Diversity and Accessibility at POPL 2022

I first attended POPL, the ACM SIGPLAN Symposium on Principles of Programming Languages, in Rome, as a first-year grad student in 2013. It was my first real experience in the programming languages (PL) community. My undergraduate advisor presented a paper I had co-authored at a co-located workshop. I attended the programming languages mentoring workshop (PLMW), where I met other students who became friends over many years of conference attendance across the world. I learned a lot about programming languages and academia. The experience was exhilarating and thoroughly exhausting.

Since 2013, I have considered POPL my “home” conference, as it matches my research interests (applications of PL theory), and I have always found the community welcoming and warm. I have been lucky enough to attend POPL eight out of the past ten years, with the support of my grad school advisor, as a student volunteer, using funding from PLMW and research competitions, and later from my employer Galois. So when Rajeev Alur, the general chair of POPL 2022, asked me to be the Diversity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Chair, I gave it serious thought.

On the one hand, I didn’t feel qualified for the role. I have never been on an organizing committee, and POPL is a large, complex event with multiple co-located workshops and in-person and virtual participation. I am certainly not an expert in either accessibility or diversity, despite having participated in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) events in the past and existing as a woman in computer science. And to have one chairperson cover both topics—diversity and accessibility—would be a heavy lift. 

On the other hand, I have a lot to say about diversity and accessibility in PL. Racial diversity is often overlooked despite (or because of) the fact that Black, Indigenous, and other people of color are even more severely under-represented in the field. As diversity chair, I would have the opportunity to advocate for women, trans and non-binary people, and people of color. Though gender diversity is still lacking, I have had many amazing female mentors whose experiences and guidance I have benefitted from.

I am also passionate about disability access. For the past several years, I have struggled with chronic arm and neck pain that had risen to a level that made me disabled–I reduced my workload, limited my hobbies, and struggled with travel. (I am pleased to say my condition has greatly improved in the last year. ) I have also dealt with mental health issues and talked with my colleagues in computer science about invisible disabilities such as ADHD and autism. As accessibility chair, I would be able to provide resources and accommodations that help disabled attendees participate fully in POPL and hopefully set up systems for universal access that would improve future iterations of the conference.

I asked Rajeev a lot of questions about the role. I talked to my coworkers at Galois and my old advisors. I brainstormed what I would want to see at POPL, and ultimately I decided to accept the role.

POPL 2022 was held in January of this year. I am proud of many of the accessibility and diversity initiatives I was able to help implement. I also made mistakes, and I hope that this report of my experience can help conference organizers and the PL community do even better in the future.


The goal of accessibility is to make sure that all community members can share their work, build connections, and participate fully in the conference. This can be tackled in two ways: by lowering barriers overall via universally accessible design and by providing specific accommodations to individuals who need them. A great place to start is SIGPLAN’s accessible conference guide.

Attendees submitted requests for several kinds of accommodations during registration:

  • CART (Communication access real-time translation) services (i.e., live captioning) for a Deaf attendee.
  • Hotel and venue wheelchair access, including reserving space at the front of the room for wheelchair access.
  • Access for a caretaker to help the wheelchair user move around the conference.
  • Several special meal requests included kosher, dairy-free, nut/soy-free. One attendee with a serious allergy requested to speak with the caterer to ask about possible cross-contamination issues.
  • Two requests for a quiet/private room during the day e.g., for prayer.

I am pleased to say we were able to accommodate all of the requests we received. Live captioning was the most expensive accommodation requested, but it also benefited the most people.

High-quality captions are helpful not only for people who are deaf or hard of hearing but also for non-native English speakers, people with auditory processing issues, and more. CART services provide live captions as well as transcripts that can be integrated into uploaded YouTube videos after-the-fact, improving the quality of those videos.

Free services like Google’s or Zoom’s automatic captions, while good for casual conversation, are not anywhere near accurate enough for the technical content in research presentations. Even more advanced paid automatic captioning services are not good enough to handle many accents. Therefore, to get high-quality captions, it is important to have a human captioner with experience in technical subjects.

We employed Archive Captioning to provide live captions, thanks in large part to the support of our accessibility sponsor, Jane Street. The captioners logged into Airmeet (the online conference platform) remotely and were able to hear and see the presentations. From there, they transcribed the presenters’ speech using stenograph machines. Attendees could access the captions in several ways: a screen next to the presenter in the hotel conference room; a browser window that anyone could access from a computer or mobile device; or closed captions on the YouTube livestream. Because of the limited budget, we only provided captions for the main POPL conference (all tracks) and the PLMW workshop, but not the other workshops.

The captioners’ ability to decode and transcribe complex technical content in real-time was very impressive. We got great feedback on the live captions both from the attendee who originally requested the service and from in-person attendees who watched captions on the monitor. Importantly, we provided captioners with a vocabulary list of names, and technical terms that I hope can be reused and added to for future PL conferences. Although slightly less accurate than human-edited post-production captions, especially when taking into account technical issues affecting audio quality, we were overall very happy with the results.

These captions were only possible due to the last-minute support of an external sponsor, but after two years of virtual conferences, live, and post-production captions should really be standard at PL conferences. I highly encourage future organizers to budget for captions from the beginning, somewhere in the range of $700-$1000 per single-track day of talks.

