“Anything else you want to tell us?” is not a valid substitute for “do you need an accommodation?”

Stop using conference registration forms, submission portals, and platforms that discriminate against people with disabilities.

Person sitting at table filling out form on laptop
Person sitting at table filling out form on laptop
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

In the first of two articles I have recently published on accommodations, I addressed what accommodations are. The second focused on what can happen when an organization turns down a valid request for an accommodation. This final article focuses on HOW to ask someone whether they need an accommodation.

The first thing that any person with mobility issues, a person with a service animal, or a person with vision/hearing loss looks for on a conference registration form is “Where do I tell them what I need to participate equally?”

The majority of conference registration forms I fill out don’t include a place for this information. Instead, they have a cheery, catch-all question at the end that says something to the effect of “anything else you would like to tell us?”

Here is why that is problematic.

Accommodations requests for conferences are important.

Without them, the people making the requests have zero chance of equal participation in the event. People want to know whether their disability needs can be accommodated before they commit to spending time or money on a conference registration that might be difficult to get a refund for.

Accommodations requests for events can include things like:

  • Captioning/CART/Sign Language Interpretation for people with hearing loss
  • Advanced copies of accessible presentation materials for people with vision loss or reading disabilities
  • In-person event (we will have those again someday, right?) accommodations including food, hotel, service animal, and assistant-related requests.

“Anything else?” as the only place to request accommodations is a sign that you really aren’t thinking about participants with disabilities and certainly NOT thinking about those individuals’ authentic inclusion at your event. This also indicates that the organization doesn’t consider disability accommodations important and that the request can be rejected.

Read this article to find out what happened to a conference organizer who turned down a deaf woman’s request for an ASL interpreter. “She Should Run” Has Been Accused Of Not Accommodating A Deaf Woman. She Should Run is now facing a DC’s Office of Human Rights complaint plus bad publicity.

Conference registration “Anything else?” requests are difficult to convert into action.

Because “anything else” is a catch-all, it will include things ranging from accommodations to “will the recordings be posted” or “my favorite color is red.” A human has to read ALL of these comments and figure out which ones need action. Also, if you don’t have a specific section in your registration on disability-related accommodations, chances are you don’t have an individual in charge of disability-related accommodations. That is a problem, given that 18 % of the US population has a disability.

Conference registration “anything else?” requests are difficult to turn into analytics.

Because of the reasons above (“anything else?” can be used for literally ANYTHING), it is challenging to derive any actionable data intelligence about your participants with disabilities.

If you want to know things about the disability status of your registrants, you have to ask:

  1. Do you have a disability?
  2. Do you need an accommodation for your disability?
  3. What accommodation are you requesting?

When you ask those three questions independently, you will be able to guarantee that you can generate business intelligence about your attendees’ disability-related needs. This includes measuring whether paying attention to the disability needs of your attendees results in more disabled people attending (chances are it will, we do talk to each other) and will also give you data that you can then use to apply for grants related to your accommodation costs, such as captioning.

In addition:

  • Avoid asking for a medical diagnosis. Let people indicate they need captions for hearing loss, don’t ask for an audiogram or degree of deafness.
  • Use people-first language. Don’t have a check box that says, “I am hearing impaired.” Have a checkbox that says, “I am a person with hearing loss.”

Next Steps

If the person on the receiving end of the accommodations request doesn’t know what to do:

  1. They should ask someone who does, generally speaking, this person will be in Human Resources or possibly a different manager who has experience with this, or;
  2. They should continue to engage with the person making the accommodations request.

Pretending that the request didn’t happen is never a valid response. It is also the response that will potentially get your organization in the most hot water.

Written by

Accessibility Architect @ VMware. W3C Silver, ITI & IAAP GLC committees. Degrees in CS, law, business. Wheelchair user w/ a deaf daughter.

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