Join me in Love

Conference Accessibility

hartmans Tuesday October 25, 2022
In September, I had a great conversation about conference accessibility. I speak from the standpoint of someone who is totally blind, but of course I only speak for myself. Other people who are blind have different lived experience; some things may be easier or harder than they are for me. Each of us has things we are comfortable with and things that call to our fears and uncertainty.
These are notes I used to start our conversation, edited to emphasize things I found during the conversation and to hopefully be more clear.
Do not use this as a checklist to see how accessible your conference is! Seriously, I know I'm about to say this in the executive summary, but everyone who has looked at this sits down and tries to figure out how their conference/community stacks up. That's not really the point. We are all volunteers; we have many priorities before us. Unless you're running a conference called Blinded by Kink (and if you are, please reach out and let me know about your event), accessibility for people who are blind or face visual challenges is not your top priority. If you went and focused on all these issues, accessibility in other areas would suffer.
Instead, I invite you to take this as an opportunity to learn about issues people who are different than you might face. After all, the first step in being inclusive is to educate ourselves. But the second step is to actually reach out to the people who we want to include, hear their story, and hear what's important to them. So reach out to the people in your community who face accessibility challenges and ask them what issues are important to them. Focus on those issues. The education is still important in case someone new comes into your community with an issue you have not yet focused on.

Executive Summary

I think the best way to approach accessibility is to educate yourself on the issues, and then to ask people in your community what they need. I’ve talked about what I think some of the likely issues are. To achieve diversity in our community, accessibility needs to be more than participating in a conference; we also need to think about accessibility in terms of how people join our community. Without that, our community will never be welcoming/inclusive for people with disabilities.

Why focus on Asking?

Different people, even with similar abilities, will need different things. For example if I'm bringing my vassal to a conference where she will generally be in service to me most of the time, and where I'm just going to be a participant rather than trying to get involved in the community, I may need close to nothing in terms of accessibility. If you spent a lot of time making something available in braille, I'd feel awkward because I'd have no intent to use it, and you might be frustrated that you went to a lot of effort that didn't end up being helpful. Asking what someone needs, especially when you come from a reasonably educated position about what the answers might be and are able to work with someone is almost always going to help someone feel welcome.

General Accessibility for Visual Disabilities

That said, here are some of the issues that you might want to be prepared to address when they come up in your community.

Website Accessibility

Is your website accessible? Can a screen reader user navigate elements like schedules? Can they register successfully?
  • HTML including HTML tables is generally accessible. Tabular information presented with HTML divs rather than real tables may be harder to get accessibility working right for. (It's totally possible, it just means you have to do more work with ARIA attributes yourself).
  • Text in PDFs that are produced by page layout software or office suites is generally accessible. It's generally possible to get the text out of tabular layouts in such PDFs, but for example figuring out a schedule table from such a PDF may be tricky or even approaching impossible depending on a number of factors.
  • Scanned PDFs an images are generally not accessible at all. For images, that may not be a big deal: a photo gallery is never going to do much for me. But having a conference program that was scanned and thus not accessible at all would be disappointing.
  • I've run across registration systems that try to be too clever with e-signatures. "Hold down your left mouse button and draw a signature in the box." That's not accessible at all, and is completely unnecessary. If I can e-sign all the preliminary disclosures for buying a house just by clicking sign here and typing in my name, I definitely don't need to draw a signature to attend a conference.

