Accessibility at AlterConf

On Saturday, I was at AlterConf London, a conference about diversity in the tech and gaming industries. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll have seen that I was tweeting pretty effusively about it throughout the day. It was one of the friendliest, nicest conferences I’ve ever been to, with a cracking set of speakers to boot.

I was really impressed by how much the AlterConf organisers had done to make the conference accessible and inclusive. Most tech conferences are dominated by cis, white men – this was very different. Both the speaker lineup and the audience were remarkably diverse.

In this post, I want to talk about a few of the things that really stood out to me, which helped to make the conference feel more inclusive. Many of these are ideas that could be replicated elsewhere, and I’d love to see them spread. I’ll write about the talks in a separate post.

A disclaimer: I’m a cis white male, so I don’t tend to have problems at other tech conferences. Take my praise with a pinch of salt, because I’m not really the person this is aimed at helping.

A strong code of conduct

AlterConf has a code of conduct, and Ashe Dryden (who founded and runs AlterConf) has written extensively about codes of conduct in the past. The AlterConf Code of Conduct goes into a lot of extra detail that I haven’t mentioned below – I recommend reading it in full. There’s a lot of really good advice for how to behave in a conference setting, particularly around people you don’t know.

Microaggressions

Most conferences start with some housekeeping notices: venue info, fire exits, talk schedule, that sort of thing. If you have a code of conduct, this is a good time to remind people that it exists, and that they agreed to it by coming to the conference.

I was pleasantly surprised that Kronda (the conference host) also took time to warn us all about microaggressions. Although not as blatant as some forms of discrimination, repeated microaggressions can have a similar effect. Microaggressions are a big part of the attrition in the tech industry. I think it’s good to be reminded of these, because they’re easy to let slip if you’re not careful. A bit of extra thought goes a long way.

Enforcing the code of conduct

It’s no good having a code of conduct if you don’t enforce it.

During one of the talks, a speaker inadvertently used some ableist language. After their talk finished, Kronda gave us all a short reminder that “stupid” is ableist, and suggested some other alternatives. Later, the speaker apologised on Twitter. No hysterics or finger-pointing, just adults behaving sensibly.

Accessible, gender-neutral bathrooms

All the bathrooms at AlterConf are gender-neutral, and it’s a staple of the conference tweets to see several pictures of the sign. Saturday was no exception:

One of the many signs of a great conference. #inclusivity #alterconf pic.twitter.com/cF7XPImBPg

A quiet room

I’ve written about the value of quiet rooms before, and it was good to have one at AlterConf. Personally I found the venue (the King offices) to be a bit loud and crowded at times, and having a space to relax and recharge was essential.

Live captioning and BSL interpreters

I wrote about live captioning at PyCon UK, and I was unsurprised to see it again at AlterConf. What was more impressive was that our STTR was nowhere near the conference — in fact, they had an audio feed over Skype and were transcribing everything from New York. Location is no bar to having captions!

Alongside the live captioning, we had a pair of BSL interpreters. Both excellent provisions for attendees who are hard of hearing, or really anyone who just drifts off for a moment.

Ticket pricing

I really like the ticket pricing page. A single ticket is pretty affordable – £25 for the day, far cheaper than most other tech conferences. This opens the conference to a much wider pool of people. But it goes further: when you buy a ticket, you can pay on a sliding scale, purchasing extra tickets for other people. An easy way to contribute to the financial aid program. It’s a really nice touch.

A screenshot from the AlterConf ticket page. A basic ticket is £25, a friend ticket (helps 1 person) is £50, supporter (helps 2 people) is £50, and so on up to super friend (helps 5+ people) for £150 and up.

Looking beyond AlterConf

None of these ideas are unique to AlterConf – I think I’ve seen all of them at at least one other conference. But most conferences don’t have all of them, and I think it’s a shame – I’d love to see all of these more widely available. In the tech industry, conferences are a key venue for networking and learning, and making them more accessible can only be a good thing.

AlterConf isn’t perfect – as I said above, I found the venue quite noisy and crowded (both visually and aurally), and it wasn’t the easiest place to find – but it sets a high bar. If you help to organise a conference (tech or otherwise), I’d really encourage considering some of these ideas.