Being a Ph.D. Student by Cindy Bennett

From the Editor: Cindy has been a member of NFB for 11 years and has held several offices for NABS, the Greater Seattle Chapter and the NFB of Washington. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of Human Centered Design at the University of Washington. This broadly means that she researches how people use technology. With academia comes a requirement to publish at scholarly venues, and in her field, scholars attend conferences to share their published work and network with colleagues. this essay was originally posted as an email to the AccessComputing list, to which disabled students studying stem who are involved in the associated grant program are subscribed. She shared her experience attending a large conference to thank AccessComputing for funding her travel. If you study a stem subject, learn about AccessComputing by visiting and you can visit Cindy’s website at:

I’ve just returned from Montreal, in Canada’s Quebec province, where I attended the 2018 CHI conference on Human-Computer Interaction generously sponsored by AccessComputing. I am emailing to share my experience.

This conference is the largest in my field with about 3,500 attendees annually. It was located at a giant convention center, and attendees stay at different hotels in the area and evening activities occur all around town. Accessibility is more of a niche research area than a concern at the conference, and there are several access-related challenges. As a blind person, I continue to learn the best way to manage this challenging environment with professionalism in mind.

In summary, I have become more grateful for people as with a busy schedule, so many crowds, and an unfamiliar area, I really rely on their kindness during conferences. However, the navigation challenge means that I plan ahead and set up networking meetings with loads of colleagues, so I use the collaborative assistance to my advantage.

I helped to organize a couple of conference activities and attended others. in summary, the conference activities include the following. Before the conference begins, attendees can apply for workshops which are one and two-day gatherings of researchers interested in a similar area. For the CHI conference, admission to the workshops is easier than getting a paper accepted, as long as you submit an abstract that is well written and relevant. A keynote speaker addresses the entire conference for each of the four main conference days following the workshop. They are carefully chosen by the organizing committee and are usually very well known. Paper presentations are 20-minute talks organized into longer sessions with four similar papers each where an author paper presents a summary of the project. These talks are a means to motivate people to read the paper. Papers are peer reviewed and about 25% of submissions are accepted at this conference. During breaks, the conference hosts a variety of conversational sessions like panels to foster a large conversation on one topic, and posters, technology demonstrations, and a job fair where attendees circulate and inquire at the stations they are interested in. Several universities and technology companies host evening socials at nearby restaurants.

I began the conference by participating as a co-organizer in a workshop on designing classroom technologies inclusive of students with and without visual impairments. As a co-organizer, I worked with a committee ahead of time to develop the call for participation, review submissions, and plan the program schedule. A variety of researchers from those researching young children to those interested in making online programming lessons more accessible for high school students attended. After introducing our research, we worked in small groups to identify challenges we have encountered and brainstorm solutions. My favorite breakouts focused on sharing the accessible methods we use to make design more inclusive for visually impaired people. For example, we made a list of tactile materials we could build prototypes out of; we also shared ideas for giving back to our researched communities such as offering to print 3d models for teachers of visually impaired students. Others shared strategies for engaging participants by incorporating multisensory activities to move away from traditional design activities that emphasize vision. One attendee recommended some children’s games for making people feel more relaxed and comfortable, and another researcher asked us to record our ideas in recordable birthday cards which forced us to listen and share in a way we had never thought of before as understanding the rudimentary recordings required active listening.

A good friend attended the workshop with me, and she offered to meet me at my hotel beforehand. In doing so, she showed me the shortest route to the convention center. There were several streets I could have taken and doors I could enter, but since we have worked together before, she knew what signs to look for to find the best path. We found an intersection across a busy street controlled by a traffic light, and a door to the convention center with a straight path to the registration area. She showed me a couple of landmarks, so I could meet someone. I purposely stay close to conference venues because I have found that minimizing navigation helps me to get more out of conferences, but coordinating this informal O&M really helped me to feel more confident and in more control of my schedule. I highly recommend that blind and visually impaired people do this. If you do not know anyone attending the conference, several conferences have volunteers. You can inquire the organizing committee ahead of time to learn whether a volunteer could meet you before the conference to help you scope out the area.

Throughout the week, I referenced a conference schedule I made for myself. The conference lists all presentations in a smartphone app, and you can add interesting sessions to a schedule. Of course, I overbooked myself and did not attend all sessions, but this app was incredibly helpful, so I can reference sessions I missed after the conference has finished and read the papers instead. I highly recommend calendaring events before a conference whether they are organized into a convenient app or whether you have to manually enter the appointments. It saves a lot of cognitive energy wondering what to do at any given time.

Since I have been doing research for almost six years, I have accumulated a bunch of colleagues who I like to meet with. At the beginning of the conference, I messaged several people and set up lunch and coffee break meetings. I would ask them beforehand if they wouldn’t mind meeting me somewhere. This was almost never an issue. In this way, I got to network with tons of colleagues, and most were happy to help me get from my previous location and to my next location. It was very important that I could navigate some places on my own but getting what I wanted to out of the conference meant sacrificing some autonomy, and I found that most people were more than happy to help me.

