For any meeting, conference or event held today, it’s critical that planners consider everyone who may be in attendance, and that requires being ADA compliant so all attendees can have a positive experience.
Joan L. Eisenstodt, principal and chief strategist for Eisenstodt Associates LLC, a meetings and hospitality consultant, notes the industry is far beyond “compliance,” partly because that signifies a baseline established for facilities by the U.S. Department of Justice, and, outside the U.S., by government entities. “What we strive for — or should — are accessible meetings for all who desire to attend,” she says. “So, it’s about moving beyond compliant to accessible and inclusive.”
When the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990, Cricket Park, then an association planner, now an Episcopal priest, spoke to the Events Industry Council (EIC) board on which Eisenstodt served. “It was clear then that there was much we had to do to first, ensure hotels and other venues were accessible, let alone compliant,” Eisenstodt says. “U.S. hotels all say they are ADA compliant, which is not measured by DOJ and rarely checked by the hotels’ owners or management company. My experience is that they may meet some criteria, but not all, and not always.”
Therefore, even before asking what participants and attendees need, RFPs need to ask not if a venue is ADA compliant, but how it is compliant and request specifics. “Assume that there will be some in the group who have chemical sensitivities and for whom a hotel that uses spray-in scents may present a hazard; or a hotel’s public restrooms may have the wheelchair symbol outside the door, but the door is impossible to open or there’s no turn radius for a mobility device,” Eisenstodt says. “Then, ask this question of those who may attend: ‘Tell us what you need to fully participate in the meeting or event, such as mobility, hearing or sight access needs; food, beverage or scent allergies; sensory and communication and neurodivergent needs.’”
ADA-compliant events must ask their participants and attendees what they need to make their experience the same, or as close to the same, as the experience of a participant or attendee without disabilities. ADA-compliant events must also have multiple ways of delivering information, must have accessible bathrooms in multiple places in the hotel, and captioning not just for people who may be deaf or hard-of-hearing, but those who may learn differently or if English is not their first language.
Robin Troutman, deputy director for the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities, is charged with executing in-person and online events, including a policy conference with other organizations. “Because about 1/3 of our participants are people with disabilities or their caretaker, we take ADA compliance very seriously,” she says. “For starters, we make sure to ask about any accommodation needs in our registration. We have a separate question for accommodations such as CART/Captioning; America Sign Language (ASL) interpreters; large print or Braille; quiet rooms, etc. We also do a separate question on dietary restrictions or requests.”
Kirstin Turnbull, owner of Green Room Inc., has nearly three decades of experience planning for events and conferences, and characterizes herself as someone obsessed with the guest/user experience. “Anecdotally, we all know that people learn and experience the same event differently, so design needs to be couched in this understanding,” she says. “This means all people need to be included when user experience is considered. Unfortunately, this wasn’t talked about very much in the past — among planners, venues or clients. Accessibility was often lumped in with contingency plans and only considered people who use mobility devices. Now, meetings and events should consider every physical and mental range. We don’t all move around the same way. We don’t all learn the same way. We don’t all network in the same way.”
Martha Keele, COO of Toast of the Town LLC, which provides event design, management and consulting experience to Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, has spent more than 10 years working with the disability community internally at a national nonprofit, overseeing development initiatives and large fundraising campaigns, as well as hosting events across the U.S. “In my experience, it goes beyond that of simply checking boxes to be ADA compliant and really embraces a mentality of inclusion or a favorite motto: ‘Never for us, without us,’” she says. “This means we work to ensure our key constituents are represented in every element of the event, thoughtfully and compassionately.”
The change she has noticed over the years is that, at first, when building in compassionate accommodations for ADA-need attendees, there was a lot of education required to teach to venues, staff and vendors. “Now, these components are much more commonplace, and have become either standardized or to be expected when they are needed,” Keele says. “Sourcing and training has become much easier and more efficient.”
At its core, an ADA-compliant event should provide the same means of use for all users and avoid segregating or stigmatizing any users. “If someone using a mobility device must enter through the caterer’s entrance and has a row of assigned seating in the back where they can’t see, guess what? That’s checking a box. It isn’t really designing an event from how that user will experience it,” Turnbull says. “Green Room Inc. events always factor in area allowances, reach and height limitations, an appreciation for neurodiverse attendees’ experiences, as well as visual and audible barriers, like screen glare, sightlines, controls or on-screen captioning.”
Earla Jones, MS, CMP, director, conference services and operations for the American Library Association (ALA), has more than 20 years’ experience as a planning professional, producing meetings, conventions and events specializing in strategic experiential design. Since 2013, the ALA has been increasing accommodation services at association events, with its current standard in place since 2017 when the ALA accessibility task force provided a compilation of recommendations which were subsequently implemented, and are continuously monitored and enhanced. “You must intentionally work to make sure the attendee experience will be a pleasant and accessible one by segmenting planning and preparation into considerations that should be implemented before, during and after conferences,” Jones says.
