At the start of #DeafAwarenessWeek, we asked InFusion Comms Director, Sara Hawthorn, what it takes for industry events to be truly inclusive.
In PR, attending events, trade shows, conferences, and networking for clients or for our own purposes is very much a must. Event planning lists include fashionable venues, inspiring or quirky spaces, a bar, space to mingle and network, a PA system, a projector. Sure, accessibility may be on there, but far too often it’s limited to two words: wheelchair accessible.
Tick. Job done. On to the wine options.
From my own experiences as a hard of hearing agency owner who attends and organises many different types of events, our narrow approach to event accessibility is an important factor in making our industry inclusive. By failing to consider anything outside that tiny tick box of accessibility we are ignoring the underlying idea of accessible spaces: inclusivity.
The feeling of isolation that comes with this is crushing, it eats at confidence and raises anxiety levels.
Not being able to hear speakers, guests or delegates is a common challenge for me because too often the spaces where events are held aren’t acoustically great for people with hearing loss, there’s no loop function, or subtitle option for speakers. The feeling of isolation that comes with this is crushing, it eats at confidence and raises anxiety levels. These events are for hearing people, not for me. I am, by default, excluded.
Accessibility information is usually and, somewhat ironically, hidden on venue websites, and not much more informative than the two words above. I rarely know if a venue I’m attending has loop systems in place, or what the acoustics ratings are and the responsibility for finding out this information 9 times out of 10 lies with me. Inclusivity is about anticipating the needs of different people and presenting options before being asked.
We can, as a profession, avoid others feeling this way by being pro-active and inclusive in our event planning.
Recently, I contacted a few organisers of PR, comms and digital events to ask them about accessibility information on their event websites. Their responses gave me reason to be hopeful that we can and are changing our approach. But even the process of contacting these people was a nerve-wracking thing to do, questions poked at the back of my mind; will they think I’m being rude, demanding or ‘difficult’? How do I phrase this so I don’t look like I’m being one of those people? Thinking this way about my needs makes me feel like my hearing loss is an impediment, something that makes me less-than. We can, as a profession, avoid others feeling this way by being pro-active and inclusive in our event planning. There are some great online templates and guides to help event organisers start that process, but please don’t be afraid to ask questions if you’re not sure what you need to consider. Something as simple as an additional needs box on your booking form demonstrates that you’ve at least considered the event from another perspective.
It’s ok not to know, but it’s not ok to know and do nothing.
We cannot claim to be committed to diversity without also investing in inclusive practices and processes and that must include the events we organise and attend. From networking to awards dinners we need bigger bolder steps towards inclusivity. If these events are the outward image of we present to then we must try harder to make them welcoming to all.
Inclusion and diversity are two sides of the same coin. They go hand-in-hand, we need consideration and action on both sides to make real change.
Sara Hawthorn is the director of InFusion Comms. As a deaf business owner and employer she’s spoken out about the lack of disabled PR pros in the likes of the Telegraph and PR Week and works with local universities to encourage more students from diverse backgrounds to choose PR as a career option.