The Zero Project – Evolution of an inclusive conference

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At the end of February, we held our eighth annual Zero Project Conference and our sixth at the United Nations in Vienna, Austria. Its theme, and that of the research work and report around it, was independent living and political participation.

Once again, we set a record. Some 700 attendees from more than 80 countries joined us over three days of meetings, workshops and discussions. And these were quite apart from the ceremony at which we presented awards for 66 Innovative Practices and 10 Innovative Policies.

For those who may know nothing about us, here, very briefly, is who we are and what we do. We are an initiative of the Essl Foundation, established by Martin and Gerda Essl in 2007 and based in Vienna, Austria and a member of the EFC Disability Thematic Network. Our mission is extraordinarily simple: We focus on the rights of persons with disabilities and work “for a world without barriers.” Hence the “Zero” in our name! By doing so, we hope that we can help speed up the pace of the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD) through the identification and promotion of innovative, effective, and scalable practices and policies. Thus our awards of both innovative practices and innovative policies.

Whilst they may not know it, anyone who has ever attended one of our conferences has a lot to thank the European Foundation Centre for. Back in February 2011, when we weren’t yet even the Zero Project (we changed our name in May that year), Michael Fembek and I presented to the European Consortium of Foundations on Human Rights and Disability at the EFC in Brussels. Standing up in front of a small group of acknowledged authorities in the field (all of whom, subsequently, have become great friends), I remember being just a little apprehensive. There we were, a new initiative, pretty much totally unknown and still at the “proof of concept” stage in our efforts.

From that meeting, however, came the genesis of an idea. We needed to organise a conference, an event that would bring together practitioners and experts on the rights of persons with disabilities. A conference at which we could discuss innovative solutions to help advance the rights and improve the daily lives of persons with disabilities. At our very first conference in January 2012, held in the historic Palais Niederösterreich in central Vienna, we welcomed just 200 people from 30 different countries and discussed issues around employment.

Fast forward seven years and there we were at the UN in February with three times as many participants from nearly three times as many countries. We now have a four-year research cycle, with this year’s theme being the third in the second such cycle. It was preceded by employment and accessibility, and the cycle will end next year with education.

Whilst our themes might change cyclically, we continue to believe that the practical aspects of any of the solutions to the issues we address are absolutely critical. And over the years this has led to some interesting developments.

Now, at each conference, we provide Innovative Practice and Innovative Policies award winners with the opportunity to exhibit their solutions. This year, spread over two floors at the UN, you could see (and sometimes experience) 28 different solutions ranging from a keyboard for one hand, to a toilet set-up for people with restricted freedom of movement and from a range of practical approaches to accessible voting to iBeacon and other technologies to announce your visit to a store, office or company.

In 2017, the Essl Foundation joined forces with Ashoka to initiate the first Zero Project-Impact Transfer programme to internationalise the most innovative disability solutions for a barrier free world. Each year, selected initiatives receive training, mentoring, tailored support, networking and visibility to replicate further their innovations and impacts therefrom in other geographical areas in collaboration with local replication partners. At the Impact Transfer Forum at this year’s conference, attendees were invited both to discover these innovations and explore possible collaboration opportunities.

One of the most challenging aspects of organising our conferences has always been accessibility and just how to make them as fully accessible as possible to everybody. Since we believe we’ve learned quite a lot of a very practical nature over the years, we have decided to share our experiences and are planning to publish a White Paper on “Conference Accessibility”. We hope this will help support all other organisers in creating more accessible conferences, congresses and seminars.

Just to give you some idea of what trying to ensure accessibility entails, our conferences now encompass more than 30 different measures covering a number of different dimensions and abilities.  There are nearly as many before as there are during. And several after! For example, hotels and hotel rooms need to be accessible. As does transport. We now produce an Easy Language guide to the conference, including Easy Language translations of key conference information. We also provide Zero Project staff and volunteers at the UN with preparatory briefings to help them support participants.

For the conference itself, not only are accessible “pdf” versions of the agenda available, but so also are large print versions. Tactile flooring is placed throughout the UN to aid navigation to key areas. And then, of course, there is sign interpretation and captioning. And a first this year, audio description was made available for all videos submitted to the Zero Project team ahead of the conference.

And what of this year’s conference itself? Whilst I may, of course, be a little biased, I think it may have been our best yet. I really do believe that, whether, for example, to do with personal assistance, the deinstitutionalisation of children with disabilities, making voting truly accessible, or developing the technology to help persons with disabilities live independently, as Martin Essl exhorted us on the first day: “If everyone here in this room takes just one idea that he or she learns about and brings it to life, we can change the world over 700 TIMES. And inspire!”

And, if they do, then we’ve done our job!

Photo credit ©2019 Pepo Schuster, austrofocus.at

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