This guest post is provided by Katie Quirin Manwiller, MLIS, Instruction & Assessment Librarian at DeSales University.
After the 2019 ACRL Conference, I wrote a guest ACRLog post about conferencing while chronically ill and the challenges I faced attending my first national library conference. At the time, I thought it was my responsibility to adapt to the conference setting if I wanted to be professionally active. After spending the last two years studying disability in librarianship and coming to terms with my own disabled identity, I realized that the accessibility of our national conferences should not be left up to the individual library workers with illness and/or disability. It is the responsibility of those putting on the conference to provide an accessible and inclusive experience. And while some aspects of the ACRL 2021 were indeed more accessible than 2019, it fell far short of providing equitable access to disabled librarians.
On face value, an all virtual conference is much more accessible for me. I live with Hypermobility Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (hEDS), fibromyalgia, Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). I have daily symptoms that include musculoskeletal pain, chronic fatigue, and cognitive difficulties (also called brain fog). These symptoms make the physicality of national conferences almost unbearable: traveling to and from the city, navigating hotels and conference rooms, and being mentally engaged in session content and professional interactions. Not to mention sick time off to recuperate from the experience. Attending a conference from my bed with supportive pillows and a heating pad eliminates most of those concerns. I can easily rest when I get mentally fatigued and do not need to worry about crossing expansive conference spaces in search of the one quiet room.
So when ACRL 2021 was announced as virtual I was excited. Not only would I be presenting my research on academic librarians with invisible illness and/or disability and moderating a panel of librarians with invisible disabilities, I wouldn’t have to navigate the many ways in-person conferences are inaccessible to me. The advent of COVID-19 and shift to virtual seemed like it would make professional involvement more accessible for disabled folks. Virtual attendance and remote work has long been advocated for as a tool for accessibility. But after attending ACRL 2021, I realized there are still many ways to leave behind people with disabilities in the virtual environment.
It became apparent that accessibility was not integral in conference planning when the directions for presenters were released. All presentations were pre-recorded, and some had live Q&A sessions. ACRL directed presenters to use automatic captioning features to caption their sessions, first with Zoom (which they must have figured out doesn’t provide auto-captions for all accounts) and then using Google Slides. Unfortunately, as many people involved in accessibility know, automatic captions do not provide equitable access. They often lack correct grammar, punctuation, differentiation between homonyms, or clarification on technical terms, jargon, or proper nouns. It is not difficult to learn of the inaccessibility of auto-captions, as even a quick Google search – well within the expertise of academic librarians – shows years of criticism for auto-captions on sites like YouTube.
As a disabled presenter, it felt like captions were nothing but an afterthought in planning. Like late in the game someone asked, “Oh yeah shouldn’t we have captions?” and the planning committee threw together the easiest and cheapest option for them to do so. And despite the fact that sessions were required to be submitted almost a month in advance, there was no apparent review of captions. Captioning varied widely throughout the sessions. Some presentations (like mine) had edited, large-text, and easily readable captions that matched the recording. Others followed the directive to use Google Slides auto-captions, which were very small on screen and words appeared and changed as the presenters spoke, making it difficult to follow along. Then there were some sessions with no captions at all. And almost universally, the emoji buttons the platform so helpfully provided to engage with the sessions covered up captions.
Captions are an essential aspect of recordings because they benefit everyone. They make it possible for Deaf and Hard of Hearing folks to engage with the material, improve concentration for neurodivergent people and those like me who struggle with brain fog, and can help comprehension for non-disabled individuals. They should be the bare minimum for accessible practices, but ACRL’s half-hearted attempt at captions proved more difficult than helpful.
And it wasn’t just the captioning that made this virtual conference hard to navigate as a disabled librarian. The session recordings with a live Q&A played at a scheduled time without the ability to pause the recording. Trying to take notes and follow a condensed session was often overwhelming for my tired brain. I know other librarians with disabilities who stopped watching the live Q&A sessions all together, waiting until the recordings became available with a pause afterwards as it was the only way to stay cognitively engaged with the session. This, of course, meant they missed out on material since the live Q&As were not recorded. The conference platform also proved problematic when trying to use assistive technology. One of the panelists in my session had to turn off a screen reader to be able to appear in the live video Q&A. ACRL did provide live caption for Q&A sessions but only for people who requested accommodations, seeming to do just what was required to meet ADA requirements and no more.
By the end of the week, I was extremely frustrated with a conference I had assumed would be a pleasantly accessible experience. Despite the fact that ACRL included several sessions on disability, they did not appear to include library workers with disability in their planning. So I emailed the Conference Manager, Tory Ondria, expressing disappointment that the remarkably expensive virtual conference (attendance started around $300 for salaried librarians) somehow could not afford captioning services. Interim Executive Director of ACRL Kara Malenfant responded as staff was on furlough. I followed up with a list of specific questions as to the ways accessibility was part of the 2021 Conference planning process:
- What specific accessibility concerns did you evaluate when choosing a platform? Was an accessibility audit performed?
- Was ensuring accessibility largely left up to the chosen platform?
- Who from ACRL oversaw accessibility concerns and testing for the conference? What experience with accessibility and/or disability do they have?
- Why was a platform that (presumably) did not include captioning chosen?
- The auto-caption directive for presenters seemed like an afterthought. How early into planning for the virtual conference were captions considered?
- What research, if any, was done into captioning options? Why was auto-captioning, despite being far less effective than correct, added captions, chosen?
- In a broader sense, how are library workers with disabilities included in the planning of ACRL conferences?
I expected to get a response along the lines of accessibility was left up to the platform or maybe which portion of the planning committee addressed accessibility concerns, both of which I considered bare minimums. But unfortunately, I was shocked to find that ACRL could shatter my already low expectations. Here’s the response to the above questions I received, in full, shared with permission from Kara Malenfant: “Thanks, Katie, for your helpful and detailed questions. They can certainly help shape reporting to the ACRL Board and our Conference Committee as well as inform work going forward on improving accessibility for future events.”
That was it. No attempt to answer any of my questions. When I asked if there was anyone else who may be able to answer my questions, I was again told that “[W]e learned a lot from our experiences. Things were not perfect, but we did try.” And yet, I received no details about how they tried beyond live captioning accommodation requests. Nothing about how the conference platform was chosen or the session accessibility standards. Only statements about how they will incorporate my concerns for future conferences.
I went into this conference knowing that library organizations provide virtually no support to library workers with disabilities. After all, my panel was titled “Who’s Missing from EDI Advocacy?” and it highlighted the ways ACRL does not support disabled librarians beyond including them in blanket EDI statements. But ACRL 2021 was not only disappointing, it was demoralizing. I received confirmation that the organization that spouts the importance of an equitable profession addresses accessibility as an afterthought. I feel dubious about the effectiveness of any ACRL EDI efforts because the roots of ableism, like racism, are embedded deep in white supremacy culture. Disability intersects in innumerable ways with other marginalized identities. How can we be growing more inclusive as a profession if part of those identities are completely ignored?
I’m left thinking about a friend’s tweet: “Why do library orgs act like disabled library workers don’t exist?” To go a step farther, why should disabled library workers engage with and give money to professional organizations who do nothing to support, protect, or understand us? How can we ensured our lived experience and knowledge will still be shared outside of an inaccessible professional community?