Future Search The Method

Making Future Search Accessible to ALL
By Maggie Shreve, Consultant and Future Search Network member.

Having worked in this sector for more than 20 years, I felt the need to do something different that demonstrated to people with disabilities that they had the power, energy, and creativity to make things happen for themselves. Voila! Future search!

This piece may strike you as highly complicated. It really isn't. I am not a person with a disability myself. I've learned what follows through simple common sense, by asking lots of questions, and paying attention to conference participants.

If you can imagine negotiating space, toileting, sleeping, and eating in a wheelchair; if you can imagine experiencing a future search without being able to see anything posted on the walls; if you can imaginewatching interpreters or open captions projected on a wall viaoverheads while also trying to follow speakers and reporters from smallgroups - you can begin to empathize with your participants who havedisabilities. Whenever this is a major planning issue, I strongly suggestthat you find your local center for independent living - a generic name for an organization run for and by people with a variety of disability types - to see if it can help you with more local logistical questions and problems.

"They are not 'special,' differently abled,' or any other recent euphemism you may have heard."

Some Basic Guidelines for Planning Accessible Events

How to Start
Begin your accessibility planning with the event steering or planning committee. If the conference istargeted specificallytoward people with disabilities, this committee must have solidrepresentation from the disability groups attending. I am always looking for people with disabilities who have experience and knowledge about accessibility issues and laws generally --and are not just speaking for themselves.

Those who know and understand the Americans with Disabilities Act of1990 (ADA) are often your best advisors. I also look for people who are not so rooted in their owndisability group's needs that they fail to understand and account for the accommodations required by others. For example, planning for wheelchair accessibility is fairly straightforward and easily detailed by measuring doors,elevators, ramps, bathrooms, meeting room and guest room space. Planning for interpreters for the deaf and hearing-impaired is an entirely different matter and requires very different thinking.

The same is true when planning for people who are blind or visually impaired and for people who are mentally retarded or developmentally disabled.

If you have knowledgeable people with disabilities on your steering committee, you will resolve many of these issues there. You also will have a group of people to fall back upon if there are complaints and problems once your event has begun. They will continue to serve as your problem-solvers and creative forces for resolving what can turn a well-planned event into a "political" nightmare. (For more on this possible scenario, just ask Marv and Sandra about an event in Pennsylvania!)

Planning for Yourself
I also build more time into the event schedule as a result of accommodating people with disabilities. As a rule, my future search conferences run about 18 hours rather than 16. The extra time is often spent in longer breaks, which are important for people traveling to and from hard-to-reach bathrooms, or bathrooms with only one wheelchair-accessible stall. Interpreters and deaf participants who get very tired in their arms and in their eyes also benefit from longer breaks. We also need more time to rearrange people from max-mix to stakeholder groups, and it takes more for me or someone to read aloud (for people who are blind or visually impaired) what has been posted on flipchart sheets and butcher paper.

I'm a fast talker, generally, and know that I must slow down for interpreters to keep up with me. So, depending upon the number of deaf or hearing-impaired people in the room and the different types of interpreters we will be using, I must talk more slowly. This actually helps everyone, especially me!

I must also offer alternative language, using appropriate speech patterns and word choices, if there are people with mental retardation inthe room. So when I give my introductory opening, I am careful to give examples of theoretical or conceptual abstractions. This can also prove difficult for interpreters for the deaf, and I have found that it is worth spending extra time with them before the event, familiarizing them with the language Iuse, what it means, how it relates to the graphics on theflipcharts, and ensuring "intent" for the group's work.

Like many practitioners, I worrya great deal about the suitability of the event's meeting space. I often work withsteering committees by phone, because my customers are all non-profit organizations and cannot afford to pay for travel to their location for their meetings. I coach them to find the right place, and I use aplanning sheet with them that details the concerns I have as a facilitator about their chosen venue.

If need be, I call the hotel or meeting site myself to double check a few things. My reason for doing this has less to do with not trusting the steering committee than it does with knowing that I'm using language over the phone that is unfamiliar to the steering committee, I can't see their body or facial reactions, and I don't know if I am getting honest feedback about their understanding of my language, even when I ask over and over again. Many planning groups are unaccustomed to dealing with hotels and meeting site sales and marketing representatives. So, they tend to accept what these facility staff tell them without double- and triple-checking on the reality.

I have also spent some time rehearsing what I will say about access in my introductory remarks, asking people individually or in groups for feedback if they are encountering a problem with having equal access to the process. I repeat this at the start of each day and usually get some interesting suggestions.

The group I have found the most difficult to please is the blind community. Some blind people appreciate the fact that the world is full of visual learners who benefit a great deal from the methods employed by future search conferences. Some others believe that everything must be in Braille, and auditory repeats of what has been posted are inadequate. I always make sure that the participant's workbook is in Braille, on tape, or available on computer disk for those who use voice-output computers during the event, but this does not always satisfy. I have not yet figured out how to respond to those who do not like the high-impact visuals of future search and other large group interventions.

Specific Disability Issues
For people who use wheelchairs, you must ensure that you have a totally architecturally accessible site. This means that the meeting room space is large enough to accommodate people in wheelchairs moving freely between and among all your tables and your walls on a flat surface floor withminimal (that is, not plush) carpeting.

Your meeting space should be close to wheelchair-accessible toilets --and the more the better. If you are using a residential facility, there must be an adequate number of guest rooms which are wheelchair-accessible and will accommodate one or two people in one guest room; this is critical for people accompanied by personal care assistants who will share a room but don't sleep with them.

