5 Keys to an Accessible Meeting

(Adapted from an original blog I posted at http://elgl.org/2015/11/05/does-ikea-hold-the-key-to-accessible-meetings/)

By Andrew Coulson LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Twitter

Unfortunately, I was unable to attend #ELGL15, due to a little matter of deep water getting in the way, but I managed to gatehash along with the proceedings thanks to those wonderful members who tweeted using the conference hashtag #ELGL15.

The refreshing panel of young, innovative elected officials stuck in my mind. In particular, I was struck by their conversation about making council meetings more accessible to those who feel disenfranchised due to the barriers we put in place by the simple mechanics of meeting procedures that have been in place for 100’s of years. In fact, as I was reading the tweets, this quote from the amazing Rear Admiral Grace Hopper was floating around my head.

One of the panelist highlighted simple ways to remove obstacles to make meetings more accessible. Following the panelist’s suggestions, I was shocked by the Twitter reaction. Shocked, not because the ideas were outside the box, but shocked that local government in the U.S are not already employing these tactics.

The discussion and subsequent Twitter reaction compelled me to write about my experiences over the last 13 years, and tactics I have employed to make meetings more accessible.

5 Keys to an Accessible Meeting

My definition of accessible meetings does not include hosting more meetings or hosting meetings online. My definition is focused on removing the existing barriers that prevent citizens from attending meetings, by using simple tools and techniques, to ensure comfortable participation and higher attendance by a wider demographic. I strongly believe that face-to-face meetings provide a unique opportunity to read body language while citizens provide input in a comfortable environment.

Planned poorly, community meetings can be the death of any engagement strategy. Avoiding the boring, stuffy meetings held in ‘brown’ council offices is key. I’ve highlighted a few strategies to avoid your meeting from becoming another typical government meeting.

Go to them — pretty simple really. If you go to where your community congregates, you will get better participation. I have hosted meetings in cafes, libraries, pubs and even IKEA! Recently, a colleague engaged folks on a popular bus route where she knew people had at least a 30 minute journey. Remember if using a location above ground level make sure there is lift access for those with mobility issues.

Make it easy to attend Feed them, provide child or even adult care, offer to book taxis for those with mobility issues, eliminate safety concerns in the area and make rooms accessible — avoid rooms where there are stairs, no space to move around, even multiple floor types as they can confuse people with Alzheimers.

Colour-coded documents — Many community meetings forget to take into account those with poor reading skills or a learning disability. Simply providing participants with reams of paper — policies, presentations etc. — is not an answer. People with poor eye sight or low literacy levels will automatically feel isolated and unable to contribute leading to them being withdrawn from the process. To rectify this, consider a different colour dot on the first page or print the front page of each document using different colour and when referring to a specific document call out the colour of the document not the title.

Plain language should be used in documents, font size of 12 or larger, and write numbers instead of spelling them out, i.e. 123 instead of One hundred and Twenty Three. A great reference document is Mencap’s — Am I making myself clear.

Red card/Green card — This technique is perfect for meetings with multiple stakeholders. Often, in meetings, you will have a couple of dominant speakers this technique allows equal say if people wish to speak. The red and green cards allow those who may be shy or less confident to get involved without having to raise their voice. The red card is used to show that a person wishes to stop the current speaker and ask them to explain something that they have not understood — an abbreviation, acronyms, jargon etc. The green card can be used to show the chair/facilitator that they have a question. Normally red cards are acknowledged immediately by the moderator while green cards are acknowledged when a speaker is finished. Using the cards allows speakers to talk without interruptions, and the facilitator has an easier time managing the meeting.

Use the community’s skills — Involve the experts in your community. They can help you find meeting places, caterers that provide food better than soggy sandwiches, and importantly, assist in finding community translators. (I’ve had community members provide the food themselves because they knew it would entice others out of their homes, can’t beat home cooking right!)

I have used paid community groups to translate a DVD, which saved thousands in professional fees. Basically, I had seven languages translated for the price of one. The benefit of this approach was a translated transcript of the DVD in various community languages and dialects, and the different communities were watching and understanding the message in the DVD whilst doing the work. Win Win! For another win, I paid the local community groups instead of a company with less community connections so the money benefits their community not an corporation.

These are a few tips, and admittedly, some of these options require more time and money but the result is people who are committed, awake and concentrating. The whole point of engaging the community is to bring them along on the journey by building trust and accountability. Removing barriers to participation goes a long way.

Originally published at elgl.org on November 5, 2015.

Innovative Community Engagement. @engage2act Director and Board member, #engage2act advocate, #gatehashing instigator.

Innovative Community Engagement. @engage2act Director and Board member, #engage2act advocate, #gatehashing instigator.