Sometimes, looking at things from a sideways angle is helpful...

Monday, 30 January 2012

#ncafc and accessibility

I'm going to preface this by saying that I'm not blaming anyone for accessibility at #ncafc - I'm just noting down all the problems I found with it, partly to remind myself of what needs doing before the next conference, in which Matt B and I will be taking charge of ensuring accessibility.

Wheelchair access at the conference was reasonably good. The building was accessible, for example. What would have made it more accessible would have been documents in advance including a map (showing inclines) for people who walked, advice on which buses go to the venue, and a map showing where to catch and get off the buses, information on whether the buses were available to wheelchair and manual chair users, advice on taxis, and a rough costing for a taxi from the station to the venue. This would also have improved accessibility for people with learning difficulties which make using a map difficult, people with invisible (and visible) disabilities that affect energy levels, and people with mental health problems who can be triggered by uncertainty. Ideally there should also have been information produced on local venues and whether they were accessible, for example local pubs (and accessibility includes wheelchair access, noise levels, flashing lights, whether there's a wide range of food for people with specific dietary needs, etc). In my case I didn't request accessible accommodation, luckily, since nowhere that wasn't up stairs could be found. In someone else's case they did request some form of accessible accommodation, and got a bed with no bedding. I know NCAFC has no money, and as a result accessible accommodation simply can't be bought, but at the least it should be looked into, the disabled students officer at the hosting university should be contacted, and if there is no accessible accommodation (and people need to state what they mean and need when they say 'accessible') people should be forewarned.

Access breaks, quite simply, didn't exist. Access breaks aren't optional. They're not something to slip in if we have time. They're not something to be voted on. When there were workshops and motions debates etc next to each other there was time for a brief access break. When motions debate was voted to continue and continue for three hours, then there wasn't. Access breaks are not optional. From the beginning of timetabling there should have been a fifteen minute access break scheduled every 75 minutes, and this should have happened regardless of how behind we were. Not scheduling and having access breaks means people with disabilities that require these are unable to fully participate.

Safer space was really poor - to the point where I eventually left a session. Safer space means a number of different things. Firstly, a physical space - a quiet room where all political discussion is left at the door, where people could rest, sleep in chairs if necessary, and generally get some space. This is invaluable for people who have some mental health problems and issues with energy levels. I'd agree that it can be hard to organise and find space, but even a quiet corner designated safer space is better than none. The conference floor was not a safe space at all. People were whispering, indicating disagreement, talking during speeches, tweeting insults (including ableist and misogynistic insults) to the official hashtag, heckling speakers, applauding, personally insulting speakers, making clear assumptions about speakers, interrupting speakers, laughing at speakers (during and after their speeches), and claiming accessibility mattered whilst doing these things. This is not acceptable, this is inappropriate, alienating, offensive, and truly horrific behaviour, essentially. Almost worse, clapping was accepted as an access issue, then allowed in specific circumstances. As a wheelchair user, on a number of occasions I refrained from speaking because I wouldn't have been able to get my chair to conference floor, because people had pulled chairs into the aisle in front of me. Another access issue for some people was the fact that liberation motions were at the end of the order paper. One way round this would be to vote on the order paper, possibly in advance of conference - hold an online ballot when the motions are released, to be left open for the week amendments can be submitted, to ensure that motions are discussed in an order important to conference. It's also worth noting that people with some disabilities might have difficulty limiting themselves to time when speaking, and might require longer to make a point. Therefore, timed speeches should be altered at chair's discretion if someone obviously needs longer.

The Students' Council Safer Space Policy, from Edinburgh University Students Association, with a few minor edits, is very good:

Student Council Safe Space Policy
To be implemented at Student Council and related meetings.

  1. Members are expected to respect the right of all Council members, students attending Student Council (and related meetings) and staff to enjoy EUSA as a safe space environment, defined as a space which is welcoming and safe and includes the prohibition of discriminatory language and actions.
  2. EUSA operates a Zero Tolerance policy towards discrimination based on:
    1. Age
    2. Race and Ethnicity
    3. Disability
    4. Sexual Orientation
    5. Gender and Gender Assignment
    6. Marriage and Civil Partnership
    7. Pregnancy and Maternity
    8. Religion and Belief
    9. Political Affiliation
    10. Class
  3. All Council meetings shall be conducted with an assumption that the meeting shall constitute a ‘safe space’ for the conduct of debate, discussion and decision making.
  4. A meeting shall be deemed to be a safe space where no-one is disadvantaged or discouraged from contributing, so long as they respect others’ ability to contribute; and where the principle of equal opportunities is respected.
  5. All members are expected to conduct themselves in a manner which is respectful and considerate of the contributions of others. This is defined as:
    1. Allowing Council members to speak when called upon by the chair.
    2. Refraining from speaking over, interrupting, heckling, laughing at or otherwise distracting from the speaker who holds the floor.
    3. Refraining from hand gestures which denote disagreement or in any other way indicating disagreement with a point or points being made. Disagreements should only be evident through the normal course of debate.
    4. Avoiding using gestures which are not generally known or accepted by Council.
    5. Gestures indicating agreement are permissible, if these gestures are generally understood and not used in an intimidating manner.
    6. Applause is not acceptable. Agreement can be indicated using permissible hand gestures.

Documents in advance, available to download as .doc and .pdf files save a lot of time and effort. People with different disabilities might need coloured paper, large print or braille printed documents, and having them available a week in advance allows people to get the documents in the appropriate form. Obviously have some on the day, including a few on coloured paper and a few large print, but if people can prepare their own they can have the documents in the most accessible format for them. This should happen at least a week in advance, not just for special printing reasons, but also because people with some learning difficulties might take longer to read the motions and be able to make clear sense of them. They should all be formatted identically. This means ideally that the deadline for motions be T-3 weeks (and motions should be published immediately), the deadline for amendments T-2 weeks (and amendments should be published immediately), and documents in advance prepared by T-1 week.

Overall, my advice would be to have had some more specific paperwork, maybe an online registration form for example, which asked questions about accessibility needs of all types. Saying that, this was a left-wing conference people decided to attend on the day, or very close to time, which would have made that difficult, so my next piece of advice would be to have had someone named to contact with any form of access needs, so that the conference could do their best to meet them.

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