Building a Culture of Inclusion, One Year at a Time

Posted on Friday February 26, 2021

For more than a decade, the University of Guelph (U of G) has been hosting a unique and growing event—the annual Accessibility Conference. Also known as the A11y Conference, the event welcomes people from the public and private sectors to exchange ideas and participate in meaningful discussions around accessibility-related challenges and solutions.

Conceived in 2008 through the work of the Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities Advisory Committee at U of G, there were few precedents in Canada at that time for a conference that focused exclusively on the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA). But when registration opened in 2009, the committee received several inquiries from neighbouring universities about external participation. A total of 156 very enthusiastic participants registered for the event, providing a convincing case for an accessibility-focused conference.

Soon to be in its 14th year, the A11y Conference organizing committee routinely receives between 350 to 400 registrants each year, including registered attendees, speakers and exhibitors.

“The conference has grown from one day to three days, with two days of standard conference programming and one pre-conference day of workshops,” says Athol Gow, manager of Library Accessibility Services at U of G. “We learned that you can’t focus exclusively on accessibility standards and techniques—you have to give people a context for understanding why the AODA is important.”

Over the years, the focus of the A11y Conference has broadened from information and communications accessibility to other AODA requirements such as customer service, transportation, and the built environment. In order to keep programming relevant and up to date year after year, the organizing committee actively seeks out speakers to address new trends in access technologies, accessibility, and accommodation issues.

While the A11y Conference is known for its in-depth sessions and workshops, there is also a focus on introductory programming for those with limited knowledge of accessibility issues.

“We now balance our traditional content with sessions that promote barrier awareness and foster a culture of inclusion,” says Gow. “Our programming has also shifted to reflect the needs and interests of our attendees.”

As the AODA standards have become law over the past 15 years, the A11y Conference continues to be an important resource for people to gain awareness, learn practical techniques, and share strategies and ideas.

“The U of G A11y Conference is a great place to connect and form a community with people who work in the same field,” says Gow. “While the goal of the AODA is to make Ontario fully accessible by 2025, new and emerging technologies will continue to create accessibility issues and barriers—the Conference will continue to provide essential programming to those who need practical and actionable information on accessibility issues, tools, and solutions.”

Planning has already begun for this year’s Accessibility Conference, which will take place in May 2021 at the University of Guelph.