Menu

Access all areas? Why people with disabilities shun conferences

If people with disabilities aren’t bothering to register for your meetings and events, there’s probably a very good reason why. James Lancaster reports…

“The majority of disabled people don’t travel to conferences because they expect their needs will not be met,” says Alan Broadbent, a writer on accessibility issues and long-standing consultant to the meetings and events (MICE) industry. “There will be no accessible transport, there will be no accessible accommodation, and the venue will not have made reasonable adjustments.”

Alan Broadbent

While accessibility for disabled people has ‘generally improved’, particularly in public transport, Broadbent says there remained ‘woefully low levels of access’ to meetings and events.

This problem is double-edged. While disabled clients miss out on potentially career-advancing education and networking, organisations are forfeiting valuable input from people with disabilities.

In actual fact, planners have little choice in the matter.

Failing to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ for disabled delegates could land organisers in court, and, Broadbent says there are reputational implications for organisations to consider, too.

“When the needs of disabled delegates are met,” he says, “studies have shown that those disabled people become loyal to your organisation and influential advocates on your behalf.”

Broadbent was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 2000 and uses a wheelchair. An advocate for people with disabilities, he is co-founder of the Global Network for Entrepreneurs with Disabilities.

For twelve years he ran a company promoting disabled travel in both the leisure and meetings markets so knows how these closely aligned sectors compare when it comes to accessibility.

“Without question the MICE industry is a long way behind the leisure and tourism industry in recognising the financial gains to be made from engaging with the disabled market,” he says.

“Those operating in MICE have little understanding of why it is necessary to be all inclusive and how the well-worn refrains of, ‘it costs too much to adapt an event’ and ‘disabled people don’t ask to come to our events’ just signify the blinkered ideas that businesses have of the disabled.”

And those ‘financial gains’ are potentially huge.

According to the WHO (World Health Organisation), people with disabilities are the world’s ‘largest minority’. It says there are one billion people living with a disability, or 15 per cent, and because populations are aging this number will continue to grow.  If we take the two biggest markets for international association meetings, Europe and the US, the figures are no less impressive.  According to the EU there are 260 million registered disabled people in the region whose combined earnings top €166 billion. Meanwhile federal government statistics suggest there are approximately 52 million disabled people in America with a discretionary spending power of $175 billion.

Broadbent is baffled by the lack of engagement.

“Disabled business people have money to spend, why don’t you want it?’

So what is a disability?

Someone’s disability might be visible or hidden, learning-based or physical, temporary or permanent. And it is this diversity of experience, advocates say, organisers often fail to grasp.

Accessibility is not just about toilets and counters, the ‘physical environment’, but also ensuring people with disabilities can access your event website and registration process, for example.

And, says Broadbent, it is about making sure the content is accessible, which might mean something as simple as preparing presentations in large print and with limited wordage, for example, or remembering that people using hearing aids and loop facilities will find excessive sound painful.

Hannes Lagrelius, programme officer for the Accessibility in Smart Cities Initiative at the World Blind Union, says thinking around accessibility often puts too much emphasis on wheelchair users.

“If you have a white cane you don’t need a ramp, for example, but you do need to know where you’re going when you reach the top of the stair. For the visually impaired wayfinding is vital.”

Lagrelius is visually impaired and knows how easily things can go wrong.

“I went to a conference in Sweden that was all about disability access and there were issues with the spotlighting, which meant it was impossible to see any barriers or trip hazards on the carpet! Also there was a dark carpet and dark chairs so it wasn’t easy to see if someone had pulled a chair out. There is a lot to consider and getting every detail right is very challenging.”

It matters, too, that people are trained properly.

A spokesperson for the European Disability Forum explains:

“Accessibility features are essential. But it is also important that staff and conference venues are trained to use them and know how to maintain them. One example are hearing loops for hard of hearing persons: they are often pre-installed in conference rooms but staff knows how to activate them if we ask for it. Usually this takes a lot of time and it is stressful for participants with disabilities because they cannot follow the presentations and conversations. Another example are accessible toilets. If they are present (which is not always guaranteed), they are often used as storage rooms for cleaning equipment because they are so spacious. This defies of course the point and blocks the access.”

How robust is the law around accessibility?

The laws around accessibility differ depending on where you live, but a good starting point is the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which came into force in 2008, and is an international legal agreement intended to protect the rights and dignity of people with disabilities.

One of the rights contained in the convention is the right to accessibility in regards to both the physical environment and ICT. Around 180 countries have ratified the agreement, making it legally binding at a national level, and their progress is monitored by various independent bodies.

