The little conference that could: A summit about accessibility finds a way forward despite pandemic
Author: Stefanie Knowlton
Posted: June 4, 2020

First the NBA cancelled its games. Then K-12 schools closed. And soon universities followed. Events around the country fell one by one as COVID-19 changed the way we lived almost on an hourly basis.

 With less than a week to go before PSU’s Mobility Matters conference March 18, organizers quickly transformed the face-to-face event into a virtual one. This was before Zoom became a verb and video conferencing was so ubiquitous that everyone from grandmothers to the cast of Hamilton used it. (The conference is now available online until June 10 for those who missed it.)

A small team at PSU scrambled to rally the two dozen speakers from locations around the world, some of whom had never used video conferencing and some of whom were blind, low vision or deafblind. The PSU team helped train everyone on the technology that would later become part of daily life.

“This story is one of persistence and community,” said Amy Parker, assistant professor at PSU’s College of Education and the force behind Mobility Matters, an annual summit on new approaches and technology in transportation that benefit people with disabilities.

The news didn’t look good the week leading up to the conference. More than a hundred people were slated to travel to Portland, some from as far away as the UK, as cases of coronavirus started to make headlines. Parker considered canceling the event, but decided to find another way forward.

“So many people had spent time preparing,” she said, “and we had some great speakers and content.”

But more importantly, she felt a conference about accessibility should find a way to make it work. 

“So many times people with disabilities have to decide not to do things because of accessibility,” she said. “We need to show that we can do this. It might be harder, and it might be different, but we had to find a way to provide access.” 

It turns out that access was the key to success. Instead of losing participants, the new, more accessible format caused a spike in registration. About 50 people signed up for the conference in the days after it went virtual, a 33% increase. 

“A lot of folks were really excited because they weren't going to be able to attend in person, but they were able to attend online,” said Graduate Administrative Assistant Becky Morton, a graduate student in the Visually Impaired Learner and Orientation and Mobility programs.

 The day of the conference, a team of 10 gathered at the now quiet PSU campus, including ASL interpreters, volunteers and organizers Amy Parker and Holly Lawson, coordinator of PSU’s Visually Impaired Learner program.
They installed themselves in empty offices around the Department of Education to lead the virtual sessions. Several more pitched in remotely. Volunteer Julie Wright, an orientation and mobility Master's student, ran between the rooms, offering technical help, water, doughnuts and moral support. 

There were a lot of moving parts to the conference, which was co-led by people with disabilities. The conference offered live captioning and ASL interpreters at each session while moderators put up slides and managed the chat pod.

"It was the first major event affiliated with PSU (and likely one of the first in the country) to switch from in-person to online, which was not easy considering the need for interpreters for deaf, blind, and deaf-blind attendees and speakers,” said Jonathan Fink, director of PSU’s Digital City Testbed Center, one of the event’s sponsors. 

“The fact that it all worked without a hitch, despite only having four days to get set up, was truly remarkable,” he said.

There were a few tense moments behind the scenes. One presenter's audio was not working so Lawson had the presenter call her on her cell phone. She put it on speaker mode near a good quality microphone, and the quick fix worked like a charm. It’s a good example of the can-do spirit that everyone from speakers to volunteers adopted in the fast-changing atmosphere. 

“Despite these rapid changes, there was a sense of community and commitment,” Lawson said. 

There were proud moments, too.

One thing that stands out for organizer Amy Parker was watching all of the attendees virtually arriving at the conference that almost wasn’t. 

“The chat pod kept scrolling as people joined from all around the world. It looked like a ticker-tape parade with people talking about what they were seeing and what they were feeling,” she said.

 Speakers ranged from Murat Omay, Federal Transit Administration’s senior program manager, who talked about removing barriers to transportation through universal design and technology to Zachary Bastian, Verizon’s manager of strategic alliances, who shared Waymap, a highly accurate user location algorithm for safe and efficient audio-based navigation. 

Kelvin Crosby, founder of Smart Guider, shared his story of getting hit by cars multiple times as a pedestrian so he developed an illuminated cane that helps users be seen. He is one of many who spoke from personal experience. The conference is co-led by people with disabilities.

The conference also included a panel discussion on lived experiences and civic engagement and multiple break-out sessions that featured everything from youth leadership to interactive 3-D printed maps.

Participants appreciated the results.  

“The organizers and presenters of Mobility Matters 2020 should all be very proud! It was a fantastic experience, and I am so impressed with the creativity and flexibility that must have been needed to move it to an all on-line platform on such short notice,” said one attendee.

“The online format was great! It would be nice if this was always offered for people who cannot make the trip,” wrote another. 

The new format also helped create stronger connections after the conference, Fink said. 

“There have been a number of follow-up conversations with potential funders and collaborating nonprofits, government agencies, and companies,” he said. 

“In some sense, having an online conference made the transition to these follow-up meetings more seamless. Also, because this was such an early event to move online, it allowed many other groups to learn from the experience.”

The move also allowed PSU to offer the conference virtually to people who missed attending the livestream the first time around. The entire conference is now available to download

It was inspiring to see everyone come together to make the event happen, Parker said.

“This topic of access, of participating fully in community, is a civil right. So people feel passionate about how to make that civil right a reality,” she said.

“That’s why people felt so committed to making this happen.”