Attendee Information

How much of the information attendees need is on your website? Your website is likely to be more accessible to people with visual disabilities than material you hand out at registration. People can use screen readers or zoom in, adjust the color scheme, and adjust fonts, depending on their needs. So, if information like class descriptions and schedule information is on the website it will be more accessible.
For blind attendees, a map of the venue on the website isn't likely to be helpful and I can appreciate why it might be desirable not to leak that information digitally. For low vision attendees being able to zoom the map might be helpful; it depends on the attendee and on whether they have physical magnifiers with them that could zoom a physical map.
  • Do you update your website with last minute schedule changes?
  • If not, how will people find out about these schedule changes?
  • Does your website contain copies of legal agreements, waivers, etc that you ask people to sign? if not, are you prepared to read these agreements to someone at registration without making them feel bad for wanting to fully review what they are signing? Pressuring someone to accept a summary weakens your legal position and is dehumanizing.
  • Does your website contain dungeon rules and requirements? Is someone who cannot read posted signs going to potentially be surprised by requirements they are unaware of? If not, how will you handle conveying this information?

Getting Around

How will someone with a visual disability get around the venue? This is an area where someone's ability and comfort affects what will work for them a lot.
What I tend to do when attending a conference alone is something like:
  • At check in to my room, have the hotel work with me to confirm I understand the route from the elevator to my room (and back) as well as the route from the elevator to some common area.
  • There's a lot of hanging around common areas and asking for help getting places. This works surprisingly well unless a conference is very spread out. If the conference is very spread out I may need help from the conference staff. At such conferences, I try to know how to find staff.
  • Pay attention to situations where I might get stuck and make sure I have a way to get un stuck. As an example, if someone is taking me to a classroom, and there's no one else there, evaluate whether I have confidence in my ability to get back to a common area if no one ever shows up for the class. If I don't I might end up abandoning the class. If that happens more than once, try to get cell phone numbers for hotel or conference staff so I can avoid the situation in the future.
That or some variation has worked well for me, but I have years of experience going to professional conferences on my own. What I described above might be completely frightening for someone with different experience.

Electronic Device Policies

How will someone who cannot write take notes? If the website is part of the accessibility solution, will your policies allow someone to access it when they need to?
This is an area where there are legitimate privacy concerns that go against accessibility. If you aren't going to be as accessible as you would like because of privacy, I'd recommend treating people with compassion. I'd also make sure that your policies, viewed as a whole make sense and achieve your objectives. I'd recommend differentiating policies that make people feel safer from policies that actually achieve safety and privacy. It's a lot easier to understand why my accessibility is being sacrificed for real privacy than it is for security/privacy theater.
  • Allowing phones but not computers is discriminatory. In many ways, especially when I'm writing, I can be much faster with a computer than a phone. I cannot effectively take notes with a phone--on-screen keyboards are very slow in an accessible mode. Phones have at least as many recording devices as computers.
  • If you are going to have privacy policies that restrict accessibility, either enforce them or get rid of them. It was really frustrating to be at Colorado Leather Fest (which on paper didn't allow any electronic devices beyond what presenters used for presentations), to have people regularly be getting out their cell phones to show each other cute pictures, to have presenters encourage people to take notes on cell phones, but to have the no computer policy be strictly enforced for everyone but presenters.


Bwahahaha. I have no idea how to approach dungeon accessibility. It's mostly not an issue unless you had two visually disabled people wanting to play together, or someone wanting to self-suspend or similar.
Here are some of the problems I run into:
  • Knowing what equipment is available. Generally solvable by looking around before things get busy. This may be a case where offering to help give someone a tour of the dungeon is helpful. If they are new, offering to give a tour when the dungeon is unused so they can actually touch the equipment could be very helpful.
  • Moving through the dungeon while it is busy without interrupting a scene. I ran into a bit of trouble recently; one of my play partners and I had picked out some equipment. I needed to go to the bathroom before we started, and she assumed I would meet her back at our equipment. But there was no way I could navigate across the dungeon to get to her. Obviously we've sense adopted protocols to avoid that situation, and I don't think a conference could really solve this for me, but it illustrates how difficult things can be.
  • Knowing where cleaning supplies are, where trash cans are, etc.


