The first time I ever attended a professional conference for assistive technology (specifically, the CSUN Assistive Technology Conference), I spent a lot of time thinking about all of the cool experiences I would have learning from experts in the field and getting to talk to people from all over the world. While I was right about learning new things, my plans for talking came to a screeching halt as I ended up with laryngitis as soon as my plane landed, and could barely speak the entire week. Here are my tips for going to professional conferences and events with laryngitis or temporary speech difficulties.
Find quiet places to talk
Whenever possible, I would find quiet places to talk with people that were within the conference or event venue such as hallways or areas of the exhibit hall where there weren’t a lot of people. This way, I didn’t have to repeat myself very often or speak louder than I had to. If I wanted to talk to a vendor, I would go to the exhibit hall either during lunch or first thing in the morning so that they wouldn’t have to walk away from their booth.
Take advantage of alternative communication methods.
Many of the talks I attended at this conference allowed for users to ask questions and interact with the speakers by using alternative communication tools such as sending text messages, writing on a board, or sending emails. This meant I was able to ask questions without being misunderstood or having to speak into a microphone and dealing with sound feedback. Many audience members took advantage of these alternative communication methods and it was fun to watch the speaker answer the questions as they came in.
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Write down questions in advance
If alternative communication methods were not available, one of the things that helped me when talking or asking a question to an audience was writing down questions in advance, in case someone else ended up having to read them for me or the session ended before I could ask them. This is beneficial for anyone attending a conference, laryngitis or not, but it was especially helpful since I could make sure I was phrasing things in a way that made sense.
Stay on top of fluids and medication, if relevant
It’s easy to get lost in the chaos of a professional conference and forget to stay on top of fluids or take medication. Staying hydrated allowed me to retain some of my voice so that I could speak as needed, so I set reminders to fill up a water bottle between session blocks and drink as needed. I also set reminders to have cough drops during times where I wouldn’t be actively moving around the conference or interacting with other people- I got the cough drops delivered to my hotel with Amazon PrimeNow, along with other travel necessities I had forgotten in Virginia.
Have a human guide speak if needed
At an after-hours conference event I attended, I had someone acting as my human guide so that I could learn the layout of the room and identify who was there. At this event, I would write down what I wanted to say on a notepad app on my phone, and the guide would speak on my behalf. At this point, almost everyone knew I had lost my voice so this wasn’t particularly embarrassing for me, and the room was so loud that no one would have heard me anyway. If I was talking to a person with a visual impairment, my human guide would mention that I was using an interpreter because I had lost my voice, and no one seemed to question it.
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On the last day of the conference, I decided to start using Select-to-speak on Android as an impromptu text-to-speech device. I would type a note in my phone’s notepad app and then press the accessibility shortcut to have the note read out loud. Since I wasn’t familiar with any other text-to-speech apps at the time, this was the perfect short term solution.
Follow up with people
In some cases, it was impossible for me to talk to people at the conference because my voice was very difficult to understand. In these cases, I usually arranged a time to talk with them again after the conference once my voice was better, and gave them my business card with my email and website. Alternatively, I would send a message on social media explaining that I had lost my voice but wanted to talk about a certain topic or product. Everyone was understanding and happy to speak with me at a later time.
Even though I was super frustrated to be attending a professional conference with laryngitis, I’m grateful that people took the time to talk to me and listen to what I had to say, no matter how quiet it sounded. Plus, I still got to meet a lot of people I looked up to in the accessibility field, including Jenny Lay-Flurrie, the Chief Accessibility Officer at Microsoft- who had no idea I had lost my voice since she is deaf! I hope these tips are helpful for anyone attending a professional conference or event with laryngitis or other speech difficulties.