Able-bodiedness should not be a prerequisite for conference participation. If conferences are centered on the sharing of ideas, then access is the key to creating inclusive communities that help facilitate this fundamental aspect of our profession. Accessibility, as we envision it, works to the benefit of all conference participants by enabling a more effective circulation of and engagement with ideas. Cultivating better practices for access enables us to reach more people. Instead of maintaining a status quo that leaves people out of conversations, we would like to create more seats at the tables of our conferences.
The strategies we offer stem from our work on enhancing accessibility at our annual American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) meetings.1 Our endeavor is borne out of our expertise in disability studies and our lived experiences as disabled scholars who rely on accommodations to participate in panel sessions and in conference settings generally.
These strategies resist a one-size-fits-all model of access. We do not regard these strategies as prescriptive; rather, they are meant to be guidelines for encouraging ongoing conversations about access that necessarily change based on the needs of individual conference attendees as well as the varying character of panels, roundtables, poster sessions, and conferences. Please also keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list; it is beholden to continued discussions about access, which we encourage you to take up in your scholarly communities.
One last caveat: we are coming from the discipline of English and the subfield of literary studies, but we understand that the structure of a conference shifts according to discipline and subfield. Such nonuniformity necessarily means that one encounters different access barriers and accommodation needs in different contexts. Conferences, like the MLA convention, may have their own recommendations for presenters.
Preparing Your Presentation
- Bring two large-print (16–18-point font, double-spaced) copies of your talk. Before you begin your talk, ask the attendees in the room if there is anybody who would prefer to follow your talk by reading along with you by way of a print copy. If you are worried about your work circulating without your permission, you might write “not for circulation” or “please return to author at end of panel” at the top of your paper. Keep in mind that there are many reasons why somebody would prefer to follow your paper in a print format. By opening yourself up to this practice, you will draw in a larger audience and circulate your ideas more widely.2
- Bring copies of PowerPoint slides if you intend to do a slide presentation and offer them to attendees.
- Make your PowerPoint presentation accessible:
- Use sans serif font styles, minimum 36-point font.
- Do not go beyond six lines of text per slide. If you have a long quotation, divide it among two slides if necessary.
- Avoid using outlandish colors or design schemes. Stick to basic, high-contrast models, either black font on white background, or white font on black background.
- Describe to your audience in detail any images or graphics you choose to include in your slide show. Make sure you account for this in the timing of your talk.
- Include transcriptions for audio and visual files.
- Give a title to every slide.
- Avoid distracting slide transitions and graphics.
- Consider making your PowerPoint presentation available digitally. If you do, please use appropriate headers. Avoid all caps. All of the above guidelines apply.
- Consider extending your talk through digital access to your audience. This is especially important if you are unable to bring physical copies. You might go about this in a few ways:
- If you use Twitter, you could tweet out a link to your paper hosted on Google Drive, OneDrive, Humanities Commons CORE, or some other shareable platform. Alert your audience to its availability as you begin your talk. Of course, you can delete the tweet and link once your panel is finished.
- Digital-access copies of papers should follow accessibility guidelines: ensure appropriate, high-contrast colors (e.g., black on white); use sans serif fonts; and avoid all caps.3
- Given how rapidly technology is changing, we anticipate shifts in the realm of digital access in the coming years. Be attuned to these continued conversations.
During the Presentation
- Speak as clearly as possible and at a moderate pace without covering your mouth. Avoid reading your talk quickly. Rehearse your talk beforehand to get a sense of your time constraints. If there is a microphone, speak into the microphone. Do not ask if your voice projection alone is enough to reach everyone (i.e., don’t ask “Can everyone hear me without the microphone?”); instead, assume that the microphone is needed.
- If your panel will be using an ASL interpreter, make available to the interpreter a copy of your talk ahead of time, if possible. Remember that not all your concepts will be familiar to interpreters, who are typically not specialists in your field. Be willing to take the time to explain your argument.
- If you are a panel chair, you might consider the following:
- Strike a balance between managing time and accounting for speech variability. Try not to get too hung up on the amount of time it takes a panelist to present a paper. Of course, there are time restrictions you need to account for; use your judgment, but remember that everyone speaks at varying paces (some stammer, for instance).
- Ask your panelists ahead of time if they have accessibility needs. In the past, for example, panel chairs have repeated questions from the audience to Jason (who is severely hearing impaired). Such thoughtfulness can assuage the anxiety that disabled presenters feel.
- Consider collecting access copies from panelists before the session begins. This might streamline distribution of access copies during the session. You could also distribute access copies from the panelists at the beginning of each talk. On that note, you should communicate with your panelists ahead of time to ensure that they bring access copies.
Finally, remember that accessibility helps everyone, not just people with disabilities. Be flexible, generous, and willing to accommodate an array of accessibility needs. Be open to conversations and suggestions. By keeping in mind these suggestions, you will present your research in a clear, efficient manner, and your work will have a larger footprint.
An earlier version of these recommendations appeared on the blog of the Graduate Student Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. A few of the suggestions we have collected are derived from Web resources such as accessibility.psu.edu/microsoftoffice/powerpoint/, www.aucd.org/conference/index.cfm/presentation-details-and-accessibility2013, and www.w3.org/WAI/training/accessible.php.
1. We would like to recognize and thank members of the ASECS board who have adopted panel accessibility as an official policy of our organization. They have made accessibility in general a priority for our annual meetings.
2. We realize that exposing your work in a print copy is a concern shared by many, but we ask that you try not to get hung up on the idea that your audience will steal your ideas if you offer a print copy. After all, ideas may be stolen by someone who simply listens to the talk. Here’s how giving into the anxiety of stolen work can play out in stark terms: at a panel some years ago, a scholar publicly refused to provide a print or digital version of the talk to a Deaf audience member who relies on ASL and reading to participate in conferences. The audience member has not attended a panel at this particular conference since.
3. Special thanks to Alice McGrath for her insights about digital access.This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Jason S. Farr is assistant professor of English at Marquette University. Travis Chi Wing Lau is a postdoctoral teaching fellow in English at the University of Texas, Austin.
2 comments on “Toward a More Accessible Conference Presentation”
Amanda Müller says:
“Do not ask if your voice projection alone is enough to reach everyone (i.e., don’t ask ‘Can everyone hear me without the microphone?’); instead, assume that the microphone is needed.”
YES!!! Thank you for mentioning this. Not only people with hearing disabilities, but many people whose first language is not English, will benefit from this. I have never understood why presenters decline to use the microphone, which is such a simple and commonsense way of making sure everybody in the room can listen to your presentation.