Community in Toronto: What Made the #A11yTO Conferences So Spectacular?

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This is a post about a week of conferences in Toronto Canada. The conferences were put on by #A11yTO. #A11yTO is a group of volunteers working to make the digital world accessible to people with disabilities. There were three conferences. One about access to buildings and other aspects of the built environment. One was about access to websites and other tech. One was about access to gaming. The conferences were great. Speakers and audience were respected. The conferences were accessible to disabled people and there was a diversity of speakers. Content was strong.

#A11yTOConf logo

I’m sitting in the airport on my way home from two conferences put on by #A11yTO. I’ve been trying to figure out what made the three days in Toronto so great. This post is what I’ve come up with.

#A11yTO is a volunteer-run digital accessibility community in Toronto. Puzzled by the title? A11y (that’s A-eleven-Y) is the short hand for accessibility because there are 11 letters between the first “A” and the final “Y”; TO for Toronto.

I attended the A11yIRL one-day conference [IRL for in real life] and attended and spoke at the A11yTO digital accessibility conference. These two events were part of a week of activities called #A11yWeekTo. Unfortunately, I missed the last major event of the week, A11yTO Gaming conference.

I decided to write this up for a few reasons:

  • I hope other conference organizers who want to run inclusive accessible conferences will find this useful
  • I hope all sorts of tech conferences will learn about the many great #A11yTOWeek disabled speakers who shared stories, expertise and big ideas and invite them to their conferences
  • To give a large public shout out to the conference organizers, volunteers, sponsors, speakers, MCs and attendees

In this post I’m not going to identify any of these people by name. If I did, I know I would leave someone out. Or miss a gem I learned from that person I never want to forget. Please read the speaker bios and talk descriptions on the conference websites for details of who’s who and what they spoke about.

For me, here is what made last week in Toronto so great:

Curated Content on the Full Scope of Accessibility

All talks in Toronto were either 20 or 40 minutes. The topics were so carefully chosen, and the speakers so committed to solid talks that respected the audience, that each talk felt it was perfect for the time slot provided. 20 minute talks offered as many take-aways as ones twice as long.

A11yTO has always been focused on digital accessibility. It was brilliant to add a day of talks about the built environment — the IRL / In Real Life day of A11yTOWeek. Common themes emerged between barriers faced by disabled people in the online and offline worlds.

There was a mix of technical and big picture; lived experience of disability; the truth about being the sole accessibility champion in a large organization. Concrete take-aways about how make sure tech really works for disabled people and how to make sure disabled people are involved.

And deeper ideas too that give shape to accessibility work. Peace and hope. The pain of exclusion. The core understanding that disability is part of the human condition; a natural part of the continuum of life. Something not to be othered.

Accessibility does not happen in a vacuum; the ableist and intersectional context which accessibility advocates find themselves and disabled people live was spoken about out loud. Please visit the Talks Page of each of the three conferences to learn more about the week’s content.

The talks were well-prepared and well-presented. There was no one who slapped anything together at the last minute. We are a community that works on their slides and talks in service to the audience and the shared goal of accessibility.

I’m sorry I missed the day devoted to accessible gaming. From meeting some of the speakers that were presenting at both conferences and the hint they gave of gaming issues, I know I missed an amazing learning opportunity.

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Talks from (and to) the Heart

Many speakers shared the lived experience of being disabled, needing accessibility, and perhaps most importantly, not finding it. This caused something to happen that I’ve never experienced at an accessibility conference:

People in the audience cried.

Tears were running down the cheeks of the person sitting next to me in one of the talks. Later, others spoke of their own tears. I did not talk to my seat-mate, but it was clear to me that cheeks were wet in that audience out of shared experience.

Out of listening, maybe for the first time, to someone saying out loud experiences of struggle and exclusion rarely heard from a conference stage.

Speakers were brave. Sharing personal stories. Breaking down the true experience – sometimes the painful (both physical and emotional) experience – of being disabled in the digital commons.

