Making meetings accessible: reflections on the RIC AGM

The independence movement, like so many other political movements, is in the unique position of not just campaigning against something (the British state, patriarchy, etc.) but of imagining and fighting for better futures. It sounds pithy — ‘imagining better futures’ is a job for the poets and philosophers, whose work is allegedly divorced from the stoic Stakhanovism of the political left — but it is a crucial and unavoidable function of the independence movement. We argue for independence from the British state not just by bemoaning the things that are bad about it, but by describing the ways in which an independent Scotland would be better. We have diagnosed the illness, we have prescribed a solution, and we are describing what a healthy life would look like. 

And when we imagine better futures, we make a promise to ourselves that we will make them a reality, not just through the major revolutions at society’s base, but through smaller, faster revolutions at the superstructure. We make good on our promises by organising in ways that reflect the better world we want to live in. For those in the disability movement, this is a familiar refrain simply because organising within the confines of our current reality is nigh on impossible for disabled people. As such, it is incumbent on disabled organisers to begin to act out what that better world looks like; even if it means only enacting stopgap measures, it is a recognition that the commitment is stronger than the forces that seek to disable people. This means recognising that sometimes (often) perfection is unattainable, but that not being perfect is no excuse for not trying. So simpler solutions are employed, like hearing induction loops, braille writing, screen-reader compatibility, ramps at entry and exit points, seemingly innocuous solutions that send a clear message: it isn’t perfect, but we are trying and we are committed. 

These are indispensable lessons for the independence movement: looking to the future isn’t enough, we must also work to make that future the present. As the RSP code of conduct says, ‘the way we treat each other now is the model for the socialist society we want to see grow in the future.’ This maxim must remain at the centre of the independence movement and all left-wing organising therein. 

The first part of the Radical Independence Campaign’s 2021 AGM has shown us what it looks like when we do not collectively treat each other the way we want the future to look. And it is our unfortunate responsibility to now deal with that event in an honest, good faith manner that will allow us to all move forward in a productive manner. To prove our commitment to productive critique, this will not be solely a piece of criticism, we will endeavour to provide workable solutions that can begin to solve the access problems we saw. Our goal here is not to throw bombs and flee, it is to rebuild better and stronger. There’s always a difficulty approaching how to resolve these issues when the responsibility falls on those that were harmed or wronged — the point should be not to blame, but to suggest concise ways to resolve it. Treat this resolve as a beneficial part of the organisation as a whole — a positive means of moving forward, that seeks cooperation as much as calling out less-than-ideal behaviour.

So, without further ado, our accessibility report.

It would be remiss not to begin with the oftentimes confusing and jumbled communications from RIC to its membership surrounding this AGM. ‘Official’ communications often expected a level of acquaintance with the norms and procedures of organisational structures that is not fully reasonable to expect of a national organisation. While we recognise that the borderline-unworkable constitution was in many ways at fault for this, there are of course steps that could have been taken to ease this confusion in advance of the meeting. Although it might seem burdensome for those composing emails to local groups, ensuring that all communication is written in as simple language as can reasonably be expected is an important first step. Where simple language isn’t possible, or where jargon and acronyms are unavoidable, providing brief, easy-to-read definitions becomes necessary, either as a fluid part of the main text or as part of an appended glossary. Ensuring that all participants are on the same page with respect to language and terminology is a necessary responsibility of meeting facilitators, a responsibility we felt was inadequately adhered to before and during this AGM. 

As part of ensuring all participants are on the same page, having a succinct but descriptive agenda to structure the meeting is absolutely necessary. The agenda is not just a bureaucratic hurdle to clear, it is a document that acts as the foundation upon which a meeting is built. When an agenda is disseminated to the membership, it is part of a tacit agreement between the agenda-writer and the meeting participants that significant issues will be acknowledged and given a fair hearing by the facilitators and that, in turn, the participants will respect the structure of the meeting. Providing brief descriptions of each agenda point is a valuable way of explaining what conversations happen where, why, and in what specific historical or political context. The agenda must recognise that some topics may be sensitive and require additional care and thought by the facilitators, and it absolutely must include an accessibility break at at least the halfway point of the meeting, if not more frequently. 

