There are 1 billion people worldwide that live with a disability. Coupled with friends and family, people with disabilities represent 53% of global consumers, and one of the largest minority groups in the world. Yet, people with disabilities continue to face barriers, stigmatization and discrimination when accessing events or engagement opportunities. Especially on the global stage, events are often inaccessible, leaving people with disabilities unrepresented and excluded from conversation.
Exclusionary event strategies are not just borne from the pandemic – but exemplify the extent to which people with disabilities are disproportionately and systematically left out of global ‘speaking’ opportunities or participation—and this exclusion can range from a lack of accessible products to physical event access. For example, at-home COVID-19 test kits do not include braille instructions and are thus inaccessible to people who are blind and have low-vision. Mask-wearing prevents lip-reading, creating communicational and environmental barriers for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. Both small and large events often forget to employ sign language interpreters, placing an additional burden on people who are deaf and require interpretation services. Barriers to engagement are embedded in event strategy and many measures intended to protect people from concerns, such as COVID-19, often fail to include people with disabilities, driving perpetual, exclusionary and discriminatory event execution. Events need to be made to welcome everyone in ways that respect and celebrate diversity to ensure that differences don’t become barriers to full engagement and participation.
Below are stories that capture how major events around the world have failed or succeeded at including people with disabilities as part of event strategy and planning. Consider these stories and the various “Do and Don’t” accessibility lessons before preparing your next event.
DO: DISMANTLE BASIC BARRIERS TO ENTRY
Learn from Minister Karine Elharrar’s Experience at COP26. In November, Israel’s energy minister, Karine Elharrar, was unable to participate in the United Nations’s climate summit in Glasgow because the conference was not accessible by wheelchair. Elharrar says that the only options of entering the conference grounds were by either walking or boarding a shuttle not designed for wheelchairs. Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yari Lapid, later stated, “It is impossible to safeguard our future… without first and foremost caring for people, including ensuring accessibility for people with disabilities.”
The lack of representation draws parallels between what happened at COP26 and the life-threatening issue people with disabilities now face because of climate change. Without Elharrar’s representation on a global stage, she was unable to address the importance of inclusion for people with disabilities during and before natural disasters. This representation is critical. Urban planners and policy makers need to understand the perspective of people with disabilities and consider their experiences during disaster planning and prevention sessions.
While this may sound like an unfortunate one-off event for Elharrar, it is quite common. People with disabilities are often unexpected and unrepresented at high profile events and therefore, major global venues remain inaccessible and unaccommodating.
DO: THINK OF YOUR CUSTOMER FIRST.
The English Premier League football club, Arsenal, unveiled their sensory room in 2017 to provide a match viewing experience with reduced sensory stimuli to provide a calm and comfortable environment for fans with autism or neurodivergent fans. The room offers a full, unrestricted view of the pitch behind soundproof glass, creating a safe and controlled environment to watch the game. Additionally, there is also a separate sensory space with a range of specialist equipment to assist those in the room.
Since 2014, Arsenal has created a way for fans and families to enjoy the game away from the noise and disruption of rowdy crowds. Additionally, Arsenal hired a Chief of Community Disability Engagement Officer to ensure programs include accessibility standards across the entire football club. The club also runs football sessions for neurodivergent fans, people with paraplegia and people who are deaf or blind.
Lesson: Designing events for all customers in mind can lead to unforeseen innovations, a greater sense of community and richer experiences for everyone.
DON’T: JUST MAKE A SYMBOLIC EFFORT TO BE INCLUSIVE
Dr. Dre Disillusioned Deaf Fans Everywhere. Dr. Dre brought two deaf rappers to perform in this year’s Super Bowl Halftime Show. Sean Forbes and Warren “WaWa” Snipe, appeared alongside Dre, Eminem, Mary J. Blige, and Kendrick Lamar on Super Bowl Sunday to sign the big performance. It was the first-time sign language interpreters were included in the halftime show’s more than 50-year history—although there have traditionally been interpreters during the pre-game.
Yet, while the performance was broadcasted on the jumbo screens and to audiences at home, deaf and hard-of-hearing fans were unable to follow along because the camera never showed the sign language interpreters on major networks. Those watching on their televisions, computers and phones got a seriously truncated version in American Sign Language (ASL). Year after year, camera coordinators have yet to understand that panning away from ASL interpreters defeats the purpose of their role and excludes fans who are relying on them from home and in the crowd.
Lesson: Go beyond tokenism and symbolism. Virtual and in-person events need accessibility woven into strategy and execution. Accessibility is not a simple checklist; it is a journey.
DO: INCLUDE DIVERSE VOICES AND ADVOCATES
SXSW Event Programming Ramps Up Accessibility Dialogue and Representation. During the SXSW Conference, organizers are pulling together accessibility-focused sessions from across all 22 tracks because people with disabilities are in every part of the world and participate in every element of society.
SXSW is taking a serious and purposeful approach to including people with disabilities on panels and sponsored events. Whether already connected to the accessibility community, or learning how to make work—or the whole world accessible— these conversations are open to everyone looking to learn more. There are over 40 different meetups, sessions, discussions and side panels happening at SXSW representing people with disabilities, tech and accessibility and inclusion.
Lesson: Get laser focused on highlighting disability as the missing piece in the global conversation on inclusion, technology and belonging. It’s what everyone is already talking about.
DO: THINK OF ACCESSIBILITY FIRST – NOT AS A CHECKLIST, NOT AS A ‘FEATURE’
Accessibility is not like a light switch that simply gets turned on or off; it is more like a dimmer, push it forward into the light with intentionality, focus, purpose, and impact performance metrics.
Event accessibility is a process that should be included at all event level planning levels; it is not a ‘unique event feature’ but a creative process where people from all backgrounds benefit from inclusion. The future of global events must focus on including people with disabilities, uplifting their shared stories and experiences to define a vision for the future that encompasses all perspectives and lived experiences. By baking inclusion and universal design into event strategy, we can reimagine the future of events to serve, engage and represent everyone.