Accommodating people with disabilities is the law, but there are plenty of reasons for companies to go above and beyond to create a welcoming environment for these folks. The number of people with disabilities is far higher than you might expect. It’s estimated that one in five Americans has some type of physical or mental disability. As the population continues to age, even people who don’t identify themselves as disabled may deal with a decrease in their physical ability, hearing or eyesight. In addition, thousands of people deal with a temporary disability every year due to a surgery, injury or accident.
By not meeting the needs of people with disabilities, companies are potentially leaving a lot of money on the table. They may also be giving people a less-than-optimal experience, which can impact both their satisfaction with their employer and their likelihood of attending that event again.
“It’s really frustrating, as a person with disabilities, to want to participate in these things, to want to put time and money into them, and not be able to get everything out of them that everyone else can,” says Christine Selinger, founder and owner of Creative by Christine. She is also a contractor for the Abilities Expo, which hosts events for people with disabilities and their friends, family and healthcare providers in several major cities. “It feels like you’re paying for something you’re not getting.”
“It’s really frustrating, as a person with disabilities, to want to participate in these things, to want to put time and money into them, and not be able to get everything out of them that everyone else can.” Christine Selinger
If you’re looking to design events that are more accessible, our experts share ideas about how to make the registration process, physical space, off-site events and other features more accessible for everyone.
“Within the disability community there’s a saying: ‘Nothing about us, without us,’” says Elisa Hays, CSP, of Empathy Fueled Solutions and a speaker, author and consultant who works with event venues all over the country. “One of the things that happens is that a lot of planners without disabilities have great ideas about how they want to create solutions, but they don’t include attendees with disabilities, so their solutions can be misguided.”
Both Hays and Selinger highly recommend asking at least one person with a disability to get involved in the planning process and assist with evaluating all physical spaces. “The people who know this the most are people with disabilities,” Selinger says. “Include them and ask them for feedback. They will give you tons.”
But what if a company doesn’t have a disabled person amongst its staff or volunteers, or the one wheelchair user isn’t comfortable with being singled out? “The easiest and fastest way for a meeting planner to connect to the disability community is to call their national ADA center,” Hays says. Known officially as the ADA National Network, this organization provides information, guidance and training to help companies comply with ADA requirements. Though one of its major roles is to clarify legal aspects of the ADA, staff can connect planners to local disability advocacy groups. These organizations often have people who are willing to consult on making venues and programs comfortable for people with disabilities.
There are several other things planners can do ahead of gatherings to ensure they are ready to serve disabled attendees. “When sending out the announcement, give participants a few different ways to request an accommodation before the event,” says Michelle “Mell” Toy, COMS, CLVT, assistant director of the Northwest ADA Center. “People with disabilities will tell you what they need, and event planners will probably want to know what to prepare ahead of time, including creating large print or braille materials, or scheduling American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, etc.”
Including a questionnaire with the registration materials is a good idea, but it needs to be carefully considered before and during event preparation. “The questions that you put there need to be structured so they’re not asking people what their disability is, because that’s really none of their business, but that they’re asking about their needs and then following up on it,” Hays says. That second piece, she emphasizes, is just as critical. “Often that information seems to go nowhere.”
According to Tracy Stuckrath, CSEP, CMM, CHC, owner of thrive! meetings & events in North Carolina, any event website needs to be designed so that it is ADA compliant. In addition to online resources, provide a phone number where visually-impaired people can call to register. Anyone should be able to call that number and ask questions about how the company will accommodate people with special needs.
She also notes that companies should share any barriers to full participation with attendees ahead of time. “If you’re going to have loud music, or you’ve going to have strobe lights, or an event is going to be on a beach, you need to communicate that,” she says. “If there are attendees who are epileptic, the strobe light or loud music could cause a seizure. With a beach, attendees in wheelchairs or with canes may not be able to access the beach through the main access points. Letting them know where the access points are, and designing those access points so everyone is using them so some attendees aren’t being singled out, is important.”
Hays also strongly encourages planners to find a qualified person to conduct pre-event communication training for staff and volunteers or do it themselves after conducting research ahead of time. “They should talk about some good, inclusive etiquette,” she says. “There are the basics, like don’t ever grab somebody’s wheelchair without asking permission. Then there’s the more elevated training, where they may talk about things like the difference between saying, ‘Here, let me help you’ and saying, ‘How can I assist you?’”
Planners are often quick to confirm that venues have accessible features such as wheelchair ramps and elevators. One thing they may not realize is that flooring can pose a real challenge for attendees in wheelchairs. Selinger uses a manual wheelchair, and propelling herself across large stretches of carpet is exhausting. Check the flooring of any potential venue and communicate that information ahead of time if needed.
Regardless of the flooring, “try to avoid long distances between rooms if at all possible,” Selinger says. “If you’re having an event at a convention center and there’s one thing at one end and something else at the complete other end, it makes it hard for those of us with disabilities to access everything.”
Make sure doorways and hallways are at least 36 inches wide so wheelchair users can travel comfortably. Check to see how doors open. “If doors are too heavy, attendees with disabilities have trouble opening them, so make sure there’s push-button access or there’s someone there to open doors,” Selinger says. That person should stay in place during a whole session to ensure a wheelchair user isn’t trapped if they need to leave early. Doors can also be propped open, but if you do that, make sure the doorstop won’t become an impediment to a wheelchair user.
Another thing that’s often overlooked is truly accessible washrooms. “They need to have level access, a large stall and all the things outlined in the ADA. But beyond that, make sure the washrooms are accessible in every way,” Selinger says. “If there are paper towel dispensers but they’re up too high, make sure there are paper towels sitting on the countertops so attendees can reach them.”
