All AccessMarch 17, 2023

Going Beyond ADA Compliance By
March 17, 2023

All Access

Going Beyond ADA Compliance
Cory Lee, who publishes the award-winning travel blog Curb Free With Cory Lee, recommends planners include accessibility information on their event websites. Courtesy Photo

Cory Lee, who publishes the award-winning travel blog Curb Free With Cory Lee, recommends planners include accessibility information on their event websites. Courtesy Photo

Let no one say that greed is a good reason for stepping up to accommodate people with disabilities at their conferences and meetings. And yet, association meeting planners who aren’t going out of their way to make their events accessible to all prospective attendees may be leaving money on the table.

While the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been the law of the land since 1990, true accessibility continues to challenge disabled people from all walks of life. This includes not just those using wheelchairs for mobility, but also less obvious physical impairments, such as arthritis, cognition, and sight and hearing disabilities. But disability experts say that, increasingly, some destinations are going above and beyond ADA requirements to become more welcoming — and they’re using it to attract meeting and convention business.

When launching plans for a new Kansas City International Airport terminal, the Kansas City Council challenged the Aviation Department to make the facility the most accessible airport in the world. The result is that the recently opened terminal includes such features as fully accessible restrooms with adult-sized changing tables, private rooms for mothers who need to breast feed infants, and service dog relief areas in each concourse, so handlers don’t have to leave the secure side of the airport.

At the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis recently, an attendee with a severe peanut allergy reached out asking for help in finding seating at an event. The guest services staff identified a location that was as far as possible from food vendors utilizing peanut products. Another attendee had an allergy to latex, and the facility worked with vendors to ensure the guest would not be served by someone wearing latex gloves, and reviewed the environment to ensure that they would not be sitting in an area that might have items containing latex.

This year, Visit Jacksonville announced it became Florida’s first DMO to earn the Certified Autism Center (CAC) designation, recognizing organizations that have undergone staff training to better understand and meet the needs of autistic visitors and their families. “We’re proud to be the first destination in the state of Florida to achieve the Certified Autism Center status,” says Visit Jacksonville president and CEO Michael Corrigan. “But we’re most proud to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all who visit Jacksonville.”

At its recent Convening Leaders conference in Columbus, Ohio, PCMA conducted a session to highlight the Greater Columbus Convention Center’s outreach to visitors with disabilities. PCMA had Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D., a disability consultant and disability ambassador for Experience Columbus, lead a tour of the convention center for 25 meeting professionals, focusing on the facility’s accessible features.

“Elevators were clearly marked, every restroom had an accessible stall, sinks, mirrors, hooks and towels to dry my hands, and the doors were automatic,” says Rossetti. “The carpet is easy for me to roll on, wheelchairs are available at no cost if you need them, and if you need a scooter, there’s a small charge to rent one for the day. The convention center has done a wonderful job outlining services.” Rossetti is a Columbus resident, and she confesses to a bit of local bias. But she was also hired by Experience Columbus to create an Accessibility Guide (, a specially curated list of attractions, hotels and sources of transportation chosen for their disability access. While focused on Columbus, the guide has tips and considerations that could apply in any city.

“Experience Columbus — and the entire community — believes it’s of utmost importance for visitors of all abilities to feel welcomed and comfortable when traveling,” explains Kari Kauffman, Chief Destination Experience Officer at Experience Columbus. “Whether you’re coming to town for a conference, event or visiting a friend for the weekend, we want everyone to feel confident while exploring our city. The Accessibility Guide is truly a professionally-backed, one-stop resource for people to use while planning a visit, or in real-time while exploring the city.”

Facing Challenges

Prospective attendees with disabilities cite a number of challenges that able-bodied delegates are less likely to face. Current estimates hold that one out of five Americans have a physical or mental limitation of some kind — and that’s not counting those with a temporary disability caused by an injury or surgery. Explaining how these limitations are accommodated at conferences is a major step towards encouraging participation.

“My number one concern is transportation,” explains Cory Lee, who uses a motorized wheelchair and publishes the award-winning travel blog “I fully get that not everything can be accessible, but I have to consider how I will get around.” Although Lee has traveled to all seven continents, he cites one conference he has declined to attend, because the event website lacks accessibility information. “I don’t want to have to email back and forth with questions.  Meeting planners can increase attendance just by having that info on the website.”

In a recent study conducted by the Valuable 500, a global collective of CEOs dedicated to disability inclusion, 3,500 travelers with disabilities were asked to identify the global destinations they found most accessible. Echoing Lee’s concerns, among the key areas respondents were asked to consider were transportation links and the availability of information about accessibility. The three U.S. cities that made the top 10 list: Las Vegas, New York and Orlando.

Jake Steinman, founder of, works with the leisure travel industry on accessibility issues, and in August, will host the Emerging Markets Summit, which is co-located with U.S. Travel’s Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations (ESTO) in Savannah, GA. When the pandemic arrived, Steinman pivoted by conducting a “listening tour” to gauge the industry’s ethos around accessibility, eventually speaking with 53 representatives from hotels, attractions, museums, CVBs, tour operators and travel agents.

