In advance of its annual conference in Toronto last May, the International Communication Association (ICA) set up a web page listing all the accommodations it offers attendees. The list addresses mobility, hearing and vision, childcare, support for LGBTQ+ attendees, and more. Anyone with questions or a need that’s not covered on the page is directed to contact ICA CEO Laura Sawyer.
The fact that messages regarding accommodations at a conference go straight to the top is partly a function of ICA having a small staff, Sawyer said. But she notes that it’s also important to signal to attendees that accommodations are a priority for the association—and an established part of its meeting planning.
“Once we learn how to do something, we leave it on the list,” Sawyer said. “The catalogue of all of the accessibility and inclusion services that were on the 2023 website, they’ll all be also on the 2024 website. We’re not getting rid of anything.”
Supporting attendees who require additional support and accommodations means opening those kinds of lines of communication, said Megan Henshall, strategic lead for the global event solutions team at Google Xi, which has been developing best practices for neurodiverse meeting attendees. Sometimes, an association’s best efforts neglect people who have needs that don’t fall into familiar mobility and accessibility requests.
“One thing we heard in our focus groups was, ‘Nobody ever asks what I need [at a conference],’” Henshall said. “When we say that there’s typically a disability or accommodations checkbox, they’ll respond, ‘Yeah, but any time we’ve checked that, they don’t mean us.”
To address such feelings of marginalization, Henshall recommends getting past “boilerplate language” in accommodations pages on meetings websites, and instead including explicit callouts for neurodiverse attendees. But she also notes that the overall structure of a meeting can often be rethought with those attendees in mind. For example, an association’s promise of lots of concurrent sessions and splashy keynotes can overwhelm some people.