Accessible Events: Why?

There's a conversation that I have regularly had in the last five years as I organized events for political and non-profit organizations.

It's on accessibility.

22% of Canadians have a disability of one form or another - and that is growing with an aging population and other trendlines [1].

Typically, people running restaurants, venues, and rentals know the conversation: and are prepared for it. If something isn't accessible, they'll say it. The problem isn't with the venue.

It has been on the organizational end and knowing to ask about accessibility options. By having the conversation, and having it early, you can take your event to the next level.

I would also advise that, sometimes, restaurants and venues don't actually know what accessibility is. They sometimes assume that a person can walk up a few steps or they can lift a patron to where the event is located, that their space is accessible.

I've seen some burly bouncers - but they can hardly lift a power chair weighing 250 lb plus a person still attached to it. And, while it's kind that they offer (and they do), it's something to avoid as it's time intensive, removes the ability of the person in question to enter or exit a venue on their own volition, and restricts the choices of the attendee. The positive intent is there, but it's misplaced.

Often, it also means you need to physically go to a venue and ensure it is truly accessible.

I've advanced hundreds of locations, many of them inaccessible. The correct questions were not asked.

I've even been to events where my former boss could not enter. This was awkward for all involved. Don't be that organization.

Fundamentally, your organization is open to the public. So act like it. It should have events and do its work in accessible places. The same is true for companies.

As a side benefit - as more and more organizations have this conversation, those inaccessible venues and restaurants where accessibility isn't a priority will change to the needs of society.

You need to ask three key questions when it comes to accessibility:

(1) Can the mobility-impaired get in and around your venue?

Things to identify are steps, physical barriers, and doorway spacing.

Look at the entrance(s). If a mobility-challenged person cannot get through the front door, it is not accessible.

One exercise I typically did was to imagine a wheelchair being pushed into a venue - and if there isn't a means to seamlessly roll into a venue, it's not accessible.

Another example: can a wheelchair-user move from one part of the venue to another area? If someone in a wheelchair can only be in the back or the side, re-orient the space so that the patron can move around the venue. This would mean wider spacing between tables or creating avenues for individuals to navigate the event.

(2) Are you equipping your function for the deaf and hard of hearing Canadians?

Much of the communication of an event is made with sound, be it a sound system, a verbal presentation, or announcements at a convention. This makes it difficult for 4 million [2] Canadians to consume your content and know what's going on.

There are multiple organizations in Canada that provide interpretation services - for live captions, on-screen signing, and for announcements or media availabilities. It's not difficult to find an interpreter - it just takes the time of an organizer to create the space for it and budget for the professional.

The great thing is - if you make an event accessible to these Canadians in advance you already make your content and organization equipped with multiple benefits. For example, I've been to conferences with announcements that were also pushed to their conference app - which made it easy for folks who are between sessions to know the room or otherwise on their phones. That was convenient. It wasn't meant for me, but it made my navigation of that conference that much nicer.

Another example is having audio hook-ups for individuals at the conference into the sound system. Not only is this good for attendees who use adaptive technology, if there's media or podcasters in the crowd they can get clips for their efforts later. There's an incredible overlap between accessibility tools and communication tools that any organization can take advantage of.

(3) Ask your attendees if they have accessibility needs.

Not all disabilities are visible. Not every person wants to make their disability "an issue" or cause stress to organizers.

So ask the question.

If you ask the questions in advanced you can avoid the time-squeeze at the event and reduce the stress of your fellow event organizers throughout the event. By taking the time, asking the right questions, and having plans of actions for attendees, you can be more inclusive and bring your event to the next level.

It can be in person, over a phone call, or even having the conference sign-up page with a section on accessibility. If you start the conversation it can create a nigh seamless experience for an attendee.

Here are some additional resources I have found useful:
  • You can hire someone. The Rick Hansen Foundation has trained leaders in almost every province that you can consult with. Here's the link to their directory.
  • The Council of Ontario Universities have a guide on making your next conference accessible. Here's their .pdf.
  • The Ontario Government's accessibility office even has a guide for festivals and events. Here's their guide (pdf).
  • The Government of Canada has a guide on running an accessible meeting. Here's the link.
  • The Canadian Hearing Services group has a classroom guide - which can be of use to students, teachers, and administrators. Here's the link to their web guide.
  • The CNIB, and its sister organizations, have a whole host of blogs and posts on daily living and other guides for the blind and those with sight-loss. Here's their website:
  • In the last mandate the Parliament of Canada passed C-81, an act that is helping move Canada to become a more accessibility society. There's a lot of work being done of this subject, and implications for organizations who are engaging with the public. Any organization that is focused on inclusion or serving the public should be aware of the work being done and the legislative changes that are happening. Check out the legislation here.

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