Once the agenda has been published, it is incumbent upon the meeting chair to ensure that the agenda is adhered to, as a sign of respect for the work of the agenda-setter and for the time of the meeting participants. The job of the chair is a tremendously challenging one, that requires confident social skills and good preparation (there is a reason so few people are willing to do it!). Sometimes, this may require being firm with meeting participants who do not adhere to the agenda. In the RIC AGM, a notable example at the start of the meeting where a participant attempted to use a discussion about a new constitution as a podium from which to declare that the organisation as a whole should be destroyed was not dealt with sufficiently by the chair, which immediately allowed the discussion to devolve into something completely off topic. Those on the autistic spectrum have a tendency to take things literally, and to focus all of their energies on specific tasks, this can make it overwhelming to try to manage lots of brief, rapidly-changing outputs of information in a short period of time, as in a chat box or in a voluminous email list. An important solution to this is providing a clear and logical paper trail of motions and discussions, as well as structuring meetings and meeting agendas in a way that allows people to follow one thought through to its logical conclusion. For those of us who had expected that the agenda would be followed, it made the vast majority of the meeting dizzying. In the future, it might be prudent to stop off-topic pronouncements and tangents as they begin, reminding speakers that staying on-topic is a sign of respect for their fellow participants.

An especially frustrating moment of inaccessibility came when members of the Aberdeen local branch submitted a new proposed constitution fifty minutes prior to the start of the meeting, and the chair then allowed them to lead off discussions about the constitution. It must first be noted that a draft constitution (created by a working group chartered by the National Forum) had been proposed nearly a year prior and circulated since then in several accessible formats with a large amount of time for participants to have read it –– and, perhaps most importantly of all, for local groups to have discussed it in detail. The constitution proposed by Aberdeen did not meet even the most basic expectations of accessibly-produced documents. 

When meeting participants raised concerns over the ability of those with visual impairments to read the document (or to even have access to it), they were told to use a new and little-known computer software. This suggestion, while made with what I’m sure were the best of intentions, highlights an upsetting flaw in how many involved in this meeting viewed accessibility concerns. For members of the movement with disability, coming into contact with these sorts of access issues are second-nature, familiar to us in the same way that pulling up to a stop light might be familiar to a bus driver. Unfortunately, this also means we are all-to-familiar with the notion that accessibility issues can be brushed off with a quick-and-dirty solution, such as encouraging people to use new software on the fly; we know that in these moments our concerns are being brushed off, and it is patronising to expect that we don’t realise when our concerns are being belittled.

In particular, the belittling of our concerns felt at odds with the emphasis on consensus from many meeting participants. Because, as was evident from the start, ‘consensus’ was identified as the sole priority of this meeting, major structures that are conducive to increased accessibility fell by the wayside. Many of these have already been discussed and do not bear repeating. However, we feel that it is important to highlight the bitter irony of the prominence of consensus during this first part of the AGM. Consensus decision-making is regularly critiqued in feminist circles for, as anarchist-feminist Zoe Stavri puts it: 

… typically the same voices will dominate a consensus meeting, and that these dominant voices will often reflect unequal power relations that are inherent in our society. To put it more bluntly, it’s often the loud white guys doing the talking.

In a situation like this, many people do not feel able to speak up. Some feel unable to speak because they feel as though they know less than the dominant voices wheeling out minor, inaccessible theoretical points. Others do not speak as they are afraid of being shouted down with a “direct response” from a dominant voice. Others, still, are overlooked by the (often white, male, able-bodied) facilitator and never get called upon to speak. Some people cannot even attend the meetings: for example, when I visited the old Anti Cuts Space on Bedford Square, the building was not readily accessible to people with disabilities.

Another very important effect, one which I experience in every consensus meeting I attend, is that of feeling unable to speak because I am an “outsider”. In situations where consensus decisions are made–occupations, direct action groups, and the like–there is often an “ingroup”: a core group of individuals. These cliques are often highly cohesive–they share an identity as members of the group. To those in the group, and those outside, powerful effects emerge.

Unfortunately, given the raft of poor conditions that rendered the meeting inaccessible, the decision to privilege consensus decision-making over any other form meant that achieving “true” consensus would be impossible, as so many in the room were at an obvious and distinct disadvantage. We would also like to address a phrase that was used repeatedly throughout the meeting regarding seeking consensus: “silence is assent/consent”. As feminists, we condemn that sentiment in no uncertain terms, and would like to remind our comrades that there are a litany of reasons one might remain silent outside of consent. In all situations, seeking explicit consent is of the utmost importance. In the event that non-verbal disabled participants were to join a meeting, for example, would silence also be considered ‘assent/consent’?

