With the new academic year just about upon us, the Guardian has published two articles online this week about the accessibility of academic conferences. The first focuses on disability and how too many conferences, perhaps without intention, exclude a large disabled contingent simply by the nature of their design. The article claims that accessible routes on transport, access to rooms and lecture halls, and often long and intensive days all act as significant barriers for anyone with a disability. Importantly, the article also address the more ‘hidden’ disabilities, such as the social difficulties someone with autism might face at a large conference dinner, or the stresses associated with needing to follow a strict diet without reassurance this will be provided.The fact is that worries about these potential obstacles to a smooth conference are preventing certain academics from attending them. Which means we are missing out on their expertise, ideas and knowledge when relatively simple measures could be put into place to make their experience better. It might not be intentional. But it’s still discrimination.
Another barrier to access at conferences highlighted in a different article is a financial one. In recent years, the nature of conferences has changed considerably, moving from small University-based gatherings to delegations in their thousands at expensive hotels, complete with a programme of social events. Costs have soared. Which means that many early career researchers with miniscule budgets for academic travel are being excluded by default. This means that the delegations tend to be comprised of the Big Grant Guys: The professors and senior academics who attend every year to network with the same people and present work from the same labs. Which is all well and good, if it was interspersed with some new faces to learn from them who would bring their own fresh ideas. But if they can’t afford to go, does anything really move forwards?
Our EDI team in the Faculty of Medical Sciences has been working on an events Code of Practice (CoP) to address exactly these issues. We want to make sure that nobody is excluded from attending an event, regardless of their background or disability. Where possible, all of our events and workshops are free to attend and we work closely with units across the faculty to find ways to better support early career researchers to attend external conferences. Our new CoP encourages event organisers to think carefully about sectors they are recruiting from to ensure as diverse a mix of speakers and delegates as possible. It also prompts organisers to consider aspects such as accessibility for disabilities, and providing a sensitive and comfortable environment for all.
We would encourage more conference organisers to consider the wider spectrum of potential delegates in future, to provide accessible and affordable access to what are incredibly useful forums for change and ideas…