“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 tourscater for wheelchair users, people who are blind or have low vision, and people who are deaf or hard or hearing.
Economic inclusion has also been considered. Tickets for $5 are available for some performances for people who hold a Commonwealth Health Care Card.
You can download the Theatre Access Guide for more information about how to get around the building with the minimum of fuss. And the quick reference guide to the theatres, building tours, and availability of the shuttle bus.
If you 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.
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.
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.
Fully accessible venues can still be difficult to find. Getting in the door and having an accessible toilet is only the start. Venue owners and managers, caterers and equipment suppliers are yet to get up to speed with what is required. Indeed, while trying to think of everything to make the 2014 Universal Design Conference inclusive, we found the suppliers of the staging equipment did not have a handrail for the steps and the wheelchair ramp was too steep to climb without help. The one-size fits all lectern is also a problem. Rarely is there a lectern that a seated person or person of short stature can use.
Meetings and Events Australia have a comprehensive handbook on accessible events which was written in consultation with the Human Rights Commission in 2012. However, it appears only to be available to members of the Association and is not visible on their web home page. Nevertheless, a Google search will find the Accessible Events Guide. The Guide also has a checklist at the end.
Factors that many organisers might not think about are, a drinking bowl for an assistance dog, the way the event or meeting is promoted, and ensuring there is lighting on the face of speakers for lip readers.
Editor’s Note: In my experience, some event operators aren’t aware that they have to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act.
The 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.