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Exclusionary Practices at Conferences: A Call for Full Access and Authentic Inclusion

Illustration of a light skin woman with brown hair and blue glasses wearing burgundry shirt signing CALL-ON

I hope this letter/blog post finds you well. As someone who is passionate about promoting inclusivity and diversity in the conference circuit, I feel compelled to address a pressing issue that fellow beings encountered during a recent conference experience. While conferences undoubtedly offer valuable opportunities for networking, learning, and growth, it is essential that we critically examine how they are holding space for minority individuals who may face financial constraints.

The purpose of this letter is to shed light on the challenges faced by minority individuals, including those who are Deaf, DeafBlind, and disabled, who cannot afford to attend conferences and to highlight the concerning practices of conferences that have the financial means but fail to provide full access to all participants. Such actions inadvertently lead to a paternalistic attitude, speaking on behalf of these marginalized groups rather than genuinely including them.

In my past conference attendance in British Columbia, I was fortunate enough to witness a remarkable example of inclusivity. The conference I attended was affordable, and organizers went above and beyond to ensure accessibility for ALL participants. Interpreters were available throughout the event, ensuring that no one was left out of crucial conversations. Additionally, the speakers who shared their lived experiences brought a richness and depth to the discussions that empowered attendees from all backgrounds.

Unfortunately, I must contrast this positive experience with the current state of affairs at some conferences that appear to prioritize profit over genuine inclusion. While they boast impressive budgets, their actions speak volumes about their commitment to accessibility. These conferences might provide interpreters for keynote presentations, which is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, their “bare minimum” to extend this service to one-on-one or group discussions raises a significant barrier for individuals who rely on these services to participate fully. Its absurd that the attendee is required to cover the cost of the working support person, their fee on top of their own registration fee for breakout session discussions.

This disparity in access perpetuates an exclusionary environment, where minority individuals, including those who are Deaf, DeafBlind, and disabled, are tokenized, left to feel like an afterthought rather than equal participants. As an advocate for inclusivity, I firmly believe that conferences should strive to provide comprehensive support, breaking down barriers to participation for everyone.

Here are some practical steps that conferences should take to rectify this issue:

  1. Financial Consideration: Offer reduced registration fees or scholarships to minority individuals, including those who are Deaf, DeafBlind, and disabled, who cannot afford the full conference expenses. This small step can have a tremendous impact on widening participation.
  2. Full Interpretation Services: Ensure that professional interpreters are available for all conference sessions, including group discussions, workshops, and networking events, to cater to the needs of Deaf and DeafBlind participants.
  3. Representation Matters: Invite speakers from diverse backgrounds, including those with disabilities, who can share their lived experiences. This not only enriches the content but also empowers attendees from various communities.
  4. Accessibility Guidelines: Develop and adhere to clear accessibility guidelines to ensure that the conference venue, materials, presentations, and group discussions are accessible to individuals with disabilities.
  5. Engage with the Community: Involve representatives from minority communities, including the Deaf, DeafBlind, and disabled communities, in the planning and decision-making process. Their input is invaluable in creating a truly inclusive event.

As we move forward in shaping the conference landscape, let us collectively work towards dismantling exclusionary practices and fostering spaces that genuinely embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion. Together, we can make conferences a platform for transformative experiences, empowering all participants, regardless of their abilities or backgrounds, to learn, grow, and connect.