Introducing access

photo of Jo Verrent

Jo Verrent, along with Sarah Pickthall, founded Sync and currently work on development and programme delivery, with Jo focusing on the project management side.

Jo is also ADA inc, a consultancy specialising in diversity, access and inclusion, that works nationally at both a strategic and a direct delivery level.

Jo recently spoke about the way in which access underpins Sync at the Sync Thinking event held on the 9th March, 2011 at the Wellcome Collection in London.

The following is an edited transcript of her presentation on the day.

Back at the beginning

a photo of a pen and paper, ready for notetaking

One of the key principles underpinning Sync is our commitment to access. I can remember when we originally applied to CLP for funds, we took what we thought was a brave step and said we don't know what this programme will look like. We can't tell you what this programme will look like, because we don't know who we will be working with. For us, we don't think that you can decide on how to make something accessible until you know who you are going to be working with. Everybody's needs are very different and everybody's needs are also always evolving.

If I look back to when I was at college I can remember doing my degree and being very clear, when they said, "What access needs do you have?" I said “None, I'm fine, I can manage by myself. I'm fine, I'll lipread, I can do this.” For me at that point in my life I didn't know what was out there to support me. I’d never had support before and at that particular time I perceived needing support as a weakness. Now I know it's not a weakness, it's part of who I am. When I did my post-graduate course I can remember sitting in the room, with people asking, "Do you want a lip speaker, a sign language interpreter, a notetaker?” These were terms I hadn't actually come across before - I didn't know they even existed.

Evolving access

a woman reading an easy read publication

Quite often in Sync we are working with people that might say to us, "there is nothing in particular we need." Then throughout the programme we get to know people and they develop the confidence to say, "actually I can sit down for 20 minutes and I need a stretch," or "actually if you bring a pillow I can lay down during the break", "actually the heat, the temperature in a room is really important to me." Those kind of things are just as essential as ramps, just as essential as interpreters, and within Sync we've been able to bring all of that into the picture.

Some people were quite surprised when, right from the very start of the programme we said that we would include learning disabled people. The concept of leadership and learning disability - it's not something that doesn't happen, but it's something that a lot of people think doesn't happen. A lot of people have an assumption around learning disabled people as being passive as opposed to people who are leaders themselves.

But both Sarah and I, with the backgrounds we have, have learnt a huge amount working with our learning disabled colleagues and couldn't envisage any kind of disability programme that then alienated and excluded a particular type of disabled person. It seemed absolutely essential to us that no disabled people were excluded. We put out easy read materials, (materials that are shorter in length, have shorter words, shorter sentences within them,) and we were pleased to find that a lot of people in a hurry read those first, before going on to read through the other material. Although we provided them originally for our learning disabled members, they are not just used by a small minority of people. We’ve found this often to be true - when you provide support in one way to one person it ends up supporting a much wider range of people.

Access in design

a photo of Susan Austin

When designing an event like Sync Thinking, we wanted to put people into pairs for presentations, partly because of wanting to avoid ‘death by powerpoint presentation’ but also because we know that sometimes people can't make events - it happens. [One of our speakers today] can do their presentation but then has to go because they’re not feeling particularly well today. They’re struggling. We don't see any point in hiding that. You don't have to be well all the time. Leadership does not have to go hand in hand with breakfast meetings and the ability to work from 8 in the morning until 7 in the evening. That's not a pre-requisite of being a leader. I have a hacking cough at the moment, I am under the weather as I’m sure a lot of other people are. It doesn't mean I can't do what I am here to do.

And so that concept of access underpins the whole of the programme, not just the events we run, but also the things we have created. I hope Susan Austin doesn't mind me using her as an example here. We have just created an article together for Sync - it's on the website at the moment. This was a really interesting way of working for both of us. Susan has limited amount of energy so she emailed over some ideas for an article and I said okay I will shape those ideas, and put them into particular paragraphs. Then Susan was able to use her energy on making sure that the article said what she wanted it to say. I was able to use her words and structure them so she didn't have to start from scratch and build that process up. It took her less time and energy, but it is still her article and she said what she want to say. I just provided a few short cuts to that process.

Flexibility

photo of a slinky - a metal coil that has great flexibility

I think that's something else that we [as a disabled community] have not done well or openly before. It’s the way Sarah and I often work - we work things through between us. It’s that sense of family; that sense of supporting each other. When we have interpreters or palantypists, we often ask what kind of language level we are pitching at. There has to be flexibility. When we're working with 20 disabled people in the room there are going to be some conflicts around access.

The last time we were running an event at the Wellcome Centre, it was fantastic. We had somebody who couldn't be in this room because the lighting levels didn’t work for their particular impairment, so we used the foyer of Wellcome as well. We ran back and forth. We had people in small groups up there, and here in the room. We made it work, but only with the generosity of all the people in the room. I think that is what underpins our concept of this kind of evolving access. It’s about being generous. It’s about everybody accepting that in order to include everybody, everybody has to shift. It’s not just a bolt on of the interpreter, or bolt on of putting a ramp out there. It's something much more fundamental than that, it's something that for us is an absolute underlying principle.

If there's one thing that we hope Sync can spread out there into the mainstream I think it is that take on access. Because only when that's there can we truly be authentic, can we truly be who we are and lead in the way that we can.