The speaker line-up made this one of the most diverse accessibility conferences I’ve attended which contributed to the sense of community. Diverse in terms of disability, including neurodiversity / people with cognitive disabilities. Diverse in terms of gender and gender identity, race / national origin, and age.

Diversity too in terms of a mix of often-heard-at-accessibility-conferences-folks and new voices [people delivering their first talks, or their first international talks, or their first talks to an audience of 300].

The expertise flowed in all directions.

Having international speakers contributed to the environment of diversity. Speakers came from at least five countries, bringing different perspectives and reminding all of us that we are part of a global community dedicated to making the digital world available to everyone.

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Volunteers and Organizers were Friendly and Helpful

This should be a given at any conference, but unfortunately it is not. Every single volunteer and organizer I encountered before and during #A11yTOWeek was friendly and respectful. This resulted in a culture of inclusion and warmth throughout the week. Its value cannot be overstated.

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Conference Structure Built Community

Single track was great!

A single track conference will not always meet conference goals. I’ve been to great accessibility conferences organized around deep-dive classes for learning. But in Toronto, single track worked and worked well.

For each of the three conferences during A11yTOWeek, 300+ participants stayed in the same room, listening to the same speakers. This was great, and created community, for several reasons.

  • Everyone had a shared experience of learning, and could talk about it during breaks
  • There was no stress of having to choose a session, no fear that the wrong one was selected
  • There was no between-session jockeying to get to the right place at the right time. No “session full” signs breeding frustration
  • Since the same people were together for the full conference, conversation with new people was natural

A11yTO has already outgrown this year’s space, and a full conference single-track might not be possible in the future. I hope at least some of the conference can be single track for the reasons above.

No Q and A during talks was great!

It was an unexpected treat not to have questions during or at the end of presentations. I liked this both as a speaker and a conference participant.

As a speaker, it is challenging to respect questioners *and* respect the listening audience. Some people go on too long, don’t really have a question, or use the microphone to talk about something unrelated to the talk.

The no-questions element of A11yTO week was a gift to everyone.

Instead of Q + A, all speakers were invited to a designated area for 10 minutes during the break following their talk. There conference participants could come up and talk to the speaker or ask question. There were even screens with the picture of the speaker and where we were supposed to wait for questions.

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Other structural elements contributed to community

Here are some other structural aspects of the conference that helped create community and welcoming during #A11yTOWeek

  • There were MCs! Two wonderful MCs provided a through-line creating unity of the conference program. The MCs did housekeeping details and very short introductions of each speaker, which helped avoid the wasted time and sales-y feel of too many conference introductions. The chosen MCs were modest and funny and contributed to the community, welcoming atmosphere.
  • Food (including lunch) was provided at all breaks. With fruit in addition to sweets
  • I recognize that name tags don’t work for blind people, and I would love to hear about accessible name tags or name tag practices. For those of us who can see name tags, having them with first names in large font made it easy for me to avoid embarrassment when surely I knew someone yet couldn’t remember their name
  • There were he/she/they stickers for the name tags that were offered to everyone on entry
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The Speakers Were Valued

A11yTO showed its appreciation of speakers in ways large and small. There was a large speaker room where speakers could go to prepare their presentations or just be in quiet. Tech support was readily available and friendly.

The tech was speaker-friendly:

  • There was a big count-down timer so we could stick to schedule
  • There were screens in front of us with our slides so we didn’t have to look behind us if we didn’t want to
  • The clickers worked
  • The presenter-view was available

(Can you guess what recent problems I’ve had in other speaking engagements?)

The emails in the run-up to the conference were considerate and welcoming. We were asked our preferred gender pronouns. We were asked about how we wanted to be introduced. We were asked if we wanted to share anything about the hand-off between speakers, and were invited to be clear about whether, for example, shaking hands was ok with us.

A hint of the organizer’s commitment to inclusion came in an email apologizing for language in the previous day’s email describing the stage. (Describing the stage! That alone is a welcoming support, especially for first time speakers.)

