Version: 2.1
Previous Version: Version 1.0
Contributors:    Shari Trewin, Vicki Hanson, Jennifer Rode, Jennifer Mankoff, Erin Brady, Meredith Ringel Morris, Donal Fitzpatrick.
Endorsed by: ACM SIGACCESS, ACM SIGCHI

This document contains information for organizers of academic conferences who wish to make their events as accessible as possible, so that people with disabilities can participate fully. It is not intended as an accessibility checklist or requirements document, but offers general ideas and information that conference planners may wish to consider. Please see also the SIGACCESS FAQ template, for generating a conference accessibility FAQ page.
Many of these suggestions are based on prior experiences with ASSETS. ASSETS is a SIGACCESS conference of around 130 people, consisting of technical paper presentations, posters and demonstrations. The conference proceedings are published in the ACM digital library. Most attendees are non-local, and stay in the conference hotel. ASSETS is often attended by people with disabilities. In a typical year, there might be attendees who are blind, have low vision, are deaf or hard of hearing, use a power wheelchair or an electric scooter, have limited dexterity, and limited mobility. ASSETS strives to create an environment in which all attendees can participate and socialize together.
This version of the guide has been extended from the original SIGACCESS Accessible Conference Guide to include considerations for larger conferences, in collaboration with the SIGCHI accessibility community.

Table of Contents

  1. Planning an Accessible Conference
  2. Location and Hotel Selection
  3. Budget
  4. Website
  5. Online Registration
  6. Catering
  7. Local Arrangements
  8. Venue Setup
  9. Conference Sessions
  10. Proceedings
  11. Social Activities
  12. Program Committee Meetings
  13. More Information and Resources
  14. Accessibility Checklist

Planning an Accessible Conference

Accessibility touches all aspects of a conference, from site selection and budgeting to catering, social events and onsite logistics. We recommend appointing an ‘Accessibility Chair’ to the conference committee, and including them in the planning.

Location Selection

Location

When selecting the location for the conference, consider:

  • Is it a very long flight time or complex journey for the average attendee? (some health issues preclude taking very long flights). If it is far, will telepresence options be available for remote attendees? (Some conferences are experimenting with BEAM telepresence robots that attendees who cannot attend in person can use to participate remotely.)
  • Are there environmental factors that may be problematic for attendees with health issues? For example, the heavy pollution in Beijing may make it a problematic location for people with respiratory issues, pregnant women, etc.  Similarly, high altitude venues have been problematic.
  • Are there accessible public transit options?  Some people are not able to drive, and local taxis cannot always accommodate bulky electric wheelchairs or mobility scooters.

Conference Venue & Hotel Selection

When selecting a conference venue and hotels, consider the following:

  • Is there accessible public transport from the airport (or other likely arrival points) to the hotel, and between the hotel(s) and the conference venue? How complex is the journey?
  • Are the venue and hotels accessible?  In the US, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) provides accessibility standards for buildings. Hotels and convention centers should be able to provide an ADA compliance statement indicating how they meet the accessibility requirements of the law. Similar standards exist in other countries. Even if the venue/hotel claims to meet the appropriate standards, implementation varies widely, so it is still important to ask more detailed questions and visit the site in person wherever possible. Some specific things to check for are listed below.
  • Some attendees may need to reserve a wheelchair accessible room, a room on the ground floor, or a room near an elevator. Is the hotel willing to hold these specific rooms for conference attendees to book, and does their reservation system allow attendees to specify these rooms?
  • Is the building wheelchair accessible through the main entrance?
  • Large, open public spaces with few landmarks are difficult to navigate without vision.
  • Are there at least 2 wheelchair accessible guest rooms? Specific adaptations include easily operable door handles and room keys, lowered spyhole and light switches, and room to maneuver bulky electric wheelchairs.
  • Can the accessible rooms accommodate two beds? (Sometimes people bring an assistant with them, and don’t want to have to pay for two rooms.)
  • If the event is more than one day, is there a wheelchair-adapted room with a roll-in shower?
  • Are the elevators accessible? (Ask about tactile buttons, auditory feedback, visual feedback, wheelchair-height controls).
  • Does the hotel have Braille labeling, especially in elevators? (Braille labels for elevators could be added by conference organizers.)
  • Does the hotel have alternative emergency devices for Deaf and hard of hearing guests?
  • How much walking is required to get between the nearest disabled parking space, the lobby, guest rooms, meeting rooms, nearest restrooms and lunch location? What is the wheelchair route between these locations?
  • Are there accessible restrooms near the meeting rooms, on the same level or with an elevator very near? Is there an automatic door? The accessible stall should accommodate a large power wheelchair.
  • If there is a raised stage in the meeting room, is there a way for a wheelchair user to get to the podium? Are there railings on steps up to the stage?
  • Do the meeting rooms have an induction loop?
  • Will there be room to seat wheelchair users in the meeting sessions?
  • Obstacle-free environments (free of protruding objects and trip hazards) are ideal
  • Have the hotel staff had any disability awareness training?
  • How willing are the hotel staff to accommodate special requests?
  • Can the caterers that work with the venues accommodate special meal requests?  (Vegetarian, Vegan, Low Salt, Kosher, Halal, Gluten Free, other allergies).  Can the venue prepare gluten free and allergy sensitive food without cross contamination?  If not will the conference be allowed to make alternate arrangements with a supplementary caterer?  Generally, avoid booking venues where significant groups of attendees can not participate in social events organized around food. (See Catering section for more details.)
  • Is there a room that can be set aside as a mother’s room for breastfeeding/pumping, or a quiet place for an attendee to rest?

