Event Accessibility: Providing Equal Enjoyment for All Attendees
The band “Take That” recently played a concert in Norwich, a city in Norfolk, England. Among those in attendance were Tracie Kirby, her 14-year-old son Lucas, and Lucas’ caregiver. Kerby purchased tickets in a “corporate-type box;” however, sound issues in the disabled area made the live concert feel like “listening to your neighbor’s music through the wall,” according to the BBC.
“When we complained, we were very rudely told we would have to be with 4,000 other people pitch-side, where we couldn't see anything,” said Kirby. “As the mother of a disabled son, I come across a lot of discrimination, and you develop a thick skin, but the disdain we were dealt with was awful.”
Sue Brace, who attended the show with a disabled friend, experienced similar issues. After complaining that they couldn’t hear anything at their seats, they were moved to a field where they “could not see anything apart from other people's bottoms,” said Brace. “We felt like second class citizens.”
For an event planner, these are not the types of comments you want to hear about your event.
It’s actually pretty shocking to hear a story like this these days, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) was signed into law less than 30 years ago, on July 26, 1990 – two years after it was introduced in Congress. Of course, it actually took much longer than two years for society – and public policy – to recognize that segregation and exclusion of people with disabilities was actually discrimination and not a natural byproduct of disability.
Like in the above example, the venue staff likely thought they were being helpful by relocating the attendees to the field. Unfortunately, in the admittedly stressful moment, they were unable to realize – and empathize – that the option they supplied wasn’t a solution. While the sound may have improved, these guests’ view of the concert became just a collection of derrières.
For event planners in the U.S., the ADA is the law, but it’s also just common sense. You want your event to be enjoyed by everybody who attends. That’s obvious.
What’s not always obvious is how to create an event that’s entirely accessible for all individuals. So many different elements are involved with putting together a perfect event that sometimes pieces fall through the cracks. However, you don’t want one of those pieces to be an element that can drastically impact someone’s ability to enjoy your event. When conceptualizing your next event, take the following into consideration.
From registration pages to event apps, technology is omnipresent at events. The goal for your event should be to make all of your technology accessible as it is being designed. The Web Accessibility Initiative has created standards, known as WCAG 2.1, that clearly define what is needed for web and technology accessibility. It encompasses all disabilities that could affect access to tech, including auditory, cognitive, neurological, physical, speech, and visual.
Interestingly, this drive for inclusiveness can also help foster creativity. In the article “The Business Case for Digital Accessibility,” the authors state that there are tangible and intangible benefits when organizations strive to ensure their technology is accessible to all. It explores how accessibility can drive innovation, enhance a brand, extend market reach, and minimize legal risk.
From the article, “Accessible design is by its nature flexible, allowing content to faithfully render across a broad spectrum of devices, platforms, assistive technologies, and operating systems. In physical environments, everyone takes advantage of lower curbs, automatic door openers, ramps, and other features provided for disability access. On the web, accessibility features become options that are also often used more widely. A compelling example comes from the early 2000s when people increasingly used mobile devices to browse the web. Accessible and standards-compliant websites were, in many cases, more mobile-ready as they did not rely on mouse input. Imagine the delight of those who were already committed to and had designed for accessibility! This revelation led to the responsive-design trend that has accessibility at its core.”
Accessibility needs to be top of mind when selecting your venue. You will want to ensure that the site you choose can meet the needs of your entire audience, not just a certain percentage of them. It can be beneficial to utilize an ADA checklist to ensure the venue is in complete compliance. You could also go a step further and try to navigate the site yourself while using a mobility device, earplugs, or an eyepatch.
You will want to make sure that the venue not only meets the legal requirements but achieves your standards as well. Just because a site is accessible does not mean that it is providing the same experience for all guests. For example, if the majority are presented with a grand entrance up an escalator or elevator that leads to an elegant meet and greet on the landing, it would be unfortunate if some people using mobility devices could only access the landing using a freight elevator and are denied the full experience.
As you are performing your walkthrough, don’t forget to check the washrooms. Similar to the above example, just because something is in compliance with the law does not mean that it will meet the standards of your event. Check out the stalls to ensure that grab bars are correctly installed and there is sufficient space to maneuver mobility equipment in and out.
Not every venue will be able to meet your requirements, so you’ll know you have a winner (or, at least, a top candidate) when you find one that does.
When designing the layout for your event, try to view the terms “accessibility” and “inclusivity” as being interchangeable. For example, it may seem considerate to establish a specific area designated for mobility devices. However, no matter how nice the view is from this zone, it may be seen by some as isolating, even segregating. Instead, consider creating pockets of accessible areas with companion seating throughout the venue (be sure to take sight line into account when doing so).
The same level of thought needs to be put into all public areas, such as registration counters, information kiosks, and collateral tables. Not only do these areas need to be reachable by everyone, but Braille signage should be utilized so they can be read by everyone, as well.
Food and beverage service, including buffet tables, coffee and beverage stations, and condiment stations, need to follow these universal designs. This includes considering how food service might be impacted by someone whose hands are occupied due to mobility needs, such as utilizing a cane.
Talking slowly and loudly at someone is not an effective method of improving communication. Which is why all onsite staff and volunteers should go through training to emphasize standards that are professional and avoid being accidentally condescending or offensive.
For example, when asked for directions, a staff member may believe he or she is being helpful by taking someone by the arm, but it’s never safe to assume that someone wants to be touched. Instead of making these suppositions – or offering loud, imprecise directions and random gestures – staff should be clear and specific with their directions or ask if he or she may lead the way.
Staff should also know how to assist those with special needs should an emergency arise. With the right training, your staff will be better prepared to provide the exact help that any attendee needs – and, when in doubt, staff should simply, silently, ask how they would like to be treated in the situation, then act accordingly. With a little empathy, and some thoughtful planning and preparation, you can ensure that everyone at your event will experience the same level of satisfaction.