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An event for everyone: accommodating disability

Martin Fullard explores what event organisers should be considering when it comes to accommodating those with physical and neurodiverse needs

Matters surrounding disability are often sensitive. The business events industry is, generally, well-equipped to meet the needs of most delegates, but there remains a perception that facilitation rests firmly on the shoulders of venues. This is neither fair nor correct.

An event organiser has a duty to ensure that from start to finish the event is accessible, not just for those with physical disabilities, but neurodiverse differences too.

At International Confex in 2019, I sat in a panel on the subject hosted by Lizzy Eaton, founder and director of Oddity Events. Eaton is clearly passionate on the matter, so I ask her which basic questions an organiser should be asking ahead of an event to ensure disability needs are met? “It’s simple, really,” she says. “Does the venue we like have step-free access; what is the step-free route, and how complicated is it; and does the step-free route offer the same high-standard experience as the main route?”

So, it’s not all on the venue to ensure needs are met. Where, then, does the organiser or agency’s responsibility fit in? Eaton explains: “It’s certainly not all on the venue, because the venue choice is (or should be) secondary. The venue should be decided after the event concept has been designed, considering expectations of all possible event users. This means responsibility lies with the organiser, in my opinion. Event managers should always assume there are people with disabilities who wish to attend their events, and therefore design the event around making the event experience inclusive for them (and all other demographics).”

“Event managers should always assume there are people with disabilities who wish to attend their events, and therefore design the event around making the event experience inclusive for them.”

Eaton, though, is aware of the challenge organisers face when it comes to aesthetics versus access when it comes to venues, adding: “It is the role of the event organiser to think about how we prioritise these things. If the event manager does not prepare for a guest that has accessibility requirements, they must then be prepared for a conversation to tell them they aren’t welcome at their event. This isn’t good for reputation management.”

Providing facilities for people with physical disabilities and people with neurodiverse differences are not the same, how can organisers, and venues, ensure that, say, those with Downs Syndrome have what they need, such as large print menus?

Eaton says: “They can be approached with the same attitude and processes if focusing on           

the following two things: the importance of access to information for events, and the importance of being flexible.

“For example, a simple update on email to everyone attending, or within the housekeeping section of an event guide, or on the event website that there are facilities available/can be made available (such as large format content available on request, a quiet room, the location of accessible toilets, phone number for first aid etc) shows that these steps will be taken for anyone with specific needs, and encourages inclusivity at events. When we share information about our events we are showing a welcoming attitude. It underlines that everyone and anyone can attend our events, and it is ok if they have particular needs because we are happy – and prepared – to help.”

However, even with the best will in the world, some organisers feel embarrassed to ask delegates with disability what their specific requirements are. I ask Eaton how they should approach this to ensure everything is taken care of, and to avoid any undue distress. She acknowledges that this can be a tricky one, but refers back to her panel at International Confex. She tells me: “During my discussion with Michael McGrath from the Muscle Help Foundation, Michael was asked a similar question about communication. His answer was simply to ‘speak plainly’, ‘get to the point’ and ‘don’t be patronising’. He also said that people often speak to his wife instead of him or seem to lead with the fact he is disabled rather than seeing him as any other person.

“If you need particular information, just ask for it. Anyone who has indicated they have specific needs will understand the need to provide more detail, and it won’t be the first or last time they have been asked. It’s better to be accurate when it comes to the health and safety of all guests, particularly those with specific needs, and that’s far more important than a moment of social faux pas.”

It would be a wise, concludes Eaton, to have a ‘specific requirements’ feedback box on your sign-up page. 

Welcoming differences

Curious to understand more about what event organisers can do to make conferences more accessible for people with differences such as autism, Tourette’s and ADHD, I spoke to Kate Gilbert, head of business development at Genius Within, a social enterprise established to help people with neurodiversity fulfil their potential in employment and their careers.

Gilbert tells me that conference organisers can make things more accessible for neurodiversity “by inviting people to get in touch in advance so you can consider accommodations.” She adds: “These might include reserved seating near doors for easy exit and late entrance (to avoid crowds) or near the back to avoid feeling self-conscious about tics or movements.”

What simple measures can an organiser factor into the practicalities of their event? Gilbert says: “Have quiet spaces for decompression breaks where people can go to recover from sensory overwhelm. Be mindful in choosing locations and set ups with echoic acoustics, bright flashing lights or harsh overhead lighting. Provide clear signage throughout, repeating directions and using arrows. Subtitles on slides for speakers can be a good visual support. There is software that can do this live through PowerPoint. Also, allowing questions from the audience to be tweeted/texted/written will help those who find it difficult to speak in public through a roaming microphone.”

Gilbert adds that those with neurodiverse conditions will want to know what is happening in advance, so making the running order available and sending information about the layout of the space, the type of room set up and how the sessions will flow. 

Gilbert concludes that people may need help, so having staff who are visible matters. She adds: “Make sure it is obvious who your staff are so people can ask for help. You could consider offering a buddy system of staff or volunteer delegates to support people who need it.”  

The message for event organisers, then, is simple: plan your event with everyone in mind.