Designing Inclusive Events for Neurodiverse Participants

Wearing ear-protectors and thanks to a Disability Access Card, Violet enjoys Disneyland on her terms.

In recent months, I interviewed a number of people about their experiences in Open Source, contributing at Mozilla and under a number of topics, which included ‘events’.

“ Neurodiversity is the concept that humans don’t come in a one-size-fits-all neurologically “normal” package. Instead, this it recognizes that all variations of human neurological function need to be respected as just another way of being, and that neurological differences like autism and ADHD are the result of normal / natural variations in the human genom” — Autism Awareness Center

Among those who identified as having neurodiverse experiences of the world, we uncovered two compelling insights.

The first was just how many neurodiverse folks we actually have in the community:

We (neurodiverse people) are an over-represented group in tech, yet technical events are skewed towards neurotypical attendees”. — community interview

The second was that neurodiverse experiences at events (community events, conferences, hackathons, workshops) were far from ideal. Loud, bright, crowded, often intensely interactive and with few opportunities to break or rest, and well… I heard that , ‘tech’ events are basically extrovert playgrounds.

And then I went to Disneyland.

My youngest daughter has Sensory Processing Disorder . The crowded, bright, LOUD, hot and energized atmosphere for her is shrill and uninterpretable tsunami of information — all loudly competing for the same space in her brain. Not a entirely different than many technical conferences.

I would never have attempted this trip without the existence of the DAC (Disability Access Card), which gave us full unquestioned access to ‘ask for what we needed’ —that was… to avoid standing in crowds or long lines, and to have a quiet room for breaks. It made the impossible — fun.

I came home to research what it looked like to be an adult experiencing the world similarly attempting to attend technical events and conferences. A search of 20 websites turned up the word ‘diverse’ often, but usually to describe skillsets, and speakers. ‘Accessiblity’ turned up in speakers talks, but not on top-level website content.

I know many conferences have embraced some of AdaCamps’s design like colored lanyards for photographs, but the only conference I could find that outwardly invited, that reaches out — on the front page, to diverse participants — was Wiscon (thanks to Sarah Sharp for pointing me to it).

Wiscon’s main page lists ‘spaces’ for Safer spaces for Trans/Genderqueer, people with disabilities, of color and yes a quiet place ❤ Supporting links for policies include Accessibility with links for accessible travel between hotels, acknowledgement of barriers that remain and the responsibility of everyone to make the event accessible including presentation material. And I am leaving out a lot.

I would love to learn of other events leading the way — in helping neurodiverse and other abilities visualize their success at events , before they arrive — it’s really critical in building inclusive offline culture in communities.