Reflections on Accessibility

By Sawyer Seminar Pre-doctoral Fellows Megan Dean, Meredith Denning, and Seminar Co-director Dana Luciano.

The environmental humanities remind us that we are embodied creatures and collectivities, entwined with and dependent on the places we inhabit. Concepts such as Stacy Alaimo’s “trans-corporeality” expand feminist frameworks for interdependency, acknowledging our material enmeshment in the world around us. Recognizing that enmeshment means giving attention to the ways that thinking happens materially as well as collectively, through bodies located in particular spaces. As feminists and environmental humanists, then, we need to pay attention to how those spaces interact with and accommodate a wide range of bodies. This is both an ethical and a practical concern; in order to advance our understanding of the interactions between people and environments, our discussions need to include the broadest possible span of experiences and embodiments.

Putting these ideas into practice over the past year meant cultivating spaces that could support bodies with different ranges of physical and perceptual abilities. We tried to keep in mind the fact that our bodies’ attention and energy vary throughout a day; that bodies need to eat and eat well, to hydrate, to breathe, and to rest, especially during intense intellectual labour; that different bodies have different ways of getting into, and staying in, event spaces in order to participate in our conversations; that our bodies are connected to others through parental and other caring relations; and that bodies need safe and easily accessible places to pee.

It also meant acknowledging those who enabled us to host these events in this space. This includes the administrative and custodial workers whose work made our events possible. It also requires us to think historically, to acknowledge the indigenous Nacotchtank and Piscataway peoples who were displaced from the land on which Georgetown sits, and the enslaved women and men whose labour and lives were exploited to build and maintain the university.

What we did

In the Fall of 2017, we developed an accessibility document based on work from the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy. We posted it on our website, and included a brief accessibility statement on each of our posters. One of our pre-doctoral fellows became the point person for accessibility requests, and her contact information was included on all of our posters.

Because our events often took place in the late afternoons and evenings or on Saturdays, we decided we did not want to force people to choose between attending and caring for their children. Though Georgetown styles itself as a “family-friendly” institution, its small daycare facility closes at 6 pm, making afternoon and evening events difficult to attend even for those fortunate enough to get a spot. And since most graduate students and faculty cannot afford to live anywhere near the university, long commutes also make those events prohibitive for parents and caregivers. Accordingly, we decided to allocate money for childcare and to note on our posters that care could be arranged on request; we also made sure that we had several caregivers on standby.

We committed to using only wheelchair-accessible event spaces. We used microphones at the events in bigger spaces. We audio-recorded our events, planning to post them on our website, and with the eventual aim of transcribing them as a way of increasing accessibility for those who could not attend or take notes during the events. We also requested participants not to wear strong perfume or scents.

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We made sure that when food and drink were served during an event, vegetarian options were always available, and that non-alcoholic beverages were available. Upon request, we also provided vegan and gluten-free options. We did this for several reasons: to accommodate differences in health status; to respect individuals’ choices about food; and to try to honour the connections between our bodies, agricultural systems and our health. For the same reason, we tried to work with eco-aware caterers. We requested that only compostable serving materials be used, and ordered our own supply of these in case caterers were unable to provide them. Because Georgetown does not provide composting on campus, we contracted with a private composting service for every event. In order to reduce plastic waste further, we stopped ordering water in individual plastic bottles. Instead, we purchased two refillable glass jugs, which we brought to every event. (For more on our sustainability practices, see here )

Over the course of the seminar, we developed other accessibility practices. We scheduled generous and regular breaks and offered substantive snacks and drinks to attendees during these breaks. We announced the location of bathrooms at the beginning of our events. Our co-directors opened each event by acknowledging our indebtedness to the Nacotchtank and Piscataway nations for the land on which we stood and to the hundreds of bondspeople for the labor that built and maintained the university.

How it worked

Some of our efforts were successful. We received positive feedback on food and scheduling. We were able to minimize waste from events. (Indeed, our success in this area meant that we were often distracted, at other events, by the amount of plastic waste generated.) Although we do not yet have the audio online, we are working on posting the files, and have located a transcription service. There has been interest in hearing the recordings from folks who couldn’t make the events in person.

Other efforts were less successful. No one requested accommodations, and no one requested childcare. Some of our event spaces were not truly wheelchair accessible (in one case there was a ramp but no automatic doors, in another the accessible entrance was locked from the outside and we were told we could not prop it open). We didn’t follow through on certain aspects of the accessibility statement–for instance, we didn’t use the accessibility checklist each time, we didn’t ask speakers to provide reading copies of their papers, and we didn’t use microphones at all our events. While we always asked for vegetarian meal options, we often forgot to specifically request vegan breakfast items or treats for coffee breaks. Sometimes there was no soy milk for coffee, nor did we have signs indicating what was made with butter or milk.

What we (and others) can do better

The lack of accommodation requests shouldn’t be taken as a reason not to offer them. In fact, the absence of those requests may actually underscore their necessity. Academic spaces are often inaccessible, and it is possible that people who might need accommodations have come up with their own ways to meet those needs rather than relying on organizers to provide them. Part of creating accessible spaces is about building trust that accommodations will be reliably provided. This requires being pre-emptive about accessibility, and making spaces broadly accessible by default, rather than waiting for accommodation requests. We acknowledge that although many spaces in academia remain widely inaccessible, event organizers have a unique opportunity to contribute to new norms and standards.

Likewise, the absence of childcare requests actually affirms the necessity of offering childcare regularly. Many people were surprised to hear that we would arrange childcare if asked; some said they had never before attended an academic event that offered care. Because of this, some people may not have even noticed our statement about childcare on the poster. We also did not specify that we would provide this care for free, which may have created some confusion for those who did notice. Others may well have been hesitant to ask, since childcare involves a significant degree of trust, and the fact that childcare is not normally available at academic events meant that people did not know what to expect, or how qualified our caregivers might be.

Communication is important to improving these areas. In addition to making notations on our posters and website, we should have announced at each event that we would do our best to honor accommodation and childcare requests throughout the year, in order to communicate our commitment to these needs.

We call on other event organizers and institutions to implement the following best practices for accessibility:

  • Organizers should develop an accessibility checklist that event planners can refer back to for each event. It should include:
    • ensuring the event space is wheelchair accessible
    • setting aside money for accessibility requests and childcare
    • ordering vegan and vegetarian food options, including breakfast foods and coffee breaks
    • scheduling regular and substantive breaks throughout the event
    • opening each event with announcements about bathroom locations (including gender neutral or single-stall bathrooms)
    • a plan for regular and consistent communication with event participants about accessibility at events
  • Organizers should adopt the practice of territorial acknowledgement and, where applicable, the acknowledgement of enslaved people’s labor
  • Universities must provide composting and comprehensive recycling services and offer water stations with compostable or reusable cups
    • Where the university does not yet offer these services, organizers should arrange for composting and water stations themselves
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