Experiences of Deaf Accessibility at Dreamforce
It’s been a while since I updated Radically Queer, and that’s mostly because I started a new job as a database manager in August. The job has been excellent so far, and one of the professional development opportunities I’d been most looking forward to as a part of it was Dreamforce 2014, a huge conference for Salesforce users taking place in San Francisco last week. Like my fellow nearly 150,000 attendees, I arrived to San Francisco excited to learn about better ways to use the platform and the new features Salesforce will be offering in the coming year. I was caught up in the enthusiasm of all the huge blue signs and volunteers stationed throughout the Financial District to make it easy for us to register and start the conference. But my experience went downhill pretty quickly Monday morning.
This being such a big, professionally organized conference, my expectations around language accessibility were high. I was a little surprised not to find any obvious accessibility request language or procedures on the main Dreamforce page, but a month or two before the conference I posted a question about ASL interpretation in one of the Dreamforce-related Success Community groups and a Salesforce staff member directed me to the events company managing the conference. The rep replied to my email with one question about keynotes and otherwise, I figured everything was handled. I’d registered very early for a couple of sessions a day, focusing on what I most needed to learn, to make sure it would be easy to provide interpreter coverage for me for the event. But when I arrived at my first session on Monday, I was surprised to find that no interpreter was present. The folks manning the door were also not able to provide me seating up-front, as the session had filled up and I could only sit in the middle of the huge room. I knew I wouldn’t get anything out of the session, so I left.
Later, I Tweeted my disappointment, including the @dreamforce handle, and I did get a quick reply asking for my contact information and offering a follow-up. I was told to expect contact from a particular representative, who didn’t contact me by the end of the day, so I tried again with a DM through Twitter. I received a call on my cell phone, which I couldn’t answer in the loud conference environment, but later received a text and figured out from the matching number that the Salesforce rep had tried to call me to set up an interpreter. We were able to coordinate through text and e-mail and I did get an interpreter for the one remaining Wednesday session that I really wanted to attend. Once the interpreter was scheduled, the staff did very well day-of–the door staff knew to expect me, made sure I was understanding/lip-reading, and told me the interpreter was present. A member of the event company escorted me inside and told me to sit anywhere, and I met the interpreter, who was great. I just wish this service had been available for the Monday and Tuesday sessions.
For the Dreamforce team, this experience should provide several cues for next year. I hope they’ll learn from their mistakes and that I will be able to access the conference fully. I know that I’ll be hesitant to register unless I have a very firm commitment from Dreamforce around ASL interpretation!
- Give attendees an easy way to make accessibility requests. This would be simple to do both on the registration page, with a link on the main event page, and/or with a way to make requests in the Agenda Builder. A clear policy on accommodations offered would also be great to read on the Dreamforce site before the conference.
- Reserve seating up front for those with accessibility needs. Many of these sessions have huge rooms, so it would be great to know that I could sit up front (at least for any sessions I registered for in advance) to facilitate lipreading if an interpreter wasn’t available. While it’s the best policy to always provide interpreters upon request for full access, this is a good option to provide as a next-best accommodation.
- Confirm interpreter availability before the conference and offer a refund if interpreters are not available. If interpreters are requested and not available, attendees should know and have an opportunity to attend. While I got some value out of Dreamforce, it was greatly reduced and I would’ve appreciated knowing in advance that my request couldn’t be honored and having the option to cancel my trip. Or, if interpreters would only be available for certain times, I would have selected sessions in accordance with that availability.
- Train staff in how to work with Deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees. Dreamforce is not the only culprit on this one, and it always saddens me because it would be such an easy fix. Let volunteers and staff know that there may be Deaf and hard-of-hearing attendees present and particularly if someone identifies themselves as such, it’s important to speak clearly and face the individual in question. Staff should use text-based communication (SMS, e-mail, Twitter) to communicate with the attendee when necessary unless an attendee affirmatively says that he/she/they can use the phone/have an interpreted line.