Making events accessible: Choosing a venue
Selecting a suitable venue for an event might seem straightforward but it is, in reality, much more complicated than it first appears. You should always visit the venue before booking it and take a checklist with you to look out for certain key access points. It is important to recognise that a checklist is not - and never will be - definitive. It should always be backed up by information from the people that use services who are participating in the event.
Use this checklist as a starting point when selecting a venue:
Public transport Open
Remember that it is not only the venue that needs to be accessible. It is equally important to check out local public transport - for example, train stations, accessible bus routes, accessible taxis and services like Dial-a-Ride, etc.
Where people are travelling by train it can be helpful for someone to meet them at the station if that is possible.
The following are comments made by people who use services:
Wheelchair accessible vehicles with drivers who understand the needs of the wheelchair user are needed at the station. We need to know that we can pre-book these.
I can’t travel on my own, so make sure someone can travel with me.
Flat/level access Open
You should – at the very least – make sure there is flat/level access from and to the:
- drop-off point
- local train station
- nearest bus stop
- restaurant or canteen
- main room
- break-out rooms.
Ensuring level access might seem obvious, but it is surprising how many venues do not have flat access. There are many access issues to look out for – from having no dropped curbs on the pavement outside the venue to having no visible alternative to a revolving door. One small step can be as much of a barrier for some people who use services as a flight of stairs can be for others.
Service users commented:
Electric wheelchairs have a lower clearance for doors etc. A one-inch lip is too hard for me. A manual wheelchair can bounce over these. I can't.
Modern buildings are less likely to expect wheelchair users to come in via a separate ‘accessible’ entrance, round by the bins like some form of social pariah.
Level access in itself can be a barrier to some disabled people. For example, a guide dog is trained to walk along a pavement and stop at a kerb edge. Drop curbs and slopes can be confusing for visually impaired people.
Another person gave this example:
I can walk but I can’t do slopes so steps, with a hand rail, are better for me.
The solution is usually to have alternative options.
Parking, drop-off points and cycle racks Open
- Can disabled parking bays be reserved?
- How far from the entrance and main room is the parking?
- Is the car park regularly checked to ensure that Blue Badge bays are kept for Blue Badge holders?
- Are the designated parking spaces of sufficient width to allow wheelchair users to get in and out of the vehicle (with sufficient space either side of the car and at the rear)?
- Do you have to reserve parking for Blue Badge holders? And if so do you need to give vehicle details to the venue?
- Are there any vehicle height restrictions?
- What is the entrance/exit process and will it be easily accessed by all?
- Is there on-street parking or are there local car parks available?
- Is the drop-off point safe from fast flowing traffic?
- Is there a time restriction on the drop-off or pick up point?
- Is there a secure place to leave a bicycle?
If there isn’t parking available, identify parking nearby.
Some people who use services travel by car because of lack of access or other difficulties using public transport. It is essential to use venues that have access/Blue Badge parking. Spaces for Blue Badge holders should be wider than standard spaces to allow people to get wheelchairs and other equipment in and out of their cars and ease of access.
Other people who use services said that for some people who were unable to hold a driving license, or who faced financial restrictions as a direct result of their impairment, use cycling as their primary form of transport. They were keen to point out that not only should there be secure parking for bicycles but that it should be available for non-standard cycles such as tricycles and tandems.
Service users made the following comments:
Some locations i.e. hotels/motels say they are disabled friendly but then don’t have parking.
Disabled parking bays need to be reserved and the venue needs to ensure they are kept clear... This also means that the extra space at the side of the car is kept clear and that bikes don’t park there. I have had to wait for bikers to return before I can get into my own car.
I have been to many car parks where you have to lean out of the window and get a ticket before you can proceed. This is impossible for me to do.
Entrances and entry systems Open
- Is the entrance level?
- Are the doors clearly marked?
- Is alternative access clearly signposted?
- Is the button for assistance clearly signed and at appropriate height?
- Is there an alternative to the entry phone/key pad system?
- Is the alternative to the revolving door clearly marked and unlocked?
The entrance should be level or ramped, and if there are steps as well these need to have a handrail and clearly marked step edges. Portable ramps can be acceptable for a few steps, but ensuring they are out when needed and not dangerous makes them undesirable. Some people with walking difficulties prefer steps to a ramp. Revolving doors are not suitable for wheelchair users, guide dog owners and many with walking difficulties. The position of the entry door needs to be clear for people with a visual impairment and glass doors should be well identified. Glass doors can be difficult to see and should have coloured markings on the glass (tape, paint etc.) to be safe.
Entrances should be well signposted to avoid confusion or unnecessary effort, as should any alternative entrance for wheelchair users.
Any bell system for people to summon assistance must be accessible to wheelchair users and short people. It is important to consider how someone with a hearing impairment will get in if there is an entry-phone system and whether a visually impaired person would know it is there and be able to use it.
‘(With) video or bell entry I cannot hear what is being said so I can't reply.’
