Making reading assignments clear to students who use electronic formats

When reading assignments are assigned in the form “Read pages 75-100 in the Book of Subject Relevance”, it creates a problem for students who use electronic formats such as Kindle or Bookshare. Those formats often do not include page numbers, and it can be difficult-to-impossible to know what to read just by seeing page numbers.

There’s a simple solution that allows students to do the assignment:

  • If you’re assigning a whole chapter, tell students which chapter you mean.
  • eg: “Read Chapter 3 in the Book of Subject Relevance (pages 75-100).
  • If you’re not assigning whole chapters, include the first and last sentence in the assignment.
  • This allows students to use the search function to find the place you’re talking about.
  • eg: “Read pages 75-100 in the Book of Subject Relevance. (From “I have a slightly plausible theory.” through “In conclusion, I have shown that I am definitely right.”)

It’s good to also include the page numbers, because that’s better for students who use the print edition, and it gives all students a sense of how much reading there is.

Short version: Giving reading assignments in page numbers causes a problem for students who aren’t reading the print edition. There’s a simple solution to this. Scroll up for details.

Electricity is an access issue (short version)

A lot of people with disabilities need reliable access to electricity. If you don’t make electricity continuously available at your event, your event is not accessible.

Some people need electricity in order to breathe. Some people need electricity to be able to move across a room. Some people need electricity for life sustaining medical treatments. Some people need electricity to communicate.

All of these people, and anyone else with an access need for electricity, should be welcome at your event. They can be, if you make proper plans and make sure that electricity will be reliably available.

(For further details, see this post.)

Electricity is an accessibility issue

When you’re planning an event, conference, venue, retreat center, house of worship, community center, or similar, it’s important to keep in mind that many people need reliable access to electricity in order to be able to participate. A choice to build or use a venue without reliable electricity is a choice to exclude people with disabilities.

Access to electricity is always important, but it’s especially important for overnight events or multi-day conferences. Many people with disabilities absolutely depend on electricity to be able to participate in events.

Here are some people you’re excluding if you choose or build a venue without reliable electricity:

People who use electric wheelchairs or mobility scooters:

  • Power chairs do not have infinite battery power
  • They have large batteries that have to be charged overnight
  • Charging them takes a lot of power
  • Minimalist electricity isn’t enough. Having a generator available for a few hours in the evening will not make a conference without electricity accessible to people who need to charge large batteries
  • If people can’t charge their chairs at your event, then you’re excluding power chair users.

High-tech AAC (alternative and augmentative communication) users:

  • Not everyone can talk.
  • Some people who can talk can’t reliably use speech to communicate
  • Many people use high-tech speech-generating devices to communicate
  • (For example, some people use apps such as Speak For Yourself on an iPad, or a dedicated device such as a DynaVox)
  • High-tech AAC devices only work if they are charged
  • The batteries aren’t infinite. Devices need to be charged overnight and some may also need to be charged during the day.
  • If your venue doesn’t have reliable electricity, people who need to keep their communication devices charged can’t participate
  • A choice to hold an event in a venue without reliable electricity is a choice to exclude people with communication disabilities who use speech generating devices to communicate

People who use ventilators and other breathing equipment:

  • Everyone needs to breathe
  • Not everyone can breathe adequately on their own
  • Some people need ventilators, bipaps, or other breathing equipment
  • People who use breathing equipment also do things besides sit at home and breathe, like go to conferences or other events you might be planning
  • People need to breathe while they do things like go to your event, which means they probably need to be able to plug in their machines
  • Machines can run off of batteries, but no battery has infinite power. Reliable access to electricity is important. No one should have to worry about where their next breath is coming from because they can’t find an electrical outlet.
  • If your venue doesn’t have reliable electricity, people who need machines to breathe can’t safely participate in your events
  • If you choose to hold your event in a location without reliable electricity, you’re choosing to exclude people with disabilities who need breathing support

People who need powered medical equipment:

  • Some people with chronic conditions need to do regular nebulizer treatments in order to keep their lungs functioning
  • Some people who eat through feeding tubes need powered infusion pumps to eat safely
  • Some people need to sleep with a CPAP in order to breathe at night
  • Some people use powered dialysis systems at night
  • If your venue doesn’t have reliable electricity, people who need powered medical equipment can’t safely participate.
  • If you choose to hold your event in a location without reliable electricity, you’re choosing to exclude people with disabilities or chronic conditions who rely on powered medical equipment


  • Some people rely on medication that needs to be refrigerated.
  • If you hold a conference in a venue with no electricity and no refrigeration, they can’t safely participate.
  • A choice to hold an event in a venue without electricity is a choice to exclude people who need medication which must be refrigerated.

