Growing an Accessibility Meetup

Introduction

For a little over a year now, and together with two other organisers, I’ve been running the Dutch Inclusive Design and Accessibility, or “idea11y” meetup.

We’ve started from 10-people gatherings of mostly digital accessibility professionals, and grew into monthly meetup with 60+ attendees, ranging from UX designers to product designers and accessibility consultants.

Bring your own

In January 2016, Michiel Bijl came through on the promise of buying Bram Duvigneau a whisky.

A screenshot of the Twitter.com interface, where Michiel links to a blog post containing a promise of whisky. Bram Duvigneau takes him up on it.
The infamous tweet chain that started it all.

Others soon followed, yours truly included. As the number of interested people quickly grew, we decided to pick a date for the event. And since an event needs a name, I suggested we call it ‘role=drinks’ as an accessibility in-joke. I mean, it’d be just our little group, so it’d never be confusing ever.

The first shot

We ended up meeting over at the offices of Firmground. Everyone brought a drink of choice and snacks, and we had a fun evening of chatting about accessibility and sampling drinks.

A row of various liqour bottles on a table. In the background, Tim Luigjes and Iacobien Riezebosch can be seen.
Our goals were simple. Drink and talk about accessibility.
Job van Achterberg laughs. Michiel Bijl admires.
Fun times.

That same year, Mallory, Michiel and I went to the CSUN AT Conference in San Diego. Without digressing too much into how awesome that was, I did get pulled into a lunch meetup of accessibility meetup organisers (thanks, Sina!). I recall discussing that perhaps we should make our simple role=drinks meetup into a more serious meetup.

Another one, please

Having returned from CSUN, and since the first one was a lot of fun, we decided a second drink, I mean meetup, was in order. We met in Utrecht, on April 15th 2016. Eva Westerhoff signed up after finding out about the first meetup, and Jules Ernst and Rian Rietveld also joined.

Even though I’d been to my first CSUN the month before, I was still quite new to the accessibility scene, and it was great to meet more people I had otherwise only spoken to on Twitter. Eva was the first Deaf person I met, and I remember clearly not being very sure how to communicate effectively. Hooray for technology – instant messaging and voice dictation were quite helpful.

Of course this was another fun meetup. We even learned some sign language!

I do recall that we pitched in for Eva’s sign language interpreter’s drinks. We didn’t know they were paid well for their service, and that it was part of their work. It was also an evening where I learned basic Deaf communication etiquette in a fun, relaxed setting. Cheers!

A round of drinks for the house

Thirsty for more, Michiel wanted to take it a step further, and started planning a role=drinks with lightning talks, to take place after the 2016 CSS Day conference.

Eva contacted us to discuss moving towards a more serious meetup where we could perhaps reach outside of our accessibility echo chamber. I contacted Lucas van Lierop, Aisha Sie and Ross Tuck, organisers of the Utrecht-based DomCode tech meetup. They had been running DomCode for 2 years by then, and I was curious to hear about lessons they had learned.

Not only did Ross reply with an extensive e-mail filled with tips and tricks, it also contained a lot of blunt truths – namely that it was a lot, lot of work. That you need to ensure a predictable schedule. To get good speakers. To not be disheartened if one meetup doesn’t go too well.

We decided to name it “Inclusive Design and Accessibility”, which we could abbreviate to “idea11y”. Dean Birkett was approached as the fourth organizer, since Michiel would soon be moving to the UK.

Split up, stay close

I remember there being discussion what would happen with role=drinks. We all wanted to keep our informal gatherings, and decided that we would move role=drinks under the idea11y “umbrella”. I remember this being confusing to people at first, since we ended up announcing role=drinks #3 both on the newly formed meetup page, and on the traditional role=drinks website.

At the same time, We were still working on the CSS Day satellite meetup. We started contacting possible speakers, and I found a venue in my old co-working space: the Amsterdam Impact Hub, back then still located in Amsterdam’s old gas factory.

Various people mingling over drinks.
Break time.
On the left, Michiel Bijl in his usual dinosaur onesie. To the right, Eva Westerhoff communicates using sign language.
Eva Westerhoff, presenting in Dutch Sign Language, assisted by an interpreter.

A crude poster on a wooden door. Apple's "Accessibility Guy" is holding a beer bottle and cocktail glass. Below it, "role=drinks #3".
Photoshop is not my strong suit. Adrian Roselli eventually properly redesigned our logo.

The meetup was a great success, with around 50 people showing up, and 7 lightning talks being presented. We even had sponsors for some of the venue and drinks costs. But most of all, one of the attendees, Lasse Diercks, was inspired enough to create his own role=drinks in Hamburg!

