Almost Inclusive

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Let me start by stating that I don’t drink alcohol. This isn’t due to religion, it isn’t due to alcoholism, it’s just purely a personal choice. When I first made this choice in my late teens I felt like there was something wrong with me. So many social activities in Australia revolve around alcohol. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been offered a drink, and after saying no I eventually have to tell someone I don’t drink alcohol. Next time I see the person I usually have to repeat this process. Thankfully in the last few years it has become more common for people to avoid alcohol; many workplaces now make arrangements for this when they organise social activities. Unfortunately, despite these arrangements it often falls short.

As I look back at a few previous workplaces I can see the attempts that have been made, and how these have either highlighted that I don’t align with the company culture, or how they have just failed dismally. This is the story of some of those occasions.

I’ll start with one from a few years ago that stands out to me, and was one of the steps on me deciding to move on from the role. I had been working at the organisation for a reasonable length of time. At some point during my tenure one of the senior manages asked why I never attended the Friday afternoon drinks. I’m a pretty open and honest type, I told them that as it was all based around alcohol and no soft drinks were provided I felt out of place so chose not to attend. Eventually I was talking in to going. There was usually some form of fruit juice in the fridge at this company, so I would pour myself a glass, but I still felt out of place. Eventually I worked out it was because I was the only person using a glass, everyone else had their beer bottle or can. After this realisation I would ensure I always had a bottle of soft drink for Friday afternoon drinks, it helped me feel like I could fit in.

Anyway, back to the event that really stood out to me. It was the day of the end of year office party. Breakfast was organised, there was a sparkling wine provided and some orange juice for those who thought 9am was too early to drink. This stood out to me as it was one of the first times an event had been catered with non-alcoholic beverages (it was also one of the first times an event had been before midday). We went on a scavenger hunt for a couple of hours as one of the activities, and it ended in a park for some socialising and activities until it was time to head out for a meal. During the activities I wandered over to the table to grab a drink; there was only beer. I noticed the person who organised the activities standing nearby and asked if there was anything other than beer. There was the look I’m kind of used to where she realised she’d forgotten to cater to those who don’t or didn’t want to drink. Then came the apology, followed by a pointer to the closest tap (not that I had a glass or anything to fill up).

I don’t know why this still stands out in my mind. Maybe it’s because so much about that employer and their culture was so amazing. But something that is seemingly small for others felt quite exclusionary for me.

Sometimes an attempt is made, but it just doesn’t work out. A meetup that I used to attend quite regularly before the whole COVID-19 interruption was usually really good at ensuring there were both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks available. One time the drinks delivery wasn’t fulfilled, suddenly the pressure was on, catering had to be organised. Now I can kind of understand why things didn’t get sorted in this case. There was a bottle shop just down the road, but they only had large bottles of soft drink. The supermarket (which would have cans of soft drink) was much further away and in the opposite direction. The alcohol supplies were sorted, but no one ever bothered to organise any soft drink.

During the evening a few people asked about the soft drink situation and apologies were made, but I could see it made a few people uncomfortable.

The final situation I’ll mention happened not long ago. Due to the sudden reintroduction of COVID-19 restrictions in Victoria a company social event was cancelled. Instead of the planned social event there were going to be social drinks via a video call. Now in fairness, I’ve never been comfortable in this type of social event, so I was unlikely to attend anyway. But the evening before the event an announcement was made to all staff about how to get some drinks at the company’s expense. The announcement included some details about what was being covered, there were step-by-step instructions for how to use the alcohol ordering app. There was also a comment to say that for those who don’t drink alcohol there were other options. The exact comment was:

If you don’t drink alcohol or Tipple doesn’t deliver to your part of the world, no problem, we have you covered too, so DM me for more details.

It seems nice an inclusive, but here’s how it sounded to me:

If you don’t drink alcohol you have to jump through some extra hoops and highlight to us that you’re different, so we can look after you.

As I mentioned before, I was unlikely to have some online drinks. I can grab a drink from the fridge at any time without feeling guilty and without needing the excuse of socialising to do so. But after the failed attempt at inclusivity I decided there was no way I was going to attend the event as I felt like my differences to the majority in the company were being highlighted.

So, I’m sure everyone reading this is wondering what the point of this article is. Is it just a chance for me to bitch and moan that the world doesn’t pander to me and my non-conformance with the majority, or is there actually some point? Let me assure you that there is a point.

When we’re organising activities, when we’re developing websites, when we’re doing anything that involves other people, we need to be conscious of being inclusive of all and not making anyone work harder for equal treatment. We’re all unique, some people won’t eat animal products, some people don’t eat specific meats, some people have low visual capabilities, some people have movement difficulties, some people don’t drink alcohol. If we don’t make allowances for the potential differences then someone is likely to feel excluded. And guess what, they probably won’t tell you, they’ll just vote with their feet and leave.

Thankfully it’s fairly easy to work with most of these unique aspects of people. If you’re catering have some vegan options, aa gluten free option and a nut free option.; this will cover the majority of people. If you’re providing drinks, make sure there’s more than just alcohol, add some soft drinks and fruit juices, and have some room temperature and chilled water. In you’re organising a venue make sure it has ramps and elevators, not just steps. If you’re doing a presentation don’t rely on just your slides to provide information, use your voice, but also ensure you have real-time captions on screen for those who can’t hear. If you want to be truly inclusive, ensure that you ask event attendees for any dietary requirements and if there’s anything else that may degrade their experience. Most people are happy to state their limitations and if you aren’t sure how to resolve them, many will be more than happy to help you find a solution.

So please, don’t just try to be inclusive. Make sure you succeed at it.