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This Disability History Month Charlotte Albury, Athena Swan EMCR Rep shares the importance and difference that active inclusivity makes to her experience at conferences and work.

Over the summer I attended two conferences. Both healthcare focussed and both a similar size and a similar cost. I am disabled and need a couple of adjustments to support conference access. This broadly includes access to a lift (if there are stairs), and an accessible room to present in. I informed both conferences of these needs in advance, and they both confirmed these needs could and would be met. Although the conferences seemed similar when I was preparing, my experiences of actually attending these two conferences was vastly different…

I arrived at the first conference, themed around ‘informed and inclusive’ primary care, with plenty of time until the start.  The lift was hard to locate round the back of building, through a network of corridors, so I was given a number to call for a member of the team to come and show me the lift, and how to get to the conference rooms. I called the number. No reply. I kept calling. I sat in the foyer as colleagues passed by on their way in, some keeping me company for a while. Eventually someone answered. They were busy looking after invited speakers, helping people register.  They would be with me soon. Conference start time came and went, and I was feeling increasingly frustrated. Eventually someone came, and although I said I couldn’t move very quickly they ushered me faster and faster (they had other things to do) through the corridor to find (eventually after two tries in the wrong direction) the right lift. 

By the time I got to the room the conference was in full swing. My colleagues were sat together but I was shown to the back – as I was late.  I couldn’t even register, as the registration table/help desk was between two flights of stairs. 

But I was here now, determined to get the most form the conference I tried to listen to the keynote. However the rushed walk (jog) through the halls and the worry of being forgotten had meant my clotting condition kicked in and my mouth had started bleeding. I went out looking for an accessible bathroom to sort my mouth and adjust my medication. The conference theme was ‘informed and inclusive healthcare’ and they had spent time and effort ensuring bathroom signs were changed to create inclusive spaces (great). Except. Except there was only one disabled bathroom for a large conference of people, and it was busy. I wanted to ask for help, ask where could I find another accessible bathroom – but remember the help desk? Between two flights of stairs? Remember the busy team not answering the phone? (I might add the upshot of this later was there was only the one accessible bathroom anyway). 

So I sat in the corridor hearing the keynote in the room next door talking about inclusivity, whilst trying to sort out my clotting in a public corridor, trying to hide a very visible clotting issue from passers-by, feeling completely unwelcome, and inconvenient, and trying not to cry. 

As the day went on I discovered many of the parallel sessions I had planned on attending were inaccessible, without lift access. It was hard to ask for help (help desk between two flights of stairs, team not answering the phone etc.) but when I did find a member of conference staff it transpired that the room I was due to present in the next day was one of those inaccessible rooms. They asked me why I needed adjustments, and seemed cross when I reiterated what my adjustments were, but said I was uncomfortable disclosing private health information.  They said they’d look into a different room for my presentation, but the talks I wanted to see would remain inaccessible for me. These conversations took a long time, much back and forth, and in the meantime I was missing most of the first day of the conference. 

By now I not only felt unwelcome, and frustrated, but increasingly exhausted. I was an inconvenience. Without the promised adjustments to manage my conditions I was also feeling increasingly unwell. I decided to push through the day, but could not attend the second morning. Fortunately, an accessible room was provided for me to present in that afternoon (it had, it seemed, been available all along, it just had not been booked). 

Whilst I had done all I could – been early, checked in advance, sought confirmation... I had been overlooked. It might be fair to think it was a one off… but I have had similar experiences at most other conferences, or external training courses, I have attended. Adjustments promised, rarely delivered. People often becoming frustrated with me, rather than acknowledging a mistake.   I left the conference exhausted, unwell, and had not been able to attend many of the sessions I had planned to.

When I talk to colleagues about experiences like this they are mostly surprised and empathetic (and the colleagues at the conference with me were all brilliant). However, some urge "get a thicker skin", "just deal with it", "if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen’’… they place an onus on me to be different, or do things differently. Sometimes I’ve been told I’m "too sensitive", or "is academia really for you if you find this hard?".  It has led, over time, for me to keep these issues to myself. I know I belong in academia, but regularly see and experience structures like this which make life far harder for disabled academics than it needs to be. Blaming us is an easy solution as puts the onus on us to change, rather than the processes and systems which exclude us. This was not a one-off. Anyone would be upset or frustrated by constant access challenges, staff asking ‘what’s wrong with you’, pushing yourself beyond your limits because someone forgot you’d be there, at the same time as trying to get the most out of an event like a conference. I, like many of us, tend to struggle quietly through, deal with these issues on my own, so people don’t blame me, or question my place in academia. But this, like most accessibility issues, was not my issue to address. 


My second conference tale is, thankfully, much shorter. 

I arrived. There was a lift. I checked the room I was presenting in, no stairs or steps. The social events were in accessible spaces. Disabled bathrooms… more than I could count. Help desk, easily accessible. 

I had, for the first time, the experience others must have at conferences – it was fun, engaging, I learnt so much (because I could actually attend the events and talks), I built collaborations at the social events, at lunch, at breakfast. 

The issue here was never me, or my ability – in fact, I won highly competitive prizes for ‘best presentation’ at both conferences. It was the choices others made in the setting and set-up that meant one conference was inaccessible and the other accessible. 


I hope my tale of two conferences highlights that inclusion is an active choice. People make active choices when booking events, or managing spaces to exclude or include their colleagues.  I hope it also highlights to other disabled colleagues that you are not alone.

There are things we can all do to make positive changes here.

Rather than placing the onus to deal with inaccessible spaces and systems on the disabled person to ‘do more’ or ‘try harder’ we should be looking to ensure spaces, events, and systems are accessible. Any of us might book a meeting room, an event, a team meal out, a writing retreat; I would encourage all of us to think about access and accessibility when doing this and make inclusive choices. Finally, as my kind colleagues did at the first conference, check-in with your colleagues. Particularly in new spaces or places, as their experience may be very different to your own.

Opinions expressed are those of the author/s and not of the University of Oxford. Readers' comments will be moderated - see our guidelines for further information.


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