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Planning Accessible Conferences

One of the things I enjoy doing as I contribute to the Joomla project, is to help with organizing the annual Joomla! World Conference, a yearly conference bringing together Joomla contributors and community members from around the world. In the course of planning these conferences, accessibility has been something we thought about, but never focused on. We might have asked the venue if they were accessible, but that was pretty much the end of our focus on making sure our conference venues were actually accessible.

For a couple years, this worked just fine - the venues just happened to be reasonably accessible, where it wasn't too terribly inconvenient for any participant to use them.

But in 2014, we failed at choosing an accessible venue. We chose the venue based off of an important geographical location (city/region) that we wanted to hold the conference in, and based off the limited options in that region, chose a venue that met our space/seating and hotel requirements. Along the way, we ignored making sure that our entire conference center was accessible to all of our attendees, which resulted in us having to find last minute, very inconvenient ways for some attendees to be able to attend all the sessions, and participate in the conference.

Thankfully our attendees and speakers that were affected by this, like true Joomlers, were gracious and largely took this in stride. But we determined that this was never happening again, and started putting a high priority on as many aspects of making sure our future venues are as accessible as we could think of. Here's some of the larger points we started focusing on.

Is Your Conference Space Accessible?

This one might seem painfully obvious, but sometimes it's easy to overlook. There's a difference between the hotel your conference is being held at being accessible, and your conference space being accessible. Is every room a conference participant might want to enter accessible? Is your conference space itself easily accessible? (And "easily accessible" does not require people to take a "back way" or go to side or outdoor entrances just to access the same spaces as everyone else).

Is transportation to and from your conference center accessible? Especially if your conference venue is detached from hotel facilities, is it a hassle or large inconvenience to get to and/or enter your conference space?

This might not be a technical requirement, but, in my experience, having 1 or 2 elevators for a conference of any size, isn't actually "accessible". When it takes longer for people who must use the elevators to use them, than the time you've allotted in between sessions, the conference space isn't reasonably accessible to them.

If a conference attendee needs to go through some extraordinary measures to access your conference space, then even if they're in an accessible hotel room in an accessible hotel, your conference space is a hazard to them.

Did You Just Screw Up Your Accessible Space?

Ok, so your conference space is accessible - but did you just mess this up when you set up your conference space? Do vendor booths make hallways too narrow? Do breakout room setups force someone to move chairs or tables just to have enough room to navigate? Does every room have a stage for a speaker, and are those stages accessible as well?

It's easy to just go about the busy-ness of setting up your conference in the day or two you have to set up, and forget that the things you are setting up might be making simply attending a session into an obstacle course for some of your attendees.

Are Facilities Accessible?

Often restrooms and other facilities are found tucked away in an unobtrusive corner or hallway in a conference center. Are there stairs needed to access these? Even a step or two presents a barrier to conference attendees using facilities during your conference, an inconvenience even the most hardcore enthusiast wouldn't want to put up with.

Are Presentations Accessible?

Are there options and accommodations for hard of hearing attendees to be seated closer to the speaker? Are speaker's presentations legible and easy to read for visually impaired attendees? All the attention to make sure all attendees can access your sessions is useless if attendees can't benefit from the sessions themselves.

There's a lot to learn here, and I'm sure there's even more to consider in planning a conference that is truly accessible to all attendees.

Did I miss something? Do you have any advice for conference planners trying to make conferences more accessible?
Put it in the comments! Or tweet it at me.

Copyright © 2015 by Jon Neubauer - All rights reserved