What Sparkes did next.

I first heard Sparkes on the first series of LUGRadio where he was one of the presenters. He often made me laugh during the show (I can’t see a chav in a Nike top without chuckling) and I eventually found I was on various mailing lists with him – PHPWM and InfoPoint for a start. We also had some nice chats in the LUGRadio IRC channel on Freenode.

This week Sparkes has started the Autistic LUG which has the sole aim of being more inclusive for Autistic people. In his blog post, Sparkes explains a bit more why he set it up and why he had problems with other LUGs he’s been involved with. Some of his points really made me think. It can be a surprise to consider that the sheer growth of a community can put some people off from continuing to be part of it. It’s also true that a great many LUG activities (and many people involved in LUGs) exhibit autistic traits in varying ways. Sparkes says that some of the issues he raised in his local LUG were dealt with and others weren’t resolved to his satisfaction. An interesting mail in the list archives asks, basically, what should LUGs be doing to be inclusive to autistic members.

In HantsLUG we always try to be as inclusive as possible. It’s one reason why we don’t meet in pubs any more – they exclude the hard of hearing, those who don’t like smoke and those who can’t go in them for religious reasons. Venues are, as far as possible, neutral territory. I wouldn’t consider someone’s house an appropriate venue for a meeting, for example. We have greeters at the front desk to make sure people are welcomed to the meetings, are found a seat and usually introduced to someone. We don’t do forced introductions to the entire room but we give people name badges, usually with their favourite distro’s logo on. This seems to work really well as an ice breaker. People don’t have to stand up and announce who they are. You can recognise a name from the mailing list or IRC channel and know who you’re talking to, making starting a conversation much easier. We also put photos online of both our meetings and some members (those who volunteer their photo, basically). We do this so that people can find out what to expect when they attend a LUG meeting, both in terms of activities and people. We hope that being able to see who is likely to be there and what will be going on will reduce any nerves newcomers might feel.

When we have our talks they are spread across the course of the day, with none starting directly at the beginning of the meeting and none running right till the end. This allows for breaks and whatever social interaction people want to have. We also do our talks in a side room so the general activity of fixing computers or conversations can go on uninterrupted. I’d like to think that this gives people a choice as to what they do at meetings and how much they interact with others. Overall I suppose we try to be gently encouraging towards participation in whatever way people are comfortable with.

I think the idea of a LUG designed to be an inclusive environment is a good one, but I would hope that all LUGs strive towards this goal. However, given the varying size, structure and formality of UK LUGs I accept that it probably isn’t. I think it’s a great idea to offer “peer support” for those who feel they need it, providing reassurance for those who might have difficulty with the social aspects of a real-world LUG meeting. Ironically, the group could become a victim of its own success. If it grows too large it will put people off from joining it. Sparkes feels like is already happening with some LUGs. As they become more inclusive, grow in size and broaden in scope it is harder for some members to get involved. Is this already happening for large LUGs like Hampshire? We already have people who attend meetings but don’t participate in Mailing List activity and we have many more for whom the reverse is true. Sometimes this is down to personal diaries or travelling distance, but others? Do people not attend our meetings because they are reasonably large (20 to 40 attendees) and feel uncomfortable in groups of that size, despite the steps we take to break the day up with talks etc.?

Tackling problems like this will, I suspect, always be a matter of compromise. It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to keep everyone happy. We have in the past made changes to the way the LUG or meetings are run on the suggestion of one person who had a problem. We did this because we felt that if someone raised the issue, there were probably other people who felt the same way but didn’t speak up. These changes have generally been accepted as improvements and maintained.

LUG meetings are organised by volunteers working in their spare time. There is usually little or no money to fund things that might help towards inclusiveness. People are different. What encourages one person might put off another. What I will say is that I will listen to anyone who offers their opinion on how our meetings might be improved in any respect. I don’t care whether this is on the LUG mailing list, in a private e-mail or in person.

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