One of the defining phrases of the CRPD is the demand that servive providers make ‘reasonable adjustments’. It is up to individual states to interpret the convention and legislate accordingly.

Lagrelius said it was a misconception to think accessibility had improved across the board.

“The picture is very different from one city to the next,” says Lagrelius. “There are lots of filters, starting with the UN convention, how that is interpreted by different countries, and then how cities have incorporated disabled accessibility into their own legal frameworks.”

He says there is evidence disabled groups were being frozen out of the legislative process.

“Many countries are serious about legislating around the UN convention, but they are introducing laws without actually consulting people with disabilities. So the legislation ends up lacking context.”

Although the USA failed to ratify the CPRD, it is still considered a world leader in the field.

Says Broadbent: “The most stringent legislation is the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which could be adopted or adapted by almost any country on an ‘as is’ basis, however that is not the case.”

Who’s responsible when things go wrong?

Ascertaining where liability rests is slightly nuanced.

But if a delegate feels their needs have been neglected, it is the owner of the event, with whom the person has made a contract, rather than the venue, that is most likely to face any legal action.

“Those making venue bookings are in most cases legally responsible for access standards,” says Broadbent, “not the venue provider, although they have standards to meet too.”

Broadbent says organisers have no option but to comply with the law, but stressed that they are not being asked to do anything that will pose an existential threat to their business.

“It is a myth that making an event accessible is expensive. Where legislation exists regarding disabilities and equality there is a universal recognition of incorporating ‘reasonable adjustments’ into the planning process and this keeps costs within reasonable limits.”

KNOWLEDGE BANK

There are some excellent guides on accessibility meetings for organisers online. One of the most comprehensive is by the European Disability Forum and can be accessed via their website www.edf –feph.org or by contacting EDF Accessibility Officer, Mher Hakobyan, mher.hakobyan@edf-feph.org.

Another fulsome report on the subject was compiled by the BestCities Global Alliance called Universal Accessibility in Meetings and can be found at www.bestcities.net/resources-learning/

The road to inclusivity

The venue

ICC Wales

ICC Wales has taken measures to make sure that when it opens later this year, the venue will be accessible to all. During construction, ICC Wales incorporated Changing Places, accessible toilets and has rolled out several dementia friendly initiatives. Changing Places Toilets, a campaign led by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, have been designed for those who find that standard accessible toilets do not meet their needs. People with profound and multiple learning disabilities, as well people with other physical disabilities such as spinal injuries, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis often need extra equipment and space to allow them to use the toilets safely and comfortably.  ICC Wales has also registered as a Dementia Friendly venue, which will include training staff on specific customer service scenarios related to dementia, as well as ensuring that all signage is as clear as possible and backed up with symbols or images where appropriate.  Smaller adaptations such as quiet areas, drop off bays in front of the venue and the chairs being a distinctive colour from the flooring, all contribute to the dementia friendly environment at ICC Wales.

The conference

People with learning disabilities were able to showcase their artistic talents ahead of the World Congress of the International Association for the Scientific Study of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IASSIDD), which took place in Glasgow, Scotland, in August. Project Ability, an initiative which showcases the artistic talents of those with learning disabilities, held painting sessions at the St Enoch Centre. Elisabeth Gibson, executive artistic director at Project Ability, said: “Project Ability is excited to contribute to the IASSIDD World Congress in Glasgow. We really enjoyed organising the exhibition element of the event and felt it fitted perfectly with the Future4all theme.We work to inspire creativity and confidence in artists with learning disabilities so being part of this meant a lot to us and our artists.” There was more opportunity for engagement when the congress held a public debate on at the SEC on the topic: “What do you need to live a full life in your community?”

The city

Dubai’s ‘My Community – A City for Everyone’ project means that new public spaces have had to fulfil an emirate-wide, disabled-friendly code while many older buildings are being retrofitted ahead of Expo 2020 Dubai. This is in line with the Dubai Disability Strategy 2020 using smart technologies and facilities aimed at integrating those with disabilities into the society. Braille is found in all public parks and customer service centres. The city has special counters in its service centres and wheelchair-friendly pathways on its beaches.

The Metro has tactile flooring to guide visually-impaired people and ticket booths are accessible to wheelchair users. Audio-visual cautionary signs are flashed upon opening and closing of platform screen doors. Escalators are fitted with side-hand rests stretching along the rail, there are non-slip paths from the car park to the station entrance, public phones at a much lower. Trained staff have been stationed in parks to communicate using sign language, while The Dubai College of Tourism (DCT) recently launched an inclusive service-training programme designed to help disabled tourists.