A lot of people think adding a ramp for wheelchair users is enough to make an event accessible. This is not the case. When planning events, it’s important to think about guests’ needs and all types of impairments.

If I could give my younger self a message, I would say making events accessible will make you much better at your job. It can be hard work to challenge the assumptions people make, but it’s very rewarding.

No one gets it perfect straight away. At Scope, we’re still listening and learning to make our events as accessible as possible. I want to share some of those lessons to help others planning corporate events.

1. Coproduction from the start

It’s very important to work with disabled people, rather than for them. The golden rule is “nothing about us, without us”.

It puts lived experience at the heart of the work. It means you can base your conversations on reality. It challenges your assumptions and pushes you to consider new things. In the end, it makes you a more effective event organiser.

2. Prioritise accessibility, always

Accessibility comes first. It isn’t something you can add on at the end with no extra money or time. You have to adopt a ‘baked in’ approach and consider it throughout.

For example, you can’t design an event without thinking about accessibility at all. And then try to make changes at the end. It doesn’t work that way.

When we were designing the first Scope Disability Equality Awards, we knew we needed a truly accessible event. We were glad to have so many disabled people attend and had different needs to consider.

A few decisions we made to prioritise accessibility were:

  • making the event hybrid so the livestream was open to anyone to join remotely
  • allowing enough space in the floor plan for wheelchair users to move around
  • signposting several accessible toilets including a changing places toilet
  • choosing a venue with a step-free access train station nearby
  • choosing a venue with plenty of on-site parking
  • having the ceremony during the afternoon, as many conditions leave people feeling exhausted by the evening
  • having British Sign Language (BSL) interpreters and live captions throughout

3. Ask, listen and share

Information is essential, both for the event organiser and the attendees. Listen to what your guests tell you they need and tell them what is available to them.

Don’t keep information to yourself. Do you know the location of accessible toilets on site? Or whether you’ve booked BSL interpreters? Tell people. Attending events can take a lot of planning for disabled people. Even more when the event is inaccessible. Giving them as much information as possible up front can be helpful.

If in doubt, just ask. Everyone is the expert on their own needs. There’s no expectation for you to predict every individual need. Plus it can be damaging to make assumptions. Have a clear process for guests to share their needs.

Saying that, this doesn’t mean that you’re free from any responsibility as an event manager. It’s your job to look at the bigger picture and make sure the big decisions don’t exclude people, for example the venue. It isn’t your job to guess what each individual attendee needs, but it isn’t their job to problem solve for you.

4. Don’t rush it

Speed is often prioritised in modern society and workplaces. But taking your time is a huge advantage in accessible events.

Coproduction and considering accessibility from the start take time. There may be new barriers and adjustments you need to understand. Suppliers and venues may need support to understand accessibility as well. Allow for extra time in your event planning process to make sure accessibility isn’t skipped.

Instead of time or quantity, we use different measures of success now. One event that is accessible for all guests is worth 100 events that only work for a small number of people.

5. Learn from mistakes

As I said, no one gets it perfect first time. And at Scope, we don’t either. It’s so important to evaluate your events. Collect feedback from guests, suppliers and partners. Take time to understand if something wasn’t accessible, and why that was the case.

It’s not enough just to ask guests what adjustments they need. You must follow up and see if the event worked for them. We can always make improvements. So keep an open conversation before, during and after events to understand what’s working and what isn’t.

Overall, accessible events benefit everyone. It’s often put into a box just for disabled guests. But a lot of the principles are great for everyone. For example, making information clearer, listening to guests’ needs and building in breaks. Make sure your event is inclusive for all, so everyone can have a better experience.