COVID-19, Virtual Events, and Accessibility

Before 2020, we had only been livestreaming talks at SIGPLAN conferences for a few years, and while virtual conferences were suggested as a possible means of offsetting our environmental impact, they were not widely accepted as a viable option. Of course, the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic have made virtual conferences a reality. Although many people are understandably eager to resume in-person interactions, the community has a new expectation of how accessible conferences can be to people not there in person. Virtual access to conferences helps disabled individuals, those who can’t travel because of illness, as well as students and researchers across the world who are unable to travel due to cost or visa issues. And, of course, virtual access reduces our impact on climate change.

POPL 2022 was initially envisioned as two parts: an in-person conference with livestreaming, and a separate, virtual conference on a different day with social and “hallway-talk” events for remote attendees. Due to the pandemic, the lines between in-person and virtual events were blurred so that virtual attendees could give presentations, watch livestreams of the talks, chat with other attendees, and get help with technical issues when needed.

The General Chair Rajeev Alur used metrics from registration data—how many people had registered to attend in-person—to decide whether to cancel the in-person event altogether and in the end, the in-person event did occur with almost 200 attendees. In-person attendance required proof of vaccination and masks, The organizers enacted a policy whereby people registered for the in-person conference could request a refund or switch to a virtual registration (which cost much less) up to the day before the event started.

POPL offered flexibility and support for virtual attendees while trying to provide safety to those attending in-person. Having large in-person events during COVID is still a risk, but virtual access and precautions helped mitigate this risk and allowed people to participate in a way that made sense for them. 

Diversity and Inclusion

Diversity at POPL lies along many intersecting axes: race, gender, disability, LGBTQ+ representation, and more. As diversity chair, my goal was to build community, offer opportunities, and improve the experiences of people in different underrepresented groups so that all members of the community have a positive POPL experience.

One simple initiative we implemented this year was to include pronouns on attendee’s name badges. During registration, attendees were able to select pronouns from a drop-down list, which included “she/her”, “he/him”, “they/them”, and “other” options, as well as “prefer not to disclose”. This simple measure is easy to implement and I hope will be standard at future SIGPLAN conferences.

POPL hosted several social events focused on diversity and inclusion, including mentoring events for Ph.D. students and early-career faculty, and lunches for women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Events like these build community and allow people to network and find mentors within marginalized groups.

Two other events focused more concretely on addressing diversity and equity. The group #ShutdownPL hosted a keynote by Dr. Brittany Johnson-Matthews from George Mason University on Designing and Developing for the Black Experience and how researchers can work within both social and technological spaces to improve equity for the Black community. The event was held over lunchtime on the last day of POPL proper and was fairly well-attended. 

As always, the programming languages mentoring workshop (PLMW) hosted several amazing speakers and panels focused on mentoring for students in the PL community. Talia Ringer’s talk on mental health was particularly impactful, focusing on the effect of one’s environment on mental health, especially for marginalized people.

On Increasing Diversity

Increasing diversity in the PL community is a systemic challenge and was not itself the major focus of diversity efforts at POPL 2022. To achieve better diversity long term, we must not only recruit new students from underrepresented groups and marginalized backgrounds but also bring in more experienced researchers from those groups and make the community welcoming to both. This cannot be achieved solely through conferences but also must be pursued within the community by PL researchers: recruiting, supporting, and advocating for students; and building connections and collaborations with researchers who have interest but little exposure to programming languages.

At conferences like POPL, we can aim to support diversity by providing resources for students, focusing on the needs of students from underrepresented groups. But we also should provide resources and incentives for academic and industrial researchers who would like to but might not otherwise attend POPL. 

One way of doing this is by prioritizing diverse groups of organizers, program committee members, and invited speakers, and actively reaching out and building those relationships. Note that researchers in underrepresented groups can be overwhelmed with requests for their labor for the sake of diversity. As a woman, I receive disproportionately more requests to sit on program committees than my male colleagues at a similar level, yet women only made up 10% of the POPL 2022 PC. Researchers at HBCUs (historically Black colleges and universities) in the US have reported being inundated with requests to speak at conferences solely for the sake of diversity in fields that are not even their own.

When we do have transactional requests, such as recruiting a speaker to discuss diversity, it is important to compensate people for their labor, for example through speaker fees. But to really increase diversity long-term, we must build genuine connections, not just transactional ones, and make the PL community a welcome space for marginalized people.


In the grand scheme of things, the diversity and accessibility initiatives implemented at POPL this year were not a revolution, but a small step forward, building on the years of work done before. I love POPL for a reason, and a big part of that is a community that is willing to think hard and make changes that help marginalized members of the community.

In the future, I hope POPL continues to support inclusion initiatives such as community building and displaying pronouns, accessibility initiatives like live captioning, and diversity and equity education like #ShutdownPL. I encourage future organizers to budget appropriately for these initiatives from the beginning and to continue focusing long-term on sustainable ways to improve diversity. One challenge of this role was its scope—diversity and accessibility are both extremely broad topics, and I would have benefited from one or more co-chairs and/or splitting the role up into two positions. I also would have benefited from more connections and institutional knowledge from past SIGPLAN conferences. For this reason, I have compiled a report of my experiences for future Diversity, Accessibility, and Inclusion Chair (contact me at jpaykin@gmail.com for access) which I hope will help organizers continue pushing to build an even more inclusive and accessible community.

I had a lot of support in this role: thank you, especially to Adam Chlipala and Apoorv Ingle for their help with captions; the general chair Rajeev Alur; and our excellent conference organizer, Neringa Young. The events would also not have been possible without support from SIGPLAN, POPL’s sponsors (especially Jane Street Capital), and Galois, who supported my efforts.