It’s safe to say that many industry professionals who plan to attend Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity next week are dreading the busy schedules, sweaty crowds and endless back-to-back meetings, not to mention, the need to bustle around satellite events ever-expanding around the Palais.
For attendees with disabilities, that dread is likely multiplied significantly, as large-scale events such as Cannes are host to unique challenges often overlooked by event planners and the general public.
For those with restricted mobility, not only the venue but transportation, restaurants and lodging options may offer limitations or restrictions. Neurodiverse attendees are at risk of overstimulation, which can be uncomfortable at the least, and at the most, completely derailing.
"It's important for organizations and companies to strive to make their events and marketing materials more inclusive of, and accessible to, people with disabilities,” says KR Liu, Google’s head of brand accessibility.
To its credit, Cannes Lions has updated its accessibility accommodations year-over-year. In 2022, Google became the first accessibility partner for the festival.
“Our team was able to work with Cannes last year to implement some best practices from the [Google’s accessible marketing playbook] in different parts of the festival,” notes Liu. “For example, at the Google Cannes Beach, we offered CART [Computer Assisted Real-time Translation] captions, [sign language] interpreters and ensured our space was wheelchair accessible.”
This year, Cannes has released an outline of its inclusivity initiatives, including a rundown of the accessibility accommodations available. There will also be presentations and panel discussions on the topic of accessibility this year.
That said, there is more that the festival can do to ensure its disabled attendees are fully able to participate.
How Cannes is addressing accessibility this year
Cannes’ planners have stepped up the event’s accommodations for disabled attendees in recent years. This year, there will be American sign language interpreters at all award shows and at certain venues and panels, and an accessibility map will be made available on the festival app. An accessibility tour will also be offered to give disabled attendees an exhaustive view of the accommodations available.
In addition, “wellbeing spaces” are available to combat overstimulation, and mental health first responders will be stationed throughout the festival.
“It does look like they're striving toward more accessibility considerations, which is good,” says Josh Loebner, global head of inclusive design at Wunderman Thompson. “I feel like they are listening.”
Loebner, who is fully blind in his right eye and legally blind in his left, notes that the information provided on the Cannes website as well as the ability to contact the festival representatives for further information is helpful for him as he prepares to attend for the first time.
To raise awareness and bring support for those with learning and thinking differences, equality services organization The Female Quotient tapped Understood.org as its accessibility partner for its Equality Lounge at Cannes this year.
Through simple tweaks such as using a dyslexia-friendly font, offering networking prompts and providing fidget toys and ear plugs to attendees, the space will be made accessible to those who may find networking and attending panels to be difficult or even impossible.
“Particularly in Cannes, which can be overwhelming on the best of days, this was the right place to do things differently and really be as welcoming as we could for the neurodiverse,” says Caroline Dettman, chief marketing and creative officer at The Female Quotient.
“It's a really busy, chaotic experience, so we wanted to provide a little bit of a reprieve for those who are neurodivergent in this space,” adds Nathan Friedman, CMO of Understood.org.
Further, Friedman and Dettman view their partnership as a way to raise awareness of neurodiversity on a global scale. “There is a stigma around learning and thinking differences, and accessibility helps to bridge between that, but if we don't raise issue awareness, how are we ever going to solve that broader top challenge?”
“It's really important that we use our stage and our platform to talk about neurodiversity as an opportunity for brands,” notes Dettman, noting that making products and services accessible and inclusive helps the wider population, not just those with disabilities.
How Cannes can improve its accessibility accommodations
Though progress has been made, there is still room for improvement.
As with most events of this scale, Cannes extends beyond the traditional festival grounds, where accessibility programs and support are not as clear-cut. Accessibility information offered by the festival needs to encompass these affiliated venues, not just the Palais where the festival hosts its programming and award shows.
“It's like any other big convention where the whole surrounding area is taken over, as well,” notes Dettman. “You're not just trying to navigate the Palais, you're trying to navigate the entirety of Cannes, which can be overwhelming for all.”
Loebner notes that event planners need to pay attention to “not only what's accessible about the venue, but what's accessible and inclusive about the surroundings.”
Satellite events surrounding the area have different accessibility accommodations. In some cases, it’s on the inhibited attendees to ask for them, which is not an easy feat. For example, WPP Beach’s website asks those with specific needs such as closed captions or step-free access to let organizers know what they need beforehand.
“The exclusivity of events means sometimes it is intimidating to ask,” notes a disabled industry executive who wishes to remain anonymous. “It would be better to make spaces accessible as standard instead of us having to ask for accommodations.”
Asking for accommodations at each satellite venue a disabled attendee will be visiting is exhaustive, as days in Cannes are packed with events at different locations.
There’s also room for improvement with regard to information available for attendees before they head to Cannes — not only about the event, but also the surrounding area.
“Photography with alt tags or videos with captions are wonderful ways to start to pull back the curtain,” the anonymous exec adds.
When it comes to online resources, Cannes could “be much more detailed — showcase video walkthroughs of different venues or more descriptions of particular venues, either in text or with maps that could be enlarged or expanded,” says Loebner.
Ultimately, many aspects of the festival are inaccessible by default. “Stairs can be intimidating, and uneven surfaces like sand can be extremely challenging if not totally inhibitive barriers,” notes Loebner. Making the alternatives plainly known is a requirement.
“It is impossible for every venue to be accessible for everyone — see old hotels and yachts,” the anonymous executive points out. “But helping us plan lets us adapt, get support and take part as much as possible.”
“Things don’t have to be perfect, but the more disabled people can plan in advance, the easier things become,” they add. “This is why online resources are so useful.”
The case for equitable event access
Dettman hopes attendees will note the steps taken by The Female Quotient at its Equality Lounge and incorporate them into more offices and events.
“There are relatively simple ways that you can be so much more welcoming to such a large population, but sometimes it’s hard for people to go first,” she notes. “It’s easier to see and experience it and go, ‘oh, we could do this.’ That’s a really important part of being at Cannes, because you’ll have so many people who then go back and plan their own events.”
“There's no reason from a workplace standpoint that we should not only be welcoming of the divergent, but building more accessibility for the community,” adds Friedman.
It’s important to make a statement like this in Cannes, where the eyes of the global advertising and marketing community can see the importance of accessibility and the ease at which small changes can benefit of a large group of people.
“Things don’t have to be perfect, but the more disabled people can plan in advance, the easier things become,” notes the anonymous executive.
“My title wasn't around five years ago — we're at this foundational stage where more people with disabilities are identifying as disabled or, so events are now having to reassess how they're welcoming or being uninviting to individuals and groups and how they can reassess,” says Loebner. “We want to make sure that momentum continues,” he adds, recommending that Cannes establish a year-round accessibility working group or an accessibility team on-site.
For that to happen, disabled attendees must have their voices heard, and the festival must continue to evolve its offerings for those with physical and mental disabilities.
“I don’t know how to pitch why we deserve to be here; I would just like to be granted the same opportunity as everyone else,” says the anonymous executive.
This story first appeared on campaignlive.com.