Making (virtual) conferences accessible

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Since the spring of 2020, I have attended over a dozen virtual conferences, including two NCPH annual meetings. As a visually impaired person, I was worried about online conference accessibility, including eye fatigue and reading power points and posters. Some were fairly accessible and others were not. Though I can only speak for myself, I have gathered input from others with various disabilities about their experiences and accessibility needs.

"Q1 : For ppl w/disabilities, how has your #disability (however much you want to share) affected your research? What barriers do you face in conducting research, visiting #museums, #archives, #conferences, etc.? #ncph2020 #s43 #dishist #accessibility"; Answers: "Jessica Knapp (she/her) (1/2) @jessmknapp With a hearing disability, my ability to hear and listen closely is challenged in group tours at museums, group conversations at conferences, listening to oral histories & watching videos (transcripts are always necessary). #ncph2020 Jessica Knapp (she/her) (2/2) @jessmknapp Thinking about this now, I feel I face more barriers when consuming #PublicHistory, rather than in my research. Not sure if that is because I've normalized the barriers I face, or if my research experiences has been modified bc of my disability & these barriers #ncph2020"; "Nicole Belolan she/her I don't ID as having a disability, but I certainly benefit from mics, CART technology, etc., anyway - as do the folks I am with when I am out and about. Not to mention large print. #ncph2020 #s43;" "Megan R. Brett @magpie I’ve been at conferences where I’ve given up following a speaker because of the lack of mics!"

Twitter screenshot from the author’s NCPH 2020 Twitter conversation. Screenshot courtesy of the author.

My NCPH 2020 panel “Barriers to History: Making History and Historic Research Accessible,” grew out of my experience as a disabled historian and was inspired in part by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 30th anniversary. I wanted to connect organizations and institutions and disabled historians to share accessibility examples, and suggestions. I had hoped—especially after my panel became a Twitter conversation when the conference went virtual—that our discussions about barriers that disabled historians face, accommodations that worked, how institutions working with or for people with disabilities create accommodations, institutional accessibility guidelines, and how institutions might improve accessibility, including resources, would spark connections with other organizations as we headed into an uncertain future. Although my experiences with hosting my panel on Twitter fell short of my hopes and expectations, I am glad to see that the conversation on accessibility, broadly defined, has been happening among NCPH constituents.

Virtual conferences have been more accessible overall. They are more environmentally friendly, accessible, and financially feasible, especially for independent scholars and disabled people who tend to have lower incomes and lack institutional support. Even if in-person conferences are nearby, they are expensive and time-consuming. For example, when attending a conference in Minneapolis, I relied on public transportation which took 3 hours round trip, as ride-sharing and taxis cost about $100 daily. Most conferences have used Zoom, which is probably the most familiar option and fairly accessible. The platform allows for automated captioning (this is not without limitations) and most font sizes can be increased. Some virtual conferences scheduled only a few daily sessions spread out over several weeks, decreasing eye strain and fatigue. One conference, which spanned two months, has kept their materials up permanently. I am grateful, as it took me several months to look at all of the sessions and many were vital to my research.

Still, after going virtual, most conferences have provided little to no opportunity to socialize and network, turning off the chat function during sessions and not having socializing opportunities. And even if there are networking channels available, many participants do not fill out their information. Some conferences had networking events in the evening, but by then I’m too exhausted to participate. One or two conferences and even some one-day events used Discord, a communication platform similar to Slack with video, chat, and text capabilities that can have many chat channels. Unlike Zoom breakout rooms, participants can join many conversations simultaneously. Some were only open during the conference, but others are ongoing and I have had many wonderful conversations.

One of the groups I recently joined is the Disabled Academic Collective (DAC). While writing this post, I asked members about conference accessibility. One member noted that communication was essential. Even if the conference had the best accessibility, including early access for those with mobility issues, priority seating, and captions, if those accommodations aren’t clearly communicated, participants don’t know what they should request and may not get the accommodations they need to participate. Here are some thoughts they shared:

In-person conference:

  • Timelines are inaccessible for people with chronic fatigue, slow walkers with lack of time between sessions
  • Limited food options for those with allergies and other food issues, forcing participants to pay for meals they can’t eat and throwing off meal schedules.
  • Lack of quiet spaces
  • Lack of captions for those with hearing and auditory processing difficulties and for whom ASL interpretation is not an option.
  • Lip-reading for some is easier at in-person conferences
  • Social anxiety and migraines
  • Lack of ramps, elevators, accessible bathrooms, and expensive parking

Virtual conferences:

  • Online communication is taxing
  • Online conferences are much cheaper and accessible as their accommodations are set up at home, though some online conferences are now at in-person prices.
  • Lip-reading is harder in virtual sessions and not all conferences provide ASL interpreters
  • Online conferences, including back-to-back sessions for long hours, is not only exhausting but can also induce migraines and brain fog
  • Captioning often has many mistakes that make speakers difficult to understand

It has been great to see that conference planners have expanded—if not prioritized—accessibility during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, NCPH, for instance, was one of the most accommodating organizations, providing large print materials even after discontinuing printed programs, allowing one of my panelists who uses a wheelchair to present from home during the 2020 annual meeting. Some conferences are remaining online through at least next year. But some are returning to their pre-pandemic inaccessibility, including no hybrid options, restricting certain types of sessions to in-person only, or going back to in-person pricing for a virtual conference.

In August, I saw the following Twitter posts:

“The pandemic has confirmed what disabled people always suspected: that accessibility was always possible, but organizational an institutions just didn’t want to do it. As soon as non disabled people needed it, the access disabled people have asked for years was provided.

“Now that we know, without a doubt, that access is not only possible but easy, it is especially galling to see those same orgs and institutions abandoning accessibility and going back to the status quo of exclusion.”

I have seen similar posts and articles over the last year and a half. It is disappointing that this is true in many cases. I hope that most organizations and institutions have learned about accessibility and continue to implement it whether their programming in in-person, online, or hybrid.

Or perhaps, as one DAC member noted, are conferences the best way to present our work and meet others in the field? Is this the start of a bigger story about the utility of conferences? Despite progress, thirty years after the ADA, we continue to have conversations about accessibility, which often focuses on physical disability. What can we do to make sure that disability access is part of the conversation from the beginning and not an afterthought?

~Selena Moon is an independent historian working on adult books about Japanese American mixed race and disability history and children’s books about disabled and mixed race children’s experiences in the World War II incarceration camps. She received her BA in history from Smith College and MA in history and public history certificate in writing from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She can be reached at:

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