In the last post we talked about getting to the venue, today we’re going to talk about the interior and things to consider when choosing and setting up the room you’re using.
Is there more than one accessible route out of the building? If not, what plans do the centre have for evacuating those who cannot manage steps or stairs in the event of a fire? If the meeting room is upstairs, what are the rules about using the lift? Where would the muster point be for disabled people? Is there an evac chair provided?
Remember people with respiratory problems like asthma will also struggle with a fire situation due to smoke and fumes, so although they might usually manage steps and stairs fine, in a fire, things could alter drastically.
People with hearing impairments might also need visual fire alarms, usually red flashing lights. If not installed, appoint a “fire buddy” for the person from your team – that person is then responsible for staying with the hearing impaired person or knowing their whereabouts at all times. Remember even if visual alarms are fitted, they might not be in the toilets!
People with visual impairment again might benefit from having a fire buddy who can guide them out of the building, as would the mobility impaired. Remember the fire buddy could be a personal assistant, friend or carer the person has brought with them to assist.
Is there an accessible toilet? If yes there are a few things to consider:
Are there handrails fitted – by hand rails I mean proper “disabled friendly” grab handles with grips, not towel rails etc that have been re-purposed
Can the door be closed from a wheelchair independently? – Stand at arms reach from the door, turn around and then reach backwards. Can you grab a handle or rail? If not and there is not a “towel rail” type grab handle, fitting on the back of the door then it might be worth suggesting they fit one!
Can you navigate a wheelchair into the toilet? Is the door wide enough? What angle is the turn? Once in, is there room to manaouvere and get to the wash basin? Is there room for another person if the wheelchair user needs help to transfer?
How shiny are the surfaces? This can be really disorientating for a visually impaired person, especially if floor, walls and ceiling are all tiled in the same colour!
How far is it from the entrance? This is worth knowing as a person who can walk a bit may need to know this, so they can decide which piece of equipment to load into the car. I personally get frustrated at shoving everything but the kitchen sink in when going somewhere new only to find the room is in staggering distance. I can also end up doing the opposite and not taking the wheelchair only to find that my arrival in the room is similar to that of someone being ejected from the pub on a Saturday night for being a tad over the limit of what’s sensible as my daft muscles decide enough is enough….
Can you get a wheelchair in the door easily? The door might well be wide enough but what’s the angle you need to turn? There are places in local colleges where I’ve definitely left my mark on their door frames from completing sharp 90 deg turns! What about manual wheelchairs? They tend to be wider, due to the hand rails around the wheels – can the person get through the door without losing a finger or experiencing crushed knuckles?
Is it easy to see the door area? Some people with visual impairments find it hard to work out doorways, either because of poor lighting, or a lack of contrast or too much contrast with flooring. Stepping from a dim corridor into full daylight can be disorientating. A much lighter floor surface in the classroom compared with the corridor can signify a “step up” which can cause trips and stumbles. A darker surface can be misinterpreted as a step down – again with the risk of falling. Not all visually impaired people have a sighted guide, guide dog or in some cases a white stick ( am thinking particularly of my Dad and his age band of 80+ where independence is bred in the bone!) so its always worth checking on booking and perhaps greeting the person and offering an arm through the doorways if you are concerned.
Once in the door, is there somewhere the wheelchair user can sit? Do they have a choice of seating once the room’s set up? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to crash land at the table inside the door and stay put, a bit like a human traffic cone! Alot of older buildings and smaller rooms do make it harder for those of us on wheels, but as an organiser, if you warn us ahead, there might be ways round these sort of problems we can help with.
Colour scheme??? What’s that got to do with accessibility??? Quite simply, it can affect some people’s ability to learn or to access a course or class. Some people with visual impairment would find stark white walls a challenge to cope with as lack of shading would make navigating difficult. People with dyslexia or on the autistic spectrum can have a condition called Irlem’s Syndrome which means that certain colours are really painful on the eyes or affect the person’s ability to read or concentrate. My daughter cannot bear flourescent colours and yellows for example. I got up yesterday morning to her in a right strop because the guy who’d turned up to service the boiler was wearing not just a visi vest but a work top in the same colour – she left for college pretty rapidly! I’ve also found that muted colours create a calmer atmosphere in a room too! And aid concentration!
Furnishing are really important for some people. Chairs are a good place to start, the key issue being lumbar support! Many people have back pain, its one of the biggest hidden disabilities in the country and poor seating can really ruin your enjoyment of a workshop. So make sure when choosing a room that the chairs are solid and supportive – the fold up chairs are usually not! Also do some of the chairs have arms? This can be useful for people who find getting up out of a chair a bit tricky. Whilst its not an essential, its definitely worth talking to the venue about. If using tables, are the heights ok? Can you get a wheelchair under, wheelchair user’s are in a slightly higher chair than the rest of the class and it can be tricky getting under some tables without major damage to the knees. Also some people find higher tables easier to work on as it prevents stooping or leaning over – a major aggrivator of back and hip pains!
Acoustics – if a room is echoy then how well will you get your message across? Is there room in the venue for a hearing impaired person to sit facing you? Can this be arranged if needed?
Your Needs as Organiser – If you have a disability or health issue, is there someone at the venue to help with set up or do you need to bring someone? If bringing someone does your public liability insurance cover volunteers? Have you considered seeking help from the Access To Work team?
Room Layout -Make sure there is a clear path all the way around the outside of the room. If possible have the tables in a U shape, so that you can walk up and down a central gap and reach all students. Emphasise the need to keep the walkway clear in your introduction. Leave 1 or 2 gaps for wheelchairs if needed, but offer to re-arrange when the person arrives so they have a choice of seating. If you know someone is coming who has said they need to sit at the front, gently suggest to the other participants that they leave space for the person. Position the flipchart or white board, if used, so it can be seen by all. Ensure the doorway is kept clear at all times and any fire escape in the room.
To conclude this section, again if you are unsure ask someone who has an impairment for advice or contact a local disability information centre or the Adult Services team at Social Services. For issues related to visual impairments, the RNIB have some fantastic fact sheets that you can download from their website. For hearing impairment, visit Action on Hearing Loss (RNID).
I went along, unannounced to a meeting this week and the one time they’d planned to use an upstairs room, for reasons of space, I had to arrive! However I was treated with courtesy and understanding, and with a bit of juggling the meeting was moved and very useful it was too. At no point was I made to feel in the way or awkward, just thoroughly welcome 🙂
A couple of years ago I did a teaching course at a local college. The room we were in was awkward to say the least, but I was really well supported by the class as a whole. Reversing in and out of the only space I could sit was tricky and I don’t do reversing well! Also the desk was quite low and being in a chair virtually all the time then, it meant I had to lean over a fair way to do my work. For various reasons a higher table wasn’t available. But the problems were managable with a bit of support from others and some clever thinking – rare I know! – from me! One of my classmates would fetch me a coffee during the break, probably to save the building from disaster as I reversed yet again into the walls and door frames 🙂 ! And I brought in an arm support pillow I’d made at home which reduced the strain on my neck and shoulders and meant I could take legible notes. So remember even if its not perfect, by being honest with your participants about any slightly difficult problems, quite often team work and a bit of ingenuity can overcome barriers too!
As a final note and word to the wise: Please do not book a room in a venue which isn’t accessible on the understanding that if a disabled person turns up you can move! This is not being compliant and having been in this situation myself, although I appreciated the effort in moving by the organisers, I did feel somewhat embarrassed and awkward about “putting people out” and if you want repeat business, then maybe this isn’t the way to get it!
Coming Next: Planning the Workshop