Access allowed

Samantha Brown explains why raising the bar for academic venue accessibility is a must

Accessibility must be a priority for the academic venue sector. Nearly one in five people in the UK lives with a disability, including 300,000 students. With more universities now integrating meetings, conference and events facilities into their portfolio, work is needed to ensure the needs of disabled delegates and students are met.

While steps have been taken to raise standards, a new approach to accessibility is needed.

The impetus is now on academic venues to implement more than industry-standard lifts and wheelchair ramps, but how can this be achieved?

Academic venues should begin by developing a tailored accessibility strategy, centred on individually assessing and preparing for each disabled delegate or student. One example of where this can be effective is when catering for people with varying degrees of sight loss. For those that are partially sighted, venues can utilise high-visibility tape. Marking the corners of furniture, glass doors and gradient changes can help students and delegates identify hazardous areas. A similar technique can be applied to signage with tape used to highlight key messages. Severely visually impaired individuals may rely on the assistance of guide dogs. To prepare for this, academic venues can position feeding stations around the site, while also providing open spaces for guide dogs to use for breaks. These small steps are important in maintaining the wellbeing of support dogs and those who rely on their services.

Technology is also an important tool for academic venues, especially when catering for delegates staying in halls of residence or an on-site hotel.

The safety of those with hearing impairments can be addressed through installing vibrating pillow pads which alert sleeping guests to fire alarms.

The impetus is now on academic venues to implement more than industry-standard lifts and wheelchair ramps

Wireless doorbells can also be installed which display light rather than sound when pressed.

Vast investment is not necessary and instead utilising the right technology can help raise safety and accessibility standards. Improvements should not be limited to conferencing and residential spaces, however, and the accessibility of all areas has to be considered. This means also making enhancements to an academic venue’s catering space and offering. First steps include developing accessible menus for visually impaired guests, either through high-contrasting paper or braille.

It is important to be aware of lesser-known disabilities such as those relating to taste and smell. Carrying out individual assessments and identifying issues ahead of time can enable a venue to work with its catering team on creating a food and beverage offering focused on texture, temperature or spice – ensuring options remain appealing for delegates.

When developing a tailored approach to accessibility, the value of proper training must not be underestimated. External training providers can provide guidance on complex disabilities such as autism or dementia, helping equip staff, from sales through to front of house, with the skills needed to support disabled delegates or students.

Though progress is being made, accessibility remains an opportunity for academic venues to raise the bar for student and delegate experience. An innovative approach to accessibility can be the difference in helping venues and institutions stand out in a competitive marketplace, generating new and repeat custom.

Only by embracing a tailored and flexible approach to accessibility can the academic venue sector become truly inclusive, maximising its long-term growth.

Samantha Brown is head of Conference Aston

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