Access All Areas

Accessibility is often misunderstood as being either all encompassing, or just the provision of ramps. Accessibility is indeed far reaching and does encompass a wide range of issues (e.g. accessible toilet specifications; hearing aid loop systems; appropriate room temperature), but the phrase “fully accessible for all” is a bit of misnomer. It’s impossible to create an environment whereby facilitators can accommodate everyone’s potential needs. People could have requirements that may be very obscure, completely impractical or that would fundamentally change the nature of the service. This is why disability rights campaigners have spent a considerable amount of time working alongside politicians and architects to produce workable guidance and legislation around accessibility.

Drawing on my own knowledge and available resources, I have recently produced two basic guides for DM around accessibility. One document focuses on the practical aspects of accessibility in terms of venues, the other focuses on inclusive workshop design and delivery.

In this blog I will address a few of the issues facilitators should consider when planning an accessible workshop. The most import aspect of ensuring the design and delivery of a workshop is inclusive is the facilitator’s ability to anticipate, identify and respond to potential disabling barriers. All of us, regardless of whether we have an impairment or not, learn and communicate in lots of different ways. However, it is common for facilitators to plan workshops based on their own personal learning style. Therefore, in order to incorporate a range of learning needs facilitators should teach the way that students learn as opposed to expecting them to learn the way we teach. Taking into account the seven learning styles is a good place to start.


learning-styleCommunication between facilitators is also very important to help avoid repetitive activities. Repeating an activity, or using the same format, is not only rather dull but can also create a continual barrier for particular participants.

It is helpful to offer participants a range of ways that they can respond – for example writing or drawing or audio recording may all be appropriate methods for achieving the same outcome whilst at the same time opening up access possibilities. On a personal note, writing can be a barrier for me, however, this doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy or want to participate in activities that involve writing but simply that I would appreciate consideration from the facilitator about how these can be adapted to make them more inclusive. For example, written tasks can be done in pairs or small groups with one volunteer designated as the writer or could also be completed using technology, such as an i-pad.

There are lots of ways in which you can help people to feel involved – simple things like taking a show of hands may allow less confident individuals the opportunity to contribute to an exercise without being put on the spot. A good facilitator should be responsive to the context in which they are working and the needs of individual participants. Having an open, friendly approach to identifying barriers during a meeting, event or workshop is key, as well as preparation via email beforehand. A sense of easy communication will encourage people to share any access ‘blips’ before they become insurmountable problems. It is therefore a good idea to get into the habit of asking if anyone has any specific access requirements, and being creative about how people can contribute and express ideas.

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“There are lots of ways in which you can help people to feel involved – simple things like taking a show of hands may allow less confident individuals the opportunity to contribute to an exercise without being put on the spot. A good facilitator should be responsive to the context in which they are working and the needs of individual participants”

Indifference to difference: a feline guide to equality

As an equality consultant I find that some people assume that equality means treating everyone the same. However, equality is essentially about creating a fair playing field so that everyone has the same chances in life.  For many groups this means making adjustments, whether they are financial, behavioural or physical, to ensure they have the same access to opportunities.   Treating everyone the same isn’t always the best way to create a fair playing field, as my beloved cat, Milly, demonstrates. Like most cats, Milly lacks empathy, understanding and has a general unwillingness to make allowances for others.  Some would argue that Milly takes these feline qualities to a new extreme!

‘Slightly’ bad tempered in nature, she doesn’t take kindly to any human stepping in her path – you will be swiped, scratched and hissed at. She makes no concessions for people who may be old, frail, walking with crutches or using a wheelchair.   If you are not quick enough to dodge her angry little paws – tough s**t!

She has a very definite ‘no dogs’ policy, and takes no doggy prisoners – assistance dogs included. She once threw herself onto the back of a very gentle and sweet guide dog called Sam. In a desperate attempt to shake her off, a terrified Sam charged across a very busy road dragging his owner with him. At the time I was dating the owner – unsurprisingly the relationship didn’t last long.

She is quite happy to sabotage dinner dates (of any kind) by hissing at the guest, jumping into their plate of food or making herself sick under the table – no exception for sensitive types or anyone with cat allergy. It doesn’t matter how much attention she gets beforehand either, she wants all the attention all the time and will not let anyone step in her way.

As well as monopolising all the attention, she doesn’t like to share her wealth. She is quite happy to eat other people’s food even after she has conned many ‘food bailouts’. Her dinner stealing antics reached a new height when she managed to steal my unemployed ex-flatmate’s last meal of the week.  With no money to replace the meal my ex-flatmate was particularly perturbed – especially as she had taken the necessary precautions to protect her assets by covering her freshly made meal with tinned foil, a plate, and a tea towel. In a similar manner her toiletry habits make no allowances for ones economic status – only the most expensive cat litter will do for her business. When my partner became a student we tried to persuade Milly to try the downshift challenge. Not convinced, she decided our daughter’s new beanbag would be a much more suitable option. She certainly isn’t prepared to be ‘all in it together’.

