At Traverse, I spend some of my days, evening and weekends talking to people about decisions which will affect them. I talk to them because it’s essential that everyone is made aware of, and are allowed to influence, these decision. To do this effectively, I need to communicate ideas in ways that everyone can understand and ensure that everyone can respond to those ideas in ways that are accessible to them.
This got me thinking. I spent four and a half years as a teacher and tutor of 10 – 18 year olds, all of whom learned and communicated in different ways. I worked with the complete spectrum of students – from those for whom most subjects were a breeze to those who severely struggled with learning, behaviour, communication, or all three. I worked with everyone – from Pupil Premium students from local estates to students attending the Eton group of schools. Teaching and tutoring these students taught me a lot, which I now apply, along with other things I have learned, here at Traverse.
Events present a different challenge to teaching, as with events you usually only spend a few hours with someone and then you never see them again. There’s no time to get know their needs and optimise your approach over a number of weeks – you have to get it right the first time. And the best way to get it right is to make your approach inclusive to all. So I apply what I learned then to what I do now, and below is a simple guide to how to make events more accessible to all.
What is a great, accessible event?
A great event is enjoyed by all and produces great data. Great data are data from participants who are fully informed and involved and which can be used to answer your research questions clearly. At a basic level, an event consists of the following:
- Presenting information;
- Asking questions; and
- Discussing and getting answers
All of this needs to be done in a way which every single person is able to access. There should be no barriers to people understanding the information; discussing their ideas and questions; or communicating their answers.
The trouble is that there are many barriers to accessibility, and they can be very well hidden. None of us are perfect learners or communicators and lots of people have varying levels of learning difficulties. There are also physical disabilities which can make it harder for participants to physically access your event and mental health problems which can make interaction very difficult for some people. It’s essential when designing your event that you do you everything you can to overcome these potential barriers to participation.
So how do you do this?
Venues needs to be physically accessible and have good audio and visual equipment. Visit it in advance if you can and see if you can get to the room(s) without steps. Try the screen and the sound system (if applicable) and ensure you will be clearly seen and heard by participants, especially those furthest from you.
Written materials (whether on slides or printed) need to be broken down. Avoid large chunks of text and use bullet points and diagrams instead to make things clear. Avoid white backgrounds and glossy paper – use soft pastel colours and matt paper instead. With slides, limit the amount of any text and try and make sure what you say matches the slides – participants may get confused if it doesn’t. Generally, minimise the amount that participants need to read and write, and allow everyone to do reading and writing activities in their own time, without pressure to finish at the same time as others.
Written and spoken material need to be presented in a way which is clear and structured. If there is a lot of information, reinforce and recap earlier points as you go through. Avoid sarcasm and idioms – use clear, literal language. As much as possible, use multisensory methods – such as presenting key information and instructions in both written and verbal form.
Having a range of engagement methods makes it easier to engage everyone. Just as with giving information, receiving information should have multiple options. Give participants options to feed back in a variety of mediums, such as verbally, in writing and through ranking activities. Be aware that some people struggle with numbers, so if you have a numerical activity, consider presenting it in multiple ways so that everyone can access the ideas. Equally, some will struggle with too many words, so don’t rely on too much reading or writing in an activity. Don’t do everything in groups either - try and have individual and paired activities too. Use a range of approaches, but don’t change approach too often or too quickly during an event – even if you think you’ve explained it clearly, this can confuse some participants.
Always be very clear on what is happening and what will be happening next. Have a clear timetable and stick to it. If participants leave their seats for any reason (such as for a specific activity), ensure they are able to return to their original seat when needed.
When presenting ideas to groups, talk to participants to confirm they’ve understood and feel comfortable with the information. Participants won’t always say if they haven’t understood something. Be aware of misconceptions – where some people think they have understood a topic or question but haven’t. It’s possible for a table of people to all think they are talking about the same thing and to use the same words, but to in fact have different understandings. Help participants to feel comfortable with asking questions.
When people give you their thoughts and opinions, repeat your understanding of what they have said back to them to confirm you have understood properly. This not only ensures that you are recording the right information, but shows them you are listening and care about their opinion.
It’s not possible to cover such a big topic in a blog post, although I hope you will find everything here helpful. I recommend reading further into this topic before desining events, especially if you know participants will have more severe accessibility needs.
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