resources on making events accessible – or even on how to think broadly about access – could submit them in the comments.
Until then, we strongly recommend that events organizers seeking to do better on this contact their own university disability support services department and ask them for some input. Chances are they’ll be practically ecstatic to hear from you.]
Image: ‘Communication’ by Joan M.Mas (via flickr). Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0