Checks to be done before the event may include site visits, inspecting accommodations and housing, meeting spaces, communication, web accessibility, programming, exhibit space and off-site function locations. Checks to be made during the event might include on-site accessibility management, transportation services, incident reporting procedures and virtual participation. Checks to be done after the event should include assessment/evaluation reporting, review of procedures and post-event communications/follow-up.
Troutman thinks the key to a successful ADA-compliant event is to ask questions and to listen. “Ask people with disabilities what will make them most comfortable and what will ensure they have the best experience possible,” she says. “Don’t single people out. If people who use wheelchairs are participating in your event, make sure they have the ability to sit in any part of the room they want, and not just in the back.”
A big lesson for all planners is to learn from mistakes. For example, if someone comments on an issue they had at the event, make sure you fix it before the next event. “Representation is key,” Troutman says. “Having speakers who have both visible or invisible disability is important to ensuring that people feel included since they are able to see themselves as part of the conference.”
It is also important to remember that one person with Down syndrome or cerebral palsy is not the same or has the same experience as a second person with those diagnoses.
Creating an ADA-compliant floor plan can make your event more inclusive and impactful for all attendees. John W. Bettag, senior vice president, business development at Heritage – Nationwide Exposition Services, notes the importance of making the floor plan early so the planning doesn’t hit any bumps in the road. “Collaborate with your exposition services contractor, who can advise you on ADA guidelines, such as ensuring adequate room for wheelchairs to navigate around booths and registration tables,” he says. “You will need 36 inches of unobstructed space between displays and a 3-foot square area in all corners, allowing a wheel-chaired individual to make a 90-degree turn.”
Additionally, exhibits with raised floors will also need to include ramps with handrails for alternative access. When deciding on space, the National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities makes sure that all meetings rooms are on one floor and that the elevators are within a short distance to the meeting rooms. “We look to book spaces that do not have any pillars in the rooms so that there are no visual complications or space complications,” Troutman says. “Big pillars not only block people’s views, but can be a hindrance to people who use mobility devices. We book a spare room for a quiet space where people who have sensory sensitivities or just need to separate themselves for a bit, can go and have some respite.”
Also when booking space, Troutman takes into consideration how far it is from the airport and what types of accessible transportation exists in the city so people who use wheelchairs and are not able to transfer to a regular car seat have a safe way of getting to the venue. “Venues and cities are much more accessible than in the past,” she says. “My organization will likely never be able to hold a meeting in historic cities such as Savannah or Charleston because of the cobblestone paths.”
When looking at a place to host, Keele always opts for a venue that accommodates ADA needs with parking, wide hallways, curb ramps and more, preferably close to public transportation options. “There should be clear, easy-to-read signage and perhaps in Braille,” she says. “[There should also be] sign language interpreters for presentation sessions and the use of subtitles on screens and PowerPoints.”
Keele also tries to find a venue that offers customized menu options, as offering diverse options is important to those who may suffer from gluten or other allergies. She reminds that a planner also should always have an emergency plan in place for people with disabilities.
Other keys to a successful ADA-compliant event are to provide multiple registration options for attendees to ensure ease of registering; utilize clear, easy-to-read signs placed around the venue to help attendees navigate the event; being thoughtful about planned activities to make them accessible to the entire audience; and working with the A/V team to use real-time captioning for speaker presentations.
“It goes beyond the venue selection and state compliance. A successful event offers inclusion for everyone,” Keele says. “Always do a final check for accessibility of event space to ensure approved accommodations are in place. Proactive planning goes a long way. Consider these items throughout the planning process, and it will minimize the need for individuals with disabilities to request accommodations during the event.”
Courtney Trunk, director of communication and events for Arc Michigan, an advocacy organization for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, notes the first rule of success is making sure everyone has what they need to accomplish their goals for the event. “If the basis of good manners is consideration for another person’s comfort, then event planning is the embodiment of good manners,” she says. “And when in doubt, ask. Your event may not need every single accommodation that exists, so if you understand the needs of those in attendance, you can dedicate more thought and attention to those specifics.”
Arc Michigan has an individual devoted to responding to requests for accommodation, so when those requests come in, Trunk will answer directly to get a better idea of what is needed. “Some of the more obvious aspects to consider when event planning include cut curbs/ramps/elevators and automatic doors,” she says. “But other details can often be overlooked. For example, choose a location with hard floors rather than carpeting to allow easier traction for wheelchairs and walkers.”
