Contrary to popular belief, there are thousands and thousands of wheelchair users in the professional world who attend conferences and conventions every year. However, proportionally we only represent a tiny fraction of typical conference attendees. This may be because we are not a well-represented demographic in the professional world, or because wheelchair users just find it too daunting a task to attend a conference in the first place. Below, I will outline the most common common challenges to attending a conference as a wheelchair user, and some ways that you can make it an easier, more accessible, and much more enjoyable experience.
The Challenges are Many
1. Accessible Accommodations. I’m sorry to break it to you, but I have yet to come across a conference organizer that has set aside either an accessible hotel room or accessible cruise ship stateroom in a block designated for conference attendees. They just work under the assumption that wheelchair users aren’t attending. I can’t see any other reason why they wouldn’t include accessible accommodations in conference blocks, unless they think they have a workable mechanism for adding them in. Almost every time I try to reserve a room at a discounted rate as part of a conference block, the process to reserve the discounted room takes weeks, and sometimes months. Many times, conferences are held in cities with strong tourism, which means that you are competing for a very limited number of remaining hotel rooms in a space where possibly hundreds of rooms have been set aside as part of the conference block. This means you need to plan your conference accommodation out several months in advance.
2. Accessible Transportation to Conference Events. Many conferences have after-hours social events at local businesses, like restaurants, sports facilities, concert venues, or bars. If the conference is held in the United States, chances are pretty decent, if the conference is large enough, that the social event will be held in an accessible venue. However, you may be on your own to get there. If it’s in a big city, your chances are better that the conference organizers can arrange for an accessible coach bus or other accessible transportation to get you from your hotel to the social event site. However, smaller cities or towns may not have accessible transportation for conference attendees available.
3. Convenient and Comfortable Session Seating. Out of the dozens of conferences I’ve been to as a wheelchair user, only two had designated seating for wheelchair and scooter users — which was as simple as removing chairs and coordinating that area off — and one was in an absolutely gigantic space. The other had chairs removed from those long tables and signs placed on top of the tables stating that it was a reserved space for wheelchair users. Usually I find myself asking someone to either remove a chair at the very back of the room, because that’s the only place where I have space to pull up to the table, or just sitting in the aisle.
4. Food and Beverage Placement. I have a love-hate relationship with coffee breaks at conferences. I love the free snacks and beverages, but 9 times out of 10, much of the food is placed either too high or too far back from the edge of the table for me to reach it by myself. Of course there’s always somebody there to help me, but I hate having somebody else select my food for me. I should be able to do it by myself without having to rely on someone else to serve me.
5. Cramped Meal Seating. In an effort to make the most efficient use of space, conference organizers usually jam 10 chairs at a round table designed for no more than six people. Without fail, whenever I am at a conference luncheon or awards dinner, I have to take up two spaces. Half the time I pick a seat near a table leg, where my chair won’t fit under the table, then I have to move spaces to find one where I will. Nobody ever complains about this, and the waitstaff are always happy to move chairs out of my way for me. But it’s just another sign that clearly nobody is expecting a wheelchair user to attend.
How to Improve Your Conference Experience
1. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to start communicating with event organizers as early as possible, meaning the second that you realize are going to attend that conference. Let them know who you are, what your needs are, and what equipment you’ll be using. Have cell phone numbers and emails for anyone and everyone who has even the slightest responsibility for assuring wheelchair accessibility at the conference.
2. Get Accessibility Information from the Venue. I don’t care how many times the conference organizers assure you that everything is going to be accessible. They are not wheelchair users and you are. Contact the hotel directly to ask them about the accessibility of your hotel room and the event space. Contact the venues where any social events will be held after hours to ensure that their entrances and bathrooms are accessible. Find out which transportation company will be taking you to and from those events to make sure they have lifts or ramps that are in fully functioning condition. And make sure that you keep conference organizers in the loop about your communications with these venues to make sure they know you’ve been taken care of.
3. Don’t Be Shy About Your Needs. Wheelchair users have this nasty habit of not wanting to put people out, or bother anyone, or annoy anyone. Fortunately, I’m not one of those people. Do not put yourself in a position to be left out because you didn’t let people know exactly what you need it. They are most likely very willing to help you, but they can’t help you if they don’t know what you need. Each one of us also has unique needs, so don’t put them in the position of assuming that we are all the same, or that all conference attendees in wheelchairs have the same needs.
4. Speak Up When Things Aren’t Accessible. Again, even though we are the largest minority group, we also tend to be the quietest. If you arrive somewhere and the venue is not accessible, let the conference organizers know. You have their email addresses and their cell phone numbers. Yes, they are running around and they are stressed out, but this is their job. You paid good money for the registration fees and to travel to the conference site. You deserve to attend comfortably just like everyone else, so let people know when your needs are being met.
5. Provide Organizers Post-Event Feedback. Most conferences offer some sort of feedback mechanism after the event is over. Use this to provide constructive and detailed feedback to the organizers about how accessible – or not accessible — your experience was. Provide them with suggestions to make improvements for the next conference. If they did something particularly well, they will be extremely grateful for the positive feedback. If you don’t say anything about something that went wrong, then this will be a detriment to the wheelchair users who attend that conference in the future. It’s common for some conferences to use the same venues or hotels year after year, so feedback for these events is particularly helpful.
There is no doubt that attending a conference can be a huge pain in the rear end, but in many cases I have found that it’s completely worth it. We need to show the professional world that we are just as much a part of it as other attendees walking around in suits and ties and high heels. It’s also an invaluable networking opportunity, especially for those of us who find it logistically difficult to attend networking events in our local cities or communities. So go forth and conquer! Fill out the registration, pay your fees, and show the professional world what we’re made of.