Budget

  • Captioning and sign language translation are expensive. Plan for approximately $1500 per day in the budget to cover this service, in case it is requested. Sign language interpretation should include coverage of breaks and social events. The choice of whether to provide interpreters or captioning will depend on the requests made by attendees. For conferences where there will be attendees who sign in different sign languages, captioning can be used to accommodate everyone with a single service. For multi-track conferences, if there are several attendees requesting sign language, consider allowing for two sets of sign language interpreters.
  • The audio-visual budget should include microphones for speakers, and for asking questions. Together with an induction loop, this helps people who are hard of hearing to participate fully.
  • When deciding how many student volunteers are needed, consider that student volunteer duties might include assisting attendees with accessibility requests, such as guiding people to the restrooms or helping at a buffet.
  • Some attendees may require helpers or assistants to accompany them at the conference for caregiving and/or language interpreting. These helpers should not have to pay the full conference fee. A suggested alternative is to have them pay for a ‘meal-only’ fee if they will be eating at the conference.

Website

  • The conference website should meet W3C’s WCAG 2.0 accessibility guidelines and be tested for usability when fonts are enlarged, when style sheets are turned off, when images are turned off, and without using a pointing device (keyboard-only access). Testing with a screen reader and screen magnifier is also beneficial.
  • The website should offer information on how to create an accessible submission to the technical program.  For example, point to the SIGACCESS guidelines for accessible conference submissions.
  • The website should provide information about conference accessibility so that a disabled person can decide whether it is safe to attend.  SIGACCESS provides an FAQ template that can be used to generate a suitable accessibility FAQ page for the conference website. This information should be available when the call for papers is released.  It is very important that this page accurately describes both the limitations and the capabilities of the conference.  It should include:
    • How and when to notify the conference about accessibility needs.
    • Accessibility of the venue(s), including the conference venue, hotels, and offsite locations.
    • Transportation. For people who use bulky electric wheelchairs, for example, accessible taxis, presence of curb cuts, distances and steepness of streets are all important.
    • Details of local accessibility information services, and contact people at the conference hotel.  
  • The website should provide details and advance registration for social events to facilitate access for those who are not able to see onsite notices.

Online Registration

  • Include a place for participants to indicate accessibility requirements and clarify any deadlines (such as requesting sign language interpretation before the close of early registration).
  • Include a place to indicate dietary requirements, including religious dietary requirements.  For allergies clarify if cross contamination is an issue.  
  • Allow registrants to request electronic proceedings, if this is not the default.
  • Follow up with registrants to clarify accessibility requests

Catering

  • It is helpful to have a system (e.g. colored stickers on the conference badges) to identify people who have requested special meals, if these meals are served separately by hotel staff
  • Ask the hotel to provide labels on buffet dishes listing ingredients or indicating the presence of gluten/meat/dairy products/fish.
  • Provide food options for those with severe allergies where cross contamination will be a problem and who cannot eat from buffets.
  • Make sure that non-sugar beverage and healthy snack options are available
  • Ask the hotel staff to make drinking straws available
  • Have student volunteers assist with buffet-style food where needed.
  • Try to place any buffet in a blocked off area with clear aisles so low-mobility users can select their own food without fear of getting knocked over.
  • Communicate as early as possible in the website accessibility FAQ if the conference can not meet these requirements, so individuals can decide whether they can attend the conference.  

