What I learned piloting the Accessible Escape Room surprised me

It wasn’t that we need to revise a few puzzles, smooth out rough edges or make the technology more reliable. We need to improve all those things but I learned something else while piloting the Accessible Escape Room that I didn’t expect, but upon reflection, should have. The realization has expanded how I think about accessibility. I learned that no matter how accessible we make the puzzles or overall experience, in the end accessibility comes down to how committed the participants are to being inclusive.

A pile of polaroid photos on an end table.

Let me back up. Last week Accessible Community, Vispero, and MITRE with help from AIRA, Escape Room Loco, and Zak Staszkiewicz asked 17 people to pilot an accessible escape room we created. Our participants included individuals who were blind, deaf, mobility impaired, and dyslexic as well as non-disabled individuals. We had some participants who had done many escape rooms and some who had never had the chance. The pilot was a great success: The participants had fun and we learned a lot. Our thanks to each of the individuals for their time and feedback! We will be bringing the escape room to conferences and other locations over the next year to allow people who can’t participate in most escape rooms to enjoy a fun puzzle experience and teach about accessibility in the process.

One thing we learned was that the room worked better when we dedicated a few minutes at the beginning to inclusion training for the participants. Our escape room team had spent a lot of time ensuring each puzzle was accessible or had an alternative way of solving it, but that alone wasn’t enough. Escape rooms are team activities and the team itself needs to be prepared to be inclusive.

In hindsight, when I work with churches and small business owners through this charity, I see the same thing. Accessibility occurs only where people are dedicated to it. You can build an accessible building but make it inaccessible by filling up the spaces needed to maneuver a wheelchair with trash or furniture. You can build a technically accessible website but it won’t work well if the developer does not thoughtfully consider users’ needs.  Our escape room will only be accessible when we design it to facilitate interactions between people with very diverse abilities.

Accessibility occurs only where people are dedicated to it.

Another thing we observed: The teams that worked together and dedicated extra time to involving everyone, finished faster than those who broke apart into subgroups.  The escape room is proving to be a 30 minute microcosm of what we know to be true at work and across our lives: When we all work together, when we bridge our differences, we are all more successful. I can’t wait till we roll out the full experience!

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