The Challenges & Successes of In-Person Conferences for Employees With Disabilities

Text that says CSUN Assistive Technology Conference on a light blue background.

Image Description: Text that says CSUN Assistive Technology Conference on a light blue background.

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The Challenges & Successes of In-Person Conferences for Employees With Disabilities

Members from the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce discuss both the challenges and benefits of attending an in-person conference such as CSUN 2022.

May 04, 2022

Many symposiums have recently returned to in-person attendance, including the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference, the longest running conference dedicated to accessibility in the United States. Held in Anaheim, California in March, CSUN has taken place annually for 37 years.

Several members of the Office of Accessibility at Salesforce had the opportunity to attend. While each encountered challenges presented by an in-person conference, their experiences provided them with tools and insights they hope to bring back to the rest of their company.

The Challenges

Even for in-person conferences dedicated to people with disabilities, designed by people with disabilities, accessibility barriers can show up.

For instance, large gatherings of people with numberless booths, panels, and ongoing conversations can create a stimulus overload for many, including members of the d/Deaf community.

“I identify as deaf, sometimes hard of hearing, depending on my assistive tech setup,” says Salesforce Access Program Manager Haley Kimmet. “A lot of barriers are removed in a remote environment because of auto captioning and live captioners, and sometimes I use interpreters.

“Going into a conference setting, my barriers are completely different,” she continues. “In fact, I get really anxious. There’s just mayhem everywhere. It’s hard to account for my access needs.”

Mobility barriers can sometimes still be overlooked, impacting people with physical disabilities. Kimmet recalls moving throughout CSUN with her colleague, Workforce Navigators Program Associate Lucia Rios, who also uses a wheelchair.

“Lucia and I have very different disabilities,” she explains. “We were trying to figure out how to navigate the conference together. I know if I was not with Lucia I would not have been paying as much attention to the rugs, the carpeting across the whole event. It gives us an opportunity to call out the barriers that exist in this environment.”

“I think for me,” says Rios, “it was hard to maneuver in the conference space. I work remotely. This is really my first time being out and active for something [since the beginning of the pandemic]. It was a little bit more tiring.”

The Successes

While persistent accessibility challenges deter some professionals with disabilities from attending in-person conferences, there are plenty of positive experiences to be had.

One of the more pronounced benefits is the unique networking opportunities that happen in person.

“We ended up running into a British group that was part of a government agency,” Kimmet says. “We spent a lot of time with them talking about their approach on access and what they were doing within their roles. I miss that cross-pollination of ideas that’s hard to access remotely.”

Remote technology certainly benefits professionals with disabilities, but teleconferencing is not without its shortcomings.

“So many folks are burned out on recordings and miscellaneous live conferences that don’t have that interaction,” she continues. “I think I spend a lot of time focusing on what I can do to remove barriers for myself in these environments but then I sometimes forget how much value I get back being in person. I feel a little bit torn. It’s so much easier for me at home, remotely. But then I’m getting so much value back from being in person with these folks.”

Rios was reminded of the profound connection one can make when interacting in person.

“One that stood out was a woman who uses assistive technology to communicate fully,” she recalls. “She did the whole presentation using her assistive technology. She talked about how before that life was a lot more difficult. She didn’t feel like she had a voice or access. So that was a really powerful presentation.

“I was able to speak to her afterward,” says Rios. “I realized how much patience it takes for her to even type out the answers. I really appreciated that because she was really vulnerable, and the fact it opened my eyes to assistive technology and how it creates so much independence.”

Perhaps most poignant of all was the sense of community and solidarity found among those who attended.

“It’s a cool feeling to see and meet people with all types of disabilities,” she continues. “We’re like the majority. There’s such a sense of, ‘Wow, these are my people,’ or ‘They get it,’ more than the average person. Every day when I would go down to the lobby, you’d see people with canes or guide dogs, people using their hands to speak. It was a cool feeling to not be the only one.”

“It’s almost a relief to be in an environment where you feel like you’re not the odd person out all the time,” echoes Kimmet.

Applying the Lessons

While in-person conferences can border on information overload for participants wanting to visit every booth and panel, they can also serve well as a starting point for professionals to dig in deeper, later on.

“I was basically running to every booth and grabbing their pamphlets,” explains Kimmet. “I would take materials and run. I’m really acquainting myself with the lay of the land. My role is deeply focused on employee experience and making sure they have what they need to do their best work. So I’m really trying to keep tabs on what’s new on the scene.”

New assistive technologies often leave a lasting impression on professionals with disabilities hoping to increase accessibility and independence for themselves and their colleagues.

“One tech that I was really fascinated by is refreshable braille displays,” notes Kimmet. She believes it makes accessing “content in braille very easy. We have a number of employees who are blind or low vision that have to work with design teams a lot for prototyping. There have been a lot of barriers. I’m just gathering as much information as I can, and checking in with employees like, ‘Hey, I heard about this technology.’ I’m figuring out if we can pilot devices. That’s one of my biggest to-dos.”

Since launching its Office of Accessibility, Salesforce has made progress along the lines of accessibility and inclusion, but team members are well aware they have many opportunities to improve.

“Salesforce is not a disability-majority environment and there are challenges that come with that,” shares Kimmet. “Some really amazing access opportunities, as well. Being in what was a disability-majority environment, that’s refreshing. What can we do to bring aspects of that into Salesforce, so that people who have historically felt very isolated with disabilities in large corporations—how do we build that community and that presence? It remains a challenge. It’s a good challenge.”

Salesforce is a founding partner of InclusionHub, a resource for digital accessibility, committed to helping businesses prioritize digital inclusion. Visit its a11y website to learn more.

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