Saturday, 10 December 2016

Ten Ways to Make Conferences Accessible to People with Disabilities

Written by Debra Guckenheimer 
Debra kindly gave us permission to re-post this article from  The original can be found here:


Attending workshops, lectures, symposium, conferences, and other events are difficult or even impossible for some people with disabilities. Rarely have I seen disability given much thought in conference planning, even when the topic is diversity and inclusion.
Here are ten ways to making your conferences more inclusive of people with disabilities. Many of them cost little to nothing other than a little forethought.
  1. Accommodation Point Person:

    Assign a person to be responsible for providing accommodations when needed. This person ideally should have some training in disability inclusion and encouraged to think creatively about how to accommodate potential attendees and speakers. Publish a phone number available during the event so that someone is available to address issues as they arise.
  2. Advertising and Publicity:

    Include a statement about your desire to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Provide contact information for your accommodation point person as well as information about all accommodations you have arranged. All photographs in publicity should include a caption describing the picture for the blind and visually impaired who use screen readers.
  3. Interpreters:

    Provide an option of a deaf interpreter. If you have the funds, hire the interpreter for all events or at least the larger sessions. Having the interpreter allows for attendees to not have to make the request in advance as well as demonstrates your commitment to inclusion. If funds are tight, offer to provide an interpreter upon request.
  4. Ushers:

    For the blind and visually impaired as well as for people with difficulty carrying materials around with them, have someone available to escort people around large conference spaces. If your event requires walking across long distances, have wheelchairs available for escorts to transport participants who need help getting across the space.
  5. Parking:

    Does your space provide adequate parking spots for people with disabilities? If lack of parking is an issue, consider providing extra reserved spots for those with disabilities. Consider how people with wheelchairs as well as those without but who have limited mobility can maneuver the space. If a separate entrance is needed for those who cannot climb stairs, make sure the entrance is not locked. Allow people to independently be able to enter your venue. If it isn’t self-explanatory, have clear instructions for where ramps and reserved parking for those with disabilities are located.
  6. Location and Set-Up:

    Be sure your venue is wheelchair accessible — both entrance and bathrooms. When planning the set-up of your room, ensure that isles are wide enough for wheelchairs. Leave space at the side and back of rooms so that people who need to stand can do so.
  7. Inclusion Supplies and Supports:

    Want to go above and beyond? Provide a separate space where attendees can comfortably relax, especially for longer events and conferences. Have more comfortable chairs and foot stools in these spaces. Ensure space for attendees to stretch there if needed. Inside your event, provide back supports, cushions, and/or portable foot stools so that attendees can make the seating fit their bodies.
  8. Food Allergies and Intolerances:

    If you are serving food at your event, consider taking a few steps to allow participants to keep themselves safe. Keep common allergens out of your menu, and announce menus ahead of time including if the menu is free of these. Keep your event space peanut/tree nut free since those allergies often respond to any exposure. Label foods being served (or if using wait staff, have them informed) including if they contain and/or are free of common allergens. If you are aware of an attendee having an allergy, do what you can to accommodate. Providing an alternative food is more inclusive than asking an attendee to bring their own.
  9. Audio/Video Streaming and Conferencing:

    Being physically present is just not possible for all people. If you take advantage of one of the many technologies available to audio/video streaming or conferencing. At the most basic, you can allow people to hear and see speakers. With more investment, you can allow speakers to present and participations to ask questions without being in attendance.
  10. Social Media Participation:

    With social media, we can rethink what participation looks like. Create a hashtag for your event so that participants can use it to follow each other’s posts. Create a Storify page to track postings and create a permanent website with tweets and streaming. Provide a listing of all speakers and participants that include social media used to encourage participants to connect. Virtual Connecting is an organization is rethinking academic conference participation. They have ideas about how to connect people physically present as well as those participating online.
  11. Don’t stop with my ten tips. The best way to be inclusive of people with disabilities is to engage in conversation. Ask people with disabilities that you want to participate at your conference what they need. Be open and creative. Making your conferences and other events more inclusive for people with disabilities will also make them more inclusive for all people.
About the Author

Photo of the author
Debra Guckenheimer is a Research Associate at the Clayman Institute for Gender Research at Stanford University. Previously, she was a Research Associate at the Hadassah Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Bowdoin College, and a Postdoctoral Research Associate with the NSF ADVANCE Institutional Transformation Program at Northeastern University. She is an expert on social change efforts to reduce inequalities based on race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability. She has appeared in USA Today and on public radio. Her work has appeared in the Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, The Feminist Wire, The Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship, and Doing Diversity in Higher Education. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and a B.A. in Politics from Oberlin College.

