One of the questions I tend to ask myself when I am registering for a conference is if I should request a human guide to help me familiarize myself with the conference layout and find my way to different booths and lectures. While I consider myself to be a fairly independent traveler with my blindness cane, there’s no denying how helpful it can be to have another person to help me figure out where I’m going and keep me from getting horribly lost. Here are a list of things that I consider when I am thinking about requesting a human guide at a conference as someone with low vision.
What is the venue size?
At smaller conferences where there are only a few rooms, I don’t typically request a human guide since I can easily walk from one room to another as long as a staff member gives me verbal directions for where to go. For larger conferences where rooms are further apart or scattered and there are thousands of people, I prefer to request for a human guide to help me get from room to room or to navigate the crowded halls.
Have I been there before?
I’ve attended several conferences at a venue near my college and can easily remember which room is where, and what the exhibit hall layout is for different events. For that reason, I don’t use human guides since I can rely on my memory and large signage to help me figure out where to go. For an unfamiliar venue, it is helpful to have a guide at least for the first day so I can familiarize myself with the location.
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How many other blind/low vision people will be there?
If there are lots of other blind/low vision people attending a conference, there are usually lots of human guides around who can help with directions. Since I don’t need a human guide for the entire conference, I prefer to use these on-demand guides to help me find a specific room or locate the bathroom over having a guide with me full-time. If I’m the only visually impaired person in attendance, I’m more likely to request a human guide to be with me for the whole conference- since most of the conferences I attend are related to assistive technology or visual impairment, this is rarely the case.
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Can I use remote visual assistance like Aira?
Many conferences I have attended in the last two years have been Aira Access locations where I can use the Aira service for free to help me navigate an event or building. This is incredibly helpful for large conferences or for locating people, but less helpful for buildings with poor internet or cellular service- or worse, when my phone dies!
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Will I be moving around a lot?
At the Grace Hopper Celebration, I was frequently moving from one room to the next and covering lots of ground at the exhibit hall. If it wasn’t for my human guide, I probably would still be wandering around trying to find where my 10:30 am session was on the first day of the conference. Venue size also plays a big role in this, as there is a difference between moving across the hall versus moving across an entire building.
Am I going to encounter flashing lights?
One time, I went to a conference by myself one morning and ended up encountering a booth that was demonstrating strobe lights. This gave me a horrible migraine and I had to spend several hours sitting in the dark to recover. Later on, I went to the same conference, this time with my friend as a human guide, and I had them check if there were flashing lights in a certain area before we walked over there. Since my migraines can quickly come on and cause me to be disoriented, I like to have a human guide in case something happens.
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Will I need to look at a lot of things?
It’s helpful to have somebody who can read signs, nametags, or other information on your behalf if you don’t feel comfortable having technology do these things. Since most conferences I attend have an emphasis on providing accessible materials, I don’t have to worry as much about relying on my sight to receive information. For other conferences where there are demonstrations being conducted, it is easier to have someone describing what is going on in real time.
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While I am not someone who always asks for a human guide, I do like to use them from time to time if I think I will need one for a particular conference. Though I recognize that some people find that they might always need a guide or that they never need one, I’ve found that asking these questions helps me to make an informed decision and better understand what accommodations I might need at a conference. I hope this post helps you make the same decision on requesting (or not requesting) a human guide at a conference!