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Do you see the irony? Inclusion and Inclusion Sessions at Conferences

I really enjoy going to conferences. I like listening to the latest research insights and meeting new and often very exciting people. Due to my research focus on disability-related topics, many of the management research conferences, conference tracks or sessions I attend are on inclusion, diversity, equality or specifically on disability.

Many inclusion and diversity sessions are not disability-inclusive—neither in topic (since disability is often not mentioned) nor in approach. I’ll give you a few examples of the latter in this blog post. I had amazing and inclusive experiences, but I believe there is merit in pointing to those (many) incidents that weren’t so inclusive.

Before the pandemic, I attended a diversity and inclusion session at a management conference. After a couple of interesting discussions, we were asked to work in groups and do some blue-sky thinking about the future of management in a diverse and inclusive world. The facilitator clicked to the slides and said: “There are five questions we want you to answer. The first one is … but I don’t need to read this, you can all read.” But of course: I couldn’t. Yet, I was prepared. These situations are one of the reasons why I travel with an Access to Work Assistant, my PhD student Emilio, who was there with me. He was sitting on my right and I leaned towards him while he looked at the slides on my left to read them out. The facilitator walked up to us and quite aggressively said “hey, why aren’t you joining in the discussions?” and then followed this up with throwing a sharpy towards me, which Emilio luckily caught as it would have otherwise hit me in the head. I know you might be thinking that he didn’t know I was blind and that it looked to him as if we were chatting about something else. First of all, that is still no excuse to be aggressive and throw  things at people. Secondly, that same person had stroked my Guide Dog Lassie in the break prior to that session, despite me having asked them not to do so twice that day and the previous day.

 When everything moved online, I thought that this will make it more inclusive and to some degree it has. Yet, closed captions – while a must – aren’t enough to make a session inclusive. Just a couple of weeks ago, I heard the following presentation: “There are nine key points. As you can see point three to five interlink and impact the nineth point. However, when all nine points are considered, it has an impact on the model. We thus reconfigured it like this”. I still don’t know what this presentation was about. The only think I know is that it was on inclusion. Yet, I felt utterly excluded. The presenter did not once say what the various items were. Apparently, the presentation was very insightful. I cannot say I agree.

With online conferencing comes chat boxes. I’ve now noticed that entire conversations happen within these chat boxes that entirely escapes me. It is a great tool to engage the audience and in a recent session the speaker really did. “Great points made there in the chat by xx and YY”, I fully agree with the critical issues raised in the chat”. I don’t know what the chat said as it was not screen-reader friendly and since nobody read it out, I don’t know what was said, I only know that I missed out – yet again.

For another conference, I was part of a panel. The organisers ran a test session with all speakers to make sure the tech is working. During my trial sessions, I could not enter the virtual venue. I managed to log into the system but then my screen reader went quiet and just kept on saying “item, item, item” no matter where I moved my mouse. I emailed them and said I couldn’t join. I got the response “Can’t you ask your assistant to do this for you for the actual event?” (they knew him from a previous event). In the end, I did ask Emilio on the day to help me as we were both in the office. However, I thought long about this as I didn’t know if I should make a stand and just refuse to attend due to the inaccessibility or if I should go to make sure more diverse voices and those of disabled people were represented. I went, yet it still feels like selling out.

I could go on and on with such examples. However, my sad and admittedly somewhat cynical conclusion is that inclusion sessions at conferences are often not more accessible than sessions on other management topics.

So why is it so hard? I’m not asking for much: Only that if you speak about various points to name them, to not say point three but to say what point three stands for, to describe graphs – is it going up or down, is it an inverted u-shape? provide a description of a photo, if you use a comic or meme to lighten things up describe it so that I can laugh as well. Test if your platform is actually accessible, provide slides in advance as screen readers cannot read via screen share. In short: don’t assume your audience or speakers have the same experience as you do. And the good thing if you do all that? You don’t just help those like me whose vision is impacted but it makes the whole session more easily understood for most.

It’s simple. So why is nobody doing it? For me, the only answer I can come up with is blunt and disenchanted: There are too few of us. There are too few disabled scholars overall and way too few who are visually impaired or blind. So we are easy to overlook.  Ironic, isn’t it?

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