Don't plan your event for most people, plan it for as many people
When I started working at a visual impairment charity I was a little nervous. I’d never worked with blind people before, I didn’t know what to say or how to act. On my first day I was embarrassed when a colleague came up and pointed out that my bag, sitting at the side of my desk, could be a trip hazard for a visually impaired person– of course it was! How could I not have realised it?!
I hadn’t realised my bag was a hazard because on some level I was still taking my own abilities and experiences as universal.
Fast forward one week and I was perfectly at home. Making accommodations for people living with sight loss is straightforward, it boils down to one thing – don’t assume people can see. Describe a little more and point a little less. It might seem obvious, but in a world that caters for the median person it takes a small but significant shift in thinking to leave your built-in assumptions behind. This brings me to my first important point for event accessibility…
Not everyone can see. Not everyone can hear. Not everyone can walk, converse comfortably, pay, access the internet or cope with busy environments. Acknowledging and accepting peoples’ limits and abilities is one of the most important steps in making your event accessible. Once you’ve thought about the potential accessibility barriers you can start to find ways to remove or minimise them.
When choosing a location for your event think about how people might get there, how they will use the facilities and how they will leave. Most large professional venue spaces will have accessibility information, for example Glasgow Science Centre. Ask to see this when considering a venue and interrogate it. If the venue doesn’t seem capable of hosting an accessible event, then keep looking. For smaller events it might be easier to have site visit or conversation with the manager about accommodations that can be put in place.
Information is key. When living with a disability it can be more challenging to cope with unexpected situations and the more information you can give people the more prepared they can be. Things to include:
Event format and timings (e.g. Walking Tour/Seated talk/Interactive workshop).
Venue location: include basic info on parking and transport such as the nearest train and bus stations.
Accessibility information: share or link to the information provided by the venue.
Accessibility barriers: With location specific events there may be issues to highlight e.g. if you are planning a tour of Salisbury cathedral tower you have no option but to climb 332 steps. When barriers cannot be removed make sure they are highlighted.
Facilities provided: mention any services that visitors may be interested in such as gender-neutral toilets, child care facilities, or quiet rooms for autistic visitors
Registration When visitors register for your event its an opportunity to find out about them and their requirements. Make the forms accessible, inclusive and informative.
Accessible While people mostly register for events online remember this may be difficult or impossible for some – so include an alternate option such a phone number, even if it is your own. Not many people will use this but remember we’re not catering for “most people” you are catering for “as many people”.
Inclusive The form should make people feel like the event is for them and that you care about all your guests, so none of the questions should alienate people. I’ve taken gender as an example below.
Don’t ask: “Gender? Male/Female” This says that people must be one or the other or the event isn’t meant for them.
Don’t ask: “Gender? Male/Female/Other” While this acknowledges that people may wish to define as something other than male or female it says “we care if you are male or female, but we’ll lump everything else into an opaque (and therefore unimportant) box”
Do Ask: “Gender? Male/Female/Prefer to self-describe_______________/Prefer not to say” This says our event is for all gender identities, we care for everyone equally and we respect your right to privacy.
NB: Consider if you need to know peoples gender identity at all, often it is asked out of habit than necessity.
Capture information on people’s requirements. Consider having different ticket options to allow people to reserve requirement specific seating. For example, wheelchair users will require designated spaces with companion seats and by including a specific wheelchair user ticket you provide adequately for all of your audience.
Open ended questions are essential, give people the opportunity to tell you about their own accessibility requirements. Ask them if they have any additional support requirements that that you should be aware of or provide contact details for them to discuss their requirements.
On the day
Have clear signs, venue staff easily identifiable and aisles clear. Watch for people arriving and if you feel they may need additional support, ask them. Of course, it’s possible you’ll insult a very independent person by offering help but it’s also possible that you will be offering valuable assistance to someone who may not have been comfortable asking for it. I’d rather offend someone and apologise than risk leaving anyone to struggle.
For talks always use a mic if possible. This isn’t just for making your voice louder it’s to tie in with hearing induction loops to help people with a hearing impairment. If you have slides during a talk, then explain what is on them and use large font with high contrast.
There is lots of training and advice on how to assist people with additional support needs but the best practise with vary according to the situation and person. The very best thing you can do is ask the person.
Say hello and tell them who you are, then ask if they are ok. Ask if they would like any help. Ask how you can best be of help.
Too often I’ve heard of blind people swept off their feet by “helpful” strangers assuming the best course of action. I think this happens because people are either too embarrassed to admit they don’t know how to help, or don’t like to openly discuss someone’s disability with them – so they guess.
Don’t guess, always ask. You’ll find no more expert person than the person themselves.
Don’t be nervous. Like me when I started with Visibility you’ll make mistakes, but you will learn and quickly your mind will shift away from the median assumptions. You’ll start to see the barriers and the simple ways around them.
Never assume what people can or can’t do and always listen.
Other accessibility and inclusion tips:
Reserve seating at the front for people
Know the where the accessible entrances to the building are
Announce at the start if there will be any loud bangs, flashes or disruptive events, some people can be sensitive to these.
Assume your event will only be as diverse as your speakers. Let your target audience see themselves as part of your event.
3D print tactile examples for visually impaired people.
If gender neutral toilets aren’t available, consider turning the existing facilities to being gender neutral by changing the entrance signs and closing o ff the urinals.
If giving out handouts have them available in large (16pt) print.
Sudden changes in light levels can be uncomfortable for some, explain if the lights are about to go up or down.
Have the event in dual or foreign language
If you are based within a university contact your equality and diversity unit to be sure you comply with best practise.
Have volunteers on hand dedicated to welcoming and assisting visitors as they arrive.
If you are actively targeting your event to a community likely to have additional support needs, then have a representative of that community on your planning group.
Have traffic light lanyards for guests indicating whether people want to be left alone, talk to people they know, or chat to strangers.
At the start of the event signpost a member of staff who visitors can speak to if they have any problems, many people won’t be comfortable raising a hand in a busy room to identify issues even if you ask them to.
If you are hosting a paid event, consider releasing some tickets for the unwaged.
Providing childcare facilities can increase your audience and shows that the event has a thoughtful and inclusive
Have the event interpreted into British Sign Language
Don't say "Welcome ladies and gentlemen" instead use inclusive worlds like: everyone, guests, friends, participants, visitors.
Why not check out Nine Worlds (a Sci Fi/Fantasy convention) that has done more than any other event I know to ensure accessibility and comfort of its delegates.
Have I missed something? Do you have ideas to help make events as open and inclusive as possible? I’d love to hear them! Comment below or tweet me @jamiebgall
Finally I offer training and consultation services to help people create effective engagement with their desired audiences. If you are interested in how I could help you or your organisation please get in touch