‘Even if you find the front door you can’t always get in. There might be a doorman or porter at a desk but you can’t tell if you have their attention or not. It can be very frustrating.’
In this situation people will increasingly use a mobile phone to ring or text for help. Prior to the meeting, you should give out the phone number of someone who will be there on the day.
- Is there good natural day light?
- Are there blinds if the light is too strong?
- Are there controls for lighting and additional lights if needed?
- Are there changing light levels within the building or rooms that might cause problems, particularly for people with visual impairments?
Different light levels suit different people. Most people prefer natural light but direct sunlight, particularly on a bright day, is generally uncomfortable.
For many people, moving from one area of light to a different one can be problematic. The venue should be well lit with no changes in light levels in different areas.
Service users commented:
One venue wasn't sure whether they had appropriate lighting installed and emailed me snapshots to check.
Occasionally, organisers are willing to bring in lighting from home.
Accessible toilets and other accessible facilities Open
You should ensure that:
- A key is not required to use accessible toilets
- They are accessible for a wide range of people
- There is a paddle flush handle (the mechanism to flush the pan is a lever rather than a push button or pull chain system)
- There is a D bar on the door to enable disabled people to open and close it with ease
- There is plenty of room to manoeuvre
- They are not used as a general store cupboard
- They are close to the main event room
- There is a sufficient number for the size of the event.
Some venues keep accessible toilets locked to ensure that they are only available to disabled people (many are part of a national scheme run by the organisation Radar which provides a standard key that can be used all over the UK). If a key is required, ask for the door to be left unlocked on the day of the event, or at least that a key is easily available from staff on the day.
Wheelchair users are not the only people who need to use accessible facilities. People with different impairments need to access them for varying reasons, so avoid making assumptions.
Are the accessible toilets actually accessible? Do they have a D bar on the door so that I can pull the door closed if it opens outwards to let me in?
Are the toilet rolls, soap and hand towels (hand drier) easily accessible, so that water does not run down your sleeves or drip onto a toilet roll which has a hand towel dispenser above?
All too often the accessible toilet is all white on white which makes it very difficult, especially locking the door!
Transgendered people like myself sometimes like to use the accessible toilet. If we use the men’s we are likely to be abused and if we use the women’s they don’t like it either.
It is worth noting that more people commented on accessible facilities than on any other area of the acess-wiki website.
Equipment for people with hearing impairments Open
- Are there hearing loops in all the rooms being used, including break-out rooms?
- Who is responsible for it?
- Can it be checked on the day?
- What are the microphones like and will they be accessible to all the speakers?
- Do people need to sit in a particular place if they want to use the loop?
Hearing loops (which boost sound for people who use hearing aids) that are installed at the venue are generally better than taking portable loops to a venue that does not have them. Check with the venue if someone is responsible for its working and whether they will be available on the day of the event. If the venue does not have a system, you will need to hire a portable one.
Hearing loops are notoriously unreliable and they need to be checked on the day. One of the main problems with hearing loops can be the level of background noise that can be picked up and magnified by the user.
It is important to understand that hearing loops do not work for all people with hearing impairments.
Background noise Open
When inspecting the venue be aware of background noise such as:
- central heating/air-conditioning
- heavy traffic and sirens,
- railways running nearby
- canteen and kitchen noises
- other delegates using different rooms
A barrier is created wherever other sounds compete with those you are meant to be tuned in to. Background noise can be a barrier to inclusion during the event for many different people who use services. For example, background noise makes it difficult for people who have a speech impairment as it makes it more difficult for others to hear them; it might cause distress for people who hear voices; some hearing aids will tune into the background noise, and for people with a visual impairment who cannot pick up on non-verbal communication, background noise can be a disabling distraction.
One service user suggested:
Don't have different workshops going on in one room – it gets noisy and hard to make yourself heard. Probably not good for people with hearing impairments either.
It is also worth noting that this is not just an issue about noise production but also about the venue’s acoustics. This is particularly likely to be a problem in food areas which are often full of hard surfaces that are designed for cleanliness and cause maximum reverberations. The problem can be reduced by introducing textiles such as wall coverings, tablecloths, etc. where possible.
Space and distance to facilities Open
- Are the corridors wide enough:
- for two wheelchair users to pass by each other?
- to turn a wheelchair around in?
- Is the main room large enough for people to manoeuvre easily whatever their impairment?
Are the lifts operational for people:
- using wheelchairs?
- with visual impairments?
What is the distance between the meeting room and the:
- break-out rooms?
What is the distance between the front door and the:
- meeting room?
- break-out rooms?
Try to arrange to use rooms that are as close together as possible.
Key points from people who use services were:
Are corridors wide enough for wheelchairs? There should be enough space in the corridor for me to turn around and pass other people in wheelchairs.
I use a wheelchair and need enough room to be able to move around canteens or restaurants.
Because of my leg [projecting at right angles to the chair] I often find that so-called accessible buildings are not. Lifts are the worst.
