The Big Slow Down: Facilitation Design Considerations When Partially Abled

Last week in an insanely busy airport of holiday travellers, an extremely tight connection found me jumping up and down, wildly waving at the large window beside the closed gate trying to get the pilots’ attention – I could see them in the cockpit fiddling with their papers, the plane on the tarmac, the gate still connected, so I thought no hurt in trying.

I was getting nowhere when a passing security guard with some holiday spirit took pity on me and called down; they miraculously opened the door and I flew down that ramp – focused on that little open plane door at the bottom, the two anxious flight attendants holding it open, and not the big seam in the ramp floor in front of me.  My magnificent trip over that seam produced a lateral movement that only ninjas and some desert snakes can make safely, not being either of those I managed to tear the anterior cruciate ligament in my right knee.

Now in a leg cast for 6 weeks, I can walk but that snake and most people would leave me in the dust. And I am thinking about what I need to do to modify my facilitation work to take into consideration the fact that I am incredibly slow and only partially able. I cannot run up and down steps, or from room to room, in 2-minute intervals.   And I cannot be carrying around 50 kilos of workshop materials, can’t bring that extra flip chart, or move the tables and chairs in the rooms from a U-shape to cabaret style in the 30 minutes before we start (because we asked but for some reason the venue didn’t do it). Even getting back and forth to events must obligatorily be done on public transport or with the private chauffeur, also known as a full-time working husband.

My first event in the New Year is mid-January and we are working on the interactivity and activity design now. We will have around 400 people in Paris at a planning event for an international water forum happening next year. What do I need to do differently now, so that when I get there, cast and all, I will still be able to do a great job? This is a good thought experiment in its own right – this might be a temporary condition for me (hopefully!) but for others it might be status quo, both for facilitators and potentially for some of the participants.

Here is a list of what I think I need to know and do to facilitate with my leg in a cast (and probably should know anyways!):

Transport: Slow and Virtually Hands Free

  • Can I get there by public transport? How long will that take? What changes do I need to make (train to tram to bus)? Where are there steps or lifts or long walks? I am usually in the venue at least 60-90 minutes in advance for set up, can I get there in time? Can the day start a little later, and go later – what is the flexibility with the start and stop time if needed?
  • If I need to be driven, can we park close enough so that I can carry the materials to the venue? Can I offer someone else from the team a lift to help carry?

Venue: Steps and Who Can Help

  • Occasionally I look at the floor plan for the venue if it is large (and available) but normally I don’t. Now I would like to know – how far is the room from the entrance, how far apart are the breakout rooms, how far is coffee and lunch from the workspace?
  • If I am working in a plenary auditorium space, is there a stage area with steps? Can I either start and stop up there, or can I do all the talking from the floor (better)? Is there a wireless mike I can use?
  • I won’t be able to fix or move things myself, or run for more this or that. Who is in charge in the partner organization just in case, do I have her/his mobile phone number? Who is in charge for the venue, do I have that contact information? 

Agenda: A Little More Leisurely Than Usual

  • Is the agenda perhaps a little too tight, are breaks and transitions short? Can the pacing in the design be a little slower and less choppy in terms of rooms changes – more gastropod and less hummingbird? (This reminded me of one of my own blog posts recently about not overdoing interaction: Too Much of a Good Thing.)
  • Where do I need to be when? Can I minimize my own running around by putting other people in charge of certain rooms and spaces? (For the mid-January event, I will be working with 4 other Facilitators, can I assign them the furthest rooms? Are they happy with these extra “fitness” benefits?) 

Workshop Rooms: Where Can I Sit? 

  • How is the room set up? Do I need to reserve a seat in the auditorium for myself at the front by the microphone so I don’t have to walk up and down the steps to speak?
  • In the workshop rooms, can single chairs be put here and there to sit on while I am not facilitating? This is a funny one, I noticed at a recent workshop there were exactly enough chairs for the participants and not one extra, so I spent the whole day standing (until the participants were standing -then I was sitting in their seats!) Make sure to have more than one extra chair around the walls, as late comers (both at the start, but also after each break and lunch) will always take the single chairs in the back/side rather than moving people to sit in the middle.  

Communicate: Tell People

  • I need to tell people, especially the other facilitators asap about the fact that I will be wandering around, slowly, in a full leg cast. They will have good ideas how to be as efficient as possible with a partially able team member.
  • Communicating about how it is going during the event will also help people understand why I might opt out of the group dinner, dragging a leg and cast up and down the steps all day will probably be incredibly tiring.
  •  At the same time I need to be as self-sufficient as possible, believe me I will be wearing something with as many pockets as possible, stuffed with pens, markers, etc. things I normally have to continually walk around to find when I need them!

I’m sure in the end it will be fine. And this situation will give me the opportunity to think even more creatively about many aspects of my event. It will get me to put in the advance preparation time that is needed, the thinking through of choreography, materials, and movement, now even more crucial than ever. And it will certainly give “team” an additional dimension.  It is good to be mindful of these things anyways, and will be a good real life reminder of what it’s like to work with and pay attention to mobility and other very human conditions in a workshop setting.

8 replies
  1. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    Thanks, Tom, I hope the time will fly by. Every day seems to bring an new and interesting logistics challenge! I never realized how much of this kind of work depends on physical ability, I always thought of myself as a desk worker, not anymore! Happy New Year to you!

  2. Catherine
    Catherine says:

    Well we do indeed learn something every day, how to cope in the face of such adversity, or in your case – a foot in a cast. Good for you Gillian. Very interesting reading on how you are going to get through it all and the planning meeting in Paris.

  3. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    Hi Catherine, It is definitely helpful to reframe it this way (at least for me!) and with mountain snow sports season coming in our part of the world, who knows, there might be more such cases around….

  4. alanatkisson
    alanatkisson says:

    Wow, Gillian, you are the master of reframing really unpleasant experiences as learning opportunities. Hope you heal well … and as quickly as the body permits!

  5. Gillian Martin Mehers
    Gillian Martin Mehers says:

    Hi Alan, I've definitely worked to have reframing become one of my "good practices" (definitely takes some practice for me!) And my experience has been that it seems to open up possibility where before whatever it was just made me grumpy! 😉

  6. Nadine McCormick
    Nadine McCormick says:

    I love that your glass is always full, even when you trip over (did you make the plane incidentally?). Best wishes for a speedy recovery – and a fantastic 2011.

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