Earlier this summer I co-presented at media conference on ableism, accessibility, and oral histories. I received an email a few days later from Elea Chang, the creator of Affect Conf (September 15-16, Portland, OR), about her experience at the panel. It was a delight to have feedback from an audience member who is someone I am already acquainted with! The email sparked a conversation on accessibility at conferences and conventions. Enjoy this Q&A with Elea.
Tell me about yourself!
Elea: I’m a first-generation Taiwanese American who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and now lives in Portland, Oregon. At age 21, I developed essential myoclonus, which means that I have involuntary body spasming and doctors have a hard time figuring out an official diagnosis. I used to work in user experience design (or: designing for web and mobile) and have since transitioned into community organizing, which I like to think of as going deeper into user experience, as I now work on the physical end as well.
We’re both people who’ve seen our share of good and not-so-good accessibility at conferences. Can you tell me about some recent experiences you’ve had at conferences that you found problematic for yourself and other disabled people attending?
Elea: A few weeks ago, I attended an established social justice conference for the first time and was surprised to find it disability unfriendly on a number of fronts, since the event explicitly had an accessibility policy and emphasized intersectionality. During the opening ceremony, there was a performance accompanied by a slideshow with intense amounts of flashing. As I had no advance warning, it triggered a strong myoclonic episode and I panicked, not knowing how long it was going to last or how to get help in the meantime. I ended up staying the theater for awhile after the ceremony was done and spent almost the entire next day skipping activities and hiding out because I didn’t want to have to face people and potentially alarm them or explain my condition.
Later on, I spoke with other attendees and heard that the ASL interpreter at the same event was unprofessional and a number of sessions could have benefited from content warnings. It also turns out that the space they had for folks to relax in was actually kind of stressful if you weren’t neurotypical.
What are some excellent examples of conferences you want to give a shout-out to in terms of their accessibility and services for disabled people?
Elea: AlterConf is a tech and gaming conference that practices universal design and recently implemented color communication badges. They regularly have disabled people both as speakers and attendees and explicitly state that self-care should be prioritized and it’s not rude to leave in the middle of a talk, which I greatly appreciate.
Although I’ve never been, I’ve heard really good things about WisCon, a feminist scifi convention with a very detailed accessibility page that even includes a list of shortcomings that they still have.
If you could talk to organizations, advocates, and event planners on how to create safe, inclusive, and accessible spaces at conferences (or conventions and other public events), what would you recommend?
Elea: The biggest cost of creating a safe, inclusive, and accessible space lies in time and effort. If you build it into your planning from the start, you’ll be able to be a lot more thorough and factor it into each step of the process (when you’re scouting a location, when you’re booking vendors, when you’re thinking through event layout, and so on).
Accountability is important as well. That doesn’t mean just putting up a public commitment or accessibility statement, though that of course can be helpful. You need to make it easy for people to let you know if they have a particular need or if things aren’t going well and think ahead about how to acknowledge and handle mistakes or oversights (it’s impossible to think of everything — we’re only human!) so that they don’t occur again in the future.
Also, the makeup of your organizing team can greatly limit or extend your ability to anticipate audience needs, so be mindful about who’s involved on every level.
Tell me a little bit about Affect Conf and your role there.
Elea: I created Affect Conf because I wanted a community event that would examine the facets of work, design, and culture involved in creating social change. It was important to me to not only feature stories from activists and creators (and pay them for speaking), but to be true to the event’s name, and encourage attendees to be the verb (affect) vs the noun (effect), so our format is a day and a half of conference talks and a half day of group volunteering with local nonprofits. As the sole organizer, I wrangle all the things, including content programming, budgeting, sponsorship, scheduling, logistics, and communications.
What are the challenges and constraints every conference faces when organizing an event like this?
Elea: Besides fundraising, which is a significant barrier but one people are generally aware of, it’s tricky to balance and prioritize different audience needs, as something that may be helpful to one group may be harmful to another. For example, while many feel adversely about weapons, other marginalized folks don’t feel safe in public without them. People often talk about optimizing for user experience without realizing that in practice, it consists of minimizing harm and stress in addition to maximizing safety and comfort.
Venue limitations can be unexpectedly challenging too. Last year, we couldn’t get access to an ethernet internet connection, which is needed for remote live captioning (since no stenographers were available locally). Some places only allow you to book if you use their preselected caterer or their preferred equipment rental company, and that may mean not being able to accommodate certain dietary restrictions or not being able to get chairs that are actually comfortable for more than a few hours.
What are the accessibility policies and services of Affect Conf? What kind of feedback have you received over the years?
Elea: I’ll be the first to admit that Affect Conf has lots of room for improvement, though we only consider venues that have mobility access (which is surprisingly difficult in Portland), restrooms that we’re allowed to repurpose for all-gender use, and proximity to both public transportation and parking. We work to make our space inclusive with a code of conduct, onsite childcare, ASL interpreters, a quiet area, scholarships, etc.
We only debuted last year and I was really touched to see how positively people responded, not only to the content but to the services as well. One of our attendees wrote about how she was able to enjoy the trip to Portland because she rode the train with her kid and got to take advantage of our childcare. A number of folks were appreciative of the photo and recording policy and our Deaf attendees were really happy about our ASL interpreters being able to switch to CASE (Conceptually Accurate Signed English).
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Elea: This year’s Affect Conf will be Sept 15-16 in downtown Portland, Oregon. Keah Brown will be joining us to tell us the story behind #DisabledAndCute and Talila “T.L.” Lewis will be giving a primer on disability justice.
Elea Chang is a user experience designer turned community organizer who created Affect Conf. Currently, Elea is the board president of Stumptown Syndicate and resides in the Pacific Northwest with her two cats, dog, and long-time partner. You can find her tweeting on social justice and tech diversity issues via Twitter.
[Image description: Photo of Elea Chang, a smiling Asian woman with shoulder-length purple hair and a yellow cardigan looking directly at the camera. She is to the right of the frame, in front of a white curtain patterned with blue anchors.]