The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush on July 26, 1990. You might think that, as a result, all public facilities, including hotels, convention centers, arenas and other venues typically used for meetings and other events easily accommodate physically challenged people today so planners don’t have to think much about it. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Think About Inclusion
With the topic of inclusion very much in the forefront of meetings-related discussions, planners actually have a lot to think about to ensure that their meetings are not just welcoming but also safe for attendees with disabilities. Accessibility in all its variations is a highly complex issue, and planners have a multitude of considerations in order to meet all needs at every meeting, regardless of where it is taking place.
So what do planners have to consider? “Ease of use, inclusion and respect,” says Holly Valenti, general manager at Hosts New Orleans. She also notes that, “It’s a lot easier now than it was even just five years ago. Convention facilities, transportation companies, venues and even human resources are getting more and more familiar with the requirements.”
That’s true in the United States but, as our experts point out, that may or may not be true in international destinations. But there’s also the importance of understanding what attendees may or may not need, and having a dialogue with them about that rather than making assumptions.
“Planners should not assume that a person with a disability needs assistance,” Valenti says, and that’s where respect comes in.
“A sign of respect is to ask attendees if they need assistance before acting,” she cautions. “And, if you do offer assistance, wait until the offer is accepted, then wait for or ask for instructions; respect the person’s right to indicate the kind of help that’s needed.”
Transportation is one key area where accommodating disabilities may come into play. ”Typically, booking vans or buses with wheelchair lifts, for example, is not a hard task and they should be the same price as vehicles without a wheelchair lift,” Valenti says.
But a planner’s job doesn’t end with simply finding and booking the vehicles. “One of the most challenging parts of this type of transportation,” Valenti notes, “is ensuring that the driver is trained on how to use the equipment, as well as educated on how to respectfully interact with each attendee.”
Sight and hearing impairment are among the typical challenges that planners have to think about.
“Just recently, we incorporated a closed-captioning system as well as a sign language interpreter during a general session for 2,700 administrative professionals,” Valenti says.” Both services were projected onto the main screen above the stage during the keynote presentation so that all attendees were always able to see both services.”
She notes that many large conferences typically have their own customized conference apps, which can be very helpful to attendees with disabilities. “These include schedules, conference info and transportation information,” she says. “Typically, information for disabled attendees is included in this app, for example, special phone numbers to call for an ADA shuttle.”
Asking and answering questions, regardless of the specific circumstances, is important. “Always ask questions about how you can best accommodate meeting attendees, and also respond appropriately to what attendees ask you or tell you. Understanding disability access needs and responding accurately, quickly and respectfully to requests for information, directions or assistance conveys genuine welcome,” Valenti says.
Tahira Endean, CMP, CED, DES, head of events for SITE Global, says, “Steps taken and action required depends in part on where you are and how compliant the destination and venue are. A historical venue or city may have pavement or floor surfaces, and narrow doorways, that aren’t required to be compliant because they’re historical. Some locations may require considerable planning while newer venues may be fully compliant with access to ramps, elevators, visual cues for hearing impairments and audio cues for visual impairments. This is something to consider at the RFP and, if you’re still determining the site, at the site inspection stage.”
In some cases, depending on the location, planners may even have to consider moving an event to a newer or more fully compliant venue.
Like others, Endean points out that asking questions is key. “Things to consider range from ramps and elevators to accessible restrooms, including non-binary needs. It’s also important to ensure that you’re not creating obstacles with displays or loose cords, that you have power available to charge scooters and devices that enhance accessibility, and to think about how you are training your team to work with attendees with special needs.”
Not all disabilities are visible, she notes. “Many are not, such as low vision or hearing loss, and chronic medical conditions that limit mobility, strength or lead to rapid exhaustion.”
Moreover, each disability is different. “Mobility, vision, hearing — everyone has a different need. Additionally, you might have attendees who have scent sensitivities and you may need to create a scent-free meeting, or there may be serious dietary challenges. Ask,” she says, “Don’t make assumptions.”
Don’t Forget Presenters
Speakers and presenters must be considered, too. “Do you have presenters with physical challenges who must be on a stage? How will they get there? And what about presentations? Will attendees with different abilities be able to learn from and interact with presentations as expected?”
Endean has firsthand experience. “From no elevators to non-functioning elevators requiring us to take people through distant service entrances, to awkward moments when we have a back row available for wheelchairs and scooters and a participant who wants a front-row seat, to unbudgeted needs for ASL translation or requests that come too late to secure translation, the lessons have been learned the hard way,” she says.
Her favorite best example was years ago when a colleague was planning for a 1,200-person dinner with people coming off a cruise ship to a nearby venue for a dinner and dance event. “The dance floor was unnaturally large at nearly 1/3 of the room, which made sense when the orchestra began to play and the floor filled up with dancers in wheelchairs — and million-dollar smiles all around. More recently, I was on an event where one participant had limited mobility and many people took turns assisting her, from wheeling her around, or supporting her on cobblestone or gravel walks, to assisting with luggage and getting drinks. It was all appreciated and she not only had a seamless experience, but also made new friends.”
