How to Make Your Sex-Positive Event Accessible to Folks with Disabilities: An Interview with Robin Mandell

Posted by on April 28, 2014 in Blog, Events | 1 comment

Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting sexuality and relationships educator Robin Mandell. I’d heard about her work with Scarleteen while I was living in Australia, so I was delighted to finally meet her in person when I returned to the States.

In addition to teaching about pleasure and blogging on her site, Ready Sexy Able, Robin speaks and writes about sexuality and disability. She has developed a passion for starting dialogues on sex, disability and accessibility, and has come to the realization that, as much as she just wants to be like everybody else, she can use her visible reality as a blind woman to start these dialogues.

The SG Emissaries and I often discuss how to make meet ups and events accessible, which isn’t always easy or straightforward. So I took the opportunity to interview my colleague Robin about what we event organizers can do to make our sex-positive events more accessible for people with disabilities.

Here’s what she had to say:

Robin Mandell photoKate: If you were talking to someone totally unfamiliar with accessibility issues in event organizing, where would you start the conversation?

Robin: Well, I’d probably start by saying I’m not an expert. *laughing* As a visibly disabled person, I want to be sure folks know that mine isn’t the only or final word on any of this. Also, what I say here isn’t the only or final word. I don’t think you’re looking for a book, so I’ll try to keep this short—which means I’ll leave stuff out. People are always welcome to contact me if they want other resources or ideas.

The best way to learn about anything is to hear from the people who experience it. It’s easy when talking about accessibility to focus on the rules and regs, but there are real people behind those–people whose lives are affected by whether a place or event is or isn’t accessible.

If your life hasn’t brought you into contact with people with disabilities or access information, or you’re looking for a wider perspective, I’d suggest a good starting place is to take some time to learn. We’re all geeks, so we like learning, right?

There are some fabulous disability blogs out there that make for great reading, and give a personal, inside look into the lives of individuals with disabilities and the kinds of access challenges we face. This list from the incomparable folk s at Gimp Girl will get you started. It’s a lot more interesting, and I think a lot more useful than reading dry statistics on disability or wading through access laws.

Not to say that knowing about those access laws isn’t useful, but I’d like to see sex geeks using these laws as guidelines for what to look for, not quotas they have to meet, quotas which, once met, don’t have to be addressed anymore. In other words, let’s treat people with disabilities like human beings. The laws don’t decide for us how we’re going to organize our event; treating people like human beings will.

I’d also encourage people not to think about accessibility as anything special, but as considerations along the same lines of considering whether there will be a wide enough beverage selection to meet everyone’s tastes.

K: What accessibility barriers do you most often see in organized events?

R: Most often, I see an inattention to accessibility. There are enough finicky details in event organizing in general that I think it’s useful to assign someone to particularly address accessibility needs, at least right now while this is still so new to many of us. That person can then educate themselves on what sorts of accessibility issues could come up, and be the point-person attendees can contact before or during the event.

I contacted an event organizer once about some accessibility needs I had, and their response was that they didn’t particularly know what to do. While I appreciated the honesty, I would have then liked them to say: “please contact this person and they’ll see what they can do to help you.” Instead, they just left it at not knowing what to do.

It’s tough to list specific access considerations since what kind of event it is will dictate what kind of access needs there could be. To answer this most accurately, I’d really need to have specific cases or examples.

K: One thing I’ve heard from several of the Sex Geekdom emissaries is that it’s challenging to find any bar or restaurant that is wheelchair accessible. These meet ups are often in places where there are not laws that require certain types of accessibility. What suggestions do you have for a meet up organizer in those instances?

R: In the U.S., all bars and restaurants, with the exception of membership-only clubs, are governed by accessibility laws. Any space open to the public must make at least part of their space accessible, so that all patrons can access the same goods and services regardless of ability. Of course, how this works in practice is quite different, but the laws are pretty much universal across public spaces.

The thing is that there are no accessibility police running around to see if the laws are being met.

It’s definitely challenging, when trying to find a central location, with food and drink options that will be affordable to everyone, to add the further complication of finding wheelchair accessible spaces, which, I might add, will also be spaces more easily accessed by people using support canes, crutches, walkers, or other mobility devices. Added to this, when we’re talking about sex, we’re usually going to want to be in a private room or at least a secluded area. Sometimes, the main space of a restaurant or bar is accessible, but private rooms are not.

I’d suggest broadening the scope of where people look for places. Look for newer buildings that rent space, such as some of the larger chain hotels, and community centers. Cost may be prohibitive at some of these locations, and our subject matter might be prohibitive at others. Broadening the scope of where we look is much more likely to yield positive results, though.

If meeting at a restaurant, other accessibility considerations could include whether the restaurant has their menu online. This will specifically benefit people with dietary issues, and people who have visual or visual processing impairments.

