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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!

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
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Blogging Against Disablism Day: Rethinking Access

Over the past five months, my thoughts on access have shifted to such a degree that some friends wonder if I might be lying about how I experience the world.

Until this January, I never asked for access and I didn’t identify as Deaf or HoH.  When I did question the way I hear, I often dismissed my own concerns as lying to myself or being dramatic.  It’s hard to know, after all, how you hear relative to others.  I frequently make “silly mistakes” in interpreting another person’s words, and these mistakes have always been an embarrassment.  I’ve always hated phones.  I do a lot of “filling in” that I don’t really think about to get the full meaning of a sentence, and I hadn’t really noticed how that differs from others’ experiences.

It wasn’t until a conference in January that I considered asking for PSE (ASL signs in English word order, basically) interpretation.  I felt like such a fraud asking, and every other word/sign in my request was an apology.  Even as witnessed how much of a difference it made for my ability to understand without strain and frustration, I felt guilty.

One interpreter, though, said something that resonated with me.  He said that it doesn’t matter what your disability is, or even whether you have one.  You don’t need a diagnosis.  If interpreters give you greater access, and improve your experience, you have a right to request them.

I can’t say that my feelings on the issue have magically reversed in five months. I still ask myself if my hearing issues are “real,” or “enough” to ask for help.  I suspect I have an auditory processing disorder, and I feel fraudulent when I identify as HoH as a shorthand.  I don’t want to minimize anyone’s Deaf identity by using terms that imply a more difficult experience than I have.  But I have been learning to ask for access, to request interpreters without fretting over the cost to event organizers and to ask for friends to repeat themselves when I don’t understand.  I’ve also been attending Deaf events whenever I can, to surround myself with people who don’t see ASL as a “language of the disabled.”

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do, but one of the most important I think to fighting ableist attitudes, is to demand access and not accept excuses.  When an organizer says “no,” “it costs too much,” or “we can’t find interpreters,” I’m training myself to challenge that attitude and confront organizers about their hypocrisy as social justice activists.  I’m learning to stop myself from saying “it’s okay, I understand, I can hear enough to follow” and to instead explain that my access is limited and I’m getting less out of the event I paid for than other attendees.  Who knows what effect these protests will have in the future, but my hope is that they will raise at least some awareness.

This post is for the Blogging Against Disablism Day 2012 event.  Follow the link to read all the posts.

Donate to a Trans-Friendly Project, Get a Custom Blog Post

Here’s the deal, folks.  I so want the Gender-Independent Kids Books project to succeed that I am offering a custom post to any reader who donates $35 or more in the next five days to the project at the Kickstarter link above.  To celebrate my birthday, make a donation and not only will you get a signed coloring book and audiobook of either Tulip, Birthday Wish Fairy or Backwards Day, but if you let me know in a comment here that you donated, I will write a post on any topic for you within the scope of this blog (gender, sexuality, queer, law, human rights, race, class, and similar topics).  If you donate $100 or more you’ll get the above, two signed books, a limited edition t-shirt, and an 8 x 10 photo print of a book page, plus I will either do a five-post series OR an online radio show episode OR a vlog (in ASL or English) on your topic of choice.

Please spread the word!  If the project gets $3,500 more they’re going to do an ASL-accessible video storybook version of Backwards Day!  This will allow D/deaf/HoH kids all over the world who have internet access to learn about gender in a trans-friendly way, and that’s a big deal to me.  Thanks for supporting this project and please share widely!