A universally designed conference: are we there yet?

A view of the vestibule of the Sydney Town Hall showing arched doorways and upper storey windows. The colours are classical heritage colours, mustard yellow, pale green and dark red.The 2nd Australian Universal Design Conference showcased the concept of inclusion across several design disciplines and was well received for this aspect. Less well received were aspects of the venue. Indeed some feedback indicated that there was disappointment that the conference itself was not universally designed. So to answer the question, “are we there yet?” the answer is no, not yet. But we are on the way.

I wish that all conference venues were perfectly universally designed. Brand new buildings might meet this criteria – at least they have to comply with access standards. Established buildings particularly heritage buildings are another matter even when upgrades are due. 

So why did we choose a heritage building, the Sydney Town Hall? Sponsorship is an important factor in organising a conference. It not only provides financial support, it also provides commendation. Having the sponsorship of City of Sydney was important for both reasons, and the way the City provides sponsorship for community events is to provide a venue at a significantly reduced cost. 

While some building accessibility features were not optimal, they were at least present and compliant to standards. They also showcased how heritage and access can work together, but compromises were clearly obvious. For example, the toilet signs were almost impossible to see in the dark corridors as they were brown figures on a small sign – a heritage requirement. But this was overcome by supplementing the signage with moveable large signs on stands at waist height. However, the lighting had not been addressed as this is where universal design meets both heritage and “green” agendas! More to be done here.

Picture shows Siam Imm Goh presenting with the live captioning screen behind her
Keynote by Siam Imm Goh

And then there is the actual “machinery” of the conference. Conference staging companies and audio-visual technicians are yet to understand accessibility let alone universal design. The stage ramps normally provided are too steep, and a hand rail for the steps is unheard of. We were at least able to source a compliant ramp and this did not go unnoticed. Few audio-visual technicians have worked with live captioning and have to learn as they go. But at least a few more people would have gone away from this conference with an example of how it should be done. This seems to be the story of universal design – education by example – frustratingly it seems, one person at a time. So, we are definitely not there yet, hence the need for Centre for Universal Design Australia!

Jane Bringolf, Conference Committee Chair 

The top picture is part of the vestibule in the Town Hall showing the intricacies of the design. The lower picture shows keynote speaker Siam Imm Goh with the large captioning screen behind and the presentations screens to both sides.

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