When academics organise a conference on health and wellbeing, the people being discussed are likely to be in the audience and 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 with disability related content are generally considerate of the “nothing about us without us” approach. But when it comes to conferences on mental health, these delegates 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. 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 way 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).
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 has produced a guide to the number of steps in various paths of travel throughout the venue. This is to help patrons decide which seats are best to book for the greatest convenience. It also helps with traversing such a large building, especially if you are not familiar with it. There are lifts and escalators in most places, and more are being added. The Theatre Access Guidecan be downloaded from the Sydney Opera House website. The picture shows one page from the Guide.
Editor’s note: It would be interesting to know how many other venues in Australia have this type of guide – not just a standard access guide, which is usually for wheelchair users, people who are blind or have low vision, or are deaf or hard of hearing. Knowing how far you have to walk is important for non wheelchair users and people accompanying wheelchair users.
Many event managers and venues have yet to get their head around their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act. While many public buildings may have access through the front door and accessible toilet, this does not make for an inclusive event. Did anyone think about a handrail on the steps to the podium, a lower lectern for a seated speaker, or what to do with the guide dog?
Venue owners and managers, caterers and equipment suppliers are yet to get up to speed with what is required. 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 also 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: 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.
“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. Accessible performances include Auslan interpreting, captioning, and audio description. Children are catered for with special educational programs that allow them to appreciate some of what goes on. Special programs for children with disability include interaction with performers.
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.
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 an example of how a heritage building can be made fit for purpose.