For each of their events, the ALA utilizes services of an accessibility consultant who specializes in providing communication access, hearing and assistive technologies, and support services for persons who are deaf, deaf/blind and hard of hearing. “Our consultant maintains an accessibility hotline and dedicated email account leading up to each conference, is available for site visits, reviews captions, font requirements, symbol usage, and manages the assignments of accessibility services for in-person and virtual events,” Jones says. “At the end of each conference, a close-out report is provided summarizing and capturing the feedback for the services provided during the event.”
For instance, at the recent 2022 ALA Annual Conference & Exhibition at the Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., the ALA had everything in place to ensure the event was accessible for all. “We captioned our main sessions and virtual presentations, there were wheelchair areas in every meeting room and ballroom, and we had accessible sleeping rooms in our hotel block,” Jones says. “There were rooms for people who are deaf, blind and attendees who use wheelchairs. For those who indicated requests on the housing form, a housing bureau representative contacted them to ensure placement in an appropriate room.”
Additionally, leader/support animals of all kinds were welcome throughout the ALA Conference, listening devices were available for those who were hard of hearing, and the shuttle bus company had accessible buses. In total, accommodations were provided for 19 deaf, deaf/blind, and hard-of-hearing attendees using sign language interpreters, captioning services and listening devices. A total of 546.5 hours of interpreting was performed by 24 interpreters both in person and virtually. Captioning was performed by two on-site writers and five virtual writers.
The National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities held its recent annual conference as a hybrid event, and that meant being ADA compliant for both those in attendance and those participating online. “Having a virtual component is accessible if you ensure that people participating still have access to some of the same accommodation needs, such as captioning and materials sent out ahead of time so that they can read on their own,” Troutman says. “We provided all of our materials on the platform so that anyone who uses a screen reader could follow along at their own time. Most importantly, we required that any session had at least one person with lived experience either on the panel, one of the speakers or as the moderator.”
Aside from the obvious pandemic-related challenges faced by the entire world, Trunk notes some of the more interesting aspects have been finding ways of reaching new people with the diversity in communication. “Half of our members will only obtain information mailed to their house, and the other half won’t obtain it unless it’s on social media,” she says. “There is constant input everywhere you look, so it’s difficult to stand out. The continual evolution of technology combined with individual needs may make it seem difficult to keep up, but it boils down to being considerate to your fellow human.”
One of the biggest challenges with ADA events involves time management. “Since we offer individual interpreters, precise scheduling is required for those who require one-on-one services,” Jones says. “At our last conference, the biggest accessibility challenge was the shortage of interpreters available, another effect the pandemic has had on labor and services. Having a dedicated consultant to manage the scheduling and fill-in when necessary was a significant component to accommodating last-minute, on-site requests.”
Budget woes are one of the biggest challenges mentioned by the majority of planners, as vendors for ASL, captioning, livestreaming and other necessary tools are not cheap. “When we look for sponsors, we put an accommodation sponsor in the prospectus,” Troutman says. “Also, in order to meet the accommodation needs, I will cut some other expenses that are not as needed or necessary for the experience.”
Assumptions and ignorance and unwillingness to make things accessible is always a challenge, Eisenstodt says. “To address this, I speak up and advocate, ask questions, point out what needs to be fixed, and for clients’ meetings, ensure that they stop using cost and assumptions to provide accessibility as a barrier to inclusion,” she says.
In addition to services available for attendees, a best practice is providing a resources page for presenters and exhibitors. “These tips and guidelines can assist speakers in making their presentations accessible for all, and provide suggestions that can help increase booth traffic by persons with disabilities,” Jones says.
The best planners continue to monitor what’s new and implement changes as necessary. There are a lot of great free resources online, including the ADA Resource Center for Equity and Accessibility (RCEA) Guide.
Eisenstodt follows a number of disability advocates on LinkedIn and Twitter, and recommends the Google group, Accessible, which gives great hints on technology uses and changes.
Troutman points to some amazing advocates online, such as Emily Ladau, Samantha Evans and Meryl Evans, and organizations such as the American Association of People With Disabilities (AAPD), Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) and Self-Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE).
“Emily Ladau has an amazing book called ‘Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to Be an Ally,’ which I believe is a book that everyone, especially in the service industry, should read,” Troutman says.
The Disability & Philanthropy Forum and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) are also resources planners mentioned as being helpful. Turnbull notes planners need simply to go online, start searching and make their events top-notch in this area. “The CDC reports that 26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability, so if you’re planning an event with 10 people, you can expect that at least two people live with some sort of disability,” Turnbull says. “People think our efforts here are trying to accommodate for the exception and not the norm. That’s not the case.” | AC&F |