Monday, 1 July 2013

Practice what you preach: equality and diversity conferences

Nadia Ahmed, a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, has written a contribution for the CGR blog about her recent experience of trying to attend an academic conference. Nadia is doing research on practicable working environments for disabled academics at universities in United Kingdom. Her inspiration is her own disability and struggle towards getting employment as a disabled academic in United Kingdom. Nadia can be contacted at nadia.ahmed@qmul.ac.uk.

'Last month I applied to attend a conference in Greece on ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ and was very much excited to attend it as it was relevant to my research. I had also been working on a paper that I wanted to present. Unfortunately, just a few days back, I found out that the conference venue was not wheelchair friendly; none of the social events were accessible either.

I had registered myself on the conference quite some time ago and, in the registration form, I had made sure to mention that I am a wheelchair user. Despite receiving this information, the organisers of the conference did not contact me. I found out about the inaccessibility of the venue through some people who are friends of the event organisers for this conference. I’m glad I hadn’t booked any flights or accommodation! When I raised the issue with the organisers, I was told that the entire event is not fully accessible, but if I tell them beforehand which sessions I want to attend they will make sure that those events are wheelchair accessible.

I was not happy with this situation because, like others, I’d also like to have the option to choose there and then which sessions I want to attend rather than having to think about it now. The greatest irony is that the conference is supposed to be an international discussion on equality, diversity and inclusion but it’s not inclusive itself!

In the UK, according to the Equality Act 2010, event organisers and service providers must think ahead and take into account accessibility for disabled people. They are required to anticipate barriers that may create inaccessibility for disabled people as well as other users; for example, ramps and automatic doors that will not only benefit disabled but also non-disabled customers with small children or heavy luggage.

The Equality Act 2010 also makes it clear that event organisers and service providers should not wait until a disabled person experiences difficulties using a service as this may make it too late to make the necessary adjustments.  It asks them to consider the range of disabilities that actual or potential service users might have.  Such provisions are called ‘reasonable adjustments’ and are supposed to be anticipatory in nature.  Lack of financial resources for creating appropriate access requirements alone is unlikely to be a sufficient justification to decide that a particular adjustment is ‘unreasonable’.

Academic, as well as non-academic conferences are a crucial area of professional development for professionals, academics and students. At the same time, a conference can be “social event comprising interrelated genres which arises in a particular context” (Ventola et al. 2002: 9). A conference attendee is involved in multiple kinds of events, including presentations, collaboration, networking, mentoring, social visiting, sightseeing and sometimes even interviewing for potential jobs.  Therefore, inaccessible conferences deny equal opportunity to everyone to participate in such events.

Further, each conference is organised in a particular infrastructure, shaped according to the discipline, location etc. in which it takes place. So, it is assumed that equality, diversity and inclusion conferences, especially the international ones, would be fully accessible for disabled people. All this fuss about disability/accessibility and equality and diversity got me thinking about whether there’s a lesson to be learnt here about practicing what you preach.'
 
Ventola, E., Shalom, C., & Thompson, S. (Eds.). (2002). The language of conferencing. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

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