If an attendee needs to bring a service dog, make sure there’s a spot for the dog to relieve itself. If a participant needs to bring another person to the event to help them, offer their helper a free registration. Another detail that’s easy to miss is the availability of refrigerators for people who need to store medication. “Most hotels will give them to you if they’re medically necessary, but make sure the hotel has plenty of them,” Stuckrath says.
Off-site venues also need to be completely accessible for guests. “Off-site venues have two major problems,” Hays says. “One is how you get there, so making sure you have wheelchair-accessible transport is a big thing. It needs to be integrated so a wheelchair user doesn’t feel weirdly set apart. Two, if you’re going to a park or a beach or anywhere that has surfacing that would be awkward for a wheelchair, you need to look at setting up an area of networking or activity in an accessible area. Everyone needs to be able to get to food and drinks and other attendees. Or you can look at renting temporary surfaces to lay down and create a path of travel.”
Toy says, “I would advise planners to include accessibility into their contract agreements with the venues to clarify who is responsible for details such as ensuring physical access.” That will help cut down on mix-ups, and may even cut down on the expenses for which the company is responsible.
Transportation issues should also be considered as part of space requirements. Eva De Leon, director of Accessible Design and Innovative Inclusion, encourages planners to think ‘outside-in.’ “Oftentimes, when we first think about physical access, we think about restrooms,” she says. “But accessible restrooms are not going to be helpful if you can’t get into the building in the first place. Think first about transportation to and from the venue. What is the route like from the bus stop to the entrance? What about routes from the parking lot to the entrance? What’s the entrance like? When you look up the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design, remember that minimums are just that — minimums. If you can exceed the standards to make moving within the path of travel easier for a person who uses a mobility device, all the better.”
Make sure the venue has enough handicap-accessible parking, and make sure those restrictions are strictly enforced. “If you’re providing transportation via bus, is your bus handicap accessible, or are you providing some other form of accessible transportation?” Stuckrath asks. “Where is the entryway if it’s not through the front door?” and ‘How will people determine where that entrance is?’ See if the transportation provider can drop them at that entrance so they don’t need to travel far to enter the building.”
There are a few things to keep in mind when setting up session rooms. For spaces with classroom seating, make sure every third row has enough chairs missing that a person in a wheelchair can comfortably pull up to the table. They will need at least 60 inches to make their approach and turn their chair. If only one seat is missing, the person will not have enough space to maneuver, Hays says, and may be forced to sit in the aisle. Rather than feeling like they’re in the way, many attendees default to sitting in the back of the room.
“The No. 1 thing I encounter with events is they set up 10 top rounds, and they set them so close that for an attendee who is a wheelchair user, their only choice is to sit in the back on the fringe,” she adds. “The No. 1 thing planners can do is create more space in the room. If they’re using rounds, have more circulation space or have a designated path of travel to get to the middle of the room or the front of the room.” Don’t set up one wheelchair-accessible table in the back of the room with no seating for ambulatory attendees. Doing that leaves disabled attendees feeling isolated and left out.
“Planners do need to ask about food sensitivities,” Selinger says. “A lot of people with disabilities have different food sensitivities.” Stuckrath recommends labeling food with at least the top eight allergens, and providing a complete list of ingredients. Signs should have 16-point font so attendees with vision impairments can easily read them.
“It’s often easier for attendees to eat things that are more compact and don’t involve holding utensils,” Selinger says. “Things like sandwiches are easy to eat. Avoid things with lots of packaging.”
Tammi Olson, conference coordinator of the University of Washington’s Center for Continuing Education in Rehabilitation adds, “If you have quite a few attendees with physical disabilities, it is easier to serve a plated meal. If you are serving a buffet meal, ask the venue for additional staff to assist attendees with food items and plates when needed.”
For buffets, consult an expert to make sure the tables are the appropriate height and food it set at the right depth. “When the food isn’t accessible, an attendee in a wheelchair needs a tremendous amount of help,” Hays says. “The goal is that an attendee in a wheelchair can not only access it, but have as much independence as possible. Because independence is dignity.”
Make sure tablecloths on buffets and tables don’t overflow onto the floor. “If it gets caught up in our wheels, it’s only a matter of time before we pull it off the table,” Selinger says. For receptions and mixers, make sure to include a few tables with traditional heights. “I’ve been to receptions where they only have bar-height tables, and for those of us who sit, it means we’re looking up at everyone else and trying to lift our drinks overhead.”
All events need to be inclusive of attendees with vision problems, hearing loss and mental health barriers. “When my office puts on an event, we set up a microphone for the presenters, and we use additional microphones if there will be comment from the audience,” Toy says. That helps ensure everyone can hear. “We also give the option to attend the event via telephone or video conferencing. It is common for us to schedule ASL interpreters, and Computer Assisted Real-Time (CART) captioning, so that people with hearing disabilities can follow speeches made at the event. I would also encourage businesses to ask everyone to make their events fragrance-free.”
Selinger adds, “For attendees with anxiety or who are on the autism spectrum, it helps to have a space to get away. Make sure everybody knows there’s a quiet space to go to and what it’s used for.”
Says Hays, “For attendees with intellectual disabilities, the biggest issue is communication barriers.” They typically need more time to process what people are saying, which means it’s critical that speakers talk slowly. “Meeting planners can give a reminder to presenters, and everybody who gets up in front of an audience, to slow down.”
Finally, says Selinger, “Make sure there are handouts or copies of the presentation so attendees follow along or take something with them in case they can’t absorb everything right away. Basically, just give attendees as many ways as possible to interact with the presentation. Regardless of disability or diagnosis, it allows everybody to retain as much as possible and get as much as possible from the experience.” C&IT