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Posted on October 13, 2021 at 5:22 PM

by Daphne O. Martschenko, PhD, Kevin T. Mintz, PhD, Holly K. Tabor, PhD

The American Society for Bioethics and the Humanities (ASBH) annual meeting is this week. As an educational organization “whose purpose is to promote the exchange of ideas and foster multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, and inter-professional” research and communication in bioethics and the health-related humanities, one of ASBH’s strategic initiatives is to foster diversity, equity and inclusion in bioethics. However, despite the society’s rhetoric, ASBH as an organization makes its annual meeting inaccessible to non-academics, early career scholars, and individuals from marginalized backgrounds. 

The Issues

This year, the cost of registration for ASBH’s virtual annual meeting is $695 for non-members. A fee this high acts as a gatekeeper; it prevents those with limited discretionary budgets or who work outside academia from accessing and contributing to the ASBH community. With no financial accommodations for those unable to attend due to exorbitant costs, this year’s annual meeting cannot meaningfully grapple with questions such as, “What relationship to activism and advocacy may or should bioethics and the health humanities have?” It is inaccessible to the community organizers, activists, and non-profit organizations required to answer such questions. 

If we claim to value accessibility but fail to put our words into action, who benefits?

Costs aside, a large conference like ASBH is inaccessible in other ways. Early career scholars have to navigate a complex event with little formal support. For scholars from underrepresented populations in the academy and for those coming from less resourced institutions and institutions outside of the United States, these challenges are exacerbated. Establishing a network and building relationships should be a core benefit of attending a professional organization meeting, but ASBH perpetuates inaccessibility through the kinds of networking events it sponsors. 

For example, when the conference returns to an in-person format, the organization should consider how cocktail parties and other large networking events are inaccessible to some people with disabilities who may get anxious in large crowds or have a speech impediment that makes it harder for others to understand them in settings where there is a large amount of background noise. Our point is not to scrutinize one particular conference activity. Instead, we think it is important to critically examine how the range of conference activities might be made more accessible to members of communities that are underrepresented in our discipline.

The perceived professional value of presenting one’s work in a public space and being able to network also excludes people with disabilities. Someone with a speech impediment might take longer to present and lose valuable time for feedback. While ASBH does allow some extended time as a disability accommodation, audience members are likely to leave a panel early if one is taking longer than expected in order to get to another session. 

Possible Solutions

To start addressing these issues, ASBH should consider waiving registration fees for presenters and return to offering day passes for attendees at reduced rates. The American Society for Human Genetics offers complimentary registration to members of invited speaker sessions; this demonstrates the feasibility of providing financial accommodations to cultivate greater diversity among session participants and topics. 

Non-members, especially those outside of academic institutions should be given the opportunity to make an informed decision about whether ASBH is a community they want to be a part of. Offering complimentary registration to first-time conference goers, making a subset of event recordings publicly available, and favoring session proposals that include patients, study participants, advocacy groups, and community leaders and organizers are initial steps to improving accessibility. Failing to adopt these measures means that profit will continue to triumph over inclusion. 

To accommodate some people with disabilities and allow for more discussion, the length of all panels should be expanded to 90 minutes instead of 75. ASBH might also consider holding smaller regional events in addition to the national conference where scholars can submit full papers for feedback in a workshop format. One model for how this might work would be to solicit workshop proposals on specific topics from individuals who are willing to be organizers. The selected organizers can then solicit individual contributions around a specific topic or theme, similar to how the annual workshops by the Manchester Centre for Political Theory (MANCEPT) are organized and hosted. 

Furthermore, the organization should expand the variety of personalized mentoring opportunities it offers. The current elective programming for early career scholars is a start, but more one-on-one opportunities, especially those that focus on longer term career development, could better facilitate networking between early career bioethicists and senior scholars. These initiatives will need to incentivize senior scholars to participate and should support network building outside the conference itself. The CERAS ELSIhub’s upcoming Trainee Connect program is an example of one effort to facilitate sustainable and more personalized early career mentoring. 

More broadly, it is time to engage in widespread and difficult conversations about where and how the bioethics community is failing to enhance accessibility. In service of this aim, ASBH should institutionalize “listening sessions” that foster a safe space for identifying issues, root causes, and paths forward. These sessions might invite ASBH members who are junior, disabled, from minority groups, or working with panelists who are not ASBH members to discuss what they need to feel supported. 

Unless we engage in a dialogue about the inaccessibility of large conferences like ASBH, the bioethics community will not be inclusive or serve as an impetus for change in medicine and society. If we claim to value accessibility but fail to put our words into action, who benefits?

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