WisCon Recap Part IV: Conference Organizing

The last thing I wanted to highlight about my experience at WisCon 39 was the special attention to detail that the conference organizers paid to attendees that had special needs.  I thought it was really fantastic and a great way to put their “money where their mouth is” when it comes to championing inclusivity and diversity.

This is the first conference I’ve ever been to, for example, where presenters were asked to provide printed notes from their talks (or, if they were comfortable, the text of their talks) so that the hearing impaired would have a better time following along.  It is also the first conference I’ve ever attended where every single panel was able to make use of a microphone, for the same reason.  They keynote speeches were even close captioned live on two large screens to either side of the speakers.  Most every venue that I saw also had easily accessible spaces marked off for wheelchair users and for those with mobility issues.

Finally, I was very interested to see a couple of systems that the conference instituted to make all kinds of attendees more comfortable.  First, panelists got to choose what would go on their name badges and in the programs.  Most went by their given names, but others went by chosen names, nicknames, character names (in the case of role players), and in some cases, Twitter handles.  Furthermore, when you first arrived and picked up your name badge, you were encouraged to add a sticker declaring the kind of pronoun you prefer.  Choices included the traditional he and she but also options like they, hi/hir, ze/zir, and xe/xir.  I liked that the conference acknowledged the various kinds of viewpoints around alternative pronouns without making a pronouncement about which ones would/should be used.

The second system that interested me was an optional Interaction Badge system designed to make folks with anxiety or other social issues feel more comfortable in the crowded hallways of the hotel.

The badges included:

RED (stop sign symbol) means: STOP don’t talk to me!  I don’t want to talk to anyone right now, or if I do, I will approach you.  If I initiate conversation, it’s ok to talk back.

YELLOW (triangle symbol) means: I only want to talk to people I know, not to strangers and not to people I only know from the internet.  If I initiate conversation, it’s ok to talk back, but please don’t approach me unless you know me.

GREEN (circle symbol): I would like to be approached by people interested in talking.  I may have trouble initiating conversation.

WHITE (square symbol): I can manage my own social interactions.

I thought this was a fantastic idea, one that could make a world of difference not only for those who used the cards themselves, but also for everyone with an interest towards de-stigmatizing mental health issues.  However, this system can only work in a community that is committed to making everyone feel welcome.  Can you imagine the anxiety that would attend someone wearing such a badge at, say, the MLA convention?  There would be the constant worry that others were making note of who felt up to socializing.  How would that reflect on candidates on the job market, on junior faculty looking to make a mark before they come up for tenure?  MLA is a cut-throat place and though I would like to see systems like these in place there, I think that it will be a while before the comfort of the attendees is prioritized above the hierarchical peacocking that often takes place there (indeed, which seems to be the major function of the conference in many ways).

So again, many thanks to WisCon for creating a space where everyone is invested in making everyone else feel welcome.  I can’t wait until next year!

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2 thoughts on “WisCon Recap Part IV: Conference Organizing

  1. Thanks so much for this post! It’s great to know that our efforts are seen and appreciated. Unfortunately, not all the program rooms at WisCon have microphones, but we hope some day to get to that point (and/or have captioning for everything!)

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