On Neuro-Accessibility and Skepticon
I attended Skepticon 8 this month as a first time attendee. I’ve heard wonderful things about this event from many people over the past several years, but it wasn’t feasible for me to go until this year. This time things finally worked out and I was super excited to attend!
A few basics about Skepticon: It is the largest free skeptical convention in the United States, taking place in Springfield MO each year. Skepticon strives to be as inclusive as possible in a whole bunch of ways, including working harder than most events on issues of accessibility for many forms of disability. Their website’s policies page gives a pretty good idea of the kind of event Skepticon wants to be.
I went to Skepticon pretty confident that I would be more comfortable there than most events, and I was right. Big events are often hard for me, but Skepticon was much easier than most for a bunch of reasons. There is a lot that other events could learn from this one.
Most importantly, Skepticon creates a culture of acceptance. They make it very clear that diverse people are actively wanted there. As an autistic attendee I am not seen as a burden or a confusion. That’s incredibly valuable to me. However, I’m going to discuss both the ways that Skepticon succeeded and some ways they could easily improve to make the experience better for people with neurological differences. They’re doing well, but no one is perfect at this.
After arriving and checking into our hotel room on Friday evening I went to go find out where to get my con badge and get an idea of the conference space. I immediately ran into some problems. First of all, the location of the conference space isn’t incredibly clear from the inside of the hotel, and it took me some wandering around to find it. A bigger sign, or a sign with an arrow in the lobby would have helped. Probably most people would have asked someone for help – but that requires being verbal, which not everyone is all of the time. I was feeling particularly shy, so I just looked until I found it.
Once inside the conference area I could tell I was in the right place but there was NO signage to indicate where the badge area was. The main entrance to the conference area had vendor tables, no signs, and a lot of strangers. At that particular moment there was quite a hubbub surrounding the very cool dinosaur costume someone was wearing, so everyone was blocking the walking areas and taking pictures. I have to admit the dinosaur was super cool, so I didn’t mind waiting against a wall for awhile for the spectacle to pass.
Eventually I made my way to the badge table, but my confusion did not decrease. While I was pretty sure I was in the right place, there were no other people picking up badges and no signs indicating what to do. I found a person behind the table with a laptop who looked in charge and told her I was looking to get my badge. Actually, what I’m pretty sure I said was “I have no idea what I’m doing and I just got here, help!” because I’m smooth like that.
I realized pretty quickly why things were so lax. It wasn’t a matter of disorganization on the part of Skepticon – it was a lack of need for security. Since Skepticon is a free conference it’s not a huge deal if people come on in without a badge. I’m so used to conferences that make a big deal about badges for reasons of security and making sure people don’t sneak in without paying that it didn’t occur to me that the badge process would be literally “There are the badges and programs, grab one!” Still, lots of people are more comfortable with some explicit instructions. Like many neurodivergent people, I like what’s expected of me to be spelled out clearly. I like signs, instructions, and rules. So although Skepticon may not have a security or financial reason to put up a big “Get your badges that way!” sign, there is an accessibility reason to do so.
Upon getting my badge the person behind the table instructed me on where everything was, how to use the color-coded communication stickers (more on this in a moment), where the fidgets were, and what was happening that evening in terms of speakers and events. She helped me perfectly, with no condescension and with patience. This quickly got me back to feeling like I could handle things. Having good, patient, well trained staff is huge for the success of an event and in this case got me started out on the right foot.
The color coded communication system is a pretty common one at autism related events, but not commonly used in more general spaces. I’m thrilled they used it at Skepticon. The general idea is that people can put an indicator on their badge (in this case, a round sticker) in green if they’re open to socializing with anyone, yellow if they only want to talk with people they already know, or red if they don’t want to socialize with anyone. Skepticon went a step further and used blue instead of red, in order to help people who are red-green colorblind. I LOVE this system because I’m a yellow person most of the time, but the world mostly functions on green. Being able to wear a yellow sticker on my badge for most of the weekend, with a short time with a green sticker, made a huge difference for me in terms of being able to be in the conference space without the added stress of worrying about dealing with strangers. People largely respected the system in my experience.
I also want to point out that this was an incredibly inexpensive accommodation for Skepticon to use. A pack of these stickers probably cost them a few dollars, and including a page in the program that explained the system was awesome and probably a slightly larger cost. An event with a slightly higher budget could implement this same system while making it a little more accessible to people with complete colorblindness by using different shapes as well as different colors for the stickers.
The container of fidgets to borrow at the main table was also an awesome touch. While lots of people carry their own fidget toys (or craft projects!), it’s nice to have novel ones. I have a habitual stim (doodling specific patterns) during class lectures, talks at conferences, etc, but it’s actually really nice to play with a new toy instead sometimes. Again, this was a fairly inexpensive way to accommodate attendees, and I particularly liked that it normalized the use of fidgets and body movement during people’s talks. I have a super hard time sitting still, and I felt like the box of fidgets sent a powerful message that Skepticon and it’s attendees and speakers understand that kind of thing. I definitely used them during talks, and I saw lots of other people do it too.
Saturday night featured a prom-themed dance party. This was a popular event and I was excited to get dressed up for it! Then I realized I’d forgotten my good earplugs in Chicago. I went down to the dance party anyway, figuring I’d leave when it got to be too much. At the door of the prom was a sign that included a few pieces of information – the sign warned that the prom would have flashing lights and loud music, and said that earplugs were available at the information desk.
Certainly cheap foam earplugs would be better than no earplugs for me (though not as good as my nice ones) so I checked the information desk for the earplugs but couldn’t find them. I never did figure out where they were or if this got overlooked. I’m not sure why they wouldn’t have been put right at the same place the sign was, at the entrance to the prom. This isn’t a huge deal, since most people who need earplugs will have their own, but sometimes we forget them, like I did. It’s also possible that someone who did not expect to need them could have benefited from them if they had been easier to find.
The bigger issue was with the flashing lights. I think Skepticon has gotten some feedback about this already, but flashing lights can be a seizure trigger, a migraine trigger, and a sensory problem. Telling people about them was simply not in keeping with Skepticon’s usually great attitude about wanting to include everyone. While they are traditional, flashing lights are not essential for a great dance party. Alternate lighting is a better option. Steady colors or slow color changes and gobos (color patterns shined on the floor and walls that can be static or moving) are safer and more sensory friendly options that would allow people with these problems to attend the dance without any inconvenience to other attendees.
I also want to mention that there were a lot of accessibility related things I did not address here. Skepticon provided captions and ASL interpretation for talks, covered mobility related issues on their website and at the event, and included instructions to other attendees about how we could help make Skepticon as accessible as possible. I didn’t go into depth on these other accessibility issues here because I’m not an expert on those things – I am learning more about how to identify barriers for people who’s disabilities are different than mine, but I can’t be sure I didn’t miss something important and so I didn’t want to focus on those issues here because I’d prefer others share their experiences from those perspectives.
In all, I found Skepticon to be a highly accessible event for me compared to other events I have attended. The ability to indicate my socialization preferences in an easy way helped decrease my anxiety dramatically, the fidgets helped make me feel included, and the overall attitude of the organizers and other attendees was fantastic. While these things make the difference between a somewhat stressful conference and an easy one, for others these may mean the difference between being able to attend and staying home. I hope Skepticon keeps the great attitude and listens to the feedback they are getting about some issues. I look forward to going back.
Featured image is a silhouette of a pink dinosaur on a skateboard on a blue background. This is image is from skepticon.org and is one of their logos.