PhD funding during illness: cancer, consequences & suggestions for change

Written by Claudia Pama
The last thing I wanted this blog post to become is some whining account of my personal experiences, but if you sense any of that while reading it, I sincerely apologise and greatly admire your perseverance if you make it to the end. At the same time, I really hope you do (make it to the end, that is), as it’s not about my experiences (which solely function as an example), but about changes that should be made to a system where PhD students who fall ill are currently being punished for doing so.
Brace yourself (admittedly, it's rather long, too).
The message that you have cancer is never easy to digest, and the timing is never right. I received mine on an evening in February 2015, while pressing my phone against my ear to identify the words my oncologist was uttering (‘I’m very sorry to bring the bad news’, ‘what stage is it?’, ‘we can’t tell, you will have an MRI to determine that’, ‘can it be terminal?’, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t know at this point’, and so on), as I was standing in a busy London street. Just a couple of weeks into my second lab rotation (part of the PhD programme I am currently enrolled in), I realised that the next months would require all my energy and organisational skills. Several doctor appointments, an MRI scan, discussions, decisions about my exact treatment and sketching a general action plan for the next weeks followed.
On the bright side, it turned out my cancer was an early stage, and I was able to receive a specific type of surgery (most likely not readily available to me back home). What’s more, I was positively shocked by all the support I was given from friends and those that didn't even know me that well – Cambridge felt like the best place to get cancer (or, more accurately, the least bad one). Largely because of this I managed to finish my rotation successfully, and arranged a period of medical intermission, starting on the day of my surgery (planning an intermission requires some effort, including the needed paperwork, medical letters and meetings with several people - while it’s no fun to do these things, most people were very supportive throughout this process).
In the chaos of arranging things and coping with the situation, I didn’t quite check the regulations of my funding bodies in too much detail (not that I had much choice anyway; the treatment plan was set up in Cambridge and I needed to get time out for treatment and recovery). Little did I know that, after politely informing them about my medical intermission, one* would reply by stating that this would affect my maintenance payment, and that any maintenance paid during this period was officially to be refunded. This was followed by some options, which effectively included multiple scenarios of the same one (pay back now, pay back later, pay half of it now, half of it later, don’t receive funding during a subsequent term, etc.), ending with the wonderfully paradoxical comment ‘the choice is yours’.
After more e-mail conversations (during which I explained my situation, stressing that my treatment had to be completed in Cambridge and I was fully dependent on my scholarships, in reply hearing that unfortunately no hardship or extension funding was available either), we eventually came to an ‘agreement’: instead of paying back my maintenance stipend during my intermission (which I couldn’t afford to do), I will be left without funding for the last term of my PhD (I still need to find a suitable solution). Of all my ‘choices’, this seemed to be the least bad one. As you can imagine, discussions like these are the last kind you want to engage in while being stressed about your health, work, finances and future, but unfortunately they seem to be more common than we would want them to be.
During the intermission period, I couldn’t wait to start my planned PhD experiments as soon as I was fully recovered. Although I knew that something wasn’t quite right about the way my funding was arranged, I didn’t really know anyone in a similar position and felt slightly powerless as an individual. Yet here comes the beauty of our digital era: one day my friend Edwin (a PhD student at the University of Oxford) wrote this blog post about his experiences, and I messaged him immediately. It turned out that he was in touch with Stella, who is doing a PhD at University College London and has just been through treatment herself. It made us realise that we’re not the only ones going through this, and what’s more, we’ve either experienced issues with funding bodies ourselves, or heard stories of others going through something similar. That’s when we decided to write a correspondence letter to Nature, published just over two weeks ago.
The question arises about what would be a reasonable solution. There is wide heterogeneity amongst funding bodies when it comes to medical leave; some fund part of it, some none. In our correspondence we suggest that PhD students should have the same rights as academic staff when it comes to medical leave (e.g. six months of paid sick leave) – in the end they essentially work like full time employees, so why shouldn’t they be treated as such? Alternatives already exist, one example being the Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie programmes for PhD students. The European Commission requires that grantees are offered a staff contract, thereby protecting their rights to sick leave. We propose that other UK funding bodies should also provide such basic rights with their grants, at the very least including a decent sick leave arrangement.
One final thing – if you are one of the unlucky ones going through something similar right now: don’t despair. Ask everyone for support; your supervisor, boss, tutor, mentor, College, friends – there might be help available that you are not aware of until you ask. Each problem has a solution, and chances are you will find it when you keep searching. In the same way, we hope that by raising awareness, changes will be made to the current situation, where PhD students who fall ill are receiving a double whammy. (Now, dear reader, you truly deserve my endless admiration by making it to the end of this blog post: thank you!).

*I won’t mention the exact funding bodies involved, and I am grateful for receiving funding from all my sources in order to complete a PhD degree. However, it’s essential to give specific examples like this one to raise awareness of the issue.