Are contest rules discriminatory? Do you have reasonable latitude to make accommodations in the moment without say needing to have a board meeting or publish a revised rule book. This is easier to explain with examples:
  • Generally in a title contest the contestant draws a pop question, reads it, the question is read to the audience, and then the contestant answers. If the rules require a contestant to be able to read a written question, that's discriminatory. Probably what you want to happen is for someone to privately read the question to the contestant; having them wait to hear it at the same time as the audience probably creates a disadvantage. You almost certainly could get a group of contestants and judges to agree in real time to some way of doing this that everyone thought was fair. An accessible set of rules would give you the flexibility to do this even if you discovered the issue at the last moment. At least a couple versions of contest rules we've looked at appear to grant sufficient flexibility that they should be fine.
  • Some things are just going to be inherently different. As an example, I couldn't see a judge nodding and couldn't see their body language indicating that they had heard enough of an answer in interview questions. I don't think it's the contest or conference's job to do anything about this---how could they. Instead I'd try to be open and vulnerable about my limitations; turn it into a way to stand out as different and to start a conversation about how to connect even when there are differences in communication.
My point in the two examples is to illustrate that there are classes of cases where the conference/contest has an accessibility responsibility and cases where there's nothing to be done at that level.


The above covers the issues I can think of in terms of making the conference accessible to an individual participant. But when we talk about diversity, the discussion eventually needs to turn to inclusion and creating a welcoming community. These conferences are more than just educational/play opportunities. They are also key parts of our community—opportunities for how you become a member of the community and contribute back.
For us to achieve diversity, people need to be able to do more than just go to classes. They need to be welcomed into the community.
It’s been my experience that we don’t have a good answer for how to welcome blind participants in that way. Everyone’s initial reaction has been a desire to help, but I’ve run into struggles making it happen. To be inclusive this needs to be part of accessibility. I am currently working trying to find answers to these issues.

Volunteering is one of the ways that we gate-keep our community. We have tasks that everyone can do to get involved, get noticed, and get a feel for how things happen. Things like:
  • Run errands for conference organizers
  • Work security/registration
  • Help set up event spaces
Except not everyone can do these things. Most of them involve being able to get around a space without help. Most involve being able to read and write normal printed papers.
Even before we tell people to volunteer, we tell them to watch what goes on. Go to a dungeon; watch a bunch of scenes. Make eye contact with people after to see if they would be open to talking to you about what they did. Once you know people make eye contact to see if people would be open to a conversation about playing or co-topping or joining a scene. All of that involves being able to see well.
I cannot do most of that. And yet there are ways I’d love to contribute:
  • The theme of the 2023 Master/slave Conference will be “one heart at a time,” referring to how we change people’s lives through our individual interactions. I’m good at talking about M/s, kink, spirituality, sexuality, love, and their intersections. Times when I’ve had an opportunity to sit down and talk with people and exchange experiences have been some of the most important moments in my life. From what people have told me, these experiences have changed their lives too. Most of all I’d love to find a position in the community where I can do that.
  • I’d love to teach classes and guide conversations. I think I’m good at that; I have done so in small situations since 2013, and recently my vassal and I have been expanding what we teach.
  • I can be an effective spokesperson, helping people understand issues, feel welcome, and understand constructive ways of approaching conflict.
  • I’m reasonably organized and have experience leading volunteer projects/communities (although not in organizing conferences).
But the areas where I at least see myself as contributing effectively are all high-level. How do I prove myself? How do I earn trust. As an example how do I gain a reputation sufficient to be accepted as a presenter? How do I get recognized enough that people would suggest I might be a reasonable person to talk to, especially when my disability makes many of the protocols we use for negotiating approachability not work for me? I’m starting to find answers for myself. I’m starting to teach classes in my local communities—branching out from the small communities where I have been working for years. I am looking at the various title contests.
But to create a diverse, inclusive, accessible community, we need to be able to help answer these questions whenever our normal ways of getting involved don’t work for people. I don’t know what that would look like, but I appreciate this opportunity to organize my thoughts about the challenge and start thinking about possible solutions.

Join the Conversation

To comment or contribute you can register for a free account or login with Facebook.