What does a visually impaired physicist have to think about when attending a scientific conference? This post is intended for VIPs who want to know what it's like to work as a scientist with a visual impairment, but also for organisers, speakers and poster-makers who want to improve accessibility for VIPs at conferences.
Conferences. Big events with lots of talks, discussions, meetings and (if you're lucky) a bunch of free food. I enjoy attending conferences - I get to travel to a new place, hang out with passionate and dedicated researchers and learn about the latest ideas circulating in the scientific community. I am writing this a week after attending QIP 2018, one of the biggest quantum information theory conferences to date, where I had a great time. While the main topic of QIP is not exactly what I am working on at the moment, it was a good chance to catch up with some of the latest ideas in the field, and also to catch up with some people I hadn't seen for a while.
As with everything, there are a few things that are different for a VIP when it comes to conferences. Below I want to describe some of the biggest differences, and what VIPs and organisers can do to make the conference as accessible and enjoyable as possible.
I'm basically very, very short-sighted
But first, let me quickly explain how much I can see in case you are new to this blog. I have a visual impairment which causes me to be very short-sighted in a way that is not correctible by glasses. That is, I do still wear glasses, but their only effect is to magnify objects at short range. With the glasses on I see about 15%, which means that an object visible to a fully sighted person at 1 m is only sharply visible to me at 15 cm. As a result, I usually can't the text presented in slides or on the blackboard, instead I have to find other strategies . If you want to know more, you can check out this post where I describe in detail what I can and cannot see.
With that all done, let's talk about conferences!
What would a conference be without talks? At QIP 2018, I went to a broad range of talks, most of which were very well-presented and engaging. I learned a lot and was quite impressed by some of the ideas I encountered.
As mentioned above, beings short-sighted means I can't usually see what's on the board or what's displayed on a projector screen. This was a challenge during my undergraduate degree, because information displayed on the board or screen was crucial for my learning (not to say grades). To solve this, I used a video camera connected to a small screen to zoom in on the board. For a full breakdown of how I was able to follow talks and seminars for undergraduate degree, see this post. At a conference, however, understanding all the details is not terribly important - rather, I prefer focusing on the questions and ideas that are presented, and ideally, solved. To that end, I usually just bring a tiny monocular, which I use to read the most important equations. I have just like in the picture below.
While I could bring my screen and camera setup to the conference, carrying them around, charging them and finding a suitable place to set them up is a lot of effort. I find that it doesn't really pay off at a conference, where the ideas are more important. If I really like something, I will make a note of the topic and author, and then go find the paper online.
There's not much conference-organisers can do to simplify talks for visually impaired attendees. One thing could be to make the slides available in advance, but this is not always possible. In fact, it can be very difficult to get speakers to send in their slides in advance, not least because some will naturally be prepared last-minute. Also, distributing unpublished work can be sensitive, so I fully understand the difficulties here. I have however asked speakers in hindsight if they'd be willing to share their slides with me, which was often the case. This can also be a good opportunity to make a personal connection too, which is useful if the presenter works on something similar to you.
For the speakers themselves, my main suggestion is to make sure the font on the slides is not unreasonably small and to avoid putting too much text on a single slide. Most importantly, however, is making use of high-contrast colours to ensure that the text is clearly readable on the background. Black text on white works really well, or white on a dark background. Avoid colours that are close, such as yellow and purple. Also avoid having a cluttered background, such as a picture - it will be harder to read the text even though the picture is a bit faded. Finally, when presenting pictures or graphs during the talk, describing the key features or reading out the units on the axes is very helpful. I believe all these points will help both visually impaired and sighted conference attendees.
Ah posters. For those of you who don't know, posters are a big deal at conferences. They allow attendees who didn't give talks to showcase their research, and provides a rather natural environment for networking and discussions.
The poster itself is usually an A1 or A0 paper with text, figures and equations covering a quick introduction to a research area and some recent results. You can see one of my own posters in the picture below as an example (and please pardon the self-promotion).
While poster sessions are great for networking, I don't usually get very much out of them with regards to scientific content. There are the usual reasons for this, which probably applies to sighted people as well. It's very tricky to quickly form a comprehensive impression of a problem you haven't seen before. And it doesn't help that the research on a single poster might in fact be the compressed version of a 20 page scientific article. Some authors focus entirely technical details, which is fine as a visual aid accompanied by an oral presentation, but it makes it hard to approach the poster as a stand-alone deal.
In addition to these regular difficulties, there are the additional challenges which come with the visual impairment. Naturally, I have to get very close to the posters to read them in the first place. This means that while I'm reading, I'm usually blocking someone else's view, which of course isn't very nice. I therefore try to read the poster as quickly as possible, which in itself is never a great method for approaching a new scientific idea. I just don't have it in me to hog the poster for longer.
My main strategy for dealing with this is asking the author to explain the poster. This way, I get to know the author, I get the less technical explanation of the work, and at the same time I don't have to read much of the content of the poster. I have to admit to sometimes faking understanding when the author points at a low-positioned graph that I can't see without leaning very close and making my visual impairment obvious. There is a certain element of being self-conscious here; sometimes I simply don't have the energy for the quick "I'm very short-sighted"-explanation, however short it may be.
Another tricky thing is to find posters that I want to read. Usually the title is clear, but when the colour contrast isn't great or when there's a large group of people standing in the way, it's difficult to see the poster title from afar. Having posters with large and clear headlines definitely help, and QIP 2018 was fantastic here in that it provided a complete list of posters and their location in the conference venue. That meant I could read up on the topics in advance and find the right location for my target poster. Other conferences, take note of this simple but very effective measure!
My suggestions to poster-makers who want to accommodate low vision people are the following: It might sound repetitive, but bear in mind about the contrast, especially of the headline. Black or dark text on a white background works best, or white on a dark background. Avoid close colours, such as green on yellow, or light blue on white. Make the headline large and visible from afar. Be conservative with text (I've seen plenty of posters that could have used that advice in general) - it will take a low vision person forever to read them without getting to the important bits. For the case when a blind physicist comes along, think about how you can explain your idea in words without referring to figures and graphs on your poster.
This, by far, is the single hardest thing about conferences. To anyone at QIP whom I accidentally ignored, I'm truly sorry. Now you know the reason.
Let me try and explain what it's like. Imagine being surrounded by people. You can see their clothes, their hairstyle, skin and hair colour, but you can't really see their faces. Then, finding your friends or the speaker who gave that interesting talk becomes nearly impossible. It doesn't help that many people in physics do look quite similar (which is another reason for why improving diversity in physics is a good thing). I usually have to make my way over to people to check if they are indeed my friends, but this can become awkward if I go too close to a group where I don't know anyone.
I don't really have a good strategy here - I basically do a random walk throughout the room hoping to spot someone I know. If I went to the talk with friends, I try not to lose them when moving between events. I'm very lucky to have very nice and considerate friends and colleagues; those who know me well will call out or even come get me when they see that I'm lost. It also happens that I urgently need to find someone, and for that I will usually ask my friends to help me spot them. When possible I try and return the favour by then introducing them to the person - networking is always useful!
My only suggestion here for conference attendees it to be attentive to how they can help any disabled people around them. Little gestures can sometimes make life much simpler, and they are often immensely appreciated.
Summary and outlook
That is how conference talks are usually concluded, so let me make us of the same phrase here. Conferences can be great fun, but I do also find them challenging. In the end, it's all worth it though - I have met some really great people and collaborators at conferences, and I'm always on the look-out for upcoming meetings. I hope that this will show that it's perfectly possible for a VIP scientist to attend conferences, and I hope that some of my suggestions will be useful for future conferences organisers. That's all for now!