There must be an "accessible path of travel" from all points of entry and exit as well as important features of your facility, e.g., the parking lot, the gym, the jogging path, the restaurant, the gift shop, etc. And, of course, there must be ample wheelchair- accessible parking spaces for both automobilesand vans with side-door drop-down lifts or ramps.

It also helps to use flipchart easels which adjust in height so that wheelchair users are not excused from rotating the role of recorder simply because the easels put the chart paper out of reach.

For people who are deaf or hearing-impaired, you must have skilled interpreters who use the language of preference of your participants and microphones suitable for whatever technology the hard-of-hearing folks are using. This can be tricky!

People who are born deaf are culturally unique and most often use a foreign language known as American Sign Language or ASL. It is NOT signed English! People who lose hearing later in life, but are also deaf, use a variety of other languages: some use straight signed English, some use "pigeon-signed English," some are strict "oralists," and, today, some prefer open captioning or "real-time captioning."

You must know enough about your audience to know which kinds of interpreters to get and work with the steering committee to find them, which is not always easy. As a rule, you will find most of the interpreters you need with the right levels of skill in major urban centers. It becomes more difficult when you are in small towns and rural areas.

There is another problem I have encountered with deaf participants, which stems from their cultural uniqueness. Deaf people often expect to sit together, usually in the front of the room, so they can have best access to both the interpreters and the speakers. In a future search conference, this won't work because there is generally no "front" of the room and no"speaker." So, I try to prepare the steering committee for letting deaf people know, well in advance, that they will not be sitting together. Rather, they will be sitting in table groups which reflect the role they play in the organization or community conducting the search. This has been a tough concept to sell tothe deaf community, and sometimes to interpreters as well.

If you do not have an adequate number of interpreters to spread them out in various table groups as the deaf participants move from max-mix to stakeholders, you have a significant problem. The one time this became a critical issue at a conference I was conducting, the deaf community ended up sitting together the entire time and there was no cross- fertilization of ideas or systems planning coming out of that group. It was very frustrating forme and for the host organization!

The blind community generally needs written materials produced before and after the event in Braille, large print, audio tape, or on floppy disk in some standard word processing format (often Word Perfect 5.1 or lower). Your local centers for independent living, mentioned earlier, should be able to help you find a Braille publisher. The general rate of Braille usage, however, is 10 percent of the blind population. So, don't get too worried about this.

Just like discovering what you need for the deaf community, your steering committee is obligated to find out what form of accommodation participants need to be active and equal contributors. Once this is learned, putting materials into alternative formats is not a difficult task.

As you go through large group instructions, dialogue, or report-outs, however, you must be sure to read aloud what has been posted so that every person with a visual impairment is aware of what you are presenting. I tend to give concrete, verbal descriptions of what I am reading as well.

For example, in mind mapping, I will read everything on the map by explaining that I am starting in the 12 o'clock position of the mind map, reading around it in a clockwise direction but adding connections and relationships as they occur off of main branches. This seems to suffice, but I've had a lot of blind people tell me that they don't like mind mapping at all. I haven't done any informal research to see if their dislike of its messiness is any greater or any less than those who can see it!

Use of microphones at these large group sessions is critical for two reasons. One, they are important to people with certain kinds of hearing aids where amplification through mechanical means helps them hear, and they are important for people in wheelchairs who cannot stand when reporting out and who are always struggling to see over other people's heads when listen ing to someone else report out.

The only difficulty I have found with amplified sound is when there is a conflict between the facility's system for amplification and the system that hearing-impaired people in the room are using. For example, if the amplification system uses low frequency of some kind which is shared by taxicab services, your sound may be "zapped"every time a dispatcher sends a message to a cabbie. Or, the facility's sound system works through the entire room and cannot be divided into smaller sections, meaning that the use of an assistive listening device at one table group enables someone at one table to hear everything being said at another table. In this last instance, I have found that the group must literally leave the large meeting room to do its small-group task, returning for the report-outs at the designated time. What this has meant for me is that I simply have to know where they plan to go so I can be sure to let them know if there is any change in plan due to what other table groups are experiencing.

In general, there is no particular accommodation required for people with mental retardation or low language skills. I simply try to make sure that my language doesn't come across as too intellectual, too abstract, or too confusing. Giving examples helps, but I try very hard not to use examples which would lead people into a particular idea or outcome.

The only other accommodation I have encountered (which is rare) is providing floor or "lying down" space for someone who needs to be on his or her back or side for some period of time. This has worked for people who are quadriplegic and who must get out of their wheelchairs for some period of time; it has worked for someone who has epilepsy and who experiences an "aura," telling them that a seizure is about to occur; and it has worked for someone who was autistic (not a participant in the conference, but an individual who accompanied his mother who was a participant).


One last word about language: People with disabilities are simply that--people with disabilities. They are not "special," "differently abled," or any other recent euphemism you may have heard. After passage of the ADA, there were many human resource professionals and "experts" talking about compliance who had little knowledge or experience with people who have disabilities. They were trying to do the "right" thing when they used such language, but, overall, people with disabilities resented this effort a great deal. So, if you wish to be "politically correct" because you care about what people with disabilities really think and want, simply use "people with disabilities", or "people who are blind" or "people who are deaf." That should work well for you. I know it works well for the folks who organized around passage of the ADA and who continue to struggle to see its potential fully realized.

I hope these thoughts will help you to make allyour future searches and related events totally accessible and integrated for all organizations and communities. Best wishes!







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