Virtual Events During Lockdown are Proof that Greater Accessibility is Possible
Before booking a ticket to any event, I have to figure out whether my disability will be accommodated. Although there are one billion disabled people globally, access is always stuck at the back of the priority queue for organisers and venue owners.
Then the global pandemic happened and suddenly remote events were everywhere. After years of listening to excuses for inaccessibility, true access felt like a genuine possibility.
According to disabled activist and campaigner Dr. Amy Kavanagh, the reason for disabled exclusion is simple: “Disabled people aren’t imagined as full participants in society. People don’t expect you to be there, so why would they bother to include you?”
This is crystal clear when looking at statistics of accessible venues. In a 2014 survey of UK music venues, 83% of disabled people said they were put off buying tickets due to an inaccessible ticket purchasing process. Inside the venues things only got worse: 25% of the venues surveyed did not have a disabled toilet, only 66% had an accessible entrance, and just 51% had step-free access throughout the venue.
For non-disabled attendees, these statistics are easily ignored, but the emotional impact on disabled people should not be trivialised. Prior to the pandemic, I wasted hundreds of pounds on in-person events I could not attend, including crucial networking events and a once in a lifetime gig that I had to miss due to a nasty flare up of a chronic condition with no opportunity for a refund. I shed many tears watching friends enjoy events that I could no longer attend due to being too unwell or knowing that the venue’s inaccessibility would force me to climb flights of stairs, despite the pain they cause. I even ducked out of Pride early every single year because of a lack of disabled access, rest stops and toilets.
Though I often felt like my disability was the source of exclusion, I now realise that it was the events leaving me out. When Pride 2020 offered countless remote events, I was thrilled. For the first time in my queer life, I attended multiple events without worrying if my body could withstand the physical pressure. However, my joy was limited because not all disabled people were being accommodated. Recorded sessions are still not standard practice, along with sign language interpreters and accurate captioning. Too often, organisers consider accessibility to be limited to physicality, but the issue is far more nuanced. The spectrum of disabled people is far more diverse than physical disabilities, including neurodivergence, mental health conditions, and long-term chronic illnesses.
Across the board, we need to examine how to create the foundation for a truly accessible world. And accessibility measures should not just be for disabled folks; they should encompass people of different incomes, home lives, LGBTQIA+ people and BIPOC. Professing a desire to make events accessible is great but to create long-lasting change, organisers need to involve people with all kinds of accessibility needs. Once organisers broaden their understanding of access, we will be able to make the first steps toward fully accessible events. Amy adds, “It’s just a conversation between you and people who want to be part of something, they want to be present at your event, they want to be at your organisation, why wouldn’t you engage them in a way that is productive, rather than combative?”
While the pandemic-induced tidal wave of remote events is a sign of progress, we must be careful not to allow them to become an excuse for inaccessible venues. Amy elaborates, “One of my concerns about remote events is that it’ll be, ‘oh well, the [disabled people] can just watch at home and we don’t need to provide physical access’.”
To combat inaccessibility, remote events, like Amy’s The Staying Inn – a fully accessible remote pub set up in lockdown – should continue. Neha Arora, founder of Planet Abled, points out, “The pandemic has made the world realise that sometimes external factors outside your control can stop you from living life on your own terms. Many people with disabilities have always been living this way.” Although this realisation is positive, the work does not stop when you’ve only just noticed the problem.
There are many different approaches to accessible events but Amy sums it up best: “A blended model could work really well. In the future, for conferences, events and performances having a blended model where you can still participate online is going to open up that audience, revenue streams and meaningful participation or awareness.”
There is no overnight solution to inaccessible events, however, remote beacons of accessible hope received during lockdown prove that accessibility is a possibility. To ensure that people with a variety of accessibility needs are included, we cannot allow a teetering return to normalcy let us slip back into our old inaccessible ways. As Neha explains, “when we design for disability access, it’s not just the disabled people who benefit but pretty much anyone.”
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