Inclusion by Design: Key steps of creating the CHARM-EU Inclusion Conference
Whether in formal or non-formal education settings, designing, delivering, and evaluating spaces through the Universal Design Approach is beneficial to the greatest extent of users. In my doctoral dissertation, one of my focuses was the Universal Design Educational Models (UDEMs) (Fazekas, 2018). I approach the topic from the Universal Design Educational Model and use relevant Studies, such as Disability Studies, that reject the academic hierarchy that reserves science for able-bodied professionals (Sándor, 2021). It is a case study that shows the benefits, enablers and challenges when organising CHARM-EU Inclusion Conference in Hungary from the design delivery and evaluation. It highlights what aspects should be considered when organising an inclusive conference to the greatest extent of participants. It supports minimising the need to start from scratch to design and implement inclusive measures you are about to design and work.
The CHARM European University (CHallenge-driven, Accessible, Research-based, Mobile European University) Alliance was born out of this vision, co-funded by Erasmus+. It is composed of the University of Barcelona (coordinator), Trinity College Dublin, Utrecht University, Montpellier, and Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). CHARM-EU represents an innovative model of 21st-century higher education where accessibility and inclusion are interwoven into its DNA. Inclusion by design means that inclusiveness is strategically mainstreamed into the culture, design, delivery, and monitoring of all areas of the Alliance and the CHARM-EU Masters in Global Challenges for Sustainability. The CHARM-EU Inclusion Conference Creating an Inclusive University: Access and Participation in European Higher Education: Challenges and Enablers was held on 16 September 2022 in a hybrid format, hosted by Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). In line with the principles and values of the CHARM-EU and the European Union, the conference was based on celebrating diversity, inclusion, equality, human rights, and intersectionality.
The main purpose was to act as a catalyst for a shared dialogue between stakeholders and participants to discuss enablers and challenges to access and participation in higher education and to identify steps to facilitate more inclusive higher education. It brought together people from diverse backgrounds and cultures from Europe and beyond.
Specific objectives were:
- To identify challenges and enablers of access and participation in Higher Education more broadly, specifically in connection to the Sustainable Development Goal 4.
- To share experiences and provide space for networking - discuss and map areas of further improvement of the inclusive university of the future, including the involvement of all stakeholders and students' voices.
- To exchange knowledge and share policies and practices.
- To realise Inclusion in Action: Identifying areas of action & recommendations for relevant stakeholders (EU/higher education/civil society/youth).
Meaningful implementation of Values, Principles and Culture
Many organisations and higher education institutions include in their vision, mission, values, and statement principles to promote and work towards equality, non-discrimination, equity of access, inclusion, and diversity. Mainstreaming inclusion and diversity means, in practice, putting diversity and inclusion at the heart of the organisation’s culture and overall operation (Claeys-Kulik & Ekman Jørgensen, 2018).
For this pioneering event, Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, addressed the participants and welcomed the efforts to identify steps that should be taken to facilitate a more inclusive higher education sector in Europe and beyond. The Commissioner congratulated CHARM-EU on the new grant received under the 2022 Erasmus+ European Universities Call and emphasised that the Alliance's work and achievements contribute to the vision of the European Education Area, in which inclusion plays a transversal role. One of CHARM-EU's core values is inclusiveness. ‘Inclusion is crucial to the development of Europe's higher education institutions and European society at large. Therefore, one of the strategy's central dimensions is fostering diversity, inclusiveness and gender equality.’
Imre Hamar, ELTE's Vice-Rector for International Affairs, opened the one-day hybrid event. Prof. Hamar highlighted that CHARM-EU is ‘taking steps to bring inclusion and diversity from the policy papers to our everyday higher education experience’ by transforming partner institutions' organisational culture and governance models (CHARM-EU, 2022a).
Understanding Key Terminologies
In order to realise Inclusion in Action it is necessary to address key terms to understand society, changing history and how various individuals or groups have been treated and to use terminologies and language respectfully in any situation. The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Article 2 defines both terminologies (UNCRPD, 2006, Art, 2).
‘[…] means necessary and appropriate modification and adjustments not imposing a disproportionate or undue burden, where needed in a particular case, to ensure to persons with disabilities the enjoyment or exercise on an equal basis with others of all human rights and fundamental freedoms;’ (UNCRPD, 2006, Art, 2).
[…] means the design of products, environments, programmes and services to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialised design. "Universal design" shall not exclude assistive devices for particular groups of persons with disabilities where this is needed.’ (UNCRPD, 2006, Art, 2).
