The long-awaited return of live events is here, but does its arrival offer an opportunity to rebuild the industry for the better? As part of The Drum’s Experiential Deep Dive, experts weigh in on how events can become more inclusive for people with disabilities – ending social isolation for everyone, once and for all.
The world of events stands at a crossroads. Virtual experiences that reached the heights of popularity amid isolation from the Covid-19 pandemic are now being shunned for the bright lights of in-person gatherings. Yet the (perhaps hasty) return of live events is now being threatened by the ominous Delta variant.
For many, the question of accessing events – be they virtual or in-person – is not a new dilemma. Those with disabilities know all too well what it means to have to forgo an event due to their access needs not being met, or their experience spoiled because organizers did not take their needs into consideration.
Prior to the outbreak of the virus, Lawrence Orr, head of public fundraising at disability equality charity Scope, says some events were attempting to cater to disabled guests, but they were few and far between. “Much of the time accessibility feels like an afterthought,” he told The Drum.
Virtual events that spiked in prevalence during lockdowns are inherently more accessible by nature. Attendees can participate in ways they feel comfortable with, and without the added task or challenges of travelling to attend in person – a barrier for many disabled people, explains Orr.
During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, organizers who were forced to pivot quickly to online events discovered they were reaching new audiences, as people with disabilities now had access to a wealth of new online events where they may have previously not been able to attend in person.
Sebastian Boppert, head of European communications at events management and ticketing website Eventbrite, says that in 2020 the platform issued up to 200m tickets to some 4m events.
“Many of them were free,” he explains, which is a barrier to attendance often not spoken about when it comes to the disabled community as, according to Scope, disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed.
However, Orr comments that Scope fears that this uptick in accessibility isn’t the result of a concerted effort by providers, but has happened as a consequence of the pandemic. Furthermore, “provision and policies were often outdated and this includes website accessibility, which should be the cornerstone of customer engagement offering an invitation for disabled guests to attend and participate fully.”
Speaking on what can be done to make virtual events more accessible to people with disabilities such as blindness or deafness, Boppert suggests several small and easy changes organizers can make in order to cater to a wider audience.
“If you have a slideshow during an online event, don’t forget to narrate it. For those who can see, but not well, make the font large and use contrasting colours. Many blind individuals will have screen-reading software, but the less they have to use it the better. And make sure that the platform you’re using for your event can accommodate corresponding screen-reading software.
“Subtitles are great for people who are hard of hearing, and it’s probably worth exploring software that has the ability to translate subtitles into several different languages. They might cost a bit more, but sign language interpreters are even better.
“Don’t make video mandatory, so as to include people who may not wish to show their face, and in general, pick software that is easy to use, access and set up. It doesn’t actually cost that much.”
Back to live
However, Annie Harris, advocacy officer at the Royal National Insitute for Deaf People, says that while changes made throughout the pandemic have been welcome, there is still a long way to go in terms of making the virtual world easier to navigate as a deaf person.
“Throughout the pandemic, virtual interpreting services have given deaf people access to essential services such as NHS 111, which is a welcome improvement in accessibility. Virtual events mean that deaf people have the opportunity to attend events online regardless of the location, and meet other deaf people in different parts of the UK. Video conferencing has become more popular in work and social situations due to coronavirus restrictions but the accessibility of software can vary. For example, some platforms enable captions while others do not. Many events rely on automatically generated captions, which can be slow and inaccurate, making content difficult to follow.”
She adds that improvements in virtual events for deaf people and other people with disabilities does not preclude live events from making positive changes to become more accessible.
“Where communication support is provided, face-to-face events are more accessible for deaf people who use sign language. I recently attended my first ever festival, which was made possible by performance interpreting. It was amazing – the interpreters were in front of us so I could see the signing clearly as well as the act. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear the tune or the instruments as I was drawn into the meaning of the songs by the interpreter’s expressions, body language and signing. British Sign Language is a 3D language and it’s difficult to replicate this in a virtual setting, or to recreate the atmosphere of a big event,” she says.
As live events return, Orr from Scope suggests we can expect to see an increase in hybrid events in order that the industry be made available to the widest group of people.
“For example, livestreaming directly from events seems like an obvious development, as organizers have the option to reach vastly larger audiences and ultimately increase their reach and revenue.
“We’d like them to take what’s worked over the pandemic and then keep learning. There needs to be proper and ongoing thought about how products cater for the needs of disabled participants.”
Boppert agrees that this moment is crucial for event organizers, and that building accessibility into the industry “doesn’t have to cost the earth, you just have to start thinking about it”.
“When it comes to live events, there are so many little things you can do to make the event more accessible.
“Make sure you have an induction loop facility for people with hearing aids, so they can get the audio loop straight from the equipment to their ear. Have ramps in venues, and if there’s a buffet, make sure there are dedicated servers for people with wheelchairs – or lower the table so they can reach. Make sure the lifts are wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs. Have dog bowls of water for service dogs. Make sure you have dedicated seating for the hearing and vision impaired, so they can be nearer the speaker and the interpreter. Have dedicated quiet spaces for people with autism, or anyone who suffers from anxiety.
“Coming back from Covid, we have an opportunity here to rebuild a more inclusive events industry that allows everyone to enjoy the thrill of live events. But ending social isolation means ending it for everyone, and we have to work together to do so,” Boppert concludes.
As event organizers have already had to completely rethink the guest experience during Covid, all the experts interviewed agree that this moment now offers a unique opportunity to bring live events back, better and more accessible than ever.
“It’s worth mentioning that the adjustments made to improve accessibility often benefit all event guests, and very rarely do they negatively affect non-disabled guest experiences, so the case for better accessibility is strong,” says Orr.
“In today’s world where inclusivity and equality are values our younger generations live and breathe, why wouldn’t you want your event to be as inclusive as possible (and shout about it)?”