I’d also suggest being clear in event advertising whether or how the event will be accessible.

Some places, for example, will be accessible to people using mobility devices who want to eat there, but won’t be accessible to people using mobility devices who want to use the bathroom. People should at least know ahead of time if your event will be held in one of these places, so they can decide if they’ll be able to attend, knowing they may be able to meet one basic need, but not another.

Finally, I actually think there are two pieces to this: what to do about finding accessible places to hold meet-ups, and what to do about the places that aren’t accessible.

Since I’m a huge fan of cross-issue activism, I think it’d be fantastic if sex geeks can start approaching venues about their lack of accessibility. Let’s raise our voices and let folks know when they’re losing business because of inaccessibility!

K: What are some of the hidden accessibility issues that you’d like to see discussed more often?

R: Oy! Where do I start?

Seriously, I’ll keep this to considerations for meeting in public spaces.

Loud Music: Lots of restaurants and bars play loud music. This makes it really tough for a lot of people with hearing or auditory processing disorders to listen and communicate. It can be tough for some blind or low-vision people too, not because they have hearing problems (though some of us do), but because in loud environments people use their vision to help them communicate with others, so not having vision makes it more difficult to start or carry on conversations.

Scents and Odors: Scented body products can also be a real problem for people with environmental sensitivities or illness. When meeting in a public space, it’s usually not possible to advertise your event as scent-free, but you can ask your attendees not to wear scented products, which will increase accessibility for people with less severe sensitivities or allergies.

Buffets: Buffets are considered a good option because they’re frequently low-cost, and many people can meet their individual food needs. Buffets pose challenges, though, to lots of people with various kinds of disabilities. While some of these people will be open to getting help from group members, others won’t feel as comfortable about it. No matter how generously help is given, it can still feel like a power differential to have someone you’re trying to get to know as an equal, and as a professional, helping you get your food. I’d suggest avoiding buffets, or dining at places which will allow your attendees to order table service if they so wish.

Group Conversations: This holds true in public and private meeting spaces. If facilitating a group discussion, please ask people to speak one at a time. This will greatly assist with hearing and comprehension for people who have difficulty with either (or both) of those things.

Remember too that organizing an event isn’t just about where you meet, but about how people get there, and how they hear about the event. Making sure your event space is on a public transit route, and ensuring that online advertising is clearly written and screen-reader accessible can help you make your event more accessible.

I’d say the most hidden accessibility issue is attitudinal barriers.

K: What are things people can do, once at the event, to help people with disabilities feel more welcome?

R: Talk to us, please—the way you’d talk to any other attendee. I know some of this may seem obvious, but please trust me when I say that all of it is coming from experiences I, or other disabled people I know, have had.

Asking about someone’s disability isn’t appropriate on a first meeting unless they bring it up first.

Asking what kind of help someone needs is appropriate, but should not be the first question you ask upon meeting them.

Sometimes when a person with a disability comes into a space, there ensues a flurry of activity with everyone trying to help them, whether they need help or not. This sort of attention doesn’t feel nice, and feels much more exclusive than inclusive.

Please greet and get to know someone with a disability the way you’d greet and get to know anyone else coming into your event. They’re there for the same reason you are,, after all.

Similarly, please don’t try to seat someone when the rest of the group is milling about interacting, unless that person indicates that they need to sit down or be in a less crowded part of the room. If that’s the case, as an organizer, try to help part of the group migrate over to where the person is sitting, so they can be part of the social/professional interactions, not just sitting apart.

They may still choose to just sit and observe, but making sure that they’re not on one side of the room while everyone else is on the other side (again, unless they’ve specifically indicated that this is how they want it) is important and gives the disabled person or people (after all, you could have more than one disabled person at an event) the choice whether and how they interact with other attendees.

You’ll also want to watch for assumptions, such as that a disabled person attending with a friend or partner is relying on that friend or partner for help. That may or may not be the case, but their partner or friend shouldn’t be treated or talked to like the “helper.” Most likely, either they or the disabled person will be clear about whether the friend or partner is just tagging along, or whether they’re here to fully participate.

If a disabled person shows up with someone who is helping them, whether it’s to assist with communication, or to aid with physical needs like eating, you’ll all still want to address the disabled person as themselves. Watch out for questions like “What does she want to eat?” or “How long have they been a sex coach?” (Those should be “What do you want to eat?” and “How long have you been a sex coach?”)

It all comes down to what I said before: Accessibility is about treating people like human beings.

Again, anyone reading this is always welcome to contact me if they want to know more about any of this.

Thanks, Kate, for these questions. The more we talk about this the more everyday it will feel, and the easier it will be.

You can find Robin on Twitter or you can contact her through her site, Ready Sexy Able.