Recently Ellie Makin Roberts put together a great thread of suggestions for dealing with conferences with anxiety. I’ve been thinking about things I do, consciously or unconsciously, to make the conference experience easier for myself. I have hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and the main issue for me at conferences is dealing with my chronic pain, and tendency to be quite dizzy.
The thing that’s been most helpful and most difficult is sitting down. This sounds like such a simple thing to do, but it’s taken me years to become comfortable with saying that I can’t stand any more. This is particularly difficult at evening events or lunchtimes, as these tend to take place in spaces where there are no or few seats. However, if I stand for about 10 minutes, my feet go numb, which isn’t great. In London, when I’m wearing my please offer me a seat badge, I feel much more confident saying ‘I need to sit down now,’ or ‘can we move, I need to sit down.’ I’m an early career researcher, and so this makes me feel very vulnerable- who am I to ask a senior academic to move our conversation to a seated area? But, this is crucial to me saving enough spoons to be able to go to the sessions I want to for the rest of the conference.
Missing sessions is another strategy I use. Again as an ECR I feel like I need to be at, and be seen at, as many things as possible. However, this just means in practice that I’m absolutely exhausted after a conference. I’ve become much more brutal in deciding what I will go to- usually things that are directly related to my research, or things that I’m particularly interested in. I have to accept that I’m just not going to make it to everything. I did this at a week-long conference last summer, and rested or, e.g. went swimming during the sessions I didn’t go to. More and more conferences are now having quiet rooms, which is a great space for me to go. Otherwise I’d go to a café away from the main action, or back to my room if I’m staying nearby.
I try to drink water as much as I can. Coffee flows freely at most conferences, but I can’t drink too much or it exacerbates my problems. I usually carry a water bottle with me, and top it up when I can. I drink during sessions as well. Remembering to stay hydrated is really important and means I can focus better for longer.
If accessibility is not clear beforehand, I will often email organisers. Conferences are becoming increasingly good at putting access information on their website, or emailing it to delegates in information packs about the event. What I need to know is about steps- I can manage one flight just about, but prefer step free access if at all possible. If the conference is on two floors connected only by steps, I’ll need to plan out my day to make sure I’m not going up and down too much. If you’re organising a conference, there’s a great example of an access statement here.
I now also try to do a couple of other things, which are much more easily said than done. One is eating when I need to. I get quite dizzy now, and the main thing that helps with this is salt. So, I generally carry a box of salted nuts with me, and eat them if I feel a bit funny, so that I can keep concentrating and not worry about fainting. Even if I’m sitting down, I can still get pretty light-headed. I get some strange looks bringing out my box of nuts, but if I don’t eat them, I’d just feel awful and wouldn’t be able to pay attention properly to the papers.
Another is moving around. I think it must have been drilled into me at some point that good girls just sit there quietly, as still as possible. However, I need to fidget. Even now in conference situations. I used to worry that it would be distracting for other people, or that it would look like I’m not paying attention. But now it just hurts too much not to. So far, I’ve managed to stay sitting throughout most conference panels I’ve been to, but I really appreciate efforts to normalise needing to move around. The Medievalists with Disabilities (#dismed) guidelines for example suggest making it clear that delegates can move around if they need to.
Finally, and I think we all probably do this, spacing out. I tend to get brain fog quite badly at conferences, all the moving around coupled with paying attention for long periods of time means few spoons left for general thinking, especially at the end of the day. This means that I’m happy just to sit at a table while eating and might not participate like my usual lively self in the conversation. It’s not because I’m not interested or because I don’t care, but because I just about have enough energy to concentrate on getting the food into my mouth. I like to be with people though, and still feel part of things even if I’m not particularly chatty.
So, if you’re organising a conference, look at something like the guidelines like the dismed ones, and try to incorporate some of the ideas. Some are more difficult and require more time/funding, but others are simple enough- like telling delegates if the space will be accessible beforehand and without them asking. And also be kind. Don’t stare at the person who gets up halfway through a session to stand at the back, or who’s surreptitiously eating a snack. If we can normalise these things, then conferences will become a happier space, not just for disabled people, but for everyone.