|About the author: Bruce Imhoff is a PWS from Australia and has been involved with organisations for PWS since about 2006, both locally, nationally and internationally. Bruce is currently serving as Vice Chair of the International Stuttering Association. Bruce also works with the International Stuttering Awareness Day Online Conference team, delivering the conference since 2013. He works in the local health department managing a software application used in public health.|
I’ve been involved with the International Stuttering Association for a few years now, starting with the ISA website and currently with the ISA Board. In February 2013 Michael Sugarman, then Chair of the ISA and co-founder of the online conference, told me that after 15 years Judy Kuster was retiring from running the online conference and that he was talking with her about how it might be continued. My name was brought up, and here I am today working with a great team delivering our fifth online conference in 2017, on the 20th anniversary of the first conference in 1998!
Michael introduced me to some people at the International Congress for People Who Stutter in Lunteren, The Netherlands, who might be interested in working with me on the conference, specifically Dan Hudock, Anita Blom and Keith Boss. Since that time it’s been great to work with them and others including Hanan Hurwitz, Scott Palasik and McKenzie Jemmett to deliver what, in my opinion, is a quality product that helps us to work towards a world that understand stuttering. This is a big team effort.
So, what challenges have we faced and what barriers have we overcome? When Judy told me she was going to make a similar contribution to the online conference this year, I tried to mirror some of her key themes, to help you compare a little of the differences over the years.
What does the online conference mean to me?
I see the online conference as an important resource, not only while the conference is going on, but also well after it has finished, so people can read the submissions that have been presented over time, comments and clarification on those submissions and different perspectives others bring to the conference. My time with the conference team has shown me that there are so many different opinions out there and that this is a really important forum for collaboration and sharing between Speech Language Pathologists (SLPs) and People Who Stutter (PWS).
How do we organise ourselves as a group?
Judy organised and managed the conferences mostly on her own. Honestly I don’t know how she managed all the work, there is a LOT of work and we currently have a team of six!
When we started with the conference in 2013 with a team of four people, we were all reviewing submission, but as the content and reviewers increased, we changed our approach to review each submission by both a Speech Language Pathologist (SLP) and a Person Who Stutter (PWS). Where we have a difference of opinion, the submission goes to all reviewers for comment and discussion. This model has worked for us quite well for the last few conferences and, with an equal number of SLPs and PWS, it helps to equally distribute the effort.
It has been interesting to hear Judy’s comments on some content that we’ve accepted, and how we each have taken a different approach, but one thing is clear…neither Judy nor the team would accept absolutely false and misleading information or content leaning towards abusive or argumentative, however we have had some interesting submissions where SLP and PWS reviewers have a difference of opinion but, as a group, we often included content that one reviewer on their own may have rejected from the conference, and this came about through open discussion about the merits of the submission or, when compared with other similar submissions, that to exclude one but not both may highlight inconsistent decision making within the team.
That’s not to say that the team process or individual process is wrong or not stringent enough, but to highlight a difference between the two methods and that’s ok.
Who are the participants and where do they come from?
When talking about participants, I’m referring to those who have submitted content or have agreed to participate as experts or professionals. We often get quite a range of countries agreeing to participate, but I would say the proportion of participants is probably higher from Western Europe and North America. It’s difficult to say where visitors come from, we get many PWS, but also quite a few SLP students visiting and commenting on submissions, which is great to see!
How has the event been structured over the years?
We started with a fairly simple content structure in 2013, which included an ‘Expert’ forum, a Feedback section, Around the World section and the ‘Papers’ or submissions section. In later years we added categories of submissions, but generally we followed the format Judy had proven over the years. In 2014 we were approached by a group with a mental health focus, with an idea that we have a section to include regular postings with mental health as a focus, but based on the theme. This group continues to participate in the conference.
Also in 2013 we had a number of Google Hangouts with the Stutter Social group on International Stuttering Awareness Day (October 22) talking about the conference.
Challenges with presenters and participants
We have had some challenging situations over the years. In one conference we had some concerns raised about one expert’s profile, with concerns by other experts about self-promotion, potential profit and ethics. When we explored the situation, we found the situation was more complicated than first believed, with many other experts referencing their own publications and published works in their own profiles. In the end we reached a somewhat uncomfortable compromise.
We have had to turn away some authors over the years. While I would say we’ve been quite generous with some of the content we accepted, it was the collective opinion of the reviewers that to include the content from some authors in the online conference would simply be dangerous and misleading for readers. They were disappointed of course, but we did offer to follow up and provide them with additional advice.
Challenges with expectations
The first year transitioning from Judy’s forum style to the new WordPress style wasn’t globally embraced by participants, with negative comments posted to some of the Facebook groups for people who stutter. As a result we changed the format slightly. Also, the need for instant gratification of seeing the response immediately after clicking the submit button has been difficult for some to accept, but we felt that it was important to manage content actively (moderating content before it is posted to the public forum) rather than passively. Passive management of inappropriate content can be much more difficult to clean up after the fact. To complicate matters (with using passive management), it has already been in the public eye for a period of time, so whatever opinions have been expressed have already had exposure and caused the damage intended.
Challenges with technology
We chose WordPress as the technology platform for the online conference. We have adapted it a little over the years, using different plug-ins to do different tasks, but for the most part the look and feel of the platform hasn’t changed over that time (with the exception of some navigations structures for some years).
As a moderated forum, which is not to everyone’s liking because participants and users must login to make comments and responses, we have had the ability to prevent inappropriate content from getting into the public forum. While this puts a greater burden on the moderators, it does mean that active control of spam, duplicate content, abuse and other inappropriate content from getting into the public view before it happens. This comes with a cost of a delay from the time a comment is posted until when it is seen, but we believe we ultimately have a good product and the ongoing process of moderation is worthwhile.
Challenges with getting the word out
This is always a challenge, but even more so during the transition, as we needed to establish our own contacts, let people know the conference had moved and letting people know how to participate. Judy was a great help letting people know how to continue to participate. While we had access to the resources from Judy’s previous conferences, we did not always have the contact information for those individuals, and we found ourselves approaching many of the same people year in, year out. While we understand Judy’s approach was to approach specific people for contributions, we simply did not have the contacts and decided on an open invitation for submissions and experts, and we review and assess submissions received.
Just generally communicating to people about the conference has been a challenge. It’s difficult to get people interested to participate and find the right balance of cross posting to large Facebook groups, email groups, talking locally and promoting in other forums and groups. While the online conference in its new form has established a following over the past five years, getting the word out there for new participants is still difficult.
Having spoken about my perspective, and I imagine Judy’s perspective will be a little different, it’s been an interesting journey and learning experience for me and I have gained many new contacts and some dear friends. I hope the conferences we as a team have delivered will stand the test of time and that we can give you many more such conferences in the future, working towards a world that understands stuttering.
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