Why sustainable also meant accessible at COP26

Sustainability /  / 
COP26 Accessibility 1 Photo Credit: Identity

COP26, held in Glasgow in November 2021, was reviewed by the UN Accessibility Team as “the most accessible COP ever.” Janet Oliver, senior event producer at Identity, the agency tasked with delivering COP26, outlines how accessibility played a major role in the sustainability conference.

In the UK, 14 million people live with some form of disability. That’s roughly 20 per cent of the population.

From this starting point, accessibility at events cannot be an ‘add-on’. It also cannot be restricted to in-person attendance only.

Accessibility and inclusivity need to extend to everyone attending an event, whether in person or virtually.

Identity’s definition of accessibility

Accessibility means parity. Appreciating this is key. Everyone attending an event - live or virtual - must have equal access, engagement, and opportunity to contribute to every aspect of the event regardless of their abilities. This is Identity’s starting point.

With a globally focused event like COP26 - delivering the most critical climate change talks of a generation - access for all, irrespective of ability, geographical location, time zone or language, was crucial.

What made COP26 the most accessible ever?

The accolade was achieved by the foresight and meticulous design and planning from a vast team at Identity. How we got there can be distilled as follows:

 Incredible attention to detail from the outset.

 Meticulous planning

 Close collaboration with accessibility experts

 A skilled Identity team following dedicated training in accessibility and inclusivity. There is no doubt that this training informed decisions around inclusivity at COP26 and continues to inform our decisions for future events. 

 Superb technical platforms, incorporating language, audio and visual enhancements to deliver seamless virtual experiences to all.

This combination ensured that every aspect of the event – from design, layout, the phenomenal build, technical facilities, transport, all on-site facilities and so on - was researched and considered well in advance, and every decision was based on ‘best-practice’ knowledge and expertise. True accessibility begins at the design and planning stage of an event. It starts from the first seed of creative inspiration and informs everything that follows.

While the above could apply to any event, for COP26 there were also a number of additional factors at play, not least the pandemic and other the security requirements of world leaders attending in person and virtually. COP26 delivered unhindered virtual access to all, backed by robust online security. This aspect was crucial to achieving global inclusion and access.

COP26 Accessibility2Photo Credit: Identity

Accessible for 2022 and beyond

As well as considering and designing the traditional physical aspects of accessibility for in-person events, COP26’s design, build and operation needed to encompass the needs of an international audience in person and virtually. This was, after all, a globally significant event with a global virtual attendance. A range of time zones, more than a dozen languages, across 200 countries was accommodated by providing robust connectivity that transcended all borders and was cyber secure and operational resilience. The demand for virtual access increased exponentially when coupled with the continuing and evolving pandemic considerations.

At COP26, 1,500 hybrid sessions took place and were live-streamed around the globe, making the summit supremely accessible to anyone with a device. Identity provided simultaneous interpretation (SI) facilities for 14 languages and selected breakout rooms. Working closely with its SI supplier, Identity developed a bespoke, technologically ground-breaking system to integrate all parties working across multiple rooms.

The in-person experience 

For the in-person experience of COP26, the sheer scale of the task - an event site over two square km and 50 temporary structures – was certainly eye-watering. Nevertheless, Identity viewed it as an opportunity “to custom-build a small town” perfectly designed to provide flawless accessibility across all areas.

In many ways, it can be easier to work with ‘fit for purpose‘ built structures than retrofitting existing venues. However, everything across the venues was designed with access in mind, from ramps to stages, colour coding on carpets, food provision, seating, facilities, traffic flow, signage, audio and braille requirements, and equivalent translation services.

From the big decisions, such as the flow of people around the site to the minutiae of the signage height, success was in the detail. There was a great deal of discussion around seating. There is no one size fits all solution here. Some delegates are happy to use benches; others need chairs with armrests to get up and down. On signage, distances from A to B were highlighted in terms of metres/ feet instead of time. A five-minute walk for one person could be a 10-minute walk for another. The aim is always to maximise the delegate and visitor experience.

The end goal is, of course, parity of access for everyone. Whether journeying throughout the site or attending virtually, COP26 provided an easily accessible experience regardless of individual needs.

8 things to consider: 

1. Consider accessibility and every aspect before the design stage, so it is baked into the event from the outset.

2. Remember, accessibility extends across the hybrid divide. It needs to be given as much consideration when delivering virtual events as events when delivering in-person live events.

3. Enrol your team in specialist accessibility training… this is a game changer.

4. Plan, plan and then revise your plan!

5. Consult with accessible specialists and consultants…they are the experts and can help you make the best decisions. At. COP26 Identity worked closely with ‘Attitude is Everything’ an organisation that campaigns to improve deaf and disabled people’s access to live events.

6. Communicate all accessible features well in advance – this allows attendees to make their own informed decisions.

7. When all this is done, it’s worth getting several people with a variety of accessible needs to test the system in person and virtually. There is nothing like advanced user experience feedback to ensure your event is the most accessible and inclusive possible. As an aside: it’s also worth noting that just under five per cent of the events sector workforce identify as living with a disability – so cast your net wider to get accurate user experience feedback.

8. If necessary, make changes and tweaks to your event based on your testers’ feedback. Finally, it is not difficult to be inclusive. It just requires thought and excellent planning. The benefits are countless. Improved accessibility increases your audience and enhances the experience for everyone attending – in person and virtually.

Holly Patrick
Written By
Holly Patrick
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A desire to travel led Holly Patrick to the business meetings and events world and she’s never looked back. Holly takes a particular interest in event sustainability and creating a diverse and inclusive industry. When she’s not working, she can be found rolling skating along Brighton seafront listening to an eclectic playlist, featuring the likes of Patti Smith, Sean Paul, and Arooj Aftab.

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