Accessibility is slowly becoming more ingrained in the conversation around events, but too often it’s only applied to accessibility needs that are visible and immediately apparent. At International Confex on 2nd March, Hire Space hosted a panel on ‘Invisible Disabilities: how we can make events more inclusive’ on the Let’s Do London stage, where we discussed bringing inclusion of all needs to the fore.
We were incredibly fortunate to be joined by Helen Moon, Founder and CEO of EventWell, Jade Fletcher, Founder and CEO of Jade Green Productions, Meg Strahle, Sustainability Manager at The Bulb, and Priya Narain, Purpose and Impact Manager for Kerb, alongside Hire Space's Jess Cowie who moderated the session.
The panellists offered some hugely valuable insights on the topic of hidden disabilities, drawing on their experiences of being personally affected by barriers to participation at events, and of working to improve inclusion for others. Read on for their insights and advice for event planners below.
How can we be more aware of including people with hidden disabilities at events?
Hidden disabilities (a term which covers a wide range of conditions, from hearing and sight loss, to neurological conditions like autism, dementia, and epilepsy) have largely been overlooked in the events industry as they're not immediately apparent. This leads to an 'out of sight, out of mind' situation.
The speakers advised that it’s not about attracting new people: people with hidden disabilities are already attending your event or they're making the decision not to come because they're fearful of becoming overwhelmed or becoming disabled within that environment. Here are some steps to take to making events a more welcoming environment.
Enable your team to provide assistance
Awareness is the main thing: educate your team so that they’re able to recognise signs of invisible disabilities and offer assistance compassionately. One way of doing this is to offer hidden disabilities lanyards and make sure staff are trained to recognise these and know how to offer assistance to those wearing them. This way attendees can decide whether they want to be asked if they’d like assistance, which frees them of the need to constantly explain themselves. However, be mindful that not everyone will choose to wear a lanyard; no one should be made to disclose any information so these lanyards should be entirely optional.
Top Tip: Make sure that everyone from security to registration knows the meaning of hidden disability lanyards and can help and support those wearing them as much as possible.
Make the environment as inclusive as possible
As Helen told the audience: "“We don't see ourselves as disabled, but we become disabled when we go into an environment that doesn't support our needs.” Your venue and the event environment need to be as welcoming and accessible as possible to make attendees feel able to participate.
Here are some key areas to make the experience more accessible for all:
- Include closed captioning as standard
- Make sure that signage and slides have a background hue and high colour contrast
- Offer a quiet space onsite overseen by wellbeing professionals
- Use minimum size 14 font for event communications
- Check out the resources at the end of this article for more guidance on minimum standards
Keep neurodiversity in mind
As Helen noted, a lot of neurodivergent people spend a lot of time in the bathroom or stand outside because it's the only safe place for them to go. As she told the audience, the problem with this is that as soon as somebody goes outside, they're probably going to carry on walking and they won't go back to your event.
There are plenty of things that event organisers can do to reduce the sensory overload, from providing a quiet room, to keeping background noise to a minimum, and reducing bright or flashing lights. Organisations like Eventwell provide support and advice on making events more inclusive of all neurotypes.
As Helen says: “We know what we need to do to take care of ourselves. We don't need you to fix us or do that for us. It's just putting those elements in place so we can do what we need to do to enhance our experience and so that we can connect, participate, and network. We want to have the same experience that your event marketers are telling everybody that we're going to have by attending that event.”
How can eventprofs help attendees feel comfortable about attending an event?
Asking attendees to disclose their disability and adjustments on application forms and registration forms can be uncomfortable for attendees. As specified in the Equality Act, no one should be forced to disclose anything that they live with: it should be a personal choice.
There's plenty of information about measures that we can put into events that help and support attendees without needing people to ask for them. Rather than asking people what they need, you can share in pre-event communications what you are providing in terms of support and adjustments. That way, if someone does feel the need to ask for additional assistance or adjustments, they can get in touch if they feel psychologically safe to disclose that information.
Make your pre-event communication as strong as possible and be very mindful of the language that you are using and make sure it's inclusive. Provide an easily accessible floor map before the event, with areas like quiet rooms labelled clearly so that people feel ready when they get there. This goes a long way in making people feel comfortable, confident, and safe in attending your events.
“When you're an event organiser, you are the custodian of that event. It's not your event. That event belongs to the people who attend that event. You're just looking after it and you are there to deliver the best possible experience for everyone in attendance.” - Helen Moon
Have you seen any examples of events being truly inclusive?
Meg shared the relief of attending a virtual event hosted by TEDx London Women in 2021 where there was captioning without guests having to ask for it (a rarity in the early days of virtual events). Their speaker lineup also included every skin colour, every background, every disability, you could think of to make sure that their speaker lineup reflects the world around them. When they took the event in person this year, they communicated that they would have seating for accompanists, which is often overlooked.
Making events truly inclusive is a challenge at the moment because budgets can be quite restrictive. However, we need to move away from the budget excuse: experience isn’t about big production, bright lights, lots of noise, or big numbers anymore. If you have the budget for those things, you have the budget to make the human experience better and more inclusive.
