As a prospective computer science graduate student, I know I will likely be attending — and talking — at conferences. And my worry is that accommodations will be either lacking or unsuitable for the task. Just recently, I read a few startling messages on an email list aimed at people with disabilities interested in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. A deaf student was in a tough situation regarding accommodations. Here was the message that started it all, with the author, location, and relevant names protected:

I’ve registered for two […] conferences this summer. […] I sent emails to the coordinators asking for interpreter support, but they have not responded. Since it’s illegal under the ADA for organizations to refuse to provide reasonable disability accommodations, what would the best approach be here? I don’t want to come off too strongly and alienate them.

Ouch. The student can’t gain the full experience of the conference without accommodations. But if he lets them know about the ADA’s (The Americans with Disabilities Act) requirements, will the coordinators view him as a nuisance and possibly block him from coming? The student’s position doesn’t improve with his update, in which he told us how the coordinator responded:

“We do not have the capability to provide an interpreter, but it will absolutely be no problem to accommodate if you obtain one yourself.

Let me know how else I can help.”

At least the coordinator responded, but not in a fair way! I don’t expect everyone to be experts on the ADA, but from what I can see, this message was, in my opinion, poorly constructed and displays a lack of research about accommodations on the coordinator’s part. I would hope that the writer would offer a better excuse1 rather than the current bland response. Fortunately, the deaf student received support from people on the email list. Here are some segments of the most scintillating response:

It is amazing, but not uncommon for anyone in any organization not to know the relevant rules or laws governing disabilities in general now. […] I do know for a fact, that there are several students in the country that have disabilities that earn their PHD’s with very little accommodations, because they don’t want to be seen as the troublemaker in their respective departments. They may win the grievance or lawsuit in the end, but don’t get the recommendations of their department heads when they start looking for faculty positions after that. This is an unwritten game that plays out each and every quarter and semester at a university in the country. I currently hear from people that want a solution that does not require them to file a grievance or lawsuit. Unfortunately, it is not limited to schools and businesses, it is also extremely prevalent in governmental agencies as well. I have seen it at the local and State levels, but it is still very common among the myriad of Federal agencies.


Fortunately, there were a lot of people in the disability rights movement that came along before me to help pave the way that has allowed me to be successful in life. I feel that it is my responsibility to continue to break down barriers that will allow even more people to benefit from the lives they want to lead. If that requires me to educate some people, then I gladly accept the role. If it requires me to kick the door down, then I can also achieve this as well.

This is well said. I admit that I feel like a burden when asking for accommodations, but I know that in the end I need them in order to perform well in my studies and work. My aim is to become the best computer scientist I can, and if others view me as a troublemaker, so be it. I will just have to take advantage of my accommodations and do the best work possible to show to others that I deserve to work wherever I please.

Another person wrote a short email that sums up all of our sentiments:

It shouldn’t be about how much the event costs. You have the right to get the same benefit from it as someone who is able to hear.

There has been no update from the original deaf student since his last message which thanked the respondents for their support. I hope it has worked out for him.

  1. My idea of an “excuse” would be just what the coordinator said — a lack of capability to provide interpreters — but there needs to be justification and evidence that the conference did as much as it could to provide accommodations. If the conference was in the middle of nowhere with no interpreters available within a 2-hour radius, then I can understand. But who would organize a conference in the middle of nowhere?