Some specific considerations in making sure electricity is available:

  • There need to be available outlets in people’s rooms and in the public areas where events are happening
  • Make sure the outlets are available and in good working order
  • (A broken outlet will not charge someone’s wheelchair)
  • Neither will a two-prong outlet. Make sure three-prong outlets are available.
  • If the available outlets aren’t at the tables (or whatever other space) you’re using, make sure you have a three-prong extension cord that reaches them
  • An outlet on the other side of the room is better than nothing, but it’s still a barrier to full participation. Extension cords can often solve that problem.
  • (In any case, a long, three-pronged extension cord is a good thing to keep in your supply kit for events; there are a lot of situations in which they are useful)
  • If you can, arrange the room so that the outlets are near the tables you’ll be using (this is also helpful to people who need to charge computers and phones).

Short version: Electricity is an accessibility issue. Having an event (and especially a conference) in a venue without reliable electricity excludes people with disabilities whose adaptive equipment requires electrical power.

Use the microphone

Microphones are important.

Not everyone can hear and understand lectures without amplification. Microphones and sound systems allow many people to listen to talks they would otherwise be unable to understand.

For some reason, many people who have loud voices try to avoid using the microphones. They will say that their ability to project makes the microphone unnecessary. Often, they refuse to use the microphone, and many members of the audience can’t hear what they are saying.

Do not be that guy. The sound system is there for a reason. The event organizers decided that it was needed in order to make the lecture accessible to others. Don’t unilaterally undo that. Use the microphone, unless you’ve agreed in advance on an alternative way to make the lecture accessible.

Some concrete reasons that people who refuse to use microphones make their talks inaccessible:

  • No matter how loud your voice is, it only comes from one point in the room. Speakers can distribute it and make it more understandable in other parts of the room
  • Loop systems project sounds from the microphone into people’s hearing aides, and they only work if you speak into the microphone. No matter how good you are at projecting, people who need the sound to be right by their ear will not be able to understand you if you don’t use the microphone.
  • Your voice may not be as loud as you think it is; that’s hard to judge from the inside, and it’s very easy to overestimate your skill at projecting.

In particular, do not start your talk without a microphone and ask if everyone can hear you:

  • People who can’t hear you without the microphone probably can’t hear you and react quickly when you ask a question like that.
  • Asking if everyone can hear you as a way to check whether you need a microphone is like saying “raise your hand if you don’t understand English”. It’s not going to get you a useful response
  • It’s also really uncomfortable to contradict a speaker at the beginning of their talk. No one is likely to want to say “actually, no, I can’t hear you and you need to use the microphone even though you obviously don’t want to”.
  • Similarly, many people with disabilities don’t like drawing attention to their access needs. If you refuse to use a microphone, you’re effectively saying that some people have to choose between their right to access your lecture and their right to privacy. Don’t do that to people.
  • Your audience probably contains people who need you to use the microphone.
  • That’s why it’s there.
  • Use the microphone.

If there is a good reason that using a microphone is a problem for you, talk to the organizers ahead of time. Sometimes there are competing access needs, and that’s not your fault. People who have an access need that makes microphone use complicated or impossible also have the right to speak publicly. (Eg: If you can’t hold a microphone; it hurts to hold it; it makes you unable to speak coherently; etc) It’s just not ok to decide to ignore other people’s access needs on the spur of the moment. It’s important to either work out another solution with the organizers (eg: maybe a wireless clip-on microphone would work?), or else warn people ahead of time so that people won’t come to a lecture that they won’t be able to understand.

