How the Connected by Autism online conference assured accessibility for their audience

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Pictured: Áine Ryan

Jessica Kingsley Publishers (JKP) has a 30+ year legacy of specialising in books on autism and neurodiversity. Last year JKP held their first online conference, catering to the autistic community and those who work with them. Here, marketing manager Áine Ryan outlines how she, along with editorial director Lisa Clark, ensured the event was accessible for their market.

Our First Event

As the realisation that the pop-up bookshop we’d had in mind for summer 2020 just wasn’t going to happen sank in, our thoughts turned to online options and how we could best bring our extensive library of autism and neurodiversity content to the market in a new and innovative way. With access to so many experts in our author pool, it’s surprising that we didn’t think of it sooner, but the idea to gather them together in one virtual room to share their knowledge and expertise became our first ever online conference: Connected by Autism.

Connected by Autism

After creating a wish list of speakers from our author pool, we decided to theme each of the six days of talks around a topic important to the autism community, such as mental health, gender diversity, and education. Our amazing authors couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about sharing their expertise, helping to put together some really special content for us. We used the online learning platform Thinkific to host the videos, and the conference consisted of 23 pre-recorded talks, 3 live talks with audience Q&A, and a few fun quizzes and surveys scattered throughout to keep things varied and engaging. We worked with the publishing industry events experts at BookMachine on the live talks, who ensured all the tech ran smoothly.

Autism-Friendly Features

It was crucial to ensure our event was as representative and accessible as it could be. As well as making sure over 50% of our speakers were autistic themselves, technology meant we could include accessibility features that just wouldn’t have been possible at a live event. For example, each £45 ticket offered 30-day any-time access to the conference content, which meant  attendees could self-pace their learning. We also worked hard to ensure that every talk had both subtitles and a transcript, enabling people who are hard of hearing or have processing differences to engage with the content in a way that best suited them. Good subtitling and transcribing software isn’t easy to find, especially when you add strong accents and technical terminology, but providing subtitles was a non-negotiable for us. In the end we had some lovely feedback from attendees who appreciated these features, which meant a great deal to us.

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Accessible In-person Events

For many autistic people the sounds, smells and lights of a conference hall can be deeply unpleasant. As a result, they are missing out on events. Luckily, there are adaptations that can be made to improve the accessibility of your event. Consider creating a quiet room with low lighting as a breakout space for those who need it to relax. If you’ve provided a schedule or running order to attendees, make sure you stick to it, avoiding the stress that autistic people can feel when uncertainty or unexpected changes occur. I’ve been impressed by thoughtful conference organisers who switch off noisy hand dryers in the bathrooms and provide towels instead, and who swap applause after presentations with the ‘silent jazz hands’ used in sign language. I’ve also seen traffic light stickers on offer to help indicate the level of social interaction attendees are comfortable with engaging in. Autistic people can take steps to protect themselves from sensory overload by wearing sunglasses or visors, ear defenders or earplugs for example. Consider providing some of these options, as well as blankets or fans if temperature is likely to be a comfort issue at an outdoor event. All of these are affordable, simple fixes that can make the difference between a neurodivergent person being able to attend your event or not.

What’s Next?

Following the great success of our first online autism conference, which saw attendees from as far afield as Australia, Afghanistan, India, Iceland and Vietnam, we’re looking ahead to our second Connected by Autism event, provisionally scheduled for Spring 2022. With a few tweaks and improvements, we’re incredibly excited to connect with our authors and readers again to continue bringing content to the autism community in a way that recognises and suits their preferences.

If you’d like to hear more about JKP’s Connected by Autism event and book publishing, you can sign up to their mailing list, follow them on Twitter and read their blog. Áine can be found on Twitter here.

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