As we close out 2022, I hope that you will consider creating at least one accessibility goal for your organization. In an attempt to inspire you, I am compelled to write about the inaccessibility of spaces and events, in the hope that people will think about how to make their spaces more welcoming and inclusive to all. This would require taking a close look at the places where people gather: whether it is staff, program participants, donors, volunteers, or conference/meeting attendees. The policies you put in place to support an ”access culture” for these gatherings are important as well.
Physical space accessibility
“The other day I attended an event, only to find out that the venue was completely inaccessible to me or anyone else with mobility challenges. The event was one in which decisions were discussed that affect many people, including those with disabilities. The fact that the venue where decisions are being made was not accessible to all that those decisions are being made for is unacceptable.” —Colleague and current client
Sadly, this happens ALL THE TIME.
Even if the building is ADA compliant, going above and beyond compliance is essential. The way things are set up in the space are often inaccessible. Think about the stage and where the podium is. If a person has a mobility challenge, how will they get up on the stage or be able to use the podium, especially if they are in a wheelchair?
Event accessibility: Conferences
Recently, I was at a conference where there was no mention of accessibility offerings in any of the promotion materials. There was a video during the lunchtime session and a speaker calling in on Zoom in a plenary session— there were no captions on either.
There really is no value in calling out organizations for their lack of focus on such basic things, but I do hope that this example makes people realize that simple things like offering captioning benefits EVERYONE. People with hearing loss, cognitive issues, and those whose second language is English appreciate captions. These easy and simple gestures can really go a long way to welcome people into a space.
Once at another conference, I observed people refusing to use microphones. “I don’t need a mic- my voice is loud enough!” people say. Use the mic, for goodness sake! It is essential for people who use hearing devices- the sound is much clearer when a microphone is used. This is an example of something that can be made a policy at all large meetings and conferences.
“I think we talk normally with a microphone. I find that I quasi-yell when I don’t have one, and it kills my throat. I much prefer using my “indoor voice” with a mike so I sound like a friend, not an elementary school teacher on the playground. But [people think] it is a badge of honor to not need one, which is silly.” —Colleague who does lots of presentations and trainings
Nonprofit Association of Washington is starting to embrace accessibility at its conferences. They even have a page dedicated to describing accessibility offerings. This image below is an example of the different elements of accessibility for each workshop. Outlining everything in conference materials is a great way to create that welcoming and inclusive environment—many attendees just appreciate knowing in advance what to expect.
Event Accessibility: Going to a lecture, play, musical, or other cultural event
Not too long ago, a well known author came to town to promote their book. I wanted to attend- I am an avid reader and was intrigued by this author. But first, I had to find out if there was captioning before I bought a ticket- otherwise it would be a waste of my time to show up and find out there is no captioning. Here are the steps I took:
Looked on the website of the organization’s space where the talk would be held to see if it was going to have captioning or was accessible. The building itself is accessible and there were Assistive Listening Devices offered. No mention of captioning.
Called the ticket folks to see if there would be captioning offered- the person did not know and said they would get back to me.
Weeks passed. No communication from the organization. The talk typically sells out quickly, so I figured I would not be able to get a ticket.
Mentioned my frustration to a friend who had connections to the organization and not too long after that, I received a call and email from the organization. They agreed to have captioning and I got my ticket. I did not receive a confirmation that captioning was going to happen, so I checked in with them- they took a while to respond. I understand organizations are busy! But please confirm with patrons when an accessibility offering is put into place.
At the event, there were sheets with QR codes posted all around, which led to a captioning link that I could use on my device (in this case, my phone). This is awesome because this means lots of other people can benefit.
The person introducing the speaker did not mention the QR code or that the event was captioned, which would have been so beneficial for people to know about (no marketing had been done about the captioning). Unfortunately, this person also said, “”Turn off your f—— phones” which was meant to be a joke, but it set the tone for an unwelcoming environment for people like me who needed to use a phone to access the captions.
No one could hear the audience questions (not even the captioner), but luckily the author repeated most of them. A microphone would have been nice for those questions but understandably, it would have taken too much time to pass it around.
My seats were near the front, but still too far from the stage so I could barely lipread. A designated row for people needing to sit near the front would be great.
I had to hold my phone for 1 ½ hours. Luckily, I had a book with me that I could prop it up on which helped. Ideally, there would be a stand where the device could be mounted.
As you can see, it can be daunting to attempt to enjoy the arts. It doesn’t have to be this way! I encourage you to take small steps to mindfully and intentionally include patrons with disabilities in all of your programs, events, and spaces. As always, happy to help with this important task.