If you are an event organizer – be aware that some speakers will probably try to refuse to use the microphone. It’s important to insist that they use it anyway. It helps to have an explicit microphone policy and explain it to speakers, but some people will still probably try to give their talks without microphones. It’s possible, and important, to be firm about this and insist that everyone use the microphone unless they’ve made an alternative arrangement ahead of time.

Short version: Microphones are important even if you have a loud voice and know how to project. If you refuse to use the microphone, it makes the talk inaccessible to some people who want to listen to you. Asking a room full of people if everyone can hear you without the microphone doesn’t solve this problem. (If you have an access need that complicates microphone use, it’s important to either find a solution or warn people that a microphone will not be used. This should not be decided on the spur of the moment.) If you’re running an event, it’s important to be assertive about insisting that speakers use the microphone.

Dealing with confusion in a costume store

Costume stores can be really overwhelming and difficult for some people. Here are some reasons, and some things that can help.

Sensory overload:

  • The most obvious problem is sensory overload
  • Costume stores tend to be loud and have a lot of strange sounds
  • Sometimes costume stores have spooky music or scream tracks, which can be scary as well as physically unpleasant
  • They also usually have bad lighting and often have strobe lights
  • Costume stores also usually crowded with loud people
  • They also might smell weird, especially if there are a lot of masks and makeup

Things that can help with sensory overload in a costume store:

  • Go at an unpopular time of day so it won’t be crowded
  • (And if the lights are a big problem, going during the day might be better than going at night)
  • Carry a stim toy to help manage overload
  • If you get overloaded and disoriented, holding onto something solid like a shelf for a few seconds can help to reorient yourself
  • Wear headphones or earbuds to block out the sounds or make them more tolerable
  • You might need to take a lot of breaks to be able to tolerate the store long enough to successfully buy something. That’s ok
  • If you’re helping someone else get a costume, it’s worth saying explicitly that it’s ok for them to take breaks if they need to
  • If you think they might need a break, it can be good to say that they look overwhelmed and ask if they want to go outside for a minute (but also take no for an answer. Sometimes we’re overloaded *and* want to keep going)


  • Costume stores are temporary, and they change from year to year
  • So you aren’t familiar with the layout, which can be disorienting if you depend on memorization to navigate stores
  • Also, most people don’t buy costumes very often
  • (and aren’t necessarily familiar with what is sold in a costume store, even they buy costumes every year)
  • This can be disorienting if you rely heavily on routine to navigate stores and make purchasing decisions efficiently

Things that can help with unfamiliarity:

  • Think beforehand about what’s available in a costume store (eg: they usually have several different kinds of costumes in bags. They also have masks and wigs and hats. They also have facepaint and accessories.)
  • If you’re helping someone else, talk to them about the different kinds of things that costume stores have before you go
  • Sometimes you can look online to find the layout of the store
  • It might help to walk through the store once or twice together just to see what is there, without trying to make decisions right away
  • (Orienting is hard. Making unfamiliar decisions is hard. Doing both at once can be *really* hard).
  • If you’re planning to help someone else (especially if it’s a child) it can help to visit the costume store first yourself so that you know what is in the store and where the various things are
    (It’s easier to help someone else orient if you are already oriented)
  • You can look online to see which costumes are likely to be available this year
  • (You can also buy costumes online, but that runs the risk of ending up with something that’s not tolerable to wear.)
  • It might be better to buy costumes in a familiar store such as Target rather than an unfamiliar costume store. (That can also help with sensory overload since ordinary stores are less likely to have strobe lights, scream tracks, and extreme crowding)

Difficulty narrowing things down

  • There are a lot of options for costumes. It can be difficult to narrow down options
  • It can be especially difficult to narrow things down if you’re not sure what you want, but you know that you don’t like most of what you’re seeing
  • Or if you are having trouble processing what you’re seeing because of unfamiliarity, overload, or disorientation.

