ShellyBlog Shelly Brisbin's life consists of several long tails. She writes about them here.

February 21, 2009

AccessCamp: From A Distance

Filed under: Access and Disability,New Media and Tech — Shelly Brisbin @ 12:25 PM

A couple days ago, I saw a Twitter message advertising AccessCamp, an unconference focusing on digital accessibility. At first,my response was a bit sarcastic: camps seem to proliferate like weeds, I observed. But the more I thought about it, the more an AccessCamp seemed like a brilliant idea, and one I wish I had been aware of earlier. Having fought and defeated inaccessibility in various ways all my life, I have a few thoughts.

The camp environment, where people choose the topics they want to address and learn about, and in which interaction is prized, is especially exciting in a field where lots of people have limited information, but where good will abundant. In short, most folks embrace the idea of accessibility, but few understand it, orhow to make it happen. And the experts in what’s needed, my fellow disabled citizens, often lack other forums in which to discuss the topic.

Right now, I’m watching on uStream, very happy to have a window into what’s going on in San Antonio, and happy that I was in the right Twitter place at the right Twitter time. Many others who surely could have benefited, were not.

Before I go on, let me acknowledge those who had the idea for AccessCamp. It is a lot easier to provide critical feedback than it is to organize such an event. I offer what follows in a spirit of good will, and I have every intention of being a part of any future AccessCamps held in central Texas.

A few folks at AccesCamp have asked the organizers what efforts were made to get disabled people involved in the event. The response was that most unconference events are publicized via social media and that there is no budget for more traditional publicity. What I take from this is that the unconference movement, grassroots though it may be, relies too heavily on the social media tools its proponents use daily, and the networks of people they are connected to there. Twitter and Facebook may be the currency of the realm in social media circles, but they are more casual information sources for many disabled people, even those who have email and Web access at their fingertips. Also, I wonder how many unconference enthusiasts can say that their social media networks include numbers of disabled people, as mine does. Disabled social media users are out there, but, like all of us, they tend to find those with similar interests and perspectives. And because they are often marginalized in the work world, the average social media enthusiast tends either not to know any, or not to be adept at seeking them out.

Being a constant social media user does not automatically make you the ideal attendee for an uncomference. That ideal attendee may, for example, participate in mailing lists, Web forums, or live chats, but may not have bothered to acquire a Twitter account. We always risk talking only to the people we know in the social media world, and the AccessCamp experience is for me, an amplified example of that risk.

How to make things better? The AccessCamp organizers are right to remind us all that unconferences do not descend, fully-formed, from on high. They are built by those with a passion for “the movement” and a knowledge of how such events should be organized. If, however, you’re unconfernecing about topics that profoundly affect people to whom you are not personally connected, and whose issues you do not fully understand, it’s important to reach out; to find people outside your own network who can make connections directly to individuals and organizations who require accessibility to get their work done on a daily basis.

Those folks will be invaluable advisors and leaders, as well as attendees. You can find them with a minimal amount of research.
They will remind you that your chosen facility needs ramps, accessible bathrooms, greeters who can guide folks to meeting rooms, transit access, a place on the wiki for rideshare planning, walkable access to lunch spots, etc. They won’t be afraid to step up to volunteer their time and skills. But they need to hear from you first.

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