Her many quirky hobbies lack an appreciation of personal space and she has poor cultural awareness.  She will hog the laps of any human she likes, pawing at their stomach whilst persistently waving her tail in their face.   Luring them into a false sense of security, she sometimes uses her purring charm and sweet meows to entice them into stroking her. After allowing them to stroke her for a while she will then pounce on their hand in a completely unprovoked attack!  However alarming this activity may be, it’s not nearly as inappropriate as her “head/hair biting” hobby. This hobby has included people with ponytails, long hair, short hair, curly hair, red hair, no hair, bald people with sunburn and a social worker wearing a headscarf.  She really doesn’t care how freaked out the other player (aka victim) feels or how politically incorrect playing this game may be.

Operating a rather draconian chair tax, Milly will take ownership of any seat she likes in the house, whenever she likes. You may be heavily pregnant or a first time Mum needing to sit and feed your baby – she isn’t going to budge without issuing a penalty.  It doesn’t matter if the chair includes maternity support pillows, extra lumbar support, a collection of your child’s favourite toys or even comes with wheels. A wheelchair is not a mobility aid but rather her chair on wheels – and tipping her out of it will result in a particularly heavy and painful fine. Adding insult to injury she owns an entire free second chair collection (next door) for when she is away from her constituency. The cat is not for moving!

Milly’s ‘free spirited’ nature really does show us the drawbacks of a non-concessionary world in which everyone is treated exactly the same – just imagine what life might be like if we were ruled by a coalition of Millycats?!?


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From Paralympic sceptic to Paralympic addict

Last week I attended the largest ever disability arts event in history, the 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony. A previously unimaginable spectacle, it featured the crème de la crème of British disabled artists, scientists and athletes; the theme of the ceremony was enlightenment.  We were taken on a bright, and at times bewildering, journey of discovery with Professor Stephen Hawking as our guide.  

It’s hard to describe the sheer scale of the show. With a cast of well over three thousand and an audience of eighty thousand, the stadium felt, at times, almost unnervingly euphoric. It was easy to get caught up in the sense of defiant jubilation, but also possible to see how the emotions of a vast, unified crowd can be manipulated for good or evil.

Visual showstoppers included an enormous ‘Newton’s apple’ – representing the discovery of gravitation – and the huge revolving book symbolising the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  A giant whale followed by a glowing ball of energy representing the Higgs Boson were also breath-taking. Disabled artists glistened and danced above our heads; a sea of beautiful coloured umbrellas spun beneath our feet.

It was thrilling to see so many familiar faces in key roles – Sophie Partridge, old school friend John Kelly, Caroline Parker and Matt Fraser to name but a few – all disabled artists I have admired and followed for several years. A far cry from the dingy student venues I saw them performing in at the start of their careers!

Many defining moments stick out – watching Matt Fraser address eighty thousand people during the warm-up sent shivers down my spine. (I first saw Matt performing to ten people at Sheffield University). At one point he encouraged every single audience member to bite into a (freely provided) apple at exactly the same moment, following a dramatic countdown. The thunderous crunch was audible even to those watching at home, but what couldn’t have come across on TV was the sweet smell of apple juice that hung in the air for minutes.

It was great to see a reproduction of Marc Quinn’s hugely influential ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’ sculpture on stage. I also loved watching the show’s central character ‘Miranda’  (a nod to Shakespeare’s The Tempest) breaking a symbolic ‘glass ceiling’ with a walking stick.

But the highlight of the ceremony came when the Graeae Theatre Company jerked the audience out of their seats with a version of Ian Dury’s misunderstood classic, Spasticus Autisticus (accompanied, somewhat incongruously, by Orbital). After hours of ethereal pop balladry, earnest ‘new commissions’ and dirgey classical interludes, this impassioned rallying cry came as a welcome surprise.

On a negative note, I found (like journalist Lisa Egan) the ‘inspirational’ ‘triumph over tragedy’ commentary about the athletes, both during the live show and throughout the short clips, slightly nauseating and unnecessary.

It is also arguable that many of the disabled high flyers being celebrated in the show have risen to the top of their respective careers against the backdrop of a more secure welfare system. The threat that current ’reforms’ pose to disabled people was, for me, a troubling thought that recurred throughout the night.

But Professor Stephen Hawking summed up the true message of the ceremony when he said:

“We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics”.

An unforgettable night that has certainly sparked a new interest in disability sport!

“We are all different, there is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being but we share the same human spirit. What is important is that we have the ability to create. This creativity can take many forms, from physical achievement to theoretical physics”   Stephen Hawking 2012