The question may arise, why do I use the terminology access needs instead of special needs? Societies have been designed to meet the needs of the majority of the population. Everything outside of this spectrum is considered ‘special’ and needs to be connected to individuals with disabilities considered special. ‘The Disabled People's Movement prefers to use the term 'access needs' (instead of ‘special needs’) when discussing the support people may need to do things. Everybody has needs. Disabled people’s needs are not special because many of the adjustments that benefit disabled people are equally useful to non-disabled people. Questions around access needs will tend to be framed as: Tell us what you need to be included in this activity. What are your needs which may need to be accounted for when thinking about x?’ (Todd,2014, p. 1)
I deliberately use access needs holistically in my research and various activities and events I am involved in. As highlighted in previous studies, it is important to use a broad definition and apply a human-rights-based approach to embrace human diversity as a resource rather than consider it a burden. (Todd, 2014; Fazekas, 2017; Fazekas, 2018; Fazekas & Csalagovits, 2019, Fazekas, Shparber, 2021).
In her study, Sándor refers specifically to the discourse on the relations between disability and academic conferences and a room for improvement to consider diverse needs, especially those of individuals with disabilities. She highlights key aspects: ‘Why do we find that science does not abound in sources relevant to this topic? Presumably, the academic world still operates in a highly exclusionary manner in relation to persons with disabilities. Disability studies research indicates that knowledge about disabled people is still largely created by non-disabled researchers, who also represent the dominant voice in the disability discourse. In terms of both organisation and content, the majority of scientific conferences are primarily aimed at professionals and convey the healthiest approach to the audience: for example, they use complicated language, do not adapt to the attentional characteristics arising from neurodiversity, do not use sign language interpretation, and provide one option for catering (
How the conference was structured
A four-block structure reflected the overall aims and objectives. Following the opening ceremony, the conference started with a comprehensive panel discussion. A bold but ambitious plan was made to open these professional circles to share their vision and mission for the higher education inclusion agenda. It outlined barriers and enablers to accessing and participation for all, especially underrepresented groups or those at risk of exclusion. The diverse panel discussion included representatives of the Sector for Higher Education Policy at the European Commission Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (DG EAC), Advisory Council on Youth of the Council of Europe, CHARM-EU Alliance, EUTOPIA European University Alliance, student representatives of European Digital UniverCity (EDUC) Alliance, European Network on Independent Living, (ENIL) European Student Union, (ESU) European University Association (EUA) and the Lifelong Learning Platform (LLLP). The keywords of this block were Co: Co-creation, co-operation, co-management, and co-research. Panel members and participants highlighted challenges, restricted financial means, complexity and various legislations across countries, and policy implementation that needs to be considered when working in complex structures, such as the European University Alliances. Key enablers of the complex processes were: active listening to each other; willingness to innovate; encompassing voices of individuals with various lived experiences, backgrounds, and access needs; multiple collaborations; applying a holistic approach to address issues and challenges; openness to better understand what realities are and how we need to make a change.
During the second session, two-panel discussions involving the voices of students and educators provided an opportunity to share personal experiences and discuss and map out areas of further improvement for the inclusive university of the future. This section provided a great opportunity to collect and reflect on the lessons learned regarding the CHARM-EU work and to present the best practices of its partner universities. Practices such as ExchangeAbility, Anti-LGBT-phobia week, Inclusive Trinity Festival, Diversity Month, the Rainbow Bike Path, and other support practices and policy changes. The most mentioned phrase associated with CHARM-EU was: ‘a space for collaboration where you can learn from each other’. Discussions emphasised a need to reflect on societal structural barriers in terms of access and participation in education, which starts much earlier than tertiary education. Students provided their insights that participating in an international Master's Programme is not only about studying but many aspects connected to the complex international college experience. Elements were often beyond the universities' competencies and referred to certain pillars within and between the EU Member States, such as availability, portability of support structures and social affairs, such as access to affordable or accessible housing or administrative aspects for non-EU students, such as VISA arrangements (Fazekas, 2013).
In the first afternoon workshop, participants worked in small groups. They discussed the questions of what the inclusive university of the future looks like and how it is possible to support its creation. Finally, the groups shared their vision and specific policies and practices to support the design and implementation of inclusive measures.
Key points and takeaways identified during these sessions will be used to prepare a call to action, including a list of concrete recommendations, and share it with decision-makers at the EU, national and regional levels.
