We all know that events can be an extremely powerful tool for businesses and organisations to educate and connect people from all walks of life. But unfortunately, often events can fall short of being truly inclusive to everyone.
It’s essential that event planners know how to deliver events that offer the same opportunities to everyone and make them feel respected and seen, no matter the different needs they may have.
As it's National Inclusion Week, we wanted to discuss this further and gain insight into making the events industry more inclusive for everyone. We spoke with Isaac Harvey, a video editor, public speaker, content creator, and disability awareness advocate from East London. Isaac is also president of Wheels & Wheelchairs and was named the most influential disabled person in the UK in 2021.
Read on below for Isaac’s insights.
What does an inclusive event look like?
A truly inclusive event is one that provides the same great experience for everyone involved, whether that’s attendees, speakers, or staff at the event. Whilst inclusivity and accessibility go hand in hand, it’s important to make the distinction between the two: inclusivity is making sure there is representation of people who may be excluded or marginalised, such as those with physical or mental disabilities or belonging to minority groups. Whereas, accessibility is what actually allows someone to attend. Both of these things allow people to feel accepted and ensure that they are comfortable attending your event.
A non-inclusive event is one that hasn’t considered important factors that could affect some attendees. Isaac recalls a time he was once asked to speak at an event that did not provide a wheelchair ramp up to the stage and was forced to do his talk in front of the stage instead. This isn’t inclusive and creates a divide between attendees with different needs.
In the same vein, make sure your speakers are all on the same level physically - Isaac recently spoke at the Hire Space stage at International Confex and was pleased to see that the chairs for the other speakers were the same height as his wheelchair. This sets a precedent that everyone is on the same level no matter what their needs are, and promotes a sense of belonging. For larger audiences where visibility may be an issue, you could use relay screens with video streaming to ensure everyone can see the stage. You can read the takeaways from that session here.
What is often overlooked when it comes to inclusion and events?
One thing that is often overlooked is how people will get to and from the event. Many organisers focus solely on making the event itself accessible, but ensuring your event is accessible from the second your attendees leave their house, and that their journey to your event is as easy as it is for other attendees, is something that needs to really be considered in the planning process.
For a lot of people, getting to a venue is as simple as walking down steps and getting onto a train, but this isn’t the case for many. Organisers need to put more time and effort into helping attendees get to the event, such as by consulting with attendees who have different needs. In this way, they can provide assistance with their journey if needed, including how they will get into the venue when they arrive (and whether they’ll need assistance), and how they’ll be able to get around the event and participate in everything.
Ask attendees at registration about any adjustments or access support they might need and then develop a comms plan for those attendees. This is so you can communicate to them that you are aware of their needs and are putting plans in place to cater for them at the event. Obviously, consulting with individual attendees can be more difficult for a larger-scale event, so at the very least it’s important to be aware of your attendees’ needs and choose an accessible venue with good transport links in the right location.
"An inclusive event starts from the end user’s front door, not just the event itself at a venue." Isaac Harvey
Setting and measuring inclusivity targets
With so much to consider, it can be tricky when it comes to setting inclusivity targets for events. Organising a flawlessly inclusive event isn’t always possible, but it’s important to try and think about as much as possible and set targets and goals around these key areas.
Feedback is crucial
Getting feedback from attendees before, during and after an event is critical. Ask attendees what they would like to see at an event and what organisers can do to ensure a safe space for everyone to attend. These consultations will help shape your future events by giving you actionable things to work on.
When asking for feedback, make sure to use open questions so that the individuals can add their own unique perspectives and really be given the opportunity to speak their minds. And don’t just read it - follow up with the person to open up a more in-depth conversation about their comments. This will help you truly understand the feedback and be able to implement it to drive real change in your approach.
Set up focus groups
This year Isaac was asked to join the organising team for a Disability Festival in East London, having done some filming for them previously in 2019. To help ensure inclusivity was the main priority, he set up focus groups to get as much information as possible about attendees and their needs, as well as asking for feedback from the 2019 event and other similar events. Isaac then took this feedback, along with his own experiences, to shape the event’s inclusivity practices. He thought about the festival location and considered what they needed to do to make it accessible, such as hearing loops, BSL signers, and a live stream.
One way Isaac ensured representation, and therefore a target that he set, was through inviting as many different organisations as possible to the event, including organisations that are concerned with inclusion and wellbeing of those with visual or hearing impairments, adaptive clothing for different disabilities, underprivileged children etc. He wanted to bring as many different people together as possible so that the experience was relatable and that attendees felt seen. Some feedback he received from attendees was that they had never been to a place where they felt so respected and included.
The bottom line? Talk to people!
Don’t be afraid to ask questions and open up honest conversations around this area. It will help you learn how to deliver more inclusive events and benefit your attendees, so it’s in everyone’s best interests. When thinking about your wider organisational DEI policies, representation of different genders, races, and disabilities is crucial, so try to ensure you’re covering as many bases as possible and setting actionable targets around your approach to including these groups.
"Inclusivity is a journey rather than an end destination." Isaac Harvey
Venue accessibility considerations
The journey that attendees take throughout the venue is extremely important and whilst venues do consider this, there are certain areas that need work. As soon as someone enters the venue they need to be able to get to every single point with ease, such as content areas, catering spaces, breakout spaces, cloakrooms, and toilets.