A lot of blind and visually impaired people are taught to learn skills to be independent, and these are incredibly important. But I have found that asking for help and setting clear boundaries has not sacrificed my professionalism or independence. For example, when I asked friends to meet, I would alert them ahead of time, asking if they could meet me somewhere. In the cases where the person was going to be far away or when they had to be somewhere very quickly, I had the landmarks in mind and could almost always find one of those with them, so I could then regroup on my own. The key was that I tried to set up expectations by asking ahead of time and having more than one place I could go to reorient myself when things changed last minute.

On the last day of the conference, I gave a presentation accompanying the paper on which I was the lead author. In summer, 2017, I interned at Microsoft Research and did a fun project interviewing visually impaired teens on their use of photo-centric social media like Instagram and Snapchat. We submitted the paper to CHI in September and it was reviewed and accepted for publication, which comes with an invitation to present at the conference. When creating the presentation, my co-authors and I agreed that showing videos would make the teens’ use patterns much clearer to the audience. I have experience presenting slides with videos which led me to decide to co-present with a co-author. In past experiences, I have configured my computer with a sound card to send my screen reader to my headphones and video media to the speakers. I have had both positive and negative experiences with this working, and I decided that since at least 45 people were presenting in the same room during the sessions before mine that week, I wouldn’t chance the setup going Arie. I didn’t think any planning ahead could prepare for potential technical difficulty, and I definitely did not want the audience to hear my screen reader or to control the presentation without one. My co-presenter and I practiced the talk a few times, and we easily learned to work together; she had a copy of my talk transcript in the presenter’s notes, so she knew when to advance the slide, and I revised the transcript several times, so I spoke to it rather than going off script onto tangents. I found this to be an effective method for presenting. I can present on my own, but it gave me accountability to practice and speak clearly, and I did not have to worry about the potential awkwardness of splitting my sound output in a heavily used, unfamiliar conference room.

Other conference highlights included the Diversity and Inclusion lunch where senior researchers with underrepresented identities shared short talks of their struggles and hopes which helped me to feel less alone. I also enjoyed attending a panel on fostering a more slow and sustainable academia. I got some great tips from colleagues. For example, I was challenged to make a list of recent accomplishments every time I tell someone ‘no’ to remind myself that my ‘no’ is being said thoughtfully and with everyone’s best interests in mind since I would not be able to give my time well if I do not have it. I suggested something that has been taught me, that people find a group for whom they direct their service, to help them to more easily say ‘no’ when people ask for their time. For example, I prioritize helping students with disabilities, and if someone contacts me who does not fit that demographic, I try to point them toward other resources instead of meeting with them.

Since I have been around this research community for a while, I am struggling to remember what it was like to awkwardly amble around a networking event, though I remember the feelings well, and I still feel awkward and alone sometimes at conferences. If you are struggling to meet people, I recommend finding conversational events at conferences that are smaller than giant poster sessions or exhibit halls. For example, a part of the conference I forgot to mention are the special interest groups. People at conferences are generally interested in getting to know people researching similar things as them, so I have found that by attending those, I meet people who are usually open to set up a coffee with me, even if I end up tagging along with some of heir other colleagues. You could also make a point to walk to the front after a session. The presenters usually stick around for questions, and from personal experience, I love it when someone comes to talk to me, so I am not standing at the front by myself.

I still have challenges navigating conferences. I have never attentively circulated through the poster sessions, demos, or job fairs at CHI. I often have other plans while they are going on and I get lost in conversation. But I know I miss some cool research, and I hate not having a reference point when interesting projects come up in conversation. I will be looking for a job in the next couple of years, so I probably need to get better about this. I try to be thoughtful about what I am asking of colleagues. If I could find one who was also looking for a job, it might be okay to ask them. but whereas I am comfortable to ask a colleague to direct me to a meeting room when they are walking to a nearby room, asking for someone’s time for an hour to describe projects seems to cross a line for me. Yet navigating some of these spaces in crowds on my own is inefficient. So, I look forward to brainstorming with my many blind friends, who always have great ideas! I bring this up to note that despite my experience, I still encounter challenges.

I have shared my very individual experience. What assistance may help me to get the most out of a conference may make someone else feel uncomfortable. The most important things that I try to keep in mind whenever embarking on any adventure are however applicable to anyone. Set yourself up with great skills so you can make choices about when you ask for assistance and what assistance you ask for. Always prepare for assistance to fall through by having a backup plan and reaching for those great blindness skills and recognize that you are continuously learning and be compassionate toward yourself when you don’t do something the way you would prefer.

I am very grateful to AccessComputing for providing funding to attend the CHI conference. I am happy to answer any questions about navigating conferences, being a Ph.D. student who has completed most milestones, or internships as a blind person, so feel free to be in touch!