How can we be aware of and support event profs with hidden disabilities?
A lot of clients will offer the opportunity for event profs to come into the office but for many people with hidden disabilities this can be uncomfortable. Some may feel much safer at home where they can be as close to the screen as they need to be, regulate background noise without judgement, and not have to worry about travelling to get there.
For those working with eventprofs, or working with any others in a professional context, it's about making the effort to enquire about how we can support each other better. Don't make assumptions, but be prepared to make adjustments to make the experience better for everyone. For more advice on supporting colleagues in events, check out our blog on inclusion in the events industry.
“Sometimes I have explained to clients that I struggle with certain things and, and then they can become very dismissive.” - Jade Fletcher
How can we support those with hidden disabilities in the workplace?
If you’re running events and want them to be accessible, it starts in the workplace: you should be training your team in neurodiversity and other hidden conditions and then creating an environment where your colleagues can feel open to talk about what they're going through. EventWell offer neurodiversity awareness training, along with mental health awareness and training and menopause awareness training among other topics.
Often people with diverse neurotypes or mental health conditions feel they have to mask it and struggle through rather than getting the help or the adjustments they need. As the speakers point out, if that's happening in your workplace, how are you going to put on an event that creates the experience that you want your guests to have?
What would help people feel more able to participate in networking at events?
Meg: “We like to kind of wind down after an event, but it's never a good environment for someone like me to go in and meet people because I'm competing with the background music that's sometimes a little too loud. If you dim the lights for ambience and I'm trying to read your lips and look at your body language, it's hard in a darker room. Good networking events I've attended have been intentionally in a good light space, with quiet background noise and carpeting to absorb sound. It’s thinking about the ambience and how it might affect someone attending that event.”
Helen: “1 in 5 people are neurodivergent, so that's possibly one in five of your attendees that won't want to network. Do the one-on-one networking sessions that can really help someone like me, because that will help me to focus on that person. If you put me in a room with 200 people, social anxiety is a big facet of neurodiversity. A lot of people who have ADHD and autism also have aspects of social anxiety and really struggle with small talk - it can really help to create a topic for people to talk about that will put neuro divergent people at ease.”
Helen: “I’ve also been to an event where they've had someone act as an introducer and I think that that's really quite nice in a network environment because the last thing you want is someone to just be stuck in the back of the room because they don't feel comfortable interacting. If you have someone that can help facilitate that, that would be quite key to sort of get conversations flowing based on topics or similar interests.”
Jade: “Definitely. And for the people that can't see that’s really helpful because someone might wave and I don’t know if they're looking at me or someone else. Having a friendly face that can introduce you or lead you up to people can be really useful.”
Inclusion and accessibility have to be at the forefront of all of the events we plan, if they are going to be successful. Here are the key, basic steps to making events more inclusive.
- Research and implement measures to make the experience more accessible for all, including closed captioning, colour contrasting slides, quiet spaces, and large, effective signage.
- Share the measures you've taken in pre-event communications so that attendees can feel confident that they will be able to navigate the environment.
- Make it clear that you are open to making additional adjustments for anyone who needs this, and follow through on this with any requests you receive.
- Educate all staff to be aware of hidden disabilities and to be able to assist anybody who needs additional help in a compassionate manner.
- Keep experience in mind during the event: for example, have introducers at the entrance to help attendees interact in networking events.
- Post-event, ask for feedback and learn from others' experiences. Use these insights to improve your next event.
Most importantly, keep having these conversations. Speak to your eventprof friends, your team, and your industry connections about how we can be including people more both in events and in the workplace. Education, awareness and being considerate of other people's needs is the first step to making the industry a more positive environment for everyone.
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Resources for planning inclusive events
- Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance
- Eventbrite accessible events guidance
- Government standards for accessible communication formats
- The Neu Project: an eventprof's guide to neuroinclusion
- AccessAble - venue accessibility information on thousands of venues in the UK and Ireland
- Attitude Is Everything - live music access for deaf and disabled people
- Braille Signs - Braille signage for venues
- Braille Works - Braille transcription (US and Canada only) and text-to-speech services
- Business Disability Forum - accessibility training in business and recruitment
- Disability Rights UK - resources and guidance for disabled people in the UK
- Diversity Alliance - inclusion and diversity champions in the events industry and beyond
- Eventwell - provides awareness training and quiet spaces for events
- Event First Steps - supports newcomers in the events industry
- KUDO - live captioning
- Interprefy - live captioning
- My Clear Text - live captioning
- Purple Tuesday - advocates for disabled people in retail spaces
- Royal National Institute of Blind People - resources and advice for blind and visually-impaired people
- Royal National Institute for Deaf People - promotes inclusion for deaf and hearing-impaired people
- Spectrum Speakers & Entertainers - promotes underrepresented groups of speakers and performers
- Stress Matters - provides workplace wellbeing and mental health training
- Wayfindr - provides audio navigation to help blind or visually-impaired people
Jessamy channels her passion for sustainability and cultural events into shining a spotlight on innovation and inspiration in the events world, and heading up Hire Space's sustainability committee.