Some things that help with narrowing down options for someone else (I don’t really know any effective way to do this for yourself; there probably is one but I don’t know it):

An example of narrowing things down using categories:

  • You: Do you want to dress as a person or a thing?
  • Them: A person
  • You: A TV/movie character, a job, or something else?
  • Them: TV character
  • You: A superhero, or something else?
  • Them: Batman

Another example:

  • You: Do you want to look at the bag costumes, the makeup, or something else?
  • Them: Makeup
  • (then you walk together to the accessories area and they still look confused)
  • You: Do you want help narrowing it down, or do you just want to think about it?
  • Them: Think about it.
  • Them: I want cat makeup.
  • You: Do you also want a hat?
  • Them: No, a tail.

General advice for helping other people:

  • Don’t panic. It might be hard for someone to pick a costume no matter what you do
  • Helping means that you support them in ways that they welcome and find helpful
  • That doesn’t necessarily mean that buying a costume will be easy or comfortable for them
  • Things can be ok even if they’re hard or uncomfortable
  • If they don’t want to buy a costume in a costume store, that’s ok. If they want to do it even though it’s hard, that’s also ok.

It’s also possible to wear a costume without having to go to a costume store. Some other possibilities might be easier for some people.


We’re all better off when what we need is socially acceptable

One of the best things about iPads is that they make it possible to do things people with disabilities need without invoking disability stigma. Because iPads are just iPads. They’re not special technology that only Really Disabled people are allowed to use.

And that’s better. That means a lot of disabled folks can use them who were never able to use adapative technology before. Because they didn’t fall into the categories they and others read as Allowed To Use Disability Equipment.

Other things are like that too. Stimming being more popular and socially accepted would be good for us. Gatekeeping about who is allowed to do it hurts us.

Everyone should be able to type rather than speak if they want. Everyone should be able to rock and move and think.

I suspect this is true for a lot of other access issues too.

Something simple that can make presentations more accessible

If you will be using a handout in your presentation

  • Make more copies than you think you need. (Accessibility is more important than conserving paper)
  • If it seems like you don’t have enough copies, ask if anyone needs their own in order to be able to follow
  • Wait 10 seconds to give people a chance to respond.
  • If anyone needs their own, give it to them before you pass the sheets around to everyone else
  • (Some people need their own because they have to hold it in a particular way to be able to see the print clearly. Or because they need to write on it in order to follow. Or because they have communication problems that make sharing a document difficult).
  • Before your presentation, upload your handout file to dropbox or another file sharing site
  • Before you begin, let people know that it is available and where to find it
  • Put the URL on the print copies and the board
  • This is helpful because some people need large print or other modifications, or can turn pages on a computer but not a printout, and making files available makes the content usable

More on restricted diets

Do not take food issues personally.

If someone can’t eat something, it’s not personal:

  • It isn’t a rejection of your hospitality
  • It isn’t an insult to your cooking skills
  • It isn’t a comment on your health, your lifestyle, or your diet

It’s also not any of your business:

  • Don’t expect an intimate conversation about the reasons behind the food restriction
  • Don’t make a big deal about it
  • Do not comment about weight loss
  • Do not offer unsolicited medical advice
  • Do not offer unsolicited health advice
  • Or unsolicited religious commentary
  • Or your views on vegetarianism
And especially, don’t do dangerous things:
  • Don’t try to trick people into eating things
  • Even if you think their food issue is a ridiculous phobia and that tricking them would cure it
  • Seriously, seriously, don’t do that
  • It won’t help, and this kind of thing can and does kill people
  • And, in any case, irrational people also have the right to say no

You do not need to agree that the person is correct about what to eat in order to interact with them respectfully. You just have to arrange for it to be possible for them to be in spaces you’re in, and for it to be predictable whether there will be anything for them to eat there.

Cooking for people who can’t eat certain things

Some people have complicated dietary needs.

If you want to cook for them, much sure you understand what they are.

The basic way you do this is by

  • ask them what they can and can’t eat
  • believe them
  • make food they can eat
  • don’t make food they can’t eat
  • if you aren’t sure, ask
  • If one of the ingredients is something you haven’t talked about, ask

It can also help to say that you will not be offended if they need to bring their own food.