But it’s more than just providing a wheelchair ramp; the venue experience needs to be tailored to as many different needs as possible. This could include:
- Ensuring that signage is large enough for people with visual impairments and that there are Braille options
- Providing enough staff to assist attendees where needed
- Ensuring toilets are large enough to accommodate wheelchairs comfortably, and if possible using Changing Places. This is a toilet facility that includes a hoist, changing table and also sometimes a shower too, and is a fantastic facility to accommodate to a range of disabilities.
- Providing a quiet room
- Providing a prayer room
- Providing adequate lighting, whilst bearing in mind that some individuals, such as those with autism, are sensitive to bright colours
- Providing hearing loops and sign language interpreters
- If you’re running a hybrid event or live streaming your content, make sure your tech team is fully briefed and can provide live captioning, subtitles, audio descriptions etc for your virtual content
Ticking every box is hard, but trying to do as much as possible to accommodate people is a great start and will show that you’re trying to improve and be more inclusive. It’s important to be constantly thinking about all disabilities, not just one or two, as there are so many different needs out there.
Seeing everyone from a unique perspective will help you cover as much as possible when it comes to inclusivity within a venue, so don’t be afraid to reach out to focus groups and ask the questions you’re unsure about - ultimately if it can make the event better for everyone, people will be happy to help you improve. Read our piece on the future of accessibility in events for more insight.
Wrap up and top tips for making events more inclusive
So what are some actionable tips event organisers can apply to their approach to inclusive events? Isaac shares his top tips below.
- Get in touch with people. Set up focus groups, and ask them questions about their previous experiences and what they want to see from event organisers.
- Never assume. If you're ever unsure about the right course of action, or the requirements you think someone might have or need, you may make mistakes and miss things out. Bounce ideas off your focus groups and don’t be afraid of asking questions you might have - it's far better to ask the question you think is silly and get the answer, than not ask and then make mistakes.
- Look at competitors and how other organisations have run their events and take inspiration (even from the bad ones - look at what NOT to do!)
- Think, think, think. Always think things through and try and see it from all different angles. The worst faux pas at events are often accidental, but damaging and hurtful just the same. There is no excuse to not accommodate everyone equally in this day and age, or at least try! Ticking every box is hard, but making as many changes as possible will go a long way.
- Bring a disability advocate on board to help keep your inclusion goals on track and ensure you’re doing all you can. It can help just having someone to sound ideas off!
- Read things, educate yourself, and stay up to date with the community you’re trying to include. For example, this week is National Inclusion Week, but there is also International Day of People with Disabilities taking place on 3rd December, which aims to increase public awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities, as well celebrating their achievements.
There are a lot of events happening to celebrate this day, so go to one! Chat to people and educate yourself on different topics, challenges, and successes around disability and develop a more rounded perspective that you can translate into your event planning approach.
There are many great resources available to help us make our events more inclusive. A few include:
- Diversity Ally. This is the first organisation within the events industry committed to helping improve diversity and inclusion across events and the wider industry.
- Purple Tuesday. Purple Tuesday is a fantastic resource for learning more about how you can make your experiences accessible and inclusive.
- Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers. This is a great platform for championing speakers and performers from underrepresented groups.
- Attitude Is Everything. This is a great resource tool to improve deaf and disabled people's access to live music.
- Equality and Human Rights Commission. This is a really useful reference tool on the guiding principles to make sure you’re respecting the rights of every attendee.
- Wayfindr. An amazing non-profit organisation that helps blind or partially sighted people navigate indoor environments through the use of audio navigation.
- Braille Works. This company offers Braille transcription services and would allow venues to easily implement Braille on wayfinding and signage.
- Scope. This is a really fantastic disability charity which provides practical information, advice and resources to help create a fairer society.
- Sociability. This is an app which helps disabled people find accessible places.
- Welcome Me. This app allows you to notify staff members that you’re coming to their venue, with the option to display your needs and state whether you need to be met at the door. Users can give reviews of venues, which organisers can see and use as insights when venue finding for their events.
- Changing Places. This is a toilet facility that includes a hoist, changing table and a shower, which allows people with disabilities to use toilets safely and comfortably.
- Mobiloo. This is a portable accessible toilet and changing facility, perfect for use at outdoor events such as festivals.
There is still much progress to be made in order to make the events industry truly inclusive for everyone, but by holding open conversations and continuously learning and educating ourselves, event organisers can deliver inclusive, accessible and diverse experiences for all that attend them. But beyond this, it’s the responsibility of all of us to keep driving our organisations and society towards a fairer, more inclusive and kinder world.
To read more about inclusivity and accessibility in the events industry, read our blog below. And as always, don’t hesitate to reach out to the Hire Space team if you’d like to talk about your own experiences or events that are driving positive change.
Isaac was born and raised in East London with a disability called limb pelvic hypo aplasia, which means no arms and short legs. Even with this disability, it has not stopped him from achieving things such skiing, skydiving, tall ship sailing and much more. For the past ten years, Isaac has used his feet to use the computer to edit videos, answer emails and be able to communicate with the wider world.
Throughout the years, he has been a mentor and facilitator for people with disabilities, an ambassador for many charities, won countless awards for the things he has been able to achieve, and became President of Wheels and Wheelchairs, which is an organisation that brings together a group of roller skaters pushing wheelchair users.
"I am not here to change the world, I'm here to change people's worlds." Isaac Harvey