When we set out to run the Scholarly Communication Conference we wanted it to be as accessible and inclusive as we could make it. We received some great feedback about this (which we’ve borrowed a quote about from @ScholComsLib for our title ), and here we reflect on how we achieved this, and what we’d do differently next time.
So, how did we go about it?
Call for Papers
From the outset we wanted to “feature underrepresented voices in Scholarly Communication“. We actively encouraged submissions from colleagues at all stages of their career, and from individuals who had never presented at a conference or event before, to more experienced voices from diverse communities, and we left the format up to them to decide. We asked applicants to include the word “priority”, where they identified with an underrepresented group/had never presented at a conference before, as a prefix to their submitted title, and without the need to explain why. On opening the conference, Sarah welcomed all but particularity first-time speakers, and reflected that even experienced speakers remember how it felt to stand up and present to a crowd for the first time.
The programme committee reflected the “voices from diverse communities” highlighted in the call for papers. A group of five people from across the United Kingdom gave regional perspectives, were diverse in their attributes, and brought an extensive range of experiences from across the scholarly communication sector. Google Docs ensured that call for paper submissions were accessible to all committee members, we used Skype for face-to-face meetings in real time, and each chaired a range of sessions over the two day conference.
The conference programme was a document of epic proportions that was created in a fully accessible format This included making it fully navigable, easily assimilated, and inclusive in its content by providing information about venue accessibility, prayer spaces, food and drink venues for different dietary requirements, conference quiet space, arrival instructions, sustainability, WiFi options, local pharmacy, and much more.
Navigable headings and subheadings
This was probably the most significant part of creating a fully accessible conference programme as it enabled everyone to easily navigate the thirty-one page tome. It’s especially helpful for people with print impairment as the content can be easily skimmed and hierarchies more readily assimilated. We also created a table of contents, which is very easy once heading and subheadings have been formatted, and included page numbers to aid navigation through the document.
We used hyperlinks to send readers directly to information within the programme or to an external web page. To create meaningful hyperlinks we gave them unique and descriptive names and avoided terms such as “click here”. Within the programme links were used to aid:
- Navigation to speaker biographies and presentation abstracts from the schedule
- Linking out to speaker social media Twitter profiles to aid live Tweeting and help delegates plan ahead of the conference
- Location information, for example, about the quiet room, cafe, lecture theatre, breakout rooms, water fountains, etc., to a map within the programme showing there locations.
- On campus information about cash machines, food and drink venues, pharmacy, prayer spaces, shops and mapped walks
- Off campus information such as food and drink venues, public transport and taxi companies (including pick-up and drop off locations on campus)
We kept images to a minimum, such as the cover image, maps of the venue and wider campus, and added alt text to convey the context and meaning of the image. We made sure that images did not pixilate when magnified, and avoided using moving or flashing images in any of our content that could cause photo-epileptic seizures.
Plain English helps to communicate information clearly and effectively to everyone, is inclusive and accessible (around 10% of people have dyslexia  and you won’t know who they are), and benefits people whose first language isn’t English. We achieved this by keeping paragraphs short and easy to scan, put key messages first, limited acronyms as much as possible, and created meaningful hyperlinks.
Delegate conference rates were charged at cost so that individuals, or those from smaller institutions, could take part in the event without being penalised or excluded because of expensive conference rates. We also absorbed VAT within the delegate fee so that an extra charge was not applied at checkout. One free delegate place was offered to all primary presenters and program committee members. We believe that this helped more people travel to the University of Kent for the event than we had anticipated, and over distances that surprised and delighted us.
We used ‘camel case’ (in formal terms known as medial capitals) in the conference hashtag: #ScholComm19 instead of #scholcomm19. By doing this we ensured that screen readers, chiefly used by people with a visual impairment, heard the individual words being read aloud rather than a single, incoherent word.
Display boards atop of tables were used for conference posters to be displayed. This approach ensured they could be accessed by everyone; either those displaying on them or delegates who wanted to explore them. Access around the tables was kept clear to enable full access.
Fen Slattery writes, in their blog An organizer’s guide to pronoun buttons, that “it’s not right or good to assume someone’s pronouns, as getting them wrong can cause physical and social dysphoria” .
Trans-inclusion is very important to us so we asked all of our conference delegates to pick-up pronoun stickers at the registration desk to stick to their name badge. We also included information about this in the conference programme.
Why stickers? We wanted to provide flexibility for our delegates to change their pronoun stickers when and if they wanted to at any point throughout the conference. The four sets of pronoun stickers included:
- She, Her, Hers
- He, Him, His
- They, Them, Theirs
- And blank stickers for delegates to choose their own (and to not limit the options available to them based on our own assumptions).
Asking for dietary requirements ahead of any event can help to ensure that everyone has something they can and want to eat. People with food allergies, medical needs, religious dietary practices, or just personal preferences, could feel left out or potentially be put at risk if not managed in advance. We asked for this information at point of booking, or contacted delegates directly where we needed clarification.
