Late last year, I ran a workshop that I will not forget for a long time. A man in a motorised wheelchair, who because the training was arranged with not much notice, struggled to get to the meeting room where it was held. 15 minutes into the session, he came in through the door. People sitting at the table were working on an individual activity, in silence. He couldn’t grasp a pen, hold a workbook or even get his wheelchair past where people were sitting at the table.
I could sense his embarrassment as I hurriedly (and somewhat clumsily) set about accommodating him. That required changing everything the group had been told to do, where people sat, the workshop basically started again. Whilst everyone was gracious, understanding and welcoming, I could sense how sad he felt. Similarly, I felt like when bullies had pulled my pants down in the schoolyard as a kid. Surely we can do better, I thought.
Last month, I was invited to help do something about it by co-runing a brainstorming session with a talented colleague. The audience were a dozen members of ‘nability’, my employer’s internal community of people with a visual, hearing, psychological or physical impairment. The session was to start the basis of our new Accessibility Action Plan. We have had such a plan as a company since 1997. Having a plan didn’t prevent the situation late last year, but it has delivered many real outcomes.
As facilitators, my colleague and I were given a remit. Not looking at how to enhance the existing plan, but gaining instead current perspectives and virgin ideas to start fresh. A wide brief for 90 valuable minutes. As I set about the session plan draft, I reflected upon a number of things:
a) Why weren’t our HR people just getting a survey monkey filled out, accessing the thoughts of the hundreds of people in the nability community? Then I thought of someone with a vision impairment trying to navigate that. I asked the question of them later too; they wanted to have everyone in a room together to bond.
b) How should we group the diverse audience? I consulted the manager who looks after the needs of the nability community on the merits of a table representing each type of impairment. It felt intuitively wrong to do so but I was concerned about the practicalities of everyone being heard and knowing what was going on during the session. As it turned out, we did need to group people with vision impairment together to be close to the front, as well as those with a hearing impairment. For both, it was to allow for easier understanding of instructions and debriefs.
c) Could we truly facilitate this session? I had faith in my co-facilitator. He knows his craft well and has a ridiculously good way with people: warm and cheeky. I had faith in myself too, particularly my ability to extemporise. Cheekiness and extemporising were too much of a risk for this session though. There is a limit to how much one, or two, facilitators can juggle. True, full-blooded facilitating would have exceeded our limits. Instead I came up with a highly structured session plan that could be squashed in places like an accordion if time blew out.
The senior leader
I took a chance and invited a senior leader to open the session. Candidly, she recounted her experiences – good and bad – of her recovery from a debilitating illness and associated return-to-work regimen over the last few months. Her experiences were in parallel with many in the room, and her story-sharing was the best use of 15 minutes we could have had. Everyone felt a sense of hope at that point. All I had to do was position the senior leader as now being part of everyone’s network, and a sponsor of sorts to the outcomes of that session. It resonated the urgency of the remaining minutes and the confidence of where the brainstorming would end up afterwards.
The technical instructions
The set-up for the brainstorming part of the session was quite layered. Based on consultations prior, my co-facilitator and I used long pauses, louder than usual voices and a slow, deliberate vocal pacing (good practice anyway to talk at the rate people will process verbal information, this was a notch slower than that though). The reasons were we had auslan interpreters in the room for hearing impaired people and they needed to keep up with us; also we had people with a vision impairment who could not see the wall of flipcharts we were using nor the utensils on the tables.
Given the layered instructions, the first of 3 rounds of brainstorming started off a little confused. My co-facilitator and I worked the four tables, clarifying what was needed for the first 5 minutes. It was clear that the time we had available for the 3 rounds (60 minutes) was going to be barely sufficient. The first round was to define an ideal world for the people in the room. To emphasise the notion of ‘no-barriers’, we used the theme of ‘to dream’. To add succour that the participants’ real world would be defined too, we let them know that they would chart their barriers in the next round.
As ideas were germinated and recorded onto single post-it notes (the wide ones), my co-facilitator and I took them and placed them into one of 5 groups next to the ‘Ideal World’ flipchart. This allowed us to encourage, give time updates, answer questions and maintain a physical energy in the room. After the first round, my co-facilitator verbally confirmed key takeaways that were building visually. We repeated this for another 2 rounds, with the final outcome looking like this:
Feedback from management was positive. We got over 200 individual contributions in that 60 minutes. The only downside was that they all needed to be individually typed up, which isn’t very efficient, but it was worth maximising the impact of the time where we had that community together. We sent the information soft-copy around about a week later.
The massive visual wall that was built within the session emphasised the scale of the problems, but even better, the scale of the ideas to overcome them. Even for those who couldn’t see the visual in the session, the description of it by everyone back to them clearly resonated. Feedback after the session from the participants was that it was the first time they felt the information that was collected was really going to be used for meaningful change. The elements they cited were being physically together in a room, that our facilitation didn’t get in the way and that they were really excited about the next use of the information.
A week later, representatives from the diverse business units in our company got together to work on the next phase of our Accessibility Action Plan. I was also privileged to be able to facilitate that session. Halfway through, the representatives got up and spent 10 minutes reviewing the visual wall, which had been re-assembled, unaltered from the original brainstorming. To increase the effect of the visual, the soft-copy outcomes had not been released yet to the audience in the room, it was their first look.
The notion of scale was there. The organised nature of the visual directed the eye to elements that were part of their individual brief. The directness of the language on the post-its communicated the urgency. The ideas were right there to be taken and implemented. I expected discussion but I did not expect such a steely determination from the decision-makers in the room to do something. (A month on, from a learning and development perspective, there are now a swathe of actions occurring with our program design, co-ordination and delivery. This is an indication of that determination turning into tangible action).
In the weeks since, I have thought about the nature of the design of the brainstorming session and how we ran it. While out for a jog a few days ago, it struck me that the best solution would have been to get the nability community and the business unit reps into a room for a full day. There would be time for story-sharing, experiential learning (such as using accessible software, glasses that replicate levels of visual impairment, navigation of a site in a wheelchair, etc) and joint outcomes. Such a session would have further built a sense of community too.
But in any aspect of life there are compromises, especially in a business with increasing cost and time pressures. We couldn’t commit 50 people for a full day, and everyone understood. Compromise is the essence of the experience for anyone with a disability. My intention is not to be glib here; through working with this community last month, I got to understand a lot better what challenges they overcome daily. They are extremely resilient and have more to give than what they are asked to provide. They genuinely appreciated just being able to be listened to.
Within the parameters we were set, my colleague facilitator and I came through with a professional performance. We prepared deeply, reigned our egos in, maintained awareness, executed our skills and thought on our feet. As a result, we both grew and had something to feel proud of. We are both changed as well. We are part of this community now, and we are accountable to improve it.