The first idea11y meetup

Finding a venue was the first hurdle. I borrowed Ross’ contacts, and approached Leukeleu, an IT development company. They enthusiastically agreed to host our meetup, and even offered to take care of pizza and drinks. Awesome. This meant that Eva, Dean and I could get started on speakers.

Having been a part of the a11y community for years, Eva had a huge network and started suggesting speakers. We ended up having our first meetup in Dutch, with two talks, and three speakers.

The first talk was by Johan Groskamp, a WordPress developer with Usher Syndrome. Assisted by an interpreter, he spoke on creating accessible WordPress websites.

The second talk were by the dynamic duo Bram Duvigneau and Vincent van Itallie, who had a somewhat standup-esque talk about working and traveling when you’re blind.

I learned that I had to pick my venues carefully; Leukeleu was not wheelchair-accessible, and some stairs were involved in getting to the presentation room.

For a first meetup, it went very well. The audience turnout was about 30-odd people whom were enthusiastic and offered good suggestions. Make sure there are breaks between talks, for instance. But also, and more importantly: make the presentation inclusive. Some attendees had Usher syndrome as well and wanted to watch along with the presentation, regardless of their diminished visual capacity.

Johan Groskamp is standing in front of a presentation screen. An interpreter is seen sitting on the right.
Johan Groskamp talks about WordPress accessibility and Usher syndrome
Bram Duvigneau and Vincent van Itallie standing in front of the meetup room, facing a crowd of people.
The Dynamic Duo.
A large group of meetup attendees in Leukeleu's backyard.
What a crowd!

Overseas role=drinks

Role=drinks was still going strong as well, with the occasional informal pub meeting, and conference satellite meetups with talks. 2017 was fast approaching, and since I was going to speak at the CSUN conference that year, I figured “why not have a role=drinks there?”.

After discussing with Michiel (who sadly couldn’t make it to CSUN that year,) I started working on getting a remote location and getting the word out.

It was wild. After the word spread, it seemed role=drinks was fast becoming the 2017 tweetup replacement, and the attendees signing up grew fast. After speaking with several possible locations, I ended up going for Mission Brewery. It seemed a great location for a role=drinks and they brewed their own craft beer!

After securing sponsorship from several awesome companies and individuals, I started working on catering. Kitchens for Good seemed a great fit, since they not only delivered great food, but also helped local disadvantaged people to train for a job in the industry.

By the time the day came, I had the Viking and the Lumberjack themselves to keynote the event. Several awesome folks had lightning talks prepared. Kitchens for Good did a great job on the catering, and Mission Brewery couldn’t pour the drinks fast enough. So many people showed up for the event. It was amazing.

One thing I noticed is that most attendees saw it as a purely social event and wanted to chat. When the lightning talks started, the microphone audio was barely getting over the background noise of loads of folks enjoying themselves. I remember feeling terrible for the speakers, even though most assured me it was fine.

At the end of the evening, the brewery had run mostly out of beer, and the food was gone. Success.

Tacos, and lots of people at Mission Brewery enjoying drinks and social. Billy Gregory can be seen speaking on stage.
An impression of the CSUN role=drinks, courtesy of Adrian Roselli.

A Year later

At the time of this writing, Idea11y has gone past its 1-year anniversary, and thus role=drinks has as well. We’re getting ready for the role=drinks Fronteers Conference satellite event, and the October 2017 Idea11y meetup.

It’s still fun, even though it’s a lot of work. And things change. A few meetups in, Dean Birkett left Idea11y for personal reasons, but Irene Frijns stepped forward to be an awesome co-organiser. The Idea11y meetup still regularly introduces folks outside of the a11y scene to development and design practice, and we’ve had great lightning talks at role=drinks from all kinds of speakers, some whom offered to speak after they’d heard of our event. Which is an awesome compliment to get.

Part of me hopes that we’ll inspire others to start their own similar meetup in another part of The Netherlands, so we aren’t as isolated to the Amsterdam and Utrecht region as we are now. Until then, we are working to have meetups more south and east of the country.

The same principles apply constantly: to seek accessible venues, and engaging speakers. To have diverse speakers as well as attendees, and to get out of the echo chamber. To bridge the designer, developer and user perspectives and create inclusive products.

I’m looking forward to the next meetup!

Michiel Bijl, wearing a Dinosaur Onesie, is debating Martin Splitt, who is wearing a Unicorn onesie.
Last October’s role=drinks. ’nuff said.
Eva Westerhoff, Irene Frijns and Job van Achterberg are standing in front of a presentation slide, showing the idea11y logo wearing a party hat, and the text "one year old!"
Idea11y’s one-year anniversary! 🎉
Job van Achterberg

About Job van Achterberg

Job is a freelance software developer specialising in inclusive design, and co-organizer of both the "Inclusive Design & Accessibility" and "role=drinks" meetups in The Netherlands.

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