Universal design and accessible meetings

picture of a large audience watching a presentation.Even conferences about inclusion, universal design and accessibility can fail to meet the first requirement of their own content – to make the conference and venue accessible and inclusive. So how will conference organisers learn about access and inclusion?  New research aims to promote awareness among meeting organisers and the conference supplier companies about the need to remove barriers to meetings and conventions. This includes the whole issue of destinations and visitor experience for the surrounding area. The report, Universal Accessibility in Meetings, was produced by BestCities Global Alliance, Gaining Edge, and RI International. 12 cities are featured in case studies, including Melbourne, and there is a 15 point checklist for meeting organisers. Final step will be to get presenters to universally design their PowerPoint presentations.  A quick review can be found on the Conference and Incentive Travel website.

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Can everybody hear me? Protocol for meetings and events

Front cover of the protocol for meetings and events. People who can’t hear well at meetings tend to avoid them. This means their voices are left out of focus groups and community consultations. Consequently, hearing issues are not heard or catered for (excuse pun). It also means they don’t go to group events at restaurants or even family gatherings because it gets frustrating and also tiring when trying to concentrate on listening all the time. Ideas for Ears in the UK is actively advocating for people with hearing loss and has developed the Hearing Access Protocol for meetings and events. it provides guidance on how to run meetings and events so people with any hearing ability can hear and follow them. The Protocol was developed by people with hearing loss. You can download the PDF version of the Protocol. People with hearing loss should be able to participate in civic events and activities on the same basis as others.

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Hearing Loops – fixed or portable?

A woman with dark hair wearing a light blue shirt holds her right hand up to cup her ear to indicate she is trying to hear somethingMany people have heard of hearing loops, but few understand the options and how they work. Ideas for Ears in the UK tweeted a blog article with some explanations of the differences. Some systems are suited for face to face customer service, others are suited for large auditoriums. Then there are others that are portable. Knowing which one to use and when is critical for people who need them. Yes, a reminder that one in six people have hearing loss. For an Australian look at these systems, ClearaSound has some good fact sheets that explain the systems really well. However, even when the equipment is installed, the sound professionals or other responsible staff do not check to see if it is working at all times. Also, most systems only work in conjunction with the speaker using a microphone. “Can everyone hear me – I don’t need a microphone?” is not what people want to hear.  You might also like to look at the Better Hearing Australia website. 

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Festivals and markets for everyone

Delegates sitting at tables waiting for the 2014 UD conference to start. Sydney Town Hall (Lower)Lee Wilson makes a plea to organisers of festivals and markets for more inclusive thinking in his recent post on Linked In. He gives an overview of things to think about and that includes emergency procedures. Sometimes an accessible portaloo is installed, but no-one has thought about the grass or gravel leading up to it. Information should also be accessible, particularly to people who do not read English well, or have low vision. Auslan interpreters and audio describers make festivals and events enjoyable for people who are deaf or blind. There are several good resources on making events inclusive:

Accessible Events Checklist from the WA Government

Accessible Events Guide from Meetings and Events Australia

Event Accessibility Checklist from Australian Network on Disability (AND)

Vivid Sydney – example of a website with a section on the access and inclusion features of the event.  

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Conference attendance from a user perspective

picture of a large audience watching a presentation.When academics organise a conference on health and wellbeing of people, some of the people being discussed are likely to be in attendance and potentially on the speaking program. But how many academic conference organisers think about this? Not many it seems. Sarah Gordon has written a very readable article about her experience as a conference speaker, attendee and user of the health system. Conferences that have content relating to disability are generally considerate of the “nothing about us without us” approach. But when it comes to conferences on mental health, it seems the users are given little if any consideration. While the focus is on mental health in this paper, the comments can be applied more generally. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability is referenced throughout and this makes it a long read. The point is made that conferences are part of the right to life-long learning and education, and the right to give and receive information. The application of universal design principles are discussed as a means to create greater inclusion for conferences. The paper is titled, What makes a ‘good’ conference from a service user perspective? by Sarah Gordon and Kris Gledhill, in the International Journal of Mental Health and Capacity Law (2017).

Editor’s note: This is one of the few academic papers available as a Word document with free access. 

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Out of the loop in meetings

A large room with a power point screen at the front and people sitting at tables cabaret styleOne in six people experience hearing loss. It is one of the silent disabilities (no pun intended). New survey research by Ideas for Ears paints a clear picture of the problems people experience at meetings if they have just a minor degree of hearing loss. And most of the problems can be easily fixed because the majority of people with hearing loss can hear well enough if the situation is managed well. This includes using a microphone, having good acoustics, and sufficient lighting to lip read. Frustration, feeling excluded, stressed and embarrassed are some of the feelings expressed by respondents. Hearing augmentation was covered in the survey, and once again, not having the hearing loop switched on or not working was top of the list. The report makes for interesting reading for anyone organising and running meetings – any meeting – especially if the purpose is for participation and inclusion. While the research was done in the UK, there is no reason to assume it is any different in Australia (or elsewhere). An overview of the survey was published on the Ideas for Ears website. The Clearasound website has some great resources for understanding hearing augmentation systems. Better Hearing Australia also has resources and support services.   

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It’s Everybody’s House

Syney Opera House taken from a ship at sunset - the House glows yellow and orange“The Sydney Opera House is the People’s House” says the CEO Louise Herron. That’s why they have a commitment to inclusion and accessibility of both the building and performances. Further building upgrades are scheduled which will include enhanced physical access for audiences and performers. “Accessible performances” as they are listed on the website, include Auslan interpreting, captioning, and audio description.

Children are also well catered for with special educational programs that allow them to appreciate some of what goes on. For example, it is great for a blind child to talk to a ballerina and touch her tutu. There are also autism-friendly performances for families. Free Sing & Play sessions are offered in the Drama Theatre Foyer either before or after specified performances. It includes a range of fun play activities. The musical themes from the performances are facilitated by a Sing & Play music therapist.

For visitors wanting to know more about the building there are regular tours. Accessible tours cater for wheelchair users, people who are blind or have low vision, and people who are deaf or hard or hearing.

You can download the Theatre Access Guide for more information about how to get around the building with the minimum of fuss. You can find out more from the Accessibility page, or you can type “Access” into the search function, this will take you to the relevant tabs and menus. Much thought has gone into accessibility and inclusion in all aspects of the House. They have set a great example for other leading organisations for the arts and other cultural experiences. This is also an example of how a heritage building, designed with no thought for people with disability, can be made fit for purpose.

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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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Is your professional association inclusive?

logo of American Sociological Society - blue on white backgroundThe American Sociological Association has developed a comprehensive policy to ensure the highest level of inclusion for all members. They have 15 recommendations that could be a model for others to follow.

While the focus is on conferences, seminars and other events they hold, whether in a conference venue or by webcast, the list also includes, how to file a disability complaint regarding the association, processes for membership renewal to the association, orientation to conference venue or meeting site, and web content accessibility rules.

The article is in the Association’s publication, Footnotes, and is titledImplementing Professional Curb Cuts: Recommendations of the Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities

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