“I found three mindsets in the travel industry,” explains Steinman. “One was fear — fear of litigation and complaints, especially at hotels. In this case, the decision-makers, the managers, do the absolute minimum required to be accessible. The second is the idealist, the ones who feel everyone should feel welcome no matter what. Museums that receive grant funding tend to be hyper-accessible, along with some of the big attractions. They get locals as part of their customer base, which includes schools groups and senior groups, and they see people with accessibility issues every day.”

Steinman continues: “The third mindset is growth, and these are the businesses that see an untapped market. When you factor in baby boomers who are aging into a disability, like arthritis, suddenly that’s a big market.” Health Today reports that 40% of baby boomers self-identify as having a disability after they reach age 65. Although larger cities and meeting destinations have made the transition to meeting ADA guidelines, Steinman says secondary locations are starting to position their facilities to actively cater to this market. “Right now, we’re working with Fairfax, Lexington, Lancaster, Mesa, Tampa and Kissimmee on an initiative called Rethinking Accessibility. These second-tier destinations all live in the shadow of the bigger convention destinations. They want accessibility to be a differentiator.  We’re showing them how it’s not about what you can’t do; it’s what you can do.”

Addressing Needs

Increasingly, associations are demanding that destinations rise to the challenge. Frank E. Gainer, CMP, CAE, an occupational therapist by training and vice president of meetings and events for the American Occupational Therapy Association, says his group expects the places they meet to be accessible to anyone who wants to attend.

“We work with individuals with disabilities, so we would be hypocrites if we didn’t honor increased accessibility,” says Gainer. “Anywhere we go, we walk the talk.” AOTA’s RFP requires the host destination to not only be ADA compliant, but includes a caveat expecting them to go above and beyond. Before contracts are signed — up to five years ahead — Conference Direct receives an ADA checklist for both the convention center and the hotels, and AOTA comes in for a detailed site inspection. “Some of our attendees may have a scooter, or they have low vision, or maybe hearing issues. We might only have 30 that self-identify as needing something, but we’ve turned down places that don’t rise to the level we expect.”

Gainer says that some people think you just install some grab bars and a restroom is accessible. But he explains, “In a bathroom, you need a 60-inch turning radius to be accessible, you need paper towel holders at a level so someone in a wheelchair can reach them. Overall, Kansas City has been very good, although we’ve had some challenges with the bathrooms. We signed the contract pre-COVID-19 and they agreed to make some changes, but then there were budget cuts. We’ve had to go back and prioritize the upgrades we’d like to have done in the bathroom.”

Becoming Inclusive

The American Association of Geographers has been attuned to accessibility needs for a long time, according to Oscar Larson, director, AAG Meetings. The organization has about 75 specialized disciplines, including a disability geography group. For its conference this year in Denver, Larson expects about 4,000 in-person attendees, with about 50 people in total making special requests, all of which can be shared through an open-ended response field during registration.

“Some of these are about the room lighting or noise levels, some have requested a nursing mothers room,” explains Larson. “We want to make our Annual Meeting as welcoming as possible, and diversity and inclusion are really core to our values.” Larson says, about six years ago, AAG decided to get ahead of accessibility issues, instead of being in a position of reacting to events on the ground.  AAG wound up hiring Rosemarie Rossetti as a consultant.

“Not being experts, she came to our site visit in Denver and gave attention to some of the details that we would have overlooked,” adds Larson. “We spent a long time talking about the hotels, and she pointed out a lot of things they needed to do. She has a super close eye for detail. It keeps us accountable and helps us keep our partners accountable.”

The Denver site visit brought several issues to the fore. One of the two hotels selected for attendees had both a revolving door and a door on hinges at the entrance. The regular door was locked to keep homeless residents from entering the hotel, and Rossetti, who uses a manual wheelchair, couldn’t enter the lobby through the revolving door.

“This was part of our discovery that we never would have expected,” notes Rossetti. “There was also a miscommunication about what type of room I needed — I had asked for one with wheelchair access with a roll-in shower.  But when I got to the room, there was not one grab bar and the shower was not curb-less. They sent me to another room, but it also was not accessible, despite the request being noted in the reservation. As an accessibility consultant, my first impression was that this hotel room was not safe for me for two nights, so my client and I had a conversation with the sales manager.”

Larson says AAG expects to continue working with an accessibility expert indefinitely. “It’s really important for us to have a point of contact for real-time intervention and support,” explains Larson. “Each place we go to will have its own challenges, but there are so many nuances.  It’s more than us just having a checklist.”

It’s also important for attendees of different backgrounds to feel seen. “If you’re trying to entice people to register, the marketing people should showcase people with disabilities, to show that I’m included,” suggests Rossetti. “Just like gender or race, incorporating people with visual disabilities shows how we belong. And then, as they start registering, we need to see the appropriate questions, such as what do you need to be able to fully participate in this conference.”

Such efforts at inclusion can continue all the way to the keynote stage, where panels and speakers foster another kind of connection. Cory Lee mentions that he was particularly moved when he was asked by an association conference planner to lead a professional development session on Facebook, a communications area he has excelled at monetizing.

“These groups always want to put me on that standard diversity panel,” says Lee. “But it was great having a chance to speak about something where I was an expert. I really loved being asked to speak about something having nothing to do with accessibility or diversity, or disability.”  AC&F

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