Inclusion in Action: A Roadmap of CHARM-EU Inclusion Conference
In this section of the case study, inclusion in action is explained step by step to support organisations, stakeholders, and individuals in designing, delivering, and evaluating any events or activities. Recommendations and tips highlighted in this study should be adapted based on the objectives of your activity, its length, and the target audience (also considering different access requirements). How has it been achieved? In the CHARM-EU Practical Information Pack, we proactively shared how we apply inclusiveness and diversity throughout the design, delivery, and evaluation elements. As a remark, Quiet Room – A neutral' multifunctional quiet space for Everyone, was accidentally missing from the Practical Information Pack. In this study, it is mentioned. (CHARM-EU, 2022)
Inclusive Event Design plan used by the CHARM-EU Inclusiveness Team
Communication & Dissemination, and Community Engagement
The CHARM-EU Inclusiveness Team has prepared a tool for the community and beyond to make inclusive events available via this link (CHARM-EU, 2022b). In her study, Sándor cites authors, Felappi, Gregory, & Beebee (2018) that it is beneficial to indicate on various conference platforms that the event is inclusive and accessible and that the organising committee is open to a joint consideration of the issues that arise (Sándor, 2021). The registration form was accessible and available in electronic and WORD format. It was reviewed by users using screen-readers, provided spaces for identifying pronouns, access needs, dietary requirements, and comments for further improving access and participation experience and had a space for submitting questions for sessions.
Social Media Presence
A social media communication strategy was designed and applied throughout all event phases (before, during and after). Communication was disseminated at the official website Inclusion Conference 2022 | CHARM-EU and official CHARM-EU and partner’s social media posts have been running on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and via CHARM-EU Inclusiveness Leader, Agnes Sarolta Fazekas’ social media accounts. Event hashtags were: #access #inclusion #diversity #highered #CHARMEU #InclusiveUniversity. Posts included ALT-Texts.
After the event - a thank you, and evaluation
A few days after the event, all participants received a thank you email, information on how to remain in contact and a reminder about the accessible evaluation form to collect feedback and improve future events. Every contributor received a personalised certificate, appreciating and recognising their work.
The official post-communication is available on the CHARM-EU website Towards the Inclusive University of the Future | CHARM-EU and ELTE website in Hungarian Társadalmi befogadás és sokszín?ség (elte. hu) and English Towards the Inclusive University of the Future (elte. hu).
Creating a welcoming and inclusive conference atmosphere
How we interact with one another affects the integrity of the CHARM-EU’s academic and workplace environments. CHARM-EU communicates how its values and principles are implemented across activities, communities, and stakeholders. CHARM-EU works towards a climate of respect, accountability, honesty, and integrity in the community, as described in one of our core values - inclusiveness.
Language is powerful. Everyone’s language, behaviour, and attitude can shape the environment (Mullins, 2012). Designing and facilitating safer spaces are essential across CHARM-EU and the conference itself. Using inclusive language among speakers, facilitators, contributors, and participants has been highlighted, and attention was drawn not to make assumptions; better to gently ask a question than to make assumptions.
Badges with pronouns and inclusive language communication materials enhanced the conference atmosphere. During the registration, participants were asked to provide answers on their pronoun voluntarily and how to be referred to by the organisation team and participants provided information to address each other in the most respectful, inclusive way possible throughout all phases.
The following principles have been shared with everyone:
- Active participation, co-building knowledge, sharing experiences.
- We create a climate of respect, accountability, honesty, and integrity in the community, as described in one of our core values - inclusiveness.
- Feel free to ask any concerns or questions.
- To Err is Human. (Pope, A.) Please, approach the conference environment flexibly and patiently with the hybrid settings and access and participation measures.
Throughout our activities, CHARM-EU is conscious of COVID-19. Important remarks have been shared: ‘We are aware that on a global scale, COVID-19 Restrictions vary. To ensure a space that values well-being and minimises stress or anxiety, we encourage you to take all the cautionary measures that you think are appropriate for yourself. Masks and disinfection spray/gel will be provided at the venue. Additionally, please, read the official information for Hungary’
Conference Hybrid Format
The Registration form informed prospective participants that participating in the CHARM-EU Inclusion conference was free. However, participants needed to cover possible travel expenses. CHARM-EU dedicated some financial support measures to cover contributors' access and participation who could not fully participate otherwise in the programme. The hybrid conference was an example of applying multiple means of access and participation for participants in the event (in-person and online). On many grounds, Zoom provided features to meet participants' diverse needs and proved to be a more user-friendly, accessible, and inclusive online platform. Inclusion by design means designing the environment from the beginning to the greatest extent of users (proactive) rather than a retrospective approach (fixing the environment afterwards). (Fazekas, 2018). The hybrid feature was in line with the core values of CHARM-EU.
