Global Accessibility Awareness Day: Becky Thomas

Posted on May 16, 2024   by Microbiology Society

Celebrated annually on the third Thursday of May, Global Accessibility Awareness Day aims to bring awareness to the importance of having conversations about accessibility and highlights the need for inclusive experiences that are accessible to everyone and inclusive for Disabled people. This year, Society member Becky Thomas shares her experiences and insights from attending the Society’s Annual Conference, coupled with the Disabled and Neurodivergent Members Social.

Conferences are full of hustle and bustle, with lots of exciting activities, stalls and people to talk to! However, for me and many others, this also comes with a range of hidden challenges. I’m Becky (she/her), a second year PhD student studying microbiology and antimicrobial resistance at the University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine. I had the privilege of receiving my autism diagnosis in September 2022, and have since discovered I also have a chronic illness known as endometriosis. Since then, I have been learning how to navigate my life with this new-found perspective on how I experience the world. Conferences can be a mentally draining experience for anyone, but in particular, as a Disabled individual, I really struggle to keep up with the pace and environment of conferences. Accessibility may be something that a lot of people don’t think about going into a conference if it doesn’t impact them directly, but for myself and many other Disabled individuals, accessibility aids make the difference between a positive or negative experience. I can’t talk about other individuals’ experiences with their disabilities at a conference, so I’ll refer to my own personal lived experience.

Rebecca Thomas in Society Annual Conference exhibition hall
© Becky Thomas

This year was my second time attending a Microbiology Society Annual Conference and I was really excited to visit Edinburgh. However, for me, conferences require a lot of pre-planning and mental preparation, so I was nervous. I find the busyness, the noise, the bright lights and the networking at conferences very draining, which can leave me feeling burnt out by the end of the day. Following a rather stressful and overstimulating experience last year, I reached out ahead of the Conference this year to request accessibility information for the things I struggled with last year. I asked about the  floor plan, the availability of a quiet room and the food options. I found this year’s Conference much more inclusive and accessible. For example, I was able to access a spacious lift each time I needed to navigate the multiple floor levels; the food was spread across two rooms, which decreased the footfall in one area; there was a lot more space to sit down and more tables to stand around at lunchtime. This also made it much easier to walk around the exhibition and partake in some of the games that the exhibitors had on offer too (which I was really lucky with this year!).

Rebecca Thomas at Society Annual Conference in exhibition hall
© Becky Thomas

Asking for the food options in advance really helped to reduce unnecessary anxiety and know exactly what to expect, as well as pre-plan each day. This is particularly important for me because I can struggle with health flare-ups dependent on what I eat, as well as suffering from anxiety around food and  having set ‘safe’ foods that will always leave my gut feeling happy. I do, however, think there is room for improvement to ensure the food options meet all dietary requirements.

The Microbiology Society enabled me to pre-plan my conference experience with the extensive itinerary they provide both on their website and app. For conferences, I plan my trip exactly in terms of the talks, activities and posters I want to attend. The itinerary allows me to know what to expect from the Conference and plan where I should be at specific times to minimise stress and maximise what I can take part in. Their app is great too, in terms of being able to access any unavoidable last-minute changes and save or ‘favourite’ talks and posters I want to attend.

Sara Henderson wearing a sunflower lanyard at Annual Conference 2024
© Sara Henderson Sara Henderson wearing a sunflower lanyard at Annual Conference 2024

I personally choose to wear a sunflower lanyard whenever I attend events like conferences because it acts as a communication aid. For those who may not be aware, the sunflower lanyard is used to indicate a hidden disability where the individual may require additional assistance. Often, the lanyard will have a card attached with relevant information on the disability or how to assist the individual, should it be required. My sunflower lanyard , in combination with an available quiet room, is essential for me because I can get quite overwhelmed in these social situations and go into what is referred to as a meltdown. For me, this presents almost like a panic attack; I get dizzy, flustered and very emotional, coupled with the loss of ability to speak and to voice what the issue is (often I can’t actually identify the specific issue anyway). Other times I can shut down, which feels like losing social battery mid-conversation and not being able to contribute any longer. Therefore, my lanyard can help me communicate with others, such as staff, when I feel unable to support myself. It is also so important that there is a quiet room available because it gives me a place to remove myself from an overwhelming situation or before I get too overstimulated by the environment.

With these things in mind, you can only imagine my excitement at finding out that the Society was supporting a group of members in holding their first ever Disabled and Neurodivergent Members Social! This was amazing to see in the Society’s social line-up because it presented me with an opportunity to meet others in similar positions to myself, specifically in the world of science! This social was for anyone who self-identified as Neurodivergent or Disabled.

The organisers of the social implemented a ‘no diagnosis’ rule, which I loved! I’m a huge believer in self-diagnosis because I feel it is the initial step in being able to seek a diagnosis, should the individual want one, but more importantly, learn how to implement adjustments into your life or get the appropriate support. A private venue was hired out, and the organisers did a group walkover together. I was so glad there was a group walkover, as I felt very nervous about going, and the walk together removed the stress of getting myself to the venue! I actually might not have gone if that initial outreach hadn’t been available.

The social was great; it was an amazing chance to talk to others in the science field and discuss our lives and interests. It was welcoming and had a safe atmosphere for us to share our challenges with one another. Fidget toys, a quiet room, craft activities and board games were available, which I don’t think any of us actually ended up using, but it was a relief to know they were available and could help take the pressure off conversations if needed.

A selection of food and drink was provided, which had a range of foods to try to cater to all dietary needs. My favourites were the chips, cake and juice. I did, however, have reservations about some of the food because of my anxiety and need for control when it comes to food. Options were available, such as sandwiches, salad and quinoa, however, I would have preferred to have labels with the contents of the sandwiches and quinoa available. Due to some of us being picky eaters, I think it would have been more accommodating to separate the quinoa and the extra contents, like the vegetables, into different bowls so that the individual could add what they wanted or have eaten plain quinoa if preferred. Equally, having something similar, like  plain pasta, would have been good. Despite this, I was so pleased the Microbiology Society had provided this buffet, as it was welcoming and provided an outlet to assist people in conversation.

The highlight of the social for me was making new friends who I could follow on different social media platforms and continue to connect with over the remaining days at the Conference – now being a friendly, familiar face to one another.

Selfie of Rebecca Thomas
© Becky Thomas

Events like this are important to create an accessible environment where everyone can network with others to expand their knowledge and connections in their field. My message to my fellow Neurodivergent and Disabled members (diagnosed or not) is not to be afraid to advocate for yourselves! Reach out ahead of the Conference (which you can do via email) and ask for any information that you think will make your experience better. The Microbiology Society has an ‘accessible requirements’ section when registering; although I sent an additional follow-up, I cannot comment on the efficiency of using this section. I look forward to the Society continuing to improve accessibility at future conferences and continuing to hold socials like this year’s Disabled and Neurodivergent Members Social. I hope next year will provide another opportunity to meet more Disabled and Neurodivergent people and hopefully see some of the friends I made this year again!

To find out more about our EDI initiatives and take part in an upcoming Awareness Day, view our equality, diversity and inclusion webpages.