Local Arrangements

  • Create a triage plan for accessibility problems that may arise during the conference.  Make sure major organizers (General Chairs, Logistics, Registration, SVs, etc) have contact information for an Accessibility Chair or other responsible person who can make arrangements for accommodations, and know which of the venue staff should be contacted.
  • Gather information on local emergency doctors, hospital facilities, wheelchair repair, physiotherapist and veterinarians (for service animals).  Given Western and Traditional Chinese Medicine can be incompatible, especially in terms of medications, provide contact information for different medical traditions as appropriate given the venue.
  • For single-track conferences, offer an orientation session before the conference, for attendees and presenters to get to know the meeting room layout and seating arrangements as they will be laid out during the meeting.  For multi-track conferences, where layouts may be changed dynamically throughout the event, the layout information should be available for attendees or the Accessibility Chair in advance.
  • Make student volunteers available to attendees who request assistance.
  • If the conference provides an attendee list, have an electronic version available for reference at the registration desk, so that visually impaired attendees can browse the list for people they may wish to talk with. An alternative is to have attendees ask at the registration desk whether specific people are present.
  • Communicate with hotel staff about what to expect, and what accessibility requests they may receive from conference attendees. Specifically, staff should be available to show blind attendees to their rooms, and around the inside of their rooms to familiarize them with the layout. They should also be prepared to show attendees how to get to the meeting rooms. Make staff aware that Deaf attendees may communicate in different ways. Some may speak, others may write.

Venue Setup

  • Check each day of the conference that all disabled access doors are unlocked all day.
  • Make sure that walkways are wide enough (e.g. four foot aisles) for people entering the space, and that the path to the stage is not blocked by a microphone stand. Make sure the room has an aisles that will accommodate a wheelchair up to the front of the room so that folks in wheelchairs can ask one on one questions of presenters.  Also provide space  for people with wheelchairs/ scooters/ telepresence systems where they can see the slides and speakers.
  • Make the speaker area accessible – provide wheelchair access to the podium, adjustable height podiums, and stools for participants who cannot stand for long periods of time.  
  • Provide space for attendees with wheelchairs/ scooters/ telepresence systems where they can see the slides and speakers.
  • A few seats in the front and back rows of each session room should be reserved for people with disabilities, pregnant women, or other people who need easy access to seating.  Student volunteers will need to mark or reserve these seats, so they are not accidentally used by able bodied attendees.
  • Make sure there is a connection into the PA for laptops, and microphones set up in the room for the speakers and for audience questions.
  • Provide access to quiet, private space during the conference, which could be used as a mother’s room or space for people with chronic diseases to lie down.
  • Based on requests made during registration, provide access to any specialty devices or student volunteer assistance that may be needed (e.g., TTY access, an SV to guide and describe artwork or demonstrations)

Conference Sessions

  • In advance of the sessions, presenters should be encouraged to prepare as accessible a presentation as possible, including captions for video. If papers and presentations can be made available ahead of time, this is very helpful to attendees with visual impairment, captioners and sign language interpreters.
  • The printed session schedule should also be available electronically, in large print, and if possible Braille (1 Braille copy is sufficient).
  • At the start of the conference, if there are attendees in the audience with vision impairments, remind presenters that all slides, videos and visual demos will need to be described as part of the spoken presentation. Session chairs can help re-enforce this.
  • Remind the audience to use a microphone to ask questions, so that everyone can hear, and should state their name before speaking, for the benefit of those who cannot see who is speaking.  SVs should be present to take microphones to audience members with limited mobility who have questions.
  • If there is an interpreter or captioner present, the lighting should be good enough that they can be easily seen by the deaf attendee(s). Explain to presenters that they should speak with a normal tone and pace, unless asked to slow down by the interpreter. For personal conversations, the attendees should be reminded to speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter.
  • A presenter with a visual impairment may request assistance from a student volunteer to advance slides. The session chair, or a volunteer, can also facilitate question asking.
  • Make sure madness (quick conference preview session) and session chairs accommodate disabled speakers—a disability should not keep someone from presenting their work.  That might mean giving madness attendees extra time to walk across the stage, or someone with cerebral palsy a few extra minutes to give their talk.  Session chairs should have information about participants with disabilities in advance if possible.
  • Put physically disabled presenters in rooms that minimize walking.
  • SVs should enforce clear walkways and promote awareness during sessions
  • After a session, conference attendees should be encouraged to keep the walkways clear and ensure there is a path for people to exit the room.

Proceedings

  • Work with the proceedings publishers to ensure that the index and table of contents of the electronic proceedings are available in an accessible format. If they are html, the W3C WCAG 2.0 guidelines apply. For pdf documents, the Adobe Acrobat accessibility check applies (see resources below for more information about creating accessible pdf documents).
  • Work with the proceedings chairs to ensure that accepted conference submissions are made accessible. The publishers Sheridan can also help with this if requested.
  • Encourage authors to caption videos that will be released by the conference.

