Michigan and World Wide

Making Your Presentations and Events More Disability Inclusive

I am often tapped to speak and disability awareness, ableism, the intersection between disability and sexuality, ableist microaggressions and other such important (and I think, exciting) topics. One big piece of  speaking to able-bodied/neurotypical people about these issues is discussing how to make the education and workshops that THEY offer to their communities and clients more accessible overall.  Given how popular this topic is, are a few quick and easy tips to be aware of about when writing/talking/presenting.

I do want to acknowledge that no one is perfect, and no one is a complete expert on anything other than their own identity – we are all still learning and growing, and figuring out how to do the best we can with what we have. That being said, take a moment to marinate a bit on the things you do and say, what type of language you are using, and think a bit on how you market your workshops and classes. Let’s all commit to moving forward on recognizing able bodied/neurotypical privilege and engaging to reduce ableism in our communities.

1. Language

Be aware of about your language! So many  words and phrases originate from an ableist perspective. Some are easy  to name; using the r-word is not ok, period. However, many others have wormed their way into the common lexicon — saying that something lame is ableist, as is calling something (or someone) dumb. Idiot is also quite ableist, although many people don’t realize it. Another incredibly ableist word, and one that took me almost 2 years to completely remove (along with problematic synonyms from my own use)  is the word crazy (this goes the same for cray-cray, insane, nuts, etc). Almost everyone has moments in their life when their sanity may not have met community standards. We also don’t know who is in the room and who are we to decide what sanity looks like? Remarking that someone is wearing a crazy dress, or that they are because of something they did/like IS ableist, even those this word is still prevalent in much dialogue.

Another way ableism around language may arise is in setting up activities. Rather than say “everyone should stand and walk over here” you can say things like “please stand if able.” Instead of “please walk around the room” you can say “please move around the room.” All or nothing statements like “since everyone has two hands” could be less of an issue in smaller discussion groups where you can asses whether that is true for the group, but if you don’t know your entire audience, please don’t make overarching assumptions about what what is true for all people in a certain space.  Similarly, at the beginning of a lecture, phrasing things like “So if everyone who can see,  can see me ok…” and “can everyone who can hear, hear me ok?” is one way to be more inclusive. Similarly, allowing participants to know that the facilitator or teacher is open to requests for accommodations throughout the class/workshop/activities can be very helpful.

2. Environment

When you’re scheduling events, classes, and workshops, think critically about where they are will be held. Put accessibility info on your fliers, Facebook event pages, and other recruitment materials. Is it wheelchair accessible (and if yes, is there a different entrance/elevator area)?  Will slides be described for those with visual impairments? Are there reserved seats for those who needs them? Are seats low tops or high tops (especially important for campus and/or corporate events)? Will there be an ASL interpreter (or how can people request one, or other accommodations)? What is the parking situation? If people are overstimulated, is there an area the is more sensory friendly?Even if you cannot find a completely accessible place (common when working with unfunded community groups or certain non-profits who may have to rely on donations of space), acknowledging accessibility is a huge move forward, and many PWD, can then make an informed decision about what attending will look like, if possible at all. You can also state that you are looking for spaces that are more accessible, and get community input for future events. Please do not wait until you are asked about accessibility to think about it – this information should be included up front. Also, please use the mics. People often say (and I was guilty of this myself) “I am loud, I don’t need a mic.” While that may be true for some listeners, some people who are hard of hearing (HOH) may 100% need the microphones to be used in order to hear at all, but also might be uncomfortable speaking up. If you have the ability to have a mic, using it can help a lot of people. Ditto with sub-titles if you are showing any sort of video – just do it to start rather than waiting to be asked.

3. Thinking about how to present information

People learn in some many different ways (think about Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences). Moreover, people all process at different speeds and in different ways. Make sure to think about how to can repeat your take home messages and important points for folks to remember more than once, and if possible, in more than one way. This is regardless of who you “know” to be you audience – make it as accessible as possible for everyone. This will help all of your attendees to “get” it much better than if you simply rattle off facts from the top of your head, or read directly from your power point presentation. If you can include music, video, small group discussions, individual thinking/writing time, you can reach a greater number of learners, even though every way will not be ideal for every person. Some people work best with pen and paper notes, others with computers/tablets, and still others may need to record – try to be open to the idea that people know what works best for them.

4. Supporting the Support

Know that disabled people come along with their service or therapy dogs (or other animals in some states), and/or personal care attendants or others supporting their accommodation needs. Sometimes, people with disabilities may need help getting into spaces, getting settled in their spots, getting around the space, taking notes during presentations or speeches, making sure that what was said is understood, having advocates, needing people to carry stuff, etc. Being respectful to the disabled community also means being respectful to all of the accompanying companions, whether of the furry or human variety. If someone responds that they’ll be attending an event or class with a service animal (or human), ask if reserving a seat on the end of a row for the dog  is helpful, or if their companion might need an extra chair. Similarly, if someone needs to see the ASL interpreter, or has vision impairment and wants to be close to something to see it (and brings this up), helping to ensure they get a spot close to the front shows awareness.

5. Connection to Resources

Having resources available in your area, or in your field (or both!) is incredibly helpful.  Thinking about which spaces might be accessible (accessible can certainly mean a lot of things across groups; ADA, near public transit, affordable, etc.), where disabled people can get questions answered, what legal services support the disability community, what the laws and policies are in your state/city/school/organization/company, etc. This is just a jumping off point, but if you have answers to these questions, it’s a great place to get started in supporting people with disabilities.

These are just some very very very basic tips. I would love to hear other thoughts and suggestions on combating ableism in educational, professional, health care, non-profit, community, and other settings, as well as questions that other folks might have about providing inclusive spaces for events, workshops, and classes. Let the discussion begin!


***Note: you might have noticed I used disabled people and people with disabilities interchangeably throughout this piece. Questions? Check out this awesome piece by Emily Ladau on differing language.

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