No one should be excluded from an event because of a disability. But with business events, such as conferences, exhibitions, and meetings, accessibility is too often an afterthought, which can lead to attendees feeling unwelcome, or being unable to take a seat at the table, metaphorically or otherwise.
Business Disability Forum’s Adam Casey sat down with Beth French from Hire Space, who help businesses plan thousands of events each year, to get their top tips on ensuring everyone can participate and get value from your business events by ensuring accessibility is planned from the start of the journey.
Make accessibility a priority from the outset
It’s far easier to factor inclusion into your planning process from the beginning rather than covering over the cracks at the last minute, so design your event with accessibility in mind. This also ensures that access adjustments can be factored into the event budget, rather than causing unexpected costs later on. It may be worth bringing a consultant on board to lead the process, or appointing a team member to be responsible for ensuring inclusion is factored into the event from the outset.
Get input from guests
It’s impossible to anticipate every obstacle that might present itself at an event, but with input from your attendees, you’ll be equipped to put the right measures in place to promote a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Reach out to your attendees several weeks in advance of the event to ask for any adjustments they might need on the day. Make sure this information is handled discreetly so as not to compromise attendee safety or privacy – attendees should have the option to provide this information anonymously. Ensure you ask your speakers for their accessibility requirements too, as this will have a significant impact on their ability to participate in the event.
Make adjustments to the event design
Inclusive planning will likely require adjustments being made to give everyone an equal experience. For example, where possible all attendees should enter the event through the same entrance, rather than having a separate route for wheelchair users. This may mean installing an additional ramp, or directing all guests to enter through a wheelchair-accessible entrance.
Some key areas to bear in mind:
- Ensure that microphones and lecterns are height-adjustable for speakers
- Ensure that stages have a ramp or that a temporary ramp can be installed
- Ensure lighting and audio is sufficient for those with visual or auditory impairments
- Make sure all emergency exits and safety routes are accessible to wheelchair users
- Provide a sign interpreter or note taker if required by attendees (this of course should be paid for by your business, not attendees)
- Ensure all speakers’ seats are the same height, rather than wheelchair users ending up lower down than other speakers
- Have seating reserved near sign interpreters for hearing impaired guests, and near the stage or visual aids for visually impaired guests
- Reserve space in the seating area for wheelchairs and mobility scooters, and those accompanied by assistance dogs. Adam Casey, Events Manager at Business Disability Forum also adds: “Provide guide dog water bowls. Provide quiet areas for any guests that require a quiet space or short break.”
Key physical areas to consider
The venue: make sure every space you use for your event is accessible, by checking that ramps and lifts are available where attendees will be moving between floors. Check for uneven floors and carpeting, as well as any difference in floor level between rooms to make sure wheelchairs and mobility scooters can be used in all areas in use at the event. Adam also adds: “Check that lifts have sufficient turning space. Ideally, wide entrance doors. Check accessible bathrooms are separate from the ladies and gents and also have sufficient space inside.”
Signage: ensure that signage is visible and clear for all visitors, and is available in Braille if required by any of your attendees. Signs and routes should be well-lit to make navigation easier for those with visual impairments.
The environment: not all access requirements are physical, and some attendees may struggle with bright or flashing lights, loud, conflicting noises, or other sensory stimuli. A solution could be having a designated quiet room at your event venue, where attendees can go to recharge away from the action in the main space or take medication.
Walk through your venue with a checklist to make sure that you’ve implemented all the adjustments your attendees requested.
Communicate with attendees
Finally, share the information about accessibility measures with your attendees in advance of the event so everyone can be confident that they’ll be able to participate. You should include:
- Whether there is a hearing loop at the venue
- Whether a sign interpreter or note taker will be provided. Adam adds: “Look to share presentations or slides in advance where possible to help guests with adjustments prepare for the event in advance.”
- Where to find accessible parking and entrances to the venue
- An accessible route map with emergency exits and accessible toilets
For speakers and attendees with access requirements, consider having a member of the team meet them at the entrance to be their point of contact throughout the day in case of any difficulties.
After the event, it’s a good idea to share the content from the event in several formats, for instance as a subtitled video recording and as a text transcript, which can be used with screen readers and means that text size can be adjusted as required.
The future of accessibility in events requires a shift in action from all businesses, so don’t be put off by concerns about not getting everything right the first time. If you ask your attendees what they need, you’ll be in a good position to make the experience positive and inclusive for everyone.