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Planning Inclusive Events & Conferences

Four conference speakers sat on a circular stage with the audience sat in a circle around them

Event planners, is your first post-pandemic event neuro-inclusive?

How does it feel in a face-to-face meeting when you don’t have an opportunity to share your ideas because of the dominant voices in the room?

What does it feel like to be in conferences where you don’t know anyone and stand alone in a busy, noisy room? You know you need to make polite conversation with someone, but you’re not sure who to approach or what to say.

For some, the halt to in-person events, conferences, and mandatory work meetings due to the Covid-19 pandemic was a relief. Not having to stand by the snacks and drinks, hoping conversation would come naturally, just to prove to your manager that the conference you attended was a valuable expense for the company, made for some very long workdays.

When we were confined to our homes and had the choice of attending optional webinars; had the choice to participate in the discussion or not, our productivity increased, and we were able to make work work for us.

As employees go back to the office, however, in-person events are coming back. Some smaller than previous years and some offering in-person/virtual hybrid options, we will soon start to be encouraged to attend “mandatory” conferences.

Universal design requires forethought. Not everyone asks or tells you they need support or knows that this could even be possible.

If you are planning a conference, meeting, or seminar, become informed and ask for ideas from your communities. Without recognizing our biases or lack of knowledge, we will continue to create meeting environments where underrepresented groups will be marginalized and the voices of the majority groups will dominate.

What does a "live audience" mean post-pandemic?

If we have learned anything in the past year and a half, we know we can deliver conferences and meetings remotely as well as face-to-face.

Can we see blended or hybrid options as the norm as they widen the potential to continue to engage and even extend participation?

This offers choices and allows the people who are there to potentially have a more spacious room and for others who may prefer to stay at home for different reasons (e.g., cost, care of others, physical, or psychological reasons) to still contribute.

Consider communication preferences

Barriers to communication happen because it feels like an effort to change our style of communication.

When communicating in person, we can be quick to assume a lack of skill or disinterest in someone who responds slowly to a question. But this may be a result of linguistic or cultural differences, or weaker working memory, and the person may just need to have more time to cognitively process the information before considering their response.

Webinars during the pandemic allowed those who needed it to pause and craft a response without the pressure of reacting to an in-person presenter. How can this be replicated in a hybrid event?

By using both high- and low-tech approaches in meetings, we can include everyone. Putting your questions on notecards and placing them in a box or as sticky notes on a whiteboard can be easy for some but may also preclude those with writing or spelling challenges.

The use of online voting apps that allow for polling and engagement from wherever you are and using Q&A and chat functions in online meetings can create a hybrid model that allows everyone to actively participate.

Online break-out rooms can be a mix of people together at a meeting and people at home.

Planning for meetings at conferences

Design for universal access is the notion that if you make a meeting accessible to people who have the biggest challenges, everyone benefits.

To know the changes you need to implement, start by asking your colleagues or conference attendees for ideas and hear about their positive and negative experiences.

By asking your potential attendees what support they require, you will not only increase your engagement, but your conference will be one that a neurodivergent or differently-abled participant will want to attend.

Provide clear information where meetings will take place and timings, and expectations for engagement. If it is face-to-face, then ensure there is information on how to get to the place with transport options while also providing identifiable buildings or landmarks for those who find that more helpful than directions.

For active engagement, consider the size of the group for participation and the environment people are placed in.

As part of your registration process or when outlining why managers should send their reports to your event, make it explicit and accessible how they’ll be able to ask for adjustments. Some wording you could use includes:

“We strive to host inclusive, accessible events and meetings that enable all individuals, including individuals with disabilities, to engage fully. To be respectful of those with allergies and environmental sensitivities, we ask that you please refrain from wearing strong fragrances. To request accommodation or specific support or for inquiries about accessibility, please contact (name, email, phone).”

As part of your registration, you could offer a checklist for people to use if they need any adjustments or specific support. Some of the options you can provide include: assistive listening devices, live captioning, large print handouts, advance copy of slides being projected, and gender-neutral restrooms.

Planning for the day of the conference

Some pre-pandemic on-the-day logistics remain, but some will need to accommodate those who need more time to rejoin large groups of people:

  • Accessible signage to help people find locations, with landmarks and references.

  • Break-out rooms and quiet spaces for networking breaks, but also encourage their use for those who need a break from making conversation.

  • Name tags, with the option to add preferred pronouns.

  • Background noises and the music you choose to play.

  • Room layout so that visual presentations are accessible to all and can be heard (do the seats need to be in rows?).

  • Electrical outlets in accessible seating areas.

  • Arrange online opportunities to remotely ask questions or participate in polls.

  • Make presentation notes available before or after a presentation.

  • Include tables as well as stand-alone chairs to allow for notetaking. 

  • Encourage attendees to use the back of the room is they need to move or stand during a presentation.

Besides having these considerations in mind when designing a presentation room, consider whether you can provide an alternative space to hear the lecture, perhaps a TV monitor set up in another room or an option to listen with headphones.

These accommodations may make a big difference for someone who may find it uncomfortable being in a setting with many people after being at a conference, perhaps wearing a mask, all day.

After the conference

Reflect on what has worked and what hasn’t for next time.

In your post-event communications, ask attendees and colleagues for honest feedback on whether they felt the conference was inclusive to them. Consider having exit polls on the last day of the conference so attendees can provide feedback while it’s fresh in their minds.

Going the extra mile, consider talking more in-depth with a few attendees directly after the meeting, allowing them to provide more feedback on whether the conference worked for them or not. If it’s the first event you planned or that they attended post-pandemic, both sides will benefit from reflecting on the experience.

We are all hybrid versions of each other, and it is this we need to consider in the end and not the meetings themselves in order to be truly inclusive and create meetings where we all can participate and belong.