To me, the email needed no apology. But the organizers felt some speakers might have been intimidated by the earlier message about using the full stage instead of the podium.

They wrote everyone clarifying that speakers were invited to either stay behind the podium or use the full stage.

How great is that?

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The Conference Was Accessible

The A11yTO conferences walked the walk when it came to accessibility for people with disabilities. Nothing felt like an add-on or an afterthought.

  • There were sign language interpreters. There was CART (transcription of the talks as they were happening on big screens). There were microphones
  • All digital conference materials, including emails, were accessible
  • The stage was accessible via a ramp from the room, easily findable and visible in the room
  • The podium was adjustable so it could be used by wheelchair riders who wanted a podium
  • There were quiet spaces for people who needed a break
  • There were well-timed and frequent breaks
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There was a Code of Conduct

There was a Code of Conduct for the conferences during A11yTOWeek (as there should be at every conference.) It was easy to find on the website. And it was mentioned each morning of the conference.

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Something personal

Law is only one ingredient in the accessibility cookie

My talk at A11yTO was titled: Civil Rights or Shakedown: Ethics in the Digital Accessibility Legal Space. It was my first talk I’ve given expressly about the ethics issues in the accessibility legal space I wrote about earlier this year.

My three biggest concerns about unethical lawsuits in the digital accessibility legal space is that I believe they hurt disabled people, that they don’t advance accessibility, and they’ve created a cottage industry of quick-(not)-fixes and bad ideas.

I’m also worried that the law and its attendant fear will take an outsized role in motivating accessibility. That’s why I’m always saying (as I first said in a talk with global accessibility leader Microsoft) that law is but one ingredient in the accessibility cookie.

It was so wonderful for me to be in a space where digital accessibility is the topic and only 40 minutes are devoted to law. Where everyone understands the importance of civil rights as an essential element of digital accessibility without letting the negative aspects and impact of certain legal strategies drive accessibility strategy.

It’s not an echo chamber; it’s community

I think it is critically important that those of us in accessibility speak to those who aren’t. I love speaking with and offering trainings to audiences who are new to accessibility. Enjoy getting people excited about what accessibility means, why it’s a fundamental civil right, and how it can be advanced through collaboration and a strong civil rights foundation enforced with ethical strategies.

I love talking to organizations who have never considered accessibility, and those on the accessibility journey, wanting to go further. I think accessibility should be part of *every* conference that in any way touches on technology, diversity, and inclusion.

But I need accessibility conferences too.

I have been attending accessibility conferences for 19 years. Conferences like A11yTO give participants and speakers alike a chance to get closer to people we know, and have new people to get close to. A chance to learn new things, and feel in community as we do.

When conferences are done right, like A11yTOWeek was, each of us can do all those things in a welcoming and generous space. I whole heartedly endorse what conference speaker Eric Wright wrote about being in Toronto:

There are not enough words to express how much I enjoyed Accessibility Week Toronto. I needed it, and I didn’t recognize that until a day or two in. Find your people. There’s nothing like spending time quality time with them.Eric Wright, #A11yTOConf speaker

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What Else?

I invite you to check out the #A11yTOConf hashtag on Twitter for more people’s thoughts about the week. Here are just two favorites:

Conference presenter Chancey Fleet, who spoke at both #A11yIRL and #A11yTOConf, summed up my feelings in far fewer words than I’ve managed here:

These events were well-curated, run by kind, efficient volunteers, and full of fellowship. Little touches like frequent breaks, outdoor space and a sincere commitment to timekeeping (enforced by a muppet) made me feel energized and respected as an attendee & speaker. Chancey Fleet

And here’s another one from conference participant and TweetUp Lightening talker Sarah Higley:

Going to #a11yTOConf is like realizing you spend most of your life holding your breath, and then breathing deeply for four days.Sarah Higley

If missed something great about #A11yTO, or if you disagree with what I’ve written, let me know and I’ll add it here! You can reach me through the Contact Page of this website.