Instead of deciding by consensus, we encourage votes to be taken by an anonymized poll. There are, of course, problems with this method (for example, as we saw during one attempt during the AGM, expecting people to adapt to new technology at the eleventh hour is profoundly unhelpful), but we believe that these potential problems are of a lesser magnitude than the unintentional silencing of participants engendered by consensus decision-making. This in turn gets to the crux of our critique: harm reduction requires that the pros and cons of every structure is adequately weighed and that the structures and procedures that cause the least harm ought to be employed, even if they do cause some harm.

The accessibility of this meeting was treated as an after-thought in all cases bar one, with the onus falling on those with access needs to adapt to the structure of the meeting. As left wingers and those working for a better future, this should be unacceptable. Rather than demanding that those with access needs merely reshape themselves in a manner that is more convenient to the able-bodied, the facilitators of the meeting should have taken steps to ensure that these accessibility issues couldn’t have occurred in the first place. The most immediate fix would be clearly articulating a cut-off date from proposals to the AGM. In the RSP, we accept proposals until two weeks before the meeting, with amendments accepted until one week before. This is not just a matter of secretarial convenience, it is part of a commitment to ensuring that all members have a reasonable amount of time to acquaint themselves with the material. Part of this, we feel, is an insufficient commitment to a written culture. Although there is of course great historical and propaganda value in committing as much as possible to paper, there is also an accessibility element to it, too. Providing well-organised, timely, and easily-accessed documentation of discussion allows everybody to engage with the material in their own time.

In the long run, we would like to see a section on accessibility added to RIC’s Safer Spaces policy as a means of affirming that RIC and its members are committed in good faith to making all of our meetings and communications as simple and easy to use as possible. We would expect that this policy would recognise that these are not individual problems, and therefore do not require individual solutions, rather, they are systemic problems that demand a collectivised solution. Perfection is not expected (though it is a non-negotiable goal), but a clear and obvious commitment to continual improvement is. We want to see members of RIC make proactively addressing these issues routine, rather than addressing them only after they have become a problem. 

Ultimately, what’s done is done. The AGM was inaccessible and alienating and, thankfully, now behind us. We must now be prepared to look to the future. As much as this report is an assessment of the events that were, it has also been a call to change the way things will be. We want that call to be answered by all members of RIC as part of a cooperative and ongoing process to make this organisation every bit as welcoming and effective as we know it must be.

When he speaks a small sentence
he is a man
who presses a plunger that will
blow the face off a cliff.

Or: one last small penstroke –
and the huge poem rides
down the slipway, ready
for enormous voyages.

He does more than he does.
When he goes hunting
he aims at a bird and
brings a landscape down.

Or he dynamites a ramshackle idea – when the dust settles,
what structures shine in the sun.

Hugh MacDiarmid, a poem by Norman MacCaig

Glossary

Stakhanovism: The term Stakhanovite originated in the Soviet Union and referred to workers who modeled themselves after Alexey Stakhanov. These workers took pride in their ability to produce more than was required, by working harder and more efficiently, thus strengthening the Communist state.

Braille: Braille is a tactile writing system used by people who are visually impaired. It is traditionally written with embossed paper.

Hearing induction loop (audio induction loop): Audio induction loop systems, also called audio-frequency induction loops (AFILs) or hearing loops, are an assistive listening technology for individuals with reduced ranges of hearing. A hearing loop consists of one or more physical loop of cable which are placed around a designated area, usually a room or a building. The cable generates an electromagnetic field throughout the looped space which can be picked up by a telecoil-equipped hearing aid, a cochlear implant (CI) processor, or a specialized hand-held hearing loop receiver for individuals without telecoil-compatible hearing aids.

Screen-readers: A screen reader is a form of assistive technology that renders text and image content as speech or braille output. Screen readers are essential to people who are blind, and are useful to people who are visually impaired, illiterate, or have a learning disability. Screen readers are software applications that attempt to convey what people with normal eyesight see on a display to their users via non-visual means, like text-to-speech, sound icons, or a Braille device.

AGM: An annual general meeting (AGM, also known as the annual meeting) is a meeting of the general membership of an organisation. These organisations include membership associations and companies with shareholders. These meetings may be required by law or by the constitution, charter, or by-laws governing the body. The meetings are held to conduct business on behalf of the organisation or company.

Consensus decision-making: Consensus decision-making or consensus politics is group decision-making processes in which participants develop and decide on proposals with the aim, or requirement, of acceptance by all.

Base/superstructure: In Marxist thought, society’s base refers to the means and relations of production. For example: boss-worker relationships, division of labour, and the factories and tools which are used to produce things. The superstructure refers to the culture, state and social institutions, and political structures that are defined by its base. For example: art, law, religion, and philosophy.

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