Hybrid Conferences Are an Accessibility Issue

Illustration of people communicating via video for a hybrid conference.

Spring conference season is upon us once again, and for the first time in a few years now, I am distraught to see how many conferences I won’t be able to attend. I understand that many people look forward to the in-person conference–that ability to feel connected to one another, to share ideas and network, and to return to “normal.” However, for many of us, that is not an option. I know I’m not the first person to express my feelings on being excluded from so many collaborative opportunities to learn and grow as a librarian. In fact, Fobazi Ettarh wrote an incredible essay in 2022 about the grief that many disabled folks feel about being excluded from in-person only conferences.

However, intermingled with my grief is also frustration. For the past few years, many professional development conferences have dedicated ample attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, while at the same time dismantling their online options for attendance and also rolling back many, if not all, of their COVID protections. I have been to conferences and trainings where, in the opening remarks, conference leaders discuss how great it is to be back in person and in a post-COVID world. But despite these claims, we are not in a post-COVID world; we are still very much in an active and ongoing pandemic. While COVID numbers are lower than they once were, there are still elevated risks, and these risks often primarily impact marginalized populations.

When we roll back all that we’ve done over the past four years—when we remove virtual access, convert back to in-person only events, and eliminate masking practices and other COVID safe protocols—it doesn’t really create an environment in which disabled library workers feel welcome. This can be especially concerning for those who are required to attend and present at conferences for their job, which is often necessary for continuing contract and promotion.

I am a third-year librarian currently working through the promotion process and obtaining continuing contract. I am also dynamically disabled. Scholarship is a large part of the promotion process, and this means both attending and presenting at conferences. I have spoken very openly in my scholarship about the fact that I have Palindromic Rheumatoid Arthritis, ADHD, and Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and how it impacts my experience as a librarian. I am frank about this because many people do not understand what a hardship it is for me to attend conferences in person or the after-effects that attending an in-person event can have on my body.

Traveling is hard for me. Sitting for prolonged periods of time can cause severe joint stiffness and pain. Stress and anxiety can cause rheumatoid arthritis (RA) flare-ups, and I manage a lot of my ADHD stress and anxiety through reliable routines and habits that get tossed out the window when I have to leave the spaces that I have built these routines around. In short, travel yields quite a bit of pain, fatigue, and frustration.

In 2023 I attended my first ACRL conference, which was an incredibly impactful experience, but also debilitating. The success I did find at ACRL was because of the hybrid model that they offered that year. When my RA was flaring up, and navigating a conference center was not possible, I could attend virtual sessions from my hotel room and not feel as if I was missing out on the conference. Also, having an option to rest between sessions meant that I was more likely to be able to attend the in-person sessions and events that were high priorities to me without completely burning myself out. This was the first time in my library career I was able to attend a conference as a disabled person and have viable options to care for myself during it. It was one of the best conference experiences that I had, and yet it still came with a price.

The aftermath of prolonged sitting during travel, and the related stress with little time to recover between each day, meant days of being in intense pain and fatigue, and eventually needing cortisone shots in my joints to help relieve the RA flare up that I was experiencing. And keep in mind this was the aftermath of a good experience. All I could think about was the fact that I had to do it all over again in two months for another conference, this time even further away.

I detail all of this because I want people to understand why in-person conferences are not viable for everyone. For the past four years, we have shown each other that it is possible to have meaningful and engaging events in a virtual capacity. I understand that for many places creating hybrid models for conferences feels impossible. There is no denying that there will be growing pains until this practice becomes commonplace, but it is doable! ACRL set a wonderful example with their 2023 conference and even smaller conferences, like The Ohio State University’s Multiple Perspectives Conference have shown us that accessible hybrid conferences can be done with proper planning, and they don’t have to be extravagant. There will still be occasions when hybrid conferences really are not possible, unfortunately, given disparities in access to technology and funding, but this practice should become the norm moving forward. Accessibility should never be an afterthought.

It is frustrating to come across conferences that are dedicated to DEI practice but do not provide online or hybrid opportunities for disabled librarians. It is hard to trust institutions’ dedication to DEI when many of us are not even able to access the conversations they seem to be having. Access to hybrid conferences and trainings is not a preference but a necessity for me and many other disabled librarians. If we are going to fulfill the goals of equity and inclusion that we have all been striving for, then we need to create accessible environments that are truly inclusive and welcoming to all.

headshot of Brea McQueen

About the author:

Brea McQueen is an activist and academic librarian whose work primarily focuses on the intersections of disability and librarianship, and challenging normative ideas of what librarianship should look like.

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Header image is a detail of This is Harlem by Jacob Lawrence. Courtesy of Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. © 2021 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. For more information, click here.