Familiarity for target audiences Open
In striving to make your event as accessible as possible, it is worth giving serious consideration to how familiar the venue might be to your target audience. So, for example, if you are thinking of using a university campus, consider if this is a setting the people who use services you are inviting are likely to be comfortable in? Would they be more relaxed in a community centre in their local area? Or, indeed, vice versa!
A service user commented:
Hold events in safe places and at safe times. Remember that I won’t always feel safe in the same places as straight people.
Food and refreshments Open
When reviewing the venue you should check the following:
- Are the caterers able to meet a range of dietary requirements?
- Where will the food be served?
- How far it is from the main room?
- Can refreshments be made available throughout the event?
- Is there enough seating and tables for all participants, including their personal assistants, support workers and/or translators?
- Will the venue provide staff to assist people?
Many people commented on this topic. It is covered in more detail in The event section.
Alarms and evacuation process Open
- Will the alarms be tested on the day of the event?
- Are there visual alarms as well as audible ones?
- What is the evacuation procedure for people with mobility impairments and/or wheelchair users?
- Is there a level access fire exit?
- Are the lifts fireproof?
- Where is the refuge area for people who are not able to use stairs in the event of a fire and lifts being turned off?
When choosing a venue, it is important to consider the fire regulations and drills for that building. Many people who use services will not be happy for various reasons if you are not on the ground floor and the lifts cannot be used in case of an emergency. Details of such arrangements should be read out to participants at the start of the meeting/event and everyone providing support at the event.
Do evacuation procedures meet the needs of people with mobility and/or sensory impairments? Can, for example, the lifts be used in case of fire? When an alarm sounds are there accompanying lights?
I would not be comfortable if the lifts were out of action and I had to wait upstairs for the fire brigade to arrive.
Reception and other venue staff Open
- Give people a role as ‘meeters and greeters’
Brief venue staff
- on access issues, including letting them know not to alter any ‘reasonable adjustments’
- on disability etiquette
The first people you tend to see on entering a venue are the reception staff. The response you receive from these people is an important indication of how inclusive the event will be. To this end, it is always good to have your own ‘meeters and greeters’ on hand.
Dealing with lots of people can be difficult. Make sure registering is simple and you have a few people on hand to point participants in the right direction – feeling confused can cause panic.
A lot of the comments made by people who use services refer to the need for event organisers to inform and/or train the venue staff:
Event organisers should tell venue staff how they want the furniture laid out, and whether they want them to serve food or carry trays.
Make sure venue staff are prepared to deal with any problems and able to make further changes on the day.
Ask if staff have had training in equality and diversity or if workers have spent time working with different groups of people.
Check that venue staff are ‘equality friendly’ and used to working with a diverse range of people so they are not homophobic, ageist, sizeist etc. Ideally they should have had training in cultural equality.
Others saw the need to have people at the entrance to the venue to ‘meet and greet’ the people who use services on arrival:
People to meet you when you arrive is really good. It puts you at ease and sets the scene for the day.
People wearing clear and easily identifiable tabards or t-shirts who can help you find your way round is helpful.
As a minimum, staff should wear name badges so that participants can easily identify them.
Moving around within the venue Open
- Clutter-free corridors
- Signage should be clear and easy to follow
- Door widths should be at least 80cm for ease of access for wheelchair users
- Lifts should have:
- buttons at a height accessible for wheelchair users and short people
- audio description/announcements
- large, clearly labelled buttons with Braille markings
- large floor numbers marked clearly outside the lifts
- someone to offer assistance
- wide-enough doors for wheelchair access
Just because there are lifts in a building it does not mean they are accessible for wheelchair users. Make sure that that lift doors are wide enough for wheelchair users (the minimum recommended width is 80cm) but be aware that some powered wheelchairs may be particularly wide).
Finding your way inside a building can be problematic for some people who use services.
Service users identified the following ways of making this easier:
Simple, clear and colourful signs help me find meeting rooms.
I find it useful if handrails or texture show when there is going to be a change in what is around me (for example if there are stairs coming up).
Quiet or ‘chill out’ room and a prayer or faith room Open
- Tell participants in advance what is available
- Tell participants on the day where the rooms are and what each is for
- Clearly sign each room
- Signpost East
- Prayer rooms should have facilities nearby where people can wash.
Offering a quiet or ‘chill out’ room and a faith or prayer room is important for making an event accessible. These rooms provide a space to ‘take a break’ from the event and allow people from different faith groups to attend events and still practice the requirements of their religion. You should try to have two rooms available as they can fulfil very different functions. However, it may be difficult to offer both.
I need to have a prayer room. It is helpful if the room has an arrow pointing east.
Would be great to have a 'multi faith' room so all people who are practicing of different faith and go somewhere to take time out and pray.
Just knowing there is a space where I can just go and chill helps me to remain focused.
In general, try to use modern buildings that have been built to be accessible – they are generally better than buildings where attempts have been made to put accessibility in later.