This blog post is inspired by my friend and colleague Farah Mendlesohn’s post on the difficulties people with hearing impairments can face accessing conferences, and I’m indebted to her work here as I start planning an academic event and plan for inclusion.
I am only speaking for myself here, as a mature white cis woman with dyspraxia, sensory processing difficulties and language comprehension disorder. I would really appreciate neurodiverse people with different neeeds commenting below.
I am dyspraxic. Dyspraxia is a developmental coordination disorder, which used to be categorised as “clumsy child syndrome”- like many people with dyspraxia, I had difficulties with learning physical skills such as doing up buttons, riding a bike, swimming and handwriting. However, dyspraxia is a life long disability which can also impact memory, planning, time management, organisational skills and processing. It is often co-morbid with sensory processing difficulties, language disorders, dyslexia, ASD and ADHD. Coping mechanisms that people with undiagnosed or late-diagnosed dyspraxia can contribute to mental health difficulties and/ or social, emotional and behavioural difficulties. For more information, please see the Dyspraxia Foundation here.
So, I have used my experiences both in fan and academic spaces as a dyspraxic participant to make suggestions for an inclusive approach to event organisation.
- Explicit information about the event. Where is it? It’s astonishing how many Calls for Papers and other events don’t make that clear. A link on the event page, and information about transport, would be very useful. Dyspraxic people have difficulties with planning, so supporting us with making the decision whether or not travelling by public transport would be helpful. Did I mention that it took me nearly 3 years to learn to drive? I still prefer not to.
- Make the information about the event readable. Bullet points are easier than long paragraphs of text. Is it obvious how to respond and who to respond to? Make sure the email address is both obvious and easy to click through, copy or type. Academic email addresses can be very difficult: a list of letters and numbers can be hard for dyspraxics to process.
- Before the event: responding to calls for paper or programme ideas. Make it clear when this will happen. An acknowledgement of receipt can help with anxiety over whether the abstract or idea has been received.
- At the event: signage! If your event is on different floors or across difference buildings, this is vital. I can get lost in a building I work in 2 days a week, so I have no chance in a building I’m going to be in for a weekend!
- Give time for people to get from one room to another. Some attendees may have mobility issues, need to go to the toilet or get a drink between events. People with dyspraxia may need to decompress between times of intensive listening.
- Which leads on to: keeping to time. Dyspraics sometimes find it very uncomfortable to sit still for long periods. Additionally, if we have planned our day, it can provoke anxiety if sessions over-run, especially if we are speaking at the next session and may not have time to get to the toilet, get a drink and centre ourselves.
- During Q and A sessions, please ask participants and audience members not to talk over each other. Microphones can help with language processing at keynotes or bigger sessions, particularly later in the day: if I am not struggling to hear what is being said it makes language processing and understanding much easier, and therefore it is easier for me to participate.
- Think about lunch and refreshment arangements. It is very hard for dyspraxics to manage plate, cup, cutlery, food, drink and standing up. In fact I spent lunch times at an international congress sitting on the service stairs of a conference centre because there was nowhere for me to sit down and eat. A quiet space would make a big difference.
- Finally, a non-judgemental approach to phones. Somehow tablet and laptop users at conferences don’t attract the same disapproval as phone users. My phone is my diary, map, organisational aid and also my social space. I often take notes on my phone. A housekeeping announcement encouraging social media usage can take that feeling of shame away.
Thank you for reading. As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.
Use name badges and encourage people to keep them on all day – if necessary, remind people after lunch. Almost everyone in my family suffers from a degree of prosopagnosia and it makes conferences *really* difficult – are you the person who emailed me? Did you write an important paper in my field? Were you speaking to me at coffee? Did we talk at the last conference?
I need this as well- I can remember faces very well, but names escape me!
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