Accessibility and Diversity – some suggestions and learnings

At the beginning of the month, the Ruby community hosted the fourth annual eurucamp conference. Being inclusive and diverse is important to us, so leading up to the event, a lot of thought went into making sure everyone felt welcome and comfortable at all times. We kept some of the strategies from previous years, but also added some new ideas. Here's what we did.

Community outreach/involvement and discounts

We contacted Rails Girls project groups leading up to the conference and offered discounted tickets, and we also made sure that some of the organizers of eurucamp and Rails Girls overlapped. Additionally, we offered student and low income discounts and announced that potential ticket buyers were welcome to contact us for further discounts. Apart from that, the community jumped in: some individuals as well as companies gave tickets away to eager learners – thank you all for doing so!

Anonymous selection process for talks

With the exception of the keynote speaker, there were no invited talks for eurucamp. The call for proposals was completely anonymous and the selection committee only saw the title and description for each proposal. After the committee finished the voting process, the top 50 were discussed and favourites were picked. It was only after this that names were revealed. More about the CFP can be read here.

Mentoring for talks

All speakers were assigned a mentor. This is particularly useful for first time speakers and/or those who need a little bit of support. It also encouraged people to apply who had never spoken at a conference before, because we made it clear right away that they would be encouraged and helped, right up until (and also after!) their talks.

Code of Conduct before ticket purchase & at the conference

Every attendee was asked to read and accept our Code of Conduct when buying the ticket. For the conference, there was a printed version on an A0 poster. The Code itself is one that has been in the making by the Berlin Ruby community for some time now and is generally valid for most Ruby-related events (and beyond) in Berlin. The MCs pointed out at the opening of the conference that the Code of Conduct exists, and reminded everyone to behave accordingly. Incidents were addressed immediately, and the Code of Conduct was discussed and re-visited by the MCs throughout the conference.

However, what we didn’t do was explain the main points of it in order to help everybody get a (better) understanding of what is actually meant by certain *isms (such as racism, classism, sexism, ableism and the like). Especially the power of microaggressions, and of the words we use, should have been addressed more specifically in order to get everyone on the same page. If we had read this blogpost by ModelViewCulture beforehand, we would have known to spend a little bit more time on actually explaining the Code of Conduct. We will definitely do this next time.

Beginner’s workshop in parallel

Having a Rails Girls Beginner’s Workshop during eurucamp has become something of a tradition. The important part here is that workshop attendees were invited to stay after the workshop for the keynote as well as for the Friday party. It’s a good opportunity for beginners to get to know the community and share the excitement one feels when learning new things, which is also a great way to keep fellow Rubyists inspired. As the Beginner’s Workshop on Friday filled up pretty fast, we spontaneously set up a small study session for significant others on Saturday. Malwine coached the session, layed down some basics of Ruby, and helped attendees get to know the terminal. For other conferences where an entire workshop could be considered too much of a workload, a smaller session should be considered as an option.

Accessible venue & a ramp

When we chose the venue, we put a special focus on accessibility, starting with affordable public transport to the venue, a nearby hotel, camping options and a train station with an elevator. We also made sure that the building itself was accessible via a wheelchair, including outdoors and the main hall, the elevators and appropriate bathrooms. However, to cover all our bases, we also purchased a Wheelramp with Sozialhelden.

Childcare

Being a parent should not prevent anyone from taking part in conferences or other activities during times where childcare is not standard. So with the help of Kinderfee, we were able to provide child care on all three days right at the venue. This allowed parents to check in on their children (and vice versa) and have lunches together while also enjoying the talks. In fact, some of our speakers also brought along their children, adding to that family-friendly feeling at eurucamp.

Clearly marked vegan/vegetarian/gluten-free options

Lunch was provided each day, and attendees were asked about special food requirements when purchasing their ticket. The buffet on Friday and Sunday offered a variety of mediterranean foods. Vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options were clearly marked with cards, leaving room to further specify the ingredients. As for the Saturday packed lunch, we ran into some issues after people who had originally ordered a lunch with meat spontaneously decided for a veggie meal. The learning here is to order more veggie meals than asked for!

