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“Events are not inclusive if they are not also accessible”

Lizzy Eaton, founder of Oddity Events & Marketing reveals the difficult events that led her to get serious about accessibility and why event planners must take action…

On Monday 1 November, Karine Elharrar, minister of National Infrastructures, Energy and Water Resources for the Government of Israel, left her hotel in Edinburgh and travelled 50 miles to Glasgow to attend the COP26 Summit.

Lizzy Eaton

Upon arriving at the venue, Ms Elharrar found herself waiting for two hours at the entrance, eventually being forced to turn around and travel 50 miles back to her hotel. The issue? Ms Elharrar is a wheelchair user, and the entrance to the event was inaccessible. This is a prime example of how we event professionals are still getting inclusivity embarrassingly wrong, even at the most important event of the year, with the world’s eyes upon us.

We are, quite rightly, talking more about inclusivity at events, and putting inclusivity at the front and centre of our event strategies. But events can never be truly inclusive if they are not also accessible for people with disabilities.

I first learned about the importance of considering disability inclusion when I got it catastrophically wrong myself, at an event I organised for my previous agency. A guest, and now a good friend of mine, declined his invitation, stating that there was no information available to him about the access provisions and he had to find out for himself that the venue was not at all accessible, the only lift available was through the kitchen and back-of-house area. Obviously, as a result of my poor planning, he felt he could not attend.

When he declined, he said: ‘When I am invited to events, the last thing I want is to be constantly reminded of my disability when I’m there’. Naturally, I was absolutely mortified. How could I have disregarded this important detail while planning the event? Not only are these mistakes embarrassing for the organiser and infuriating for the attendee, but they could also negatively impact the public’s perception of the organisation hosting the event.

While the organisers of COP26 had made much of the event accessible, the damage had been done. Alison Kerry of Scope said: “It is inexcusable that the organisers of COP26 haven’t made all of their venue accessible for disabled people”. According to Scope, one in five people live with a disability, both visible and invisible, so as well as being a reputational disaster waiting to happen, when event organisers forget about accessibility in their event planning, they are limiting the potential for relationships to be built, preventing the exchange of business, and silencing the delivery of key messages to a significant segment of their audience.

From why to how:

Now we’ve addressed why the inclusion of the disabled community at events is important, let’s talk about how we can get it right in the future. After my bad event, I spent some time speaking to people with disabilities and listening to lived experiences. I researched initiatives and campaigns like The Valuable 500, which provides workplace inclusion resources for large organisations, Purple Tuesday, whose consultants conduct accessibility audits, and the Equality Human Rights Commission, which produced a useful PDF guide to engaging disabled people at events.

I wanted to understand where the common frustrations come up at events for people with disabilities, so I could identify some easy-to-implement, non-negotiable solutions and policies that I would put in place at every future event. Many of the suggested solutions are incredibly easy to implement and take very little adjustment. For example, instead of having event staff standing behind physical barriers at events, like registration desks and catering stations, have them stand and serve coffee or hand out name badges from in front of the service point. This offers the attendee the same experience as everyone else if they need extra support finding their badge or being served a coffee.

Another essential, non-negotiable is to walk the step-free route a wheelchair user would take and if you can’t make this the same route for everyone, think of ways that you can enhance the step-free arrival experience and make it part of the designed event.

For your content-led events and virtual events, engage with British Sign Language interpreters and closed captioning. For blind attendees at live events, ensure there is a steward at hand to guide them from public transport and around the venue.

Put your team on disability inclusion training and conduct role-play scenarios in your risk planning and run through how your team would support a disabled attendee and understand what the emergency evacuation process for them would be, should an alarm go off. Make your pre-event communications and joining instructions as prescriptive as possible – there’s no such thing as too much detail, and if an attendee notifies you of their special requirements, don’t be afraid to go back and ask as many questions as it takes to ensure you are well prepared to make their experience positive.

Not always obvious

As aforementioned, disability is not always visible or obvious. For example, autism in the United States is now one in 42 among boys and one in 189 among girls, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We must assume that our vast invitee databases include neurodiverse individuals with autism, learning disabilities or ill mental health. You can create safe spaces at your event, such as quiet rooms or wellbeing rooms where an overwhelmed attendee can take some space to themselves should they need it.

There is guidance on how to implement this type of solution on the EventWell website.

The key to inclusive event design is to listen, learn, and take action to ensure the experience of all attendees is positive. When including people with disabilities, keep asking the questions about what they need to make their experience seamless. Be confident to request as much detail as you need to get it right, and accept that getting it wrong sometimes is part of the learning process. Welcome and encourage attendee feedback, listen carefully and understand that by not doing anything at all you will alienate an audience of potential ambassadors to your event and the organisation you represent.

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