Our catering team at Kent clearly labelled all foods, their ingredients and allergens, so delegates were well informed. We also offered advice about catering options on and off of campus in the conference programme.
So many of us have come away from conferences with too much paper and pointless plastic. This doesn’t just harm the environment but also makes events more expensive to host, with the cost often passed onto delegates. We wanted to minimize waste and do our bit for planet earth. Here are some of the ways we achieved this.
If the full conference programme had been printed for all delegates we would have wasted approximately 2,500 pieces for paper for a two day event! What’s the need for so much paper when we all have access to so much technology? To avoid unnecessary waste we created a fully accessible, mobile friendly and digital conference programme, which we shared from the conference blog site and by email, with all delegates prior to the conference. Two reference copies were kept at the registration desk throughout the conference.
All delegates received a reusable cup on arrival which they could use to purchase hot drinks from the library cafe or further afield. Using these cups at the library cafe earned delegates a discount, and disposable take-away cups didn’t end up in landfill. These cups could also be used to access extra drinking water from our water fountains.
Wellbeing, Venue Access and Inclusivity
We are very lucky to have a brand new, refurbished building in which we hosted our conference. Push button access to a from the main building and lecture theatre, T-loop facilities in the lecture theatre and breakout rooms, and step-free access helped make our event accessible and inclusive. But we wanted to expand on this to provide a truly safe, equitable and inclusive event. So, this is what we did…
Whilst offering new networking opportunities, potential collaborations and lots of new information, conferences can feel quite full-on. The conference ‘quiet room’ was available throughout the event for delegates to use as a quiet, safe, reflective space, free of meetings, telephone calls, and the like. The room was signposted and information about the space was included in the conference programme.
Lunch at conferences can often mean standing for an hour trying to graciously balance a plate and cup whilst eating the food and striking up new conversations. We used spaces with a substantial provision of tables and chairs to avoid this problem and provide an inclusive experience for all. Its easy to forget that not everyone finds it comfortable or possible to stand for an hour, and the environment we provide throughout the duration of our conference should form part of our decision making when designing inclusive events for all.
To prepare delegates for their visit to the conference venue we included a map within the programme, and labeled the breakout rooms, quiet space, foyer, lecture theatre, toilets, cafe, and building entrances and exits. The map was made accessible to all by embedding alt text within the image to ensure that it would work with text to speech software. Providing this information in advance of the conference could also help those with social anxiety. High contrast and oversize fonts were used where we created signage for breakout rooms and the quiet spaces.
Gender specific (male and female) and accessible facilities are available on the ground floor of the conference venue. However, we wanted to enable access to our recently refurbished “all welcome” gender neutral toilets as, after all, we’d provided pronoun badges, and inclusion is about the bigger picture. However, our “all welcome” facilities are at the opposite end of the building and behind staff/student card access gates. So we provided visitor access cards that could be borrowed from the registration desk and let delegates know about them as they were arriving.
But, what will we do differently next time?
Essentially it’s about challenging the things we do as normal.
We wont’t take for granted the potential of the lectern to enhance inclusive practice. The lectern is embedded with technologies, such as the T-Loop, and provide a single point of focus, that promote inclusive practice . When speakers step away from that space we risk loosing this. Their voice may not be heard by the audience, they may obscure their slides from view, and this can make engagement an exclusive practice. To avoid this we will ask speakers to use the lectern, explain why this supports inclusive practice, and ensure that the space is accessible for them to use.
Communicating with lots of new people at a conference, or any event, can be difficult for many of us. Mood cards offer a portable way for delegates to provide “clear, to the point descriptions and instructions to break down barriers, challenge preconceptions, promote understanding and acceptance, and facilitate communication” . We will provide a product, such as the ‘Status Square Talk Token’ by Stickman Communications, for delegates to share written information that they ‘can’t talk right now‘ or that they are ‘okay to talk‘, to promote positive communication and inclusivity.
Name badge versus lanyards
Pin based name badges are not inclusive as they can be difficult to attach and are not practical for all styles of clothing. Instead, we’d opt to use adjustable lanyards. These can be easily placed around the neck so will not damage clothing, and placement will not be limited by the range of different clothing styles. The length can also be adjusted which will benefit different genders and those of varying heights.
When delegates arrived at the conference they let us know if they wanted to be included on the participant list, which we shared with all delegates shortly after the close of the conference. In the future we will ask for this information before the conference, probably at point of booking, so we can circulate before the event. This will help delegates to plan who they need or want to talk to and how to contact them after the event.
We’ll ensure that there is an opportunity for session chairs to meet with speakers before they present. This will help chairs to identify the speakers, presenters will know who to speak to about presenting, and pronunciation of names can be clarified before chairs introduce speakers to the stage.
Any images shared on social media to promote the conference will be described with alt text. Using this in combination with ‘camel case’ hashtags will provide fully accessible social media content that can be consumed by all.