Accessibility for WordCamps

If you’re coming here from a link I’ve shared, WordCamps are conferences for WordPress. I’m very involved in the WordPress events community, so I wanted to highlight some ways for our events to be more accessible for people with disabilities.

In the past year or so, web accessibility has finally been getting the attention it needs. Last year, afercia was granted commit to WordPress core based on his accessibility work. The WordPress Accessibility team has put together standards for core development to ensure future features are accessible. Almost every WordCamp had at least one presentation on why accessibility (or a11y) is important and how to get started.

I would love to see this same attention paid to accessibility at our WordCamps and meetups.

A quick story: At WordCamp US, I took refuge in the quiet area for a while one afternoon. While I was sitting there, a few other people came through and sat on the other side of the space. I never got their names, and for the most part didn’t pay any attention to them. As I was leaving, I caught a little of their conversation. They were talking about the event so far, and one woman mentioned that she was new to WordPress (or maybe new to development), but was hoping to learn a lot more here; that our industry would provide her new job opportunities, because she couldn’t move around very well, and with WordPress, she could get a job working from home.

Considering that the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is twice that for non-disabled people, the fact that our community can provide employment opportunities that work where “traditional” jobs fall short is great. However – if our events are inaccessible, how will new people learn about all the things they can do?

All that said, it’s not a lost cause. And like web accessibility, it’s not an insurmountable amount of work. In fact, much like Matt Mullenweg said of web a11y at The State of the Word last year:

I’m worried about getting to a point where we think of accessibility like a checkbox.  […] I think that accessibility is a process […]

All accessibility is a process. You’ll never be 100% accessible for everyone, if only because what’s accessible for one person might be inaccessible for someone else. So with this post I want to outline a few ways you can get started, and then point out other resources so you can continue to learn.

First up, a general tip for talking about accessibility in presentations or elsewhere: don’t assume disability is something that only happens to other people, or only old people. Especially don’t assume that no one in your audience is disabled. With 19% of the US population having a disability, that’s really unlikely (though, if the event is unintentionally keeping out disabled people, maybe it is true).

Other things you can implement for your WordCamps/meetups/other events (some camps already provide some of this), and why you might want to:

Quiet spaces. Having an easily-accessible space with nothing going on is a great place to relax and take a break from the excitement of the conference. A small conference room, or some open space away from the rest of the conference works. Don’t put this behind a staff member/locked door, because it’s possible someone who needs the break space won’t be able to ask to go in. For a good example, WordCamp US did really well with the quiet space at the convention center.

ASL (or local sign language) interpreters or CART (transcription) services. These serve different purposes. CART is usually used to live-caption sessions, and is beneficial to anyone with hearing issues, audio-processing issues, or english as a second language. That said, some d/Deaf people prefer ASL interpreters, so you may find that is a request. WordCamp NYC has done very well in this area in the past few years.

Is your space wheelchair accessible? Make sure to watch for this while looking for venues. You might need to really think about this one if you’ve never had to deal with this kind of access issue – even a step up at the entrance can stop someone. Smaller or older venues might also have winding entrance hallways that can be difficult to navigate.

Wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, close to the event space. Another thing to keep in mind while looking for venues. Family bathrooms could work for this need – you’ll want at least one bathroom/stall that’s big enough for a wheelchair, and ideally big enough for an assisted transfer. Gender neutral bathrooms, while not necessarily disability-related, are also good thing to have if you’re trying to be inclusive of all people.

If you’re having a social event where you expect people to mingle, make sure you have (at least some) seating in the main socializing space. If someone can’t stand for long periods of time, often the only place to sit is away from where the event is happening, and they miss out. If you’re having an event at a bar, see if you can find a space with couches and chairs, rather than expecting everyone to crowd around the bar.

Have large print schedules on request, and let people know they’re available. The trend towards tiny schedules on the back of name badges is convenient, unless you can’t read text that small.

Publish your event schedule early, and describe the space on your event site (map/photos are a plus). This is another one with many benefits. It’s one thing to trust that the organizers say a venue is accessible, but it’s another to see the space yourself. If you have a map and schedule ahead of time, you can best plan your day to conserve energy for the things you really want to see (not sure what I mean? learn about spoon theory). Or perhaps the anxiety of going into an unknown space is enough to stop you from going — a map & photos will reduce that stress. Knowing the schedule could also allow you to book transportation ahead of time – usually necessary if you use paratransit to get around.

When setting up your space, consider taping out walkways that are wide enough for wheelchair users. The “hallway track” is generally a highlight at WordCamps, but trying to move around groups of socializing people can be hard — so let people know that these areas are meant to be kept clear.

Finally, consider adding a quick note to (at least) your volunteer information about how to be a good ally to people with disabilities. A few things you could mention:

  • Don’t touch someone’s assistive devices (wheelchair, cane, alternative communication device, etc) unless they ask you to. Especially don’t touch them unless they ask you to.
  • Talk to the person you’re communicating with, not the interpreter or support person.
  • Let people judge for themselves if they need an accommodation. Don’t withhold support just because you can’t see someone’s disability.
  • Language around disability can be very personal – or political. Try to be respectful of others preferences, and don’t be afraid to be corrected (and don’t be rude if you are).
  • There are more tips on the Disability Etiquette page on wikipedia.

This was not a complete list, but by implementing some of these things your conference will be much more welcoming to all folks. Still want to learn more? Here are some other resources you can check out:

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