I know, I know. You’re busy and there are so many factors that go into putting on a successful event. Give me 5 minutes to talk about something that I’ve felt desperate to tell you about for years. Please. I promise it’ll be worth it. Just keep an open mind and hear me out. Okay? Great, thanks!
Inclusion is a big word with a lot of meaning. But it’s an abstract concept and to be inclusive means to implement concrete ways that support the concept of inclusion. There are so many ways for an event to “be inclusive”. But have you stopped to think who you’re being inclusive of? Obviously, you’re hoping to be inclusive to everyone. But what does that even look like. There have to be actionable steps to achieving the goal of inclusion. Have you considered if those actionable steps you’re using to achieve inclusion are really communicating inclusion to your audience?
Inclusion includes disability. I know that sounds like a ridiculous thing to point out but as a disabled person I’ve seen plenty of times where that seemed to be forgotten. In other words, the actionable steps an event used didn’t effectively communicate inclusion of disabled people.
I get that there are already lists out there about how to implement (communicate) disability inclusion. But, as with anything else there comes a time when we need to look with fresh eyes to achieve new results. Let’s talk about some actionable steps to communicate disability inclusion that maybe, just maybe you haven’t fully considered yet.
Every single one of these points comes from real world experiences and conversations that throughout my life I desperately wished an event organizer would have with me in the moment but didn’t. You see, when people are attending events we are interacting with what I’ll call “frontline workers” rather than the organizing staff. That means there’s room for miscommunication between what those two groups of staff understand and expect and also room for messages from visitors to not be relayed to the organizing staff at all.
- Consult with people with a variety of accessibility needs throughout the planning process.
It’s so important to verify that what you think will work for people with various access needs actually works for those people. You don’t need to keep wondering if your intentions are effectively meeting needs. You can consult with people who live with those access needs and find out! Connecting with disability organizations in your community is a great place to start.
2. Understand that people with similar disabilities may prefer different strategies to meet their needs.
It’s the classic don’t judge a book by it’s cover. While there are times that people with similar disabilities will have the same strategies to meet their needs this is not ALWAYS the case. It’s important to be open to the individual. I know what my body can and can’t do. Someone who is just meeting me doesn’t know that better than me. Sadly, I’ve gone to events and met people who communicated like they did know better than me what my body could and couldn’t do. That doesn’t make for a positive experience!
3. Language matters
I know this one gets talked about a lot but it needs to be said again and frankly shared with staff and volunteers. It doesn’t need to be complicated though. But, if I’m in a high stress situation where accessibility is less than great and then I’m interacting with a staff member or volunteer who is being shall I say sloppy with their language it heightens the emotions and makes the feeling of being excluded and frankly, unseen even worse. In contrast, a staff member or volunteer who uses polite, generally accepted language in a less than great accessibility situation can at the very least not make it worse and actually make me feel seen and heard even if in a small way. I once was in a less than accessible situation and the staff member I interacted with kept referring to ‘wheelchairs and scooters’ as ‘carts’. That seemingly small word choice made a world of difference in the emotion in the situation and just added to the feeling of me being invisible.
4. Staff/volunteer training needs to be detailed and not just pointing out an accessible seating section, ramps and an elevator.
The disability experience is complex. Everyone’s individual experience is unique and yet when non-disabled people speak about it it tends to be a fairly watered down version of reality. Not terribly helpful but unfortunately many non-disabled people don’t realize how unhelpful it really is. Of course, there are basic things like like where the accessible seating, ramps and elevators all are. Keep including that! But don’t stop there.
5. Make sure that guests with disabilities are able to successfully contact other team members about accessibility if the guest feels the accessibility coordinator hasn’t met their needs satisfactorily.
This, at first glance sounds like a hard, potentially scary one. But it’s really important that disabled guests can have their experiences heard and sometimes that may mean talking to someone other than the accessibility coordinator. I’ve given feedback in the past and seriously doubted if my feedback was heard by the planning team. Obviously, the hope is that the accessibility coordinator will share that feedback with the rest of the planning team but in practice that doesn’t always happen. If a guest reaches out to another part of that planning team with accessibility feedback, welcome that feedback! Don’t simply relegate that feedback to one person. Collaboration is essential to progress.
6. Strive to create an environment that provides an equal amount of autonomy and freedom of choice for disabled guests as non-disabled guests.
Implementing inclusion is not only about gives people with varying abilities access to the event, it’s about the overall experience which includes autonomy and freedom of choice. Containing disabled people in certain areas while everyone else is moving around generally has more choices gets noticed by disabled people. As much as possible, reimagine spaces and scenarios that allow people with varying abilities to experience the event on their own terms to the same level you think about non disabled people experiencing the event on their own terms.
7. Team members’ names should be visible on the website. Guests who make inquiries should know who they are talking to.
For some of you this is going to sound really obvious and you already do it. Thank you! But personal experience has shown me this is a practice not all events practice and it’s an important one to not overlook in it’s simplicity. Being personable goes a long way in building positive relationships which effects event growth. If you’ve had a negative experience and you share it, even if the feedback you get isn’t exactly what you’d hoped for knowing you’ve share your experience with a real person who you can name can give a positive feeling. In contrast, simply knowing the name of the one you’re talking to can add to the negativity.
8. Follow up intentionally with people who share their experience or offer advice.
It’s sad the number of times I’ve shared feedback and either gotten no response or a very generic response. Even when I’ve asked to be kept informed or offered to give more information people won’t follow through. It’s incredibly frustrating and disheartening. Don’t lose out on valuable information by not genuinely following up. Genuine follow ups foster good relationships.
9. Make sure that accessibility upgrades are part of long term growth of an event and therefore the budget and communicate that to the public.
Stop kicking the can down the road! Make accessibility upgrades a priority by including them in the budget and how you grow the event. Change takes time and the sooner you start take actionable steps the sooner everyone gets to see the benefits. It’s not enough to desire accessibility upgrades. It’s not enough to keep things in the hypothetical realm of someday. Put those upgrades in the budget and get moving now so you can reap the benefits you know are there when an event is inclusive.
How things get communicated to the public always varies. But if you’re already in the habit of sharing about upgrades then don’t keep accessibility upgrades a secret. Heck, even if you aren’t in the habit don’t keep accessibility upgrades to yourself. If seen events with publicly known budgets over one million dollars that had accessibility upgrade needs and when their annual upgrades were announced to the public accessibility was not on the list. Doesn’t get disabled people excited for next year! Get as many people excited for what’s to come by sharing about these things through the marketing.
Remember that disability is part of diversity. It’s a problem when an event talks about a commitment to diversity but makes glaring errors in disability inclusion. Rethinking the different aspects of inclusion and remembering that its about tangibly communicating that people with diverse abilities are welcome and valued are vital to future success.