Accessibility 101 Recap

Over the weekend I presented at Secular Women Work, and I was so psyched about my presentation that I wanted to share it with all of you as well. Accessibility. Most events kind of suck at it. While there is a law in place (the ADA) that requires reasonable accommodations for disabilities, many organizers don’t really know what that means and many individuals who don’t have very classic disabilities such as mobility problems, blindness, or deafness, aren’t sure how to ask for what they need.

Skeptics are actively trying to make the world better, both through science and evidence based improvements, and by reaching more people. Both of these goals are served by accessibility improvements, since there’s a lot of good science, both social and otherwise, that can give us roadmaps for making life easier for individuals with disabilities AND because accessibility makes our movement more available to more people. Who wouldn’t want to bring in more people to their events?

Before I get into some of the nitty gritty strategies, I do want to make the disclaimer that accessibility is a huge topic and there is no way to cover it all in one blog post. These suggestions will be broad and aim to give you a place to start in making your site/event/conference more accessible.

First and foremost, remember that accessibility is often about listening and communicating so that you can provide the best experience possible to your attendees. You may not always preemptively fix any accessibility concern, but if you make it clear that you want to start a conversation you can usually find good ways to include people.

When most people hear accessibility they tend to think of very visible, physical disabilities. They think about making their space accessible for wheelchairs, about providing ASL interpreters where necessary, or about service animals. These are good first steps, and there are many checklists and resources to help organizers remember all the elements of ensuring these types of accessibility. The biggest thing to remember in this regard is to see your space ahead of time. Sometimes a space’s website may say they are ADA compliant, but that does not always mean they’re accessible. Check for even a single step, for the size of elevators, and to ensure that there is space to navigate with a wheelchair.

But it is rare for organizers to recognize that accessibility also includes accommodations for people with mental illness or disabilities. People forget that they need to adjust the format and space to accommodate people with autism, epilepsy, dietary restrictions, anxiety, PTSD, and many other disorders.

This might sound overwhelming. There are a lot of different needs out there, and accommodations can be expensive. But keep in mind the curb cut effect. Most accommodations don’t just benefit the people who asked for them. They often help many people who didn’t know they needed an accommodation at all. One great example of this is WisCon, a Sci Fi/Fantasy convention in Wisconsin. They recently instituted a change in which they had different lanes in the hallways, one for talking and one for walking. This was intended to help people with mobility issues, but they got lots of positive feedback from people with visual impairments, people with social anxiety, people who just needed to get places quickly (like the restroom. This is great for people with disabilities like Crohn’s), and everyone who is annoyed by traffic jams.

So while it might sound nitpicky and overwhelming to include all kinds of accommodations, you will probably help many, many people. When it comes to including neurodiversity in your accommodations, I would recommend starting by looking at the format of your event. Socializing, decision making, and even just being out in public can often take a lot more energy out of people with mental illnesses and differences. Going to a conference can sap all my spoons for a week or more afterwards, and I typically am highly functional at getting myself out of the house and into the world. If you’re requiring lots of small group or socializing work, or if there isn’t a quiet space for people to collect themselves and refocus, you may be pushing a lot of people away. I particularly enjoy events that allow me to engage in a variety of ways, including writing, discussion, listening to lectures, and tweeting or using social media.

There are a few really quick and easy things you can do to make socializing and public spaces easier for people with mental illnesses. Allowing fidgets, having a quiet room, including content notices, or these awesome badges are all tactics that go a long way.

Another thing to consider in a group or event is your volunteers. Many volunteering opportunities can be pretty taxing socially, but almost every event that I know of also has needs that don’t require talking to many other people. Providing your volunteers with all the information they need to choose an opportunity that works for them goes a long way towards getting you more volunteers and allowing people with disabilities to participate fully.

Finally, and perhaps obviously, get people with disabilities involved. Ask them to take a look at what you’re doing and give you feedback. Solicit opinions from as many people as possible. For able-bodied and neurotypical people, it’s easy to overlook or forget something that is incredibly obvious to people with disabilities.

Some last notes:

-Tailor your event to the people you are hoping to draw. Don’t have a walk for MS.

-Make sure you have a point of contact for accessibility concerns and don’t use generic language to identify them. Instead of “for accessibility concerns contact…” try instead “we want to work with you to make the event accessible. If you have any concerns or questions please get in touch at…”

-Foster a culture of accessibility: sometimes even having fidgets available is enough to signal to a person that they are allowed to take steps to care for themselves.

-Take some time to look at your web presence in addition to your physical presence. Try to include captions for photos, use decent contrast for people with color blindness, and reasonable fonts and sizes for the visually impaired. There are tons of resources out there to help improve your website.

-Location (especially because many people with disabilities rely on public transit), cost (many people with disabilities are unemployed, and living with a disability is expensive), and time are not just important to consider for general attendees but also from an accessibility point of view.

If you’re interested in seeing a really comprehensive explanation of accommodations, check out the WisCon page.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at

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  1. Terrific post Olivia!

    I spend so much of my life in the blindness world that I always find pan-disability pieces especially interesting. I’d describe myself as myopic but that would be an upgrade to my vision :-).

    Just wanted to add a shout out to the disability oriented Skeptability Skepchick sister site where disability issues are the main topic of discussion. My own blog is pretty good too but is specifically about blindness and tends to be filled with jargon and an assumption the reader knows some of the history.

    Earlier this year, I wrote a piece there about the QED conference in Manchester, England and the amazing job Mike Hall of the Merseyside Skeptics does regarding accommodations at that event. It’s a real pleasure to attend a skeptics event each year and never feel unwelcome as I have at some in the US.

    Anyway, great post.

  2. I’ll add, if possible, schedule any and all conferences near a bus stop or train station. Many people can’t afford gas, insurance, etc., and even if you can, there are a number of disabilities which interfere with driving.

  3. I’ve heard of a few walks and runs for MS in my area, and the obvious issue somehow never occurred to me. It’s weird how so many awareness campaigns seem to Other the people they want to raise awareness about. It’s especially awful with autism awareness from what I’ve seen.

    I’m delighted that you linked to Thing of Things. I like it when there are unexpected connections between things I like, however small.

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