An Inclusive Approach to Organising Conferences: ‘Visualising War’ with a blind participant

By Dr Alice König

The School of Classics recently hosted a two-day conference on ‘Visualising War: Interplay between Battle narratives across Antiquity’. As its title suggests, discussion revolved around images as well as texts. In fact, speakers had been specifically asked to explore interplay between different media and genres, so papers looked at Classical inscriptions, Hellenistic sculpture, Roman mosaics, engraved sarcophagi, triumphal columns and arches, Renaissance-era paintings and even modern photographs, alongside historical narratives, epic poetry and a host of ancient technical treatises – many of which included detailed diagrams showing battle formations and camp layouts. This was a conference with a heavy emphasis on sight, in other words.

I’ll be honest: my first reaction on discovering that we had a blind attendee was to gulp. How could we make this image-focused conference inclusive enough? Happily, I found several key sources of advice and support from around the University, in particular Paresh Raval, who manages the University’s Alternative Format Suite. His advice helped me liaise with our blind attendee to identify the best way of sharing handouts and presentation materials ahead of the conference: not via braille, it turned out, but via searchable pdfs and screen-reading technology. He also helped me put together a useful list of “do”s and “don’t”s for our conference speakers: e.g,, do announce and identify any foreign language material before it crops up; do offer detailed descriptions of images, diagrams, tables, etc; don’t say ‘as you can see here…’.

Also key was funding. One of our postgraduate students (whose mother is visually impaired) kindly offered to act as a sighted assistant during the conference. The Classics Head of School found some surplus in the School budget so that we could pay her for this work. That formalised the arrangement, making it easier for us and our attendee to discuss the support he would need, without worrying about imposing on our PG’s good nature. Having a paid sighted assistant made a huge difference to me as conference organiser: I was able to delegate many of the additional logistics (route-finding, food-guidance, care of the incredible guide dog, etc) and concentrate on the more routine aspects of conference management (missing speakers, IT malfunctions, the supply of biscuits…). Crucially, our postgraduate assistant was already experienced in this work; it was her expertise above all which made things work so well.

Of course, our blind attendee played a major (and very good-humoured) role in advising us, and he was generous in his praise for the efforts we went to: it sounds as if few conferences try as hard as we did to be inclusive. While some speakers struggled to provide handouts and powerpoints as early as requested, the majority made it; and all speakers took pains during delivery to embrace non-sighted as well as sighted listeners. In fact, many said that they had learnt a lot from the experience. I certainly confronted paper-giving habits of mine (e.g., the flashing-up of large chunks of text on screen, to be absorbed while I race on with the talk itself) which I would do well to overcome, whether or not my auditors are sighted!

What else did I learn? That there’s no advice like expert advice (having people like Paresh and our PG to turn to makes all the difference); that your first and last port of call for guidance should be the attendee him/herself; and that Universities should routinely make funding available for the kind of logistical support we were able to provide. It was a steep learning curve, as we evolved new procedures to make our conference more inclusive, but an important and rewarding one. It was also very much a team effort, involving administrators and School managers, as well as AV experts and academic staff. We did pretty well, I think; but we could always do better.