Access and participation in the venue
A deliberate choice was made for the building's location to be accessible, by public transport, including accessible public transportation, car, foot, and bicycle. The building venue was accessible, including elevators and accessible bathrooms. During the catering, high and lower tables and chairs were provided to cater for access and participation of the greatest number of participants. In the conference room, chairs for participants and session contributors were provided. Not having a stage was to deliberately break physical barriers and create a space that cherishes partnership and collaboration between individuals. Environmental factors, such as changing weather conditions that may impact the conference, were also considered, and necessary measures within the conference's capacity for everyone's well-being were taken.
Quiet Room – A neutral, multifunctional quiet space for Everyone
Organisers and the hosting faculty, Faculty of Social Sciences Eötvös Loránd University, ELTE recognised, considered, and respected individuals' circumstances, prayer, and access to needs to meditation, quiet reflection or de-stress, rest and more. A quiet multifunctional space for everyone attending was provided.
Today, more than ever, being conscious of people and the environment is crucial. CHARM-EU is committed to leading by example and taking step by step to create spaces and environments caring for the lives of today and the next generations and the most affected communities by climate change. Throughout the conference, multiple means of accessible information aimed to cater for the access and participation of individuals while reducing unnecessary equipment and printing. Conference organisers suggested considering and optimising access and participation needs, financial aspects, and greener travel options.
Conference engagement and materials
Conference organisers provided most materials in accessible online formats and via QR codes. Although there was a consciousness of creating a space for active participation and engagement of everyone, conference organisers needed certain conference materials. They were opened to learning more about stakeholders' and individuals' innovative practices in creating inclusive and sustainable Conferences and classroom experiences!
Breaks between sessions - time is an Access Need for All
Time is an Access Need for All. It was aimed at respecting everyone's contribution and participation by making genuine efforts to make sure that break times are not violated and that everyone has time to refresh during breaks. During the sessions, a Timer was used to stay on track.
Energisers and Buffer Times
Please approach the conference with openness, patience, and flexibility. We include a few minutes for energisers and buffer times between sessions to create a joyful conference experience.
Speech-to-text Service Provision
Speech-to-Text Reporter Service Providers provided real-time captioning. Their expertise was essential to the conference to meet various access and participation needs. Participants were asked to ensure they did not block the screen and always use microphones when sharing their thoughts with the audience, as Speech Text Service Providers needed to pick on the words they were saying.
Catering and Dietary Requirements
CHARM-EU has ensured all guests access, inclusion, and support structures as early as possible. For those participating in person at the event, their answer in the registration form gave information to cater for their needs to the greatest extent possible in the environment. According to the organiser’s capacity, information about food and ingredients was provided in Hungarian and English. CHARM-EU is constantly working to provide multiple access to information.
Privacy Notice & GDPR Regulations & Consent to photos/videos
Participants could find privacy notices via this link. By applying to the conference, participants acknowledged by the registration photos and videos might record them. Photos and videos were used for communication and dissemination on the websites and social media platforms of ELTE and CHARM-EU Alliance, as indicated by the privacy notice. Participants had the right to object. The organisers ensured the setting up of locations with no photo, video, or audio recording (off-camera). At the beginning of each programme element and session, facilitators clearly announced how the session would be recorded.
Participants who did not wish to appear in the photos were kindly requested to have a seat in the off-camera location in the conference room.
Inclusion is a step-by-step journey. It is essential to bring various individuals with their own lived experiences, backgrounds, access needs, and stakeholders to create inclusive educational spaces and society. CHARM-EU is working step-by-step to develop a more inclusive society, learning together, embracing the diversity of human existence, and breaking structural barriers that hinder the full and effective participation of many individuals in aces to and participation in higher education. The findings of the CHARM-EU Inclusion Conference will benefit various stakeholders, and individuals will apply these design elements within their organisations or any programme. Creating an inclusive conference was made possible due to ‘Having a yes approach’ to make the environment inclusive to the greatest extent possible due to the open mindset, collaboration, support, patience, creativity, and commitment of the programming team and the CHARM-EU Community. This study and connected CHARM-EU activities are crucial steps towards inclusion, and our journey continues.
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UNCRPD 2006, Article 2.