About the Author
Claudia Pama is a second year PhD student at the University of Cambridge.

Achieving Greater Acceptance in Academia

Based on an interview with Ian Shipsey 
I grew up in a working class district on a notorious council estate (housing project) in London's East End. I was hearing at that time. My high school had 180 students per year. Only two of us went to university. My parents had left school at 16. As far as I am aware none of my fellow students had parents who had attended university either. I went to the local university; Queen Mary, in London to study physics. I then took a PhD in particle physics at Edinburgh where Peter Higgs was one of my teachers. Shortly after arriving at CERN, the main particle physics lab in Europe, I fell in love with a wonderful Italian physics student who was heading to the US for a PhD so we began a transatlantic relationship until I had completed my PhD then I went to America to join Daniela. Daniela and I married and have one child. Shortly after getting married, while Daniela was still a student and I was a postdoc and both of us were working on the CLEO scientific collaboration at the Cornell Electron Storage Ring (CESR) a particle accelerator at Cornell University, I contracted acute myelogenous leukemia and was treated by a remarkable team of doctors and nurses at the Cornell University Medical School in NYC for more than one year. An industrial strength dose of chemotherapy beat the cancer but left me without an immune system and a medically necessary dose of broad spectrum antibiotics protected me until my own immune system had returned. A side effect off the antibiotics was irreparable damage to the hair cells in both cochleae resulting in severe sensorineural hearing loss.
Although still a postdoc I had already accepted a tenure track assistant professorship before becoming ill. I was very fortunate, had the timing been different and I had become ill before job season had commenced I would not have had that position and would have been regarded as unemployable by many. I accepted the job about a week before any symptoms appeared. The postdoc was at Syracuse University and the faculty position at Purdue University. After recovering enough to take up my new position about a year later, I then moved to Purdue which is about 120 miles (180 km) south of Chicago in Indiana and Daniela came too as a postdoc.
The unconscious assumption of able-bodied people is that deaf people are less able to teach or conduct research. Being underestimated is OK up to a point. In my field in the US it is typical to take one or two postdocs, each of 3 to 4 years duration, before becoming an assistant professor. I had only been a postdoc for 2.5 years when I was offered the job at Purdue (and jobs at other schools) so I was considered very promising. Purdue was a big physics department with about 60 faculty and about 57 of them had never met me as hearing person. They thought life had been dealt a very tough hand, they were kind and empathetic but they found it hard to consider me any longer as promising.
It was assumed I could not teach and nobody was quite sure what to do so I was left to my own devices. I did some research partly funded by the start-up given to me by Purdue and then wrote three proposals for young scientists, two of which were successful and resulted in very significant funding. One was the National Science Foundation National Young Investigator Award which that year only two people in the US were given in my area. Having won the awards, it is customary to be considered for early promotion to tenure to pre-empt other universities from poaching but in my case I had no teaching record so I could not be promoted. To fix that I was given an opportunity to teach which I had no experience of doing. The teaching experience was wonderful. Being deaf served to make me a better teacher because I strived harder to be especially clear so that the number of questions students had tended to build and extend the material I was explaining rather than asking for further explanation of what I had already "explained". At the end of the semester I received the physics professor of the year award. The award is given by the physics students at Purdue including those I had taught. It means to this day a great deal to have received it. The award helped to establish my ability as a teacher and I was promoted to tenure. Meanwhile Daniela became an Assistant Professor and our daughter Francesca was born.
When I moved to Purdue I continued to work at Cornell for most of my research. A small network of friends on CLEO, all able-bodied, took it in turns to help me by taking notes at meeting. They said that in front of their eyes they saw a transformation in my ability to contribute, often decisively, to discussions. Eventually this led to I and several others developing some new ideas, and to me being elected the scientific leader of the collaboration and the award of very substantial funds to conduct a new program in particle physics at Cornell. It was while leader of CLEO that I explored cochlear implants and received one.
Prior to my cochlear implant, communication with students especially in large classes was difficult. To solve the problem I asked students to write questions down on paper and pass them up to the front of the class. Students in large-enrollment physics courses are often very shy about standing up and asking questions; writing the question made it anonymous and hence easier for students to ask questions. The method was subsequently tried out by some hearing faculty to good effect. I sometimes communicated with my own doctoral students through bone conduction; the student and I both leaned our heads against a wall and the student talked into the wall and I could sometimes comprehend what was being said though the vibrations combined with lip reading. In any situation where I was not a focus (such as in the audience at a conference) understanding what was happening was very difficult so I avoided conferences and did not in general network. Conversations were difficult. Hearing people feel awkward speaking to deaf people first because nobody enjoys saying something and not being understood and second very few hearing people have had any experience of talking to a completely deaf person.
