COP26 incident highlights accessibility issues at events

Elharrar's inability to access the venue highlights accessibility issues for disabled delegates

An incident at the COP26 2021 conference has highlighted issues around accessibility at live events, raising questions about how prepared event planners are for disabled delegates.

COP26 – a minister and wheelchair access

At the United Nations’ 26th annual climate change summit in Glasgow, Israeli Energy Minister Karine Elharrar, who has muscular dystrophy, was forced to return to her hotel after being unable to access the event in her wheelchair.

In a later conversation with Israel’s Channel 12, she said she couldn’t access the conference because the only options were to walk or take a shuttle, both of which were unsuitable for wheelchair use.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has since apologised to Elharrar in a meeting joined by Israel’s Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett.

By Tuesday, things had improved for Elharrar, who told BBC News that she had accessed the conference “very easily”, adding that it was “quite a different experience”.

Alison Kerry, Head of Communications at disability charity Scope, has condemned the event’s organisers for its lack of accessibility. She said that with one in five people in the UK being disabled, there was a high chance that people would need adjustments to access the venue. She finished by saying that “it’s high time accessibility is built in from the start and not an afterthought.”

Disability inclusion issues at events – early stages

Elharrar’s experience and the fact that many people in the UK and abroad live with disabilities show how important it is that organisations ensure their events are disability-inclusive.

As Kerry said, accessibility shouldn’t be shoe-horned into event planning but instead be central to the initial stages.

This should begin when choosing a venue for an event, including checking for parking and public transport options nearby and whether the venue has wide enough halls and doorways for wheelchair access.

Ensuring a venue has ample disability-friendly toilet facilities nearby, preferably on the same levels as the conference areas, is a good idea. If a venue has built-in seats, make sure there’s a clear view of the stage from all.

Knowing whether a venue can cater to various dietary requirements should also be considered as people with certain disabilities may only eat specific foods such as vegetarian or dairy-free cuisine.

Other accommodations to consider include providing volunteers to meet disabled delegates at the entrance and support them within the building.

Extra adjustments

Event teams can also clearly signpost the way to toilets, lifts, and accessible entrances and provide wheelchair-accessible ramps throughout the venue.

Wheelchair-friendly seating should be integrated with the rest of the seating area to create an inclusive atmosphere. There should also be good lighting for people with low vision, who might need to lip-read or have a sign language interpreter. Sensory warnings should be issued well ahead of any applause, flash photography, or lighting show to give those who might be affected time to exit the area.

Once a suitable venue is chosen, and the team is confident they can implement additional adjustments, they can ask delegates if they require further accommodations when registration opens.

However, delegates shouldn’t have to prove their disability for adjustments to be offered.

Information about parking and nearby public transport services should also be listed on the event website and in any communications shared with registered delegates.

Disability inclusion on website and in comms

An accessibility section on the event website should be signposted. There should also be an option for slides to be shared with delegates ahead of time for visually impaired people who might use a screen reader.

The website and any associated communications should be easy to read. This includes using large text no smaller than 12pt and clear fonts such as Times New Roman. Alternative text and image descriptions are a good idea for visually impaired people using screen readers.

To ensure inclusive website navigation, large buttons should be implemented with plenty of space around them. Captions should also be used for any video material, and there should be keyboard accessibility for those that can’t or don’t use a mouse.

The above points about websites and communications accessibility can also be applied to any material shared during the event, such as presentation slides.

Event planners should make sure that speakers with disabilities feel included too. This includes checking that event equipment such as stools are accessible and not too high. It is also a good idea to ask speakers’ permission to fit microphone devices or ask if they’d rather do it themselves.

For virtual events, adding real-time captioning to things like roundtable events and live Q&As will help delegates follow the conversation. In a physical event, this could be achieved by filming the conversation and using a screen to televise the content, complete with captions, to the audience. Any pre-recorded videos should also include captions.

Furthermore, any slides used in pre-recorded or live material should include a space at the bottom of each slide to accommodate captions. Another good idea is for the host to reiterate the names of each speaker throughout the conversation to help captioners and the audience knows who is speaking.

COP26 – a reminder of our net-zero goals

Aside from highlighting event accessibility issues for disabled people, the news from COP26 throws up another important topic: the need for businesses to limit their environmental impact.

By 2023, the UK’s large organisations and financial institutions will have to detail public plans for a low-carbon future in line with the country’s 2050 net-zero target, so how can they achieve it so soon?

Reaching this requires businesses to create innovative solutions driven by team collaboration, and this means a more diverse workforce who are empowered to contribute their ideas and have them heard.

Diversity of ideas and perspectives is crucial to stimulating innovation, where businesses must recruit talent from diverse backgrounds who can bring disruptive ideas to the table.

In this article, you learned that:

  • One in five people in the UK is living with a disability.
  • Checking a venue has wide enough halls and doorways for wheelchair access is one way to decide whether it’s disability-inclusive enough.
  • For website and additional comms use, large text no smaller than 12pt and clear font such as Times New Roman will help with accessibility.

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