Helen Whittle, Chair of Communication Matters, discusses the importance of making events accessible to those who use alternative methods of communication.
Event professionals are becoming increasingly aware that without careful consideration, some potential delegates may find themselves unable to attend an event due to a lack of accessibility. Accessible accommodations at events come in a variety of forms, but one of the less considered concerns is how to make events accessible to those who aren’t able to use speech to communicate.
Helen Whittle explains how the charity advocates for this group: “We are a small UK charity that supports people who aren’t able to use speech to communicate, and use alternative methods of communication. That is often referred to as augmentative and alternative communication, which is a real mouthful, so most people shorten it to AAC. We support people who use AAC, which is a wide variety of people. They could be a young adult who uses a powered wheelchair for mobility and uses eye gaze to access communication on their communication aid. Or another member may be an individual with Down’s syndrome who uses Makaton signing and an iPad to say some messages, or perhaps someone with Parkinson’s disease, or someone who’s had a stroke, or motor neurone disease.”
Due to the wide variety of people who use AAC, making an event accessible has to be extremely delegate led: “What we do when we hold our annual conference is, when delegates register, we ask them to identify themselves as someone who uses AAC and has accessibility needs, and that will take them to another form. They can then identify what they need in terms of accessible accommodations. Some hotel rooms say that they are accessible and then they might not be quite right for someone in a wheelchair. For example, we once checked out the bathroom of what was advertised as a superior accessible room, and the shower screen in that room was fixed, whereas in the standard accessible rooms the screen moved. For people in wheelchairs going into that bathroom, it was a no brainer which one would be better.”
Catering is also a key concern: “Since COVID we’ve had a focus group of AAC users who meet every eight weeks, and we ask their opinion on anything to do with the charity or to do with the conferences. One of the things that they asked of us was how can we make the food better for them at a conference? A lot of people with communication difficulties have difficulties controlling their lips and the muscles in their mouth, and so they need soft diets and adapted diets. It’s basically about listening to people’s requirements about food.”
While the industry is making progress towards more accessible events, it isn’t all the way there yet: “I think there is further to go with making events accessible to AAC users. But I recently attended the International Congress and Convention Association conference. I was asked to go and present a paper, ‘An Accessible Conference’. I talked about communication access and what Communication Matters does. I did the presentation, and it was met so warmly by the events industry. It was fantastic.”