During the day, fruit, cake and cupcakes were also provided to keep the attendees happy. Learning from last year, we decided to go straight for the vegan cake option and also label the foods accordingly.

Bathroom signs/all gender restroom

When working with a venue that is not your own, it’s sometimes difficult to make all the things happen that you consider important. We had this challenge with the restrooms, as they are usually labeled with signs suggesting a specific gender. Additionally, during the entire weekend, we were not the only people at the venue (university students and professors used nearby rooms for tests and classes). We were therefore unsure about making all the available restrooms “all gender”, but decided to offer at least one, on the first floor.

For the other three restrooms, we decided to take an already well proven approach. Every bathroom was labeled with a sign saying:

If you think someone’s gender doesn’t match the sign on the door, please follow these steps: 1. Don’t worry about it, they know it better than you

Nametags – gender-inclusive version

Nametags or lanyards are pretty standard at conferences, but we decided to include a small change to our nametags: we offered people with the option to write down their preferred pronoun as well.

Bathroom products

Especially for people coming from out of town, it might sometimes be difficult to find stores in case you forgot to bring some basic necessities. This is an especially important consideration in Germany, where stores are closed on Sundays. Therefore, every restroom was equipped with a box containing products for emergencies and general well-being:

These included non-gendered deodorant, chewing gum, disinfectant spray, dental floss, wet wipes, band-aids, tampons and pads.

Shirt choice free of gender attribution

We decided against the naming of certain cuts “men’s cut” or “women’s cut”, as from experience, the gender usually doesn’t decide whether the person preferred a fitted or a loose cut of the conference t-shirt. So we decided to go for “straight” or “fitted“ instead. We only later realized that this wording might have been confusing to some of the attendees.

However, the bigger issue was then that the t-shirt cuts were very different from what people were used to, meaning that a loose cut M fits about a slim cut XL. Some people asked to exchange their shirts later, with very good reason. Here we learned to check the actual shirt sizes early – or have enough backup shirts.

Speech to text

Every talk was live transcribed by Kimberly Turnage. This was not only incredibly helpful for the hearing impaired, but it also makes the content more accessible for everyone. We are an international conference, attracting native and non-native speakers, as well as attendees with a variety of different language capabilities. Many speakers used the transcript to better understand audience questions, and many attendees followed the transcripts as well.

Video recordings

For people who couldn’t make it to the conference, or couldn’t attend all the talks, we had Confreaks record every single talk. To be honest, this might also be a bit selfish, as us organizers missed most of them ;) but it also ensures the sharing of knowledge beyond the confines of our event.

Guides for people new to conferences

When you’re new to a conference and community, chances are you won’t know too many people. To help first time visitors get to know the community better, attendees could volunteer as guides and show newbies around and introduce them to people. Guides wore a black wristband so that they be could easily found. This initiative was completely community organized.

No alcoholic drinks during the day

Non alcoholic drinks were free throughout the entire conference. We offered sparkling and non-sparkling water, Club-Mate, Flora-Power Mate, Wostock, BioZisch, regular Fritz-Kola and sugar-free Fritz-Kola. We had learned from the previous year that it was quite important to our attendees that non-sugared drinks besides water would be provided. Non alcoholic drinks were also served at Thursday night’s speaker’s dinner and at the Friday evening party.

Rubyweek & Saturday activities

Last but not least, the self-organized activities before, during and after eurucamp provided a different way of getting in touch with each other. Not everybody feels comfortable in a professional/technical space like a conference. During activities, the level of experience might be more equal (e.g. maybe nobody knows how to steer a canoe vs. tech beginners/speakers) and thus lowering the barriers. Additionally, most of the activities were also open for non-attendees and made it possible to participate at least partially without buying a ticket.