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What would it take to be inclusive?


Authors: Jennifer Mankoff
Posted: Tue, May 07, 2013 - 1:03:13

It's been a while since I was asked to join the group of interactions bloggers. I guess I've been waiting for the right inspiration to strike. I've just attended CHI, and that inspiration has finally arrived, but not quite in the way I expected. When I was at CHI, I saw mothers sitting on the floor to nurse their children (due to lack of seating) and a good friend forced into a wheelchair by the inaccessibility of the venue, which I also struggled to get around using a cane. And I realized that it's time we ask ourselves a question: What would it take for our community to be truly inclusive, to make sure that we welcome the same diversity into our community that is so wonderfully present in the work we feature at our conferences? 

So ask yourself: are you willing to educate yourself or others? Those companions this week at CHI who had the experience to understand my situation made me feel at home and supported me without making me feel out of place. But do those of us with the responsibility to act know enough—or should we also be inclusive when it comes to decision making, allowing people in the trenches to represent their own needs and knowledge? What about educating others? For example, student volunteers at CHI this year could not answer simple questions such as where the nearest seating was. Another year, when an unexpected decision was made not to allow children into the conference center (a policy change that was not announced), an ACM staff member compared my wish to have my child with me and attend the conference to a smoker's wish to smoke in the building. I staged a protest in response but another new mother, a first-time student CHI attendee, flew home to Canada that day. 

Or ask yourself: Are you willing to put time or money into inclusivity? Is inclusivity worth the effort of approaching a venue with a list of accessibility guidelines in mind, and posting the information you collect prominently on each conference website? Is it worth SIGCHI paying for extra chairs or creating a webcast of even one session a day for those who cannot attend in person? Would you take the time to convince your university or business to invest in a nursing room so that moms without private offices don't have to knock on the door of sympathetic private office owners to find a secluded space (something I've been asked for more than once)? Would you invest your department's dollars or your time in creating a welcoming space for new moms, or ensuring that staff or faculty who need it can have a parking space close to their office or an office close to their lab or the bathroom or whatever it is they need? 

Ask yourself: are you willing to change rules and norms? Isn't it about time we considered allowing those who have a legitimate need to attend program committees remotely, for example? Is it worth having their perspective even if we sacrifice on everyone being present? I’ve been told participation requires presence. I've also been gifted remote presence, and half workloads in the past when program chairs were willing to break the rules, but perhaps we should rethink those rules instead. Or then again, could we benefit by allowing students, faculty, or professionals to work part time rather than sacrificing their perspective, rather than accepting what they can offer within the constraints of a disability, or forcing them to choose between motherhood and participation? Sure, some could take a break and come back, but there can be great difficulty in recapturing the knowledge of who and what matters after a year or two of time away (“getting off the banks”). 

I do not stand alone in asking these questions. Shari Trewin created a document on accessible conference planning for the ASSETS conference, I have heard that SIGCHI has a committee now looking into inclusivity, and Jennifer Rode has been an outspoken and passionate crusader for increased accessibility at Ubicomp, CSCW, and CHI. I am sure there are others that I don't know of. Yet progress is slow and in the meantime those of us on the outside bounce between a struggle to participate and those wonderful moments when things are done right. 

But I must say, at this moment, I am tired of hearing the old saws about who is not attending what conference because of what papers they do or don't accept. My disability is part time, but it still has had a big impact on my working life, as has motherhood, and I am one of those who must constantly ask harder questions about conference participation such as: Should I attend the next conference? What will it do to my health to participate? How absent can I be and still give my children the stability they need? 

So next time you plan an event, go to a colleague's baby shower, or invite someone to join a committee, take a step back and ask yourself: How can I be more inclusive? And then think about how you can make sure that even the people who are walking a fine line between their personal needs and their participation in our field still have a voice and a presence. 

Jennifer Mankoff is an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University.




Posted in: on Tue, May 07, 2013 - 1:03:13

Jennifer Mankoff

Jennifer Mankoff is a CHI Academy member and the Richard E. Ladner Professor at the University of Washington. Her research is focused on giving people the voice, tools, and agency to advocate for themselves. She strives to bring both structural and personal perspectives to her work. Mankoff has been recognized with an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, IBM Faculty Fellowship, and Best Paper awards from ASSETS, CHI, and Mobile HCI. She has chronic Lyme disease and identifies as disabled. jmankoff@uw.edu
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