In April of 2021, I wrote about how the pandemic created a more accessible world for me and many others with disabilities through things like remote work and virtual conferences. And I expressed my hope that those positive changes would not be lost when the pandemic was over. Sadly, it appears that the doors which began opening to disabled people during the pandemic are now being slammed shut again.
Although 400 Americans are still dying each day from Covid, many are declaring that the pandemic is over. So, many businesses and organizations are returning to “normal.” And unfortunately for many of us with disabilities, “normal” means inaccessible.
Workers are being directed to return to the office, and conferences are being planned as in-person only—all while more and more organizations are claiming to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives. Tell me I’m not the only one who sees the irony.
In this post, I’ll share my thoughts on why hybrid events are the future and are critical for organizations that embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Inclusion without Accessibility . . . ISN'T
Accessibility advocate Sheri Byrne-Haber recently wrote a post on LinkedIn about how she will decline most in-person speaking engagements because “travel is privilege.” She wrote about the privilege of being able to afford to travel, having time to travel, and of course, the ability to travel due to health. I shared her post, and the responses I received sparked some thoughts about equity, inclusion, and belonging that I want to explore in this post. I’ll focus mainly on how hybrid events are more inclusive for people with disabilities.
When I reposted Sheri’s post, I mentioned a certain large conference that many in the L&D field are getting ready for this time of year. It’s in-person only, which means I can’t go. And as long as it continues to be in-person only, I’ll never be able to go.
The event organizer was kind enough to respond to my post, with a long and thoughtful explanation of why they aren’t planning to make the conference a hybrid event at this time. I genuinely appreciate the response and understand how difficult it must be to plan large events like this.
But here’s where I take issue: he said that their focus is on “making our events inclusive while also striving to make them equitable for all.” Furthermore, he stated that hybrid events “can easily make the experience less enjoyable and useful for all.”
Nothing Without Us
Many people are familiar with the slogan used in the disability rights movement, “Nothing about us without us.” Disability advocate Meryl Evans has taken that one step further by removing the phrase “about us.” (Which is another awesome T-shirt, by the way!) Regardless of what’s being discussed, people with disabilities should be at the table. That goes for conferences as well.
Tell me how you can be inclusive without at least trying to be accessible? How can an experience be “equitable for all” if up to 25% of the population is excluded?
And as to how allowing some participants to attend a conference virtually would diminish the experience for others… I don’t even know what to say to that. To flip the statement, excluding disabled people somehow makes the experience more enjoyable for nondisabled people? It saddens me to think that even in 2022, making accommodations for disabled people continues to be too much trouble. It’s easier—and more fun, apparently—to exclude and ignore us.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to disparage anyone or accuse anyone of being knowingly ableist. I know accessibility comes with challenges. I’m still learning myself. But I hope to broaden some perspectives and cause conference organizers to think about the experiences of disabled people in ways they might not have before.
What Does "Equitable" Mean, Anyway?
When you consider what it means to have an equitable experience, make sure you’re not centering a nondisabled point of view. To a nondisabled person who gets a lot of value from attending in-person events, a virtual experience might seem sub-par. But to a person whose disabilities interfere with their enjoyment of in-person experiences, or keep them from attending at all, a virtual equivalent might be just as good as—or even better than—an in-person experience.
We wouldn’t deny closed captions to a deaf person because of an assumption that they don’t provide as good of an experience as hearing the sound. We wouldn’t refuse to include visual descriptions in videos because we assume they aren’t the same as seeing the imagery.
Experiencing a conference remotely isn’t the same as being there in person, but when it’s my only option, it’s the best option. Being able to participate, even in a limited way, is infinitely better for me than not being able to attend at all.
Who Benefits from Hybrid Events?
In my blog post from last year, I shared my reasons for not being able to travel—the primary one being an airborne allergy to caffeine (most likely due to an immunological condition called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome for which I’m still seeking a diagnosis). There are many other disabilities that may cause a person not to be able to attend an in-person conference—or that could make hybrid events more accessible to them. A few of those are listed below.
Disabilities Affecting Mobility
Did you know that airlines damage or destroy thousands of wheelchairs every year? I cannot imagine the anxiety that must come with air travel for wheelchair users. And that’s only one of the accessibility hurdles they face. One person commented on Sheri’s post that she flew internationally for a conference but was then unable to participate because the venue had stairs.
Disabilities Affecting Hearing
Consider the last in-person learning event you attended. Imagine you are deaf and rely on reading lips—and keep in mind that you can only understand about 30 to 40 percent of what’s being said this way. Now consider that you’re able to attend the same event online with either live or automatic captions. Suddenly you’re able to understand 85 to 100 percent of what’s being said. Which seems like a better experience?
People who are hard of hearing or who have auditory processing challenges also benefit from captions in hybrid events.
Disabilities Affecting Vision
Individuals who are blind or who have low vision may also benefit from hybrid events, where they don’t have to navigate an unfamiliar location to find room locations, and they can use their assistive technology as needed.
Chronic Pain and/or Fatigue
Traveling is especially hard on people with chronic pain or chronic fatigue. Hybrid events let us save our spoons for learning rather than merely surviving the day.
For individuals with social anxiety and other anxiety disorders, in-person conferences can be incredibly stressful. Dealing with crowds of people, unfamiliar places, disruptions to routine, and other unknowns can be downright overwhelming. Hybrid events can also be stressful, but there are typically fewer unknowns to navigate.
Some autistic people experience challenges with in-person events due to things like sensory overload, navigating social interactions, and disruptions to routines. When conferences are held in busy places like Las Vegas, it can lead to complete overwhelm. As Bridget Manley stated recently, even for neurotypical people, “it’s like trying to study a textbook in a video game arcade.” Hybrid events offer a less stressful way to connect with others and learn new skills without the cognitive overload of sensory overwhelm.
Autoimmune and Immunological Conditions
For many individuals with immune system disorders, attending in-person events may not be possible, particularly during a pandemic. Hybrid options are the only way to make events accessible for these individuals.
Others Who Benefit from Hybrid Events
Disabled individuals are not the only ones who benefit when virtual participation is an option. Planning hybrid events, rather than solely in-person, opens up the event to many more people such as:
- Parents (especially single parents)
- Caregivers of elderly parents
- Caregivers of loved ones with disabilities
- People with pets
- People who can’t afford to travel
- Those who can’t take off extra time for travel
When you consider how many people can benefit from hybrid events, why wouldn’t you want to be as inclusive as possible?
I want to make it clear that I don’t speak for everyone with disabilities. I can’t say that every disabled person would prefer to attend conferences virtually. But making virtual options available would open up events to a significant part of the population who aren’t able to go to in-person events.
If you are involved in planning and organizing conferences, I encourage you to make them as inclusive as possible by making them hybrid events rather than in-person only. I am planning to interview some people who have organized successful hybrid events, so I can share what I learn in a future post. If you’re in that category and would be open to sharing what you’ve learned planning and organizing hybrid events, please comment below or email me!
NOTE: The cover image was illustrated by Dana Chan for Disabled And Here.