Social Activities

The social side of a conference is equally as important as the technical content. Try to avoid events that exclude some attendees. Consider whether:

  • The event will have broad appeal (e.g not purely visual or auditory)
  • Accessible transportation is available to any off-site events
  • Offsite venues (e.g. restaurants) are wheelchair and scooter accessible with an accessible restroom. Will aisles still be accessible with all of the planned attendees present?
  • Sign language interpretation is available for the social event.
  • Participants will need to be informed of the walking distance to nearby events, so they can decide how best to get there. Also whether the walking route is wheelchair accessible (flat enough with curb cuts).
  • Stools or chairs are available for people who are unable to stand, or for people who want to converse face-to-face with colleagues in wheelchairs or scooters.  These should be spread throughout the event space.
  • A quiet place is reserved where people can gather for social conversation, for people who are hard of hearing.
  • Notification should be given in advance if social events will include flashing lights and noises, which can trigger seizures.

Program Committee Meetings

All of the above need to be taken into account for program committee meetings as well. Failure to have accessible program committee meetings results may result in people with disabilities being unable to contribute, which can in turn result in disabled attendees’ careers being adversely affected.

More Information and Resources:

Responding to Accessibility Requests (Accessibility Checklist)

This section lists important accessibility details about a conference, organized according to the different accessibility requests that are most often made.  Gathering this information and making it available online in advance will allow potential attendees to decide whether the conference will be accessible to them, and make it much easier for any student volunteer or conference organizer to respond to new accessibility requests as they come in, or unexpected situations during the conference itself. Once you have gathered this information, use the SIGACCESS Accessibility FAQ Generator to create a FAQ for the conference web site.

If the suggestions in this document are followed, by the time attendees start to register, the conference should be ready to gracefully accommodate most requests. Communicate directly with a person making an accessibility request to clarify their needs.

If someone requests Sign Language Interpretation:

  • Check which sign language they are requesting. Different countries have different languages.
    • If you have attendees requesting different sign languages, discuss whether a captioning service would meet their needs.
  • ACM conference support staff can help in locating sign language interpretation and captioning companies.
  • For sign language interpretation, the service will send several interpreters to the conference, who will work in shifts to translate the conference sessions and conversations at social events.  The fee may include accommodation costs, or the conference may provide accommodation directly.

If someone requests wheelchair or scooter access, they may need to know:

  • Details of wheelchair accessibility at the venue and hotel(s), including:
    • How does a person in a wheelchair enter the venue/hotel building if arriving by taxi? By car? On public transport?
    • What are the local wheelchair accessible public transport options?
    • How to reserve a wheelchair accessible room
    • Contact information for a local wheelchair repair service
    • Who should they contact to find out more about access features of the venue/hotel
  • Will there be a ramp to the stage?

If someone has reduced mobility, they may need to know:

  • The map of the venue, including locations of conference sessions, stairs, elevators, escalators, bathrooms, accessible bathrooms, breakout areas, quiet rest areas
  • When attendees are expected to walk between venues:
    • What are the distances?
    • What is the terrain? (Hills? Steps? Uneven surfaces?)
    • Are there places to sit and rest along the way?
    • What are the alternative transport options?
  • Will seating be available at standing events like poster sessions and receptions?
  • Will there be a quiet place to rest?
  • How far is it from the sleeping rooms to the meeting rooms?
  • Are the restrooms on the same level as the meeting rooms?

If someone has reduced dexterity, they may need to know:

  • Will food be served plated or as a buffet?
  • Can I have an SV to assist me at the buffet, or with cutting food?
  • Can the hotel provide drinking straws?

If someone is blind or has low vision, they may need to know:

  • How to reserve a ground floor room, a room with braille labelling, or a room near to an elevator
  • Whether they can have an orientation tour of the facility before the conference starts
  • Whether a student volunteer will be available to help them navigate between sessions, and how to arrange that
  • Whether there will be a place for a service dog to relieve itself
  • Contact information for a local vet
  • Where there are steps to be negotiated
  • Whether the venue includes large open spaces

If someone is hard of hearing, they may need to know:

  • Whether the meeting rooms have an induction loop
  • Whether all presentations and questions will use a microphone
  • Whether there will be a quiet space at a reception or lunch where they will be able to hear what is being said.

If someone has dietary restrictions, they may need to know:

  • Whether the venue can provide food that meets their needs.
  • Whether detailed ingredients lists can be made available
  • Whether the food has been prepared in a way to prevent cross-contamination