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.
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.
Many 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.
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.
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.
One 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.
“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.
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. 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.
The article is in the Association’s publication, Footnotes, and is titled, Implementing Professional Curb Cuts: Recommendations of the Status Committee on Persons with Disabilities