Anxiety and some kinds of neurodivergence can make the uncertainty inherent in an event a real barrier to participation. These sorts of issues can be easily overlooked and can result in excluding people who could have participated with the right support. Accessibility isn’t just about whether a person can physically get into the space, barriers are not just about bodies.
I’m no great expert on neurodivergence. My understanding is that unfamiliar things, changes to routines, and other kinds of uncertainty can be immensely stressful for some neurodivergent people. Knowing things in advance so as to be able to feel prepared can make a great deal of odds and reduces anxiety.
I do know a fair bit about anxiety. Given an empty space, the anxious brain will just go ahead and plug in disasters. The more you know, the less room there is to unleash the panic weasels, and the more manageable the situation becomes.
What kind of thing a person needs to know about is probably going to be quite variable. Based on what I’ve seen around event organising, the most important thing is not to be complacent around requests for information. Don’t assume people are being unreasonable or demanding if they need to know about something ahead of time. Also, they probably aren’t going to tell you if they have sensitivity issues caused by autism, or a hard time imagining unfamiliar things, or are checking to avoid trauma triggers, or need to stop their brain from coming up with a hundred potential disasters.
If you don’t know exactly how something is going to work, tell people what you do know – try and work out what the limits are. Consider asking if there’s any kind of information they need. Make it ok for people to step out if something turns out to be too much for them. Actively support people whose psychological needs are different from your own and don’t expect everyone to be the same.
It shouldn’t matter why people are asking for information and help – in that we should not have to be persuaded they have a specific need in order to act on requests like these.
Recently we had an art show in our home town. It’s an accessible gallery space, with ramps and an accessible toilet, and we did get one visitor on a mobility scooter.
Art is usually hung at a height that assumes the viewer is an adult, and standing up. We took the decision to hang art at various different heights so that some of it was actually inconvenient for standing adults – who could and did crouch down to have a look.
During the course of the week we had a lot of people bring children in. I had the pleasure of watching children work their way along the images that were at a good height for them, looking at the art and enjoying the experience. I’ve never been to a show that hung anything at a child’s eye level before.
It’s all too easy as an able bodied person to go into a space and only see how that space works for you. It’s all too easy to assume everyone else using the space will use it in the same way that you do. I’m committing to thinking more about this, and trying to make what I do in spaces more accommodating of more people.
Here’s a video of the exhibition in which you can see the child-level art, amongst other things.
One of the things that really impacts on how accessible a ritual is, is when you hold it. If you’re viewing ritual from the perspective of an able-bodied car owner you might not be alert to the ways in which poverty and disability are impacted by timings.
It is of course tempting to be out in the dark – privacy and mystery are both enhanced by this. However, for a woman travelling alone, a late finish can be intimidating. I’ve talked to women who found getting to their car late at night intimidating. For a woman walking, cycling or on public transport, the fear of assault is often much worse.
If your ritual ends late, there may be no public transport options. Anyone who does not have a car will thus be barred from attending if they can’t walk.
Low light increases the physical hazards in a situation. A person with poor eyesight or mobility issues may feel barred from attending.
Cold night air can be a problem for anyone with breathing-related health problems. Cold outdoor conditions can increase pain for people who already deal with pain. An outdoors ritual in the dark, in the dark half of the year can be physically too demanding for people who are bodily limited.
If you don’t flag up your willingness to discuss timing, people may well assume that it isn’t open to discussion. People who struggle are all too used to dealing with people who won’t take their issues seriously or accommodate them. It can seem better to just save your energy and accept not participating. Don’t assume people who are in difficulty will tell you that or tell you what their problems are unsolicited.
Rituals work better when we have a culture of active care and find ways to look after each other. We build community when we do this, and we avoid excluding people.
One of the easiest ways to make your rituals more accessible, is to make it ok to sit down. In indoors venues, provide and offer chairs. For outdoor gatherings, add ‘seats’ to the list of things people might want to bring.
Fatigue is a common problem that people have alongside illness and many kinds of disability. It can also be an issue around mental health problems. So, not being able to stand for an hour or two is one of the most likely problems that could make a ritual inaccessible. And it is so easy to fix!
You will also have to think about what people are doing during the ritual to make sure no problems will arise for people who are sitting.
In very hot weather, the safety of your entire ritual is improved by it being fine for people to sit down if they need to.
When advertising an event, the odds are you won’t be able to talk at length about every possible access issue. By saying ‘chairs/sitting welcome’ you flag up that you are going to be open to other access conversations. This can really help people approach you. Anyone who has experienced discrimination has probably also had the experience of being treated like they don’t matter, like they make too much of a fuss or that it isn’t worth bothering with their issues. By drawing attention to chairs, you can make it clear that you aren’t that sort of person and you will get into a conversation with anyone who needs it.
It’s not always possible to provide everything for everyone – but we can try! Showing care and respect has a value all by itself and opens the way to finding ways to include more people.