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Equality, diversity and inclusion, Neurodiversity

It takes all kinds of minds: Organising an accessible conference

Holly E. A. Sutherland, Reesha Zahir and Ailbhe McKinney are PhD students at the University of Edinburgh and were organising/committee members for ITAKOM 2023. Here, they share lessons learned.

02 January 2024

The It Takes All Kinds of Minds Conference (ITAKOM) was held in Edinburgh in March 2023 and was the first conference of its kind in celebrating neurodiversity whilst sharing cutting-edge research, ideas, and best practices. Drawing on our experiences, we hope to shed light on organising an accessible conference and provide inspiration for those organising events or conferences in the future.

The Neurodiversity Squad

From the outset of ITAKOM, we had a neurodiversity advisory committee – the 'The Neurodiversity Squad' – of seven neurodivergent adults, who advised the co-chairs. They met seven times leading up to ITAKOM, facilitated by two PhD students with experience and training in co-production. AASPIRE's and Sue Fletcher-Watson's papers on co-production with neurodivergent people were useful in guiding the process. These papers cover both the practicalities of running an advisory group (such as building trust, setting expectations, fair payment, evaluation and accessibility) and the theoretical aspects (such as participatory research frameworks and deciding the level of decision-making power an advisory group will have).

The Neurodiversity Squad shaped the conference's themes and research priorities. They highlighted early on that the conference had too much of a focus on autism; some described it as very 'white and autistic'. This is reflected in neurodiversity research, where both intersectionality and non-autistic forms of neurodivergence are often overlooked. This informed the need to provide talks on intersectional issues (e.g. how neurotype interacts with race, sexual orientation, gender identity etc.). They also cautioned against placing too strong an emphasis on neuroscience (neurodivergent research priorities tend to emphasise applied over basic science).

The Neurodiversity Squad supported organisers to make decisions about which workshops, speakers and sponsors to include, conference streams, and criteria for abstract evaluation. They also helped produce the conference materials by editing the programme, website, language guide, delegate manual, abstract review letter, and ticket information to ensure they were accessible and neurodiversity-affirming.

Publicising that the conference had been designed with input from neurodivergent people from the outset set an example of good practice in co-production and including lived experience in all areas of academia. It also helped set the tone for the conference: ITAKOM would be welcoming, inclusive, and neurodiversity-affirming.

Accessibility at ITAKOM

The accessibility needs of a group of delegates as diverse as those who attended ITAKOM presented challenges. The Neurodiversity Squad played a key role in tackling issues around accessibility, and their early input allowed us to identify areas of access need (and potential conflicting needs) prior to the conference. For example, with early identification of the need for both 'noisy' and 'quiet' places at the conference, we managed to provide a) a livestream of keynote talks to a separate room in the conference centre, where people who needed to stim loudly could go and do so without missing the talk, but also b) both quiet and silent rooms where people who needed a sensory break from the chatter of the conference hall could recharge. The use of sensory aids was also normalised at ITAKOM – a bucket of fidget toys was provided, and gradually emptied as people used them during talks, conversations and lunch.

To address different communication preferences, communication badges were provided and audience questions were primarily taken via the conference app, with scribes available in each room to help with typing. This allowed for equal engagement by both online and in-person audiences and also accommodated the needs of non-speaking or minimally-speaking individuals and those who did not feel like talking.

To maximise accessibility for speakers, there was the option to pre-record talks, and adjustments were made to stage lighting to accommodate sensory sensitivities. Speakers were not expected to conform to the typical format of a talk and had the freedom to convey their messages in ways that worked best for them. This made for a more engaging conference experience, as it allowed speakers to push the boundaries of what a conference talk could be – speakers told stories, discussed community-generated theories and ideas, and expressed themselves through artistic performance.

We also wanted ITAKOM to be accessible to an occupationally diverse audience, not just academics and clinicians. To facilitate this, an easy-application, no-paperwork bursary scheme was put in place for people who wanted to attend but did not have funding. The conference agenda was also designed with this in mind, incorporating talks and keynotes on lived experience from neurodivergent speakers, as well as workshops designed for non-academic participants.

We could not meet every access need – for example, budget and venue logistics meant a fully accessible Changing Places toilet was not feasible. But, through early consideration of the needs of a diverse audience, we maximised accessibility by planning and budgeting to make the best use of our resources.

A truly neurodiversity-affirming space

The result of all this planning was a conference which felt welcoming and safe for people of all neurotypes. This benefited all attendees – which included academics of all career stages, industry and charity representatives, neurodivergent citizen scientists, activists, community leaders, and even Edinburgh locals with a personal interest.

Many neurodivergent people said this was the first conference they felt comfortable being visibly neurodivergent at. It was truly joyful to see people walking around wearing ear defenders, using stim toys, or flapping their hands in excitement. People of all neurotypes made use of sensory aids and communication badges, which created an atmosphere of inclusivity and normalised all sensory and communication needs. Conferences are busy, long events with exhausting social demands. Fostering an atmosphere which normalised recharging through quiet rooms, using sensory aids, and saying 'Sorry, not right now, I need a minute' supported all attendees (neurodivergent or not) to regulate throughout the conference.

Being proactively inclusive in conference design allowed ITAKOM to work towards its core goals of accessibility, inclusivity, and neuroaffirmation. While it was not perfect in achieving these goals, the difference that trying made was remarkable. ITAKOM was open, honest, and apologetic when things went wrong or simply weren't possible. This went a long way towards making attendees feel listened to and accommodated and developed trust between conference organisers and attendees. And that, in turn, helped to create the kind of atmosphere we would all like from a conference: warm, welcoming, and collaborative.

Photo, left to right: Holly E.A. Sutherland, Reesha ZahirAilbhe McKinney