Bottom line, Endean says, “Disabled attendees want what we all want: A comfortable experience navigating an unfamiliar environment.”
The process has to start with registration. “If you ask attendees about limitations at registration, you have a good start on what’s needed,” Endean says. “Then over-communicate what they can expect from beginning to end. And, again, don’t make assumptions. Don’t assume, for example, that someone in a wheelchair wants to sit at the back of the room; maybe they prefer the end of an aisle at a midpoint or near the front. Ask.”
Not surprising, meals are a primary consideration. “Some people need regular healthy meals and snacks to function at their best,” Endean notes. “If you plan a buffet and there are attendees with crutches or a walker, how can they carry the plate? Does someone in a wheelchair prefer to be transferred to a banquet chair or stay in their own chair or scooter? If transferring is preferred, is assistance required?”
Change Your Perspective
This, she adds, is just a small example of thinking through the experience from the attendees’ perspective. For a concrete understanding of potential challenges, Endean suggests planners go through the site inspection in a wheelchair or on crutches, or try to talk/listen at a networking reception with cotton stuffed in their ears to experience what someone with hearing loss experiences, or listen to an entire presentation with eyes closed to determine if it all makes sense without visuals.
Then, there are service animals. Is the venue welcoming to them and their basic needs, including water, food and relief facilities? When and how should communicating information to attendees and to event venues staff members fit into the overall planning? “It’s also important to know that service animals are not just for the blind; they’re used for other needs as well,” Endean says.
The fact is that there’s not a one-size-fits-all solution for making a meeting experience optimum for attendees with disabilities. “What I know for sure is that planning takes time and asking questions is paramount. For example, if deaf attendees require ASL/translation, these interpreters typically have to be booked well in advance, and there’s more than one sign language, just as there are many spoken languages,” she points out.
Endean also notes that there are attendees whose first language isn’t the primary language of the event. “Having subtitled image magnification can offer a solution and several services do this in real-time,” she says. “Microsoft, for example, has been using Skype’s ability to do this in its own meetings for a long time.”
Technology is often the answer. “Many people rely on technology, including tablets and phones, to aid their navigation through the world. And devices such as LipSync allow even those in ‘sip and puff’ chairs to use devices for multiple functions. Word-to-text translation, such as wordly, which offers podium-to-personal-device access, can also support hearing-impaired participants.”
In the case of visually impaired attendees, planners need to provide visual interpretation if a speaker’s presentation is reliant on visual aids. “It’s much like watching a TV show with the ‘describe video’ turned on,” Endean says. “You also can’t rely on visual signage to give cues on where to go, so having a human guide or audible cues, like when you have Google maps turned on, helps sight-impaired attendees navigate the conference.”
Endean thinks more apps to help challenged attendees will come. Meanwhile, she suggests that planners ask their mobile-app providers what they offer. “You may find they already have solutions for you. And groups such as Mobility Mojo are great non-technical resources for accessible travel, which, of course, is required for attendance at most conferences. Check them out.”
Talking directly with disabled attendees themselves, however, is a must. “Call them and ask human-to-human questions about how you can create their best experience,” she advises. “When you take time to ask what the need is and use basic human empathy, you can usually get it right.”
Tina McLaughlin, director, Global Operations and Excellence — American Express Meetings & Events, also agrees that a planner’s course of action is dependent on location, including domestic or international events. For example, she says, ‘In the United States, since ADA legal requirements were put in place, they ensure that meeting venues accommodate most disabilities. However, there may still be challenges in some older, smaller venues as they may have renovation exemptions. But outside of the United States, rules and accommodations vary considerably and must be researched extensively.”
In terms of a planner’s primary considerations regarding accessibility, McLaughlin notes that it’s important to ensure that accommodations for disabled attendees allow for a variety of challenges. “Meaning, the needs of a sight-impaired person will differ from those of a person in a wheelchair.”
Beyond that, she points out that accessible entrances are important and there should be signage for closed-door meeting access. Planners should also know the distance of restrooms from the meeting space and be aware of the necessity for crowd control. “Large gatherings may cause mobility considerations,” she says.
Like other experts, McLaughlin notes that disabled attendees want the same things that all attendees want. “They want to feel included and not separated from other attendees and planned activities due to their disability.” Accessible transportation is one of those issues that will likely vary markedly from the United States to international destinations. “Within the United States, this is easy,” McLaughlin says, “and ADA laws preclude any additional costs. However, this same level of access, and consistency in pricing and availability, will vary outside of the United States and should be researched carefully by meeting planners whose events are set in an international destination.”
Most experts have not found any issues with accommodating service animals at meetings, though one concern mentioned is that other attendees too often look at these animals as pets and want to interact with them, which is not appropriate while the animals are working. Education is the answer to that and, if planners know a service animal will be at an event, it’s important to educate other attendees about what is appropriate and what is not.
Like many other things, accommodating and welcoming attendees with disabilities requires appropriate research, advanced planning and clear communication. But the bottom line is about human interaction. “Do your homework and communicate,” McLaughlin advises. “But, most of all, make attendees with disabilities feel welcome, included and comfortable so that they can focus on the purpose of the event and have a stellar experience.” I&FMM