Disability Matters with Pamela Dirks Burke

This spring, Cisco hosted the Disability Matters Conference at company headquarters in San Jose with Springboard Consulting and Northrop Grumman.  I sat down with Pamela Dirks Burke, the Cisco lead organizer, to find out what her team did to prepare:

If someone was preparing to host a similar event, what should they know?

When you host a conference centered around disabilities, you have to build-in assistive technologies rather than respond to requests.  For the Disability Matters Conference, we arranged for CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation) technologies, a real time captioning service, as well as sign language interpreters.  There were multiple digital displays that displayed the captioning, the interpreters and the speakers.

What are the subtleties around arranging these aids?

You want to find transcriptionists and interpreters who are familiar with the meeting subject matter–particularly if it’s technical or if there are a lot of acronyms.  For Disability Matters, this wasn’t such an issue, but it’s good to keep in mind.

We also got feedback from both the interpreters and some attendees that they would have preferred the signing audience to be close to the interpreters.

Now why is that? You mentioned that the interpreters were broadcast on screens throughout to conference space.

Among the hearing impaired community, there are different levels of fluency with American Sign Language.  The interpreters wanted to get some visual feedback that the audience was getting the most out of their interpretation.

Would you recommend designating a few tables up front for attendees using the sign language interpretation?

It’s tricky, because you don’t want to call people out. Perhaps for future conferences, we’ll make a few open seating tables available at the front so people can move there as they like.

How about for conference attendees with visual impairment?

We provided a soft copy of the conference schedule ahead of time to allow time for attendees to use readers or other aids to review it.  We provided a short form agenda in Braille at the conference site.

We also did a PowerPoint-free event.  There were very limited slides and visual aids.  All presentations were spoken only.  The interesting by-product of this? The conversation was elevated.  Everyone’s attention was focused on the content in one place.

So you think the conference content and the interaction was higher quality because of there were no visual, shall we say, distractions?


How about the physical logistics? What did you do around site readiness?

We involved our workplace facilities group 4 months in advance of the conference. Our Work Place Resources team arranged to have the building architect review the event sites.  The building architect came and personally measured sink heights, etc. to make sure everything was up to code.  The team did a great job to ensure the building was not just to the latest code (legally compliant) but that it incorporated as many best practices as possible.

What other advice do you have for future conference organizers?

We had some additional training for volunteers. We provided some articles (see below)  on etiquette and language.  For example, the term “handicapped,” which was so ubiquitous 30 years ago, is no longer used.  You use “person with disabilities” instead of “disabled person.”

Best practice in helping a person with disabilities is to ask him or her whether they would like assistance and also how they would like you to deliver that assistance.  So, we just gave our volunteers that type of basic orientation.

Related links:

Disability Matters Conference


How to create accessible PowerPoint presentations by Microsoft


Basic etiquette reference from The National Center on Workforce and Disability/Adult (NCWD)


People with Disabilities Basic Language Guideline Reference from The National Center on Workforce and Disability/Adult (NCWD)


CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation)


Understanding Invisible Illness’ post on Disability Matters 2011


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  1. Nice blog on what it takes behind the scenes to pull off this very important event as well as providing some forms of etiquette training that we can use to either help educate or remind us all. Nice job!

  2. GREAT information. Thank you for capturing such details and sharing these best practices. I learned so much from the details provided.

    • Thanks for your note. That was exactly what I was shooting for: make it easier for other people to put on these events.