3 December 2020

Making events accessible is a journey, not a goal

Since COVID-19 hit the world in March 2020, the topic of accessible events and gatherings is more important than ever. Most conferences and meetings of all kinds have been re-invented and re-designed. This is an opportunity but also a danger for those with various forms of disabilities. If these new worlds of hybrid and fully virtual meetings — with their new safety and health regulations, and their new websites and video systems — do not take accessibility into account (which, to be realistic, is the more likely case), then this new, digital world might meet the challenges presented by the pandemic, but at the same time it might become more exclusive.

But this does not have to be the case. Many accessibility features are available and affordable. These tools, such as au­tomated captioning of videos, and audio description of pictures in presentations, are now integrated into many digital platforms.

We know we still have a lot of work to do, and we can only do this in collaboration with partners across our vast global network. The European Foundation Centre is one of the world’s leading philanthropic infrastructure organisations. That’s why I’m so glad that the EFC – with its Disability Thematic Network (DTN) – has published “How do they do it? EFC members share good practice on organising accessible events”. The publication features case studies by European foundations who each share their insights and lessons learned from organising accessible events that are inclusive for persons with disabilities. Alongside the case studies is a checklist for events planners to use when organising accessible events, both offline and online, covering everything from initial planning, through to communications around the event, venues, and sessions. A set of recommendations on how to make the process easier and more efficient is also included.

This collection of good practice examples uses the Zero Project Conference Accessibility Guidelines as a starting point and then takes them further, enhancing the Guidelines with the knowledge and experience of the EFC’s DTN members in organising conferences, events and webinars themselves. The Essl Foundation has organised the Zero Project Conferences annually now for eight years, since 2013. During this time, the Zero Project and the Conference have grown continuously, as has our expertise in making an international conference accessible and inclusive.

In 2019, we published the Zero Project Conference Accessibility Guidelines to document our work on conference accessibility, in the hope that by being transparent and sharing our ideas, we would improve our own work in this area and support other organisations looking to do the same. For us, improving the accessibility of our Conference is an ongoing process and we have been pleased to trial new features in recent years, such as live audio description for videos shown during the Conference, and new formats to increase the participation of people with intellectual disabilities in the conference sessions. Here, for example, we have made more information available ahead of the session, including summaries in easy-to-read formats, graphic facilitation to support communication and additional briefings for session chairs.

We would like to encourage foundations and other conference organisers to read about the experiences of these EFC DTN members, along with the Zero Project’s Conference Accessibility Guidelines, then use them, develop them and share their learnings. Taking this journey together to create events and gatherings that can be accessed and used by us all will get us to our destination more quickly, and more meaningfully, than if we go it alone: Let’s not waste this opportunity.

If there is one main take away on event accessibility, it is this: It is a journey, not a goal. But you never get anywhere if you do not embark on the journey.



Michael Fembek

Chair, EFC Disability Thematic Network; and Director, Zero Project, ESSL Foundation