There were two turning points in my ability to communicate. The first was that physicists in general are very interested in the research of other physicists. In the CLEO collaboration at Cornell, everyone knew me as a hearing person who became deaf. This meant that the deaf stereotype was not applied to me so strongly by that group and there were several faculty at Cornell who proactively began to help me with communication, offering to take notes for me. In addition, I began to request stenographers at Purdue and Cornell.
At conferences today, I simply sit in the front row and if I cannot understand I ask people to speak louder and slower and to repeat what they have said but I would not have had the confidence to do that in the early days.
I did not find it easy to gain access to stenographers as they are few and expensive. In principle the deaf students and I had the right to a stenographer, but there were more of us than there were stenographers. I used stenographers occasionally until 2003 when I had the cochlear implant. It’s quite likely that there are many parts of the world where students who are unable to hear do not have sufficient access to stenographers today.
In my field, some of my postdocs and students will typically be based at CERN. Communication remotely was very difficult before I received the implant. It was mostly text based (shared electronic logbooks) and email. Now we communicate via Skype and video conferencing. On experiments in particle physics everybody takes it in turn to run shifts operating the experiment. After I lost my hearing, but before I received a cochlea implant running shifts was hard for me, as although we have a lot of visual information when we run shifts, there are also purely audio cues such as alarms that it would not be possible for me to hear. However, colleagues happily and kindly installed visual equivalents (warnings on a computer screen when the alarm sounds). This enabled me to feel comfortable taking the shifts as with the accommodations that had been made I could now do the job as well as when I could hear and as well as other physicists. Much of the work I do is in my office, but when in the laboratory the work is visual and I have many wonderful students and postdocs and engineers and technicians working with me and helping me, almost all are able-bodied.
I find it difficult to understand amplified voices. This is because amplification distorts voice as well as making it louder. For hearing people, the noticeable effect is the volume increase whereas the distortion is usually unnoticeable or at least not distracting. For many with a cochlear implant the distortion dominates any gain in volume. This is because cochlear implantees have less sense elements than those with natural hearing so our auditory pattern recognition is inferior. If the auditorium is small I request people do not use a microphone to ask questions but if the auditorium is large I ask the audience to write down their questions.
Before I had my hearing restored I was elected three times to be the leader of the CLEO Collaboration, a group of 21 universities and about 180 scientists at Cornell. After I received a cochlear implant, I became Head of the LHC Physics Center at FNAL and was elected Chair of the Collaboration Board of CMS (one of the two experiments at CERN that discovered the Higgs). I was hired at Oxford to become Head of the sub-department of Particle Physics in 2013 many years after I became deaf and had a cochlear implant.
I need no special resources now except the cochlear implant. I do ask people to look at me when they are speaking to me, and when people mutter I ask them to speak clearly. I do not participate in the sign language community because nobody I knew professionally or outside work could sign. I have met with signers though to talk about my experiences with the aid of SL interpreters. Since receiving the implant, I have found that I am much more likely to be placed on committees and more frequently asked to give talks and more generally given opportunities as it has become easier to communicate. Throughout my career in the US and UK my colleagues have always been very supportive.
It is a real phenomenon that many scientists feel conflicted about acting publicly as a scientist with a disability because there is a risk they might become less known for their science and more known for their activism. The same thing happens when an academic engages significantly in outreach to the public or to school kids. One starts to become known for outreach and academic colleagues will question if you are a devoted academic. My strategy to deal with this is as follows: if I am invited to an event to give a talk because I am deaf, I concentrate mostly on my work, what I have accomplished and how rather than concentrating on the disability. The result is that people see an example of a practicing scientist passionate about their work who happens to be deaf. With this strategy I am not trying to trivialize the disability, I am trying to show that its effects can be overcome.
One of my doctoral students had a very severe speech impediment. He was an outstanding student with outstanding grades, yet he had difficulty to find a professor to supervise his thesis. He was very bright and we did great work together. Looking back now it seems to me a person with a disability is sometimes more sensitive to the difficulties faced by others with disabilities, and in some cases this makes them better prepared and more confident they can effectively help and supervise the student. That is certainly the reason I took the student. I did not see the disability as anything other than surmountable.
I generally disclose my deafness. I am proud of it. O Course, I would prefer to have natural hearing but I am inspired by the incredible technology of a cochlear implants that, when married to a human brain, can enable an implantee to understand much of the auditory world. To achieve greater acceptance of disabled people in academia, we need more role models. We need access to the right types of support so that people with a disability are not disadvantaged by that disability to the extent possible.

 About the Author
Ian Shipsey is the Henry Moseley Centennial Professor of Experimental Physics and Head of the Sub-Department of Particle Physics at the University of Oxford and Professorial Fellow at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford.