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Event organizers have a legal and moral obligation to ensure their experience can be equally enjoyed by all. This includes attendees who have special accessibility requirements. This 20 point guide will help you audit your event to ensure it allows all event attendees to equally participate in a dignified way.
At this years Grammy’s Stevie Wonder took all of us to task “to make every single thing accessible to every single person with a disability.”
Include accessibility in your site selection process. Use a checklist during your hotel site visit to note if important features are in place. Conduct a visit using a mobility device, wearing ear plugs and/or an eye patch. This will help you assimilate how attendees with accessibility needs will experience the event, ensuring inclusivity at the outset. Give each prospective location a rating for access and consider this in your final decisions.
Ensure those who use a mobility device (wheelchair or scooter) can access the venue and have access throughout the venue and destination. Ask the destination for their guide for accessible travellers (Meet Minneapolis has a good example). Encourage the venue to provide tips, including photos that let participants know exactly what to expect (the Melbourne Convention Centre provides a good example).
Ensure hotels have sufficient and appropriately accessible rooms. Inventory your housing block for accessible rooms. Allow participants to search for rooms that meet their requirements and share needs they may have. Ensure accessible guest rooms are inspected during site visits to make sure they actually provide what is required by law and needed. Rooms vary in their compliance with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Simply asking for rooms that meet the ADA (or equivalent national or provincial law) may be insufficient.
Ensure registration, ticketing and the event website is accessible. The Web Accessibility Initiative can be a good source of information to design inclusive online experiences.
Provide ground transport that is accessible. Consider links between venues, the airport and around town. Ensure accessible shuttles are conveniently located with a designated and clearly signed zone of sufficient size. Ensure staff are able to operate lifts and ramps and note drivers trained to assist people who are deaf, hearing impaired, blind or who have low vision.
Provide supplemental equipment. Review accessibility law to determine what must be provided and what your organization or an individual is responsible to provide. Some groups may benefit from providing equipment on a free or rented basis. The Unitarian Universalist Association operates an Accessibility Desk onsite at their General Assembly so participants can order what they need in advance, and get help onsite.
Program, Sign and Presentation Considerations:
Be inclusive of those who are blind or have limited vision. This involves several considerations:
- Venue-provided navigation should use Braille, raised-line map and audio-assisted signage.
- Printed event items should use large text (16 point font minimum), Sans Serif fonts, no gloss paper and high contrast colours. For more advice on making print more readable, refer to the American Foundation for the Blind.
- Directional staff should be trained to assist, including avoiding vague statements and hand gestures. Directing people to a coffee break “behind you and a few steps to the right” is a lot more useful than “over there” and a finger-point.
- Speakers briefed to fully describe photos, diagrams and models used in presentations. Ensure they are asked to perform an accessibility check on any presentation slides prior to use.
Be inclusive of those who are deaf or have limited hearing. Duty of care here includes:
- Real-time captioning and assistive listening systems available. Ensure any interpreters are clearly visible.
- Speakers briefed to face the audience and cameras to assist lip-readers, to always use the microphone, to avoid speaking too quickly or quietly, and to be aware of delays for those using listening or interpretive devices.
- Pen, paper or another type of writing device provided to discussion groups.
- Ambient noise checked and removed to prevent distractions.
Provide sufficient time between events. Remember it can take more time to navigate a venue with a mobility device, especially if it is crowded. So consider providing a minimum 30 minutes between events. Also avoid sudden changes in schedule that may cause stress and anxiety for those that have to make plans or prepare their access.
Ensure dignified access. There is nothing more demeaning than having to access a session space through a freight elevator, when everyone else uses an escalator or guest elevator. Make sure lifts and accessible elevators are working and that qualified staff are available to promptly assist with operation or service issues if necessary. Be sensitive about access ramps, microphone height and lecterns or podiums if people are being invited on stage. Modifications should enable the person (and not the disability) to be spotlighted.
Plan for ease of movement. Consider asking someone who uses a mobility device like a wheelchair, scooter or cane to give you feedback pre-event about what could be improved in terms of aisle width, approaches, turning distance, curbs, path stability, seating areas and registration/counter heights.
Integrate equally. Remember not everyone with a mobility device has to or wants to sit in a designated area just for them, or worse, on the margins of the room. Most want to sit where it is convenient and comfortable with their colleagues and friends. Consider “cut-outs” or reserved and companion seating with good sight lines in a variety of locations throughout the venue seating area.
Ensure safe movement. Low-lighting can be hazardous for anyone, especially someone who has low vision or may need to navigate with a cane or walker. Keep house lights on when possible and provide guide staff with flashlights if low lighting is in use. Be careful about carpet edges that may bunch and impede access as well, and ensure curbs and stair edges are noticeable.
Provide accessible washrooms. Like guest rooms, don’t assume they will meet needs by just asking if they comply with the law. Visit them. Look where the accessible stall(s) is located and ensure they have things like automated door openers, grab bars and sufficient space to navigate mobility equipment in and out. If service animals are expected, ensure there is access to a relief area, and items the owner may need to care for their service animal.
Be sensitive of chemical use. Venue and guest room cleaners and scents can present serious health risks to those with sensitivities. Eliminate the risk by considering a no-scent meeting, including asking attendees to refrain from overuse of perfumes.
Registration and Staffing:
Ask what is needed to fully participate. In addition to a check-box (where you can ask “What do you need to fully participate?”), leave a space to write-in preferences and sensitivities including food allergies, chemical sensitivities. Follow-up with their preferred method of communication to clarify individual needs and advise how they will be accommodated. Consider if discounted or free registration will be provided for accompanying support persons. Or if it may be beneficial to offer volunteers, staff or an accessibility desk onsite to help. Also invite feedback about accessibility on the event evaluation.
Train registration and other onsite staff and volunteers about accessibility. For example, how to effectively communicate with a participant with limited speech, or interact with someone using a mobility device. Training through a local organization of Interpreters, or role playing and workshops prior to your event can help your staff and the staff of the venue/s provide all the services needed for an inclusive meeting. Emergency response procedures for those with accessibility needs is also critical for your permanent, temporary and venue staff to be aware of. For additional information review the NFPA’s Emergency Evacuation Planning Guide for People with Disabilities.
Put materials within easy reach. Think about things like self-serve registration counters, attendee check-in, retail sales/exhibits onsite, collateral racks, buffet tables and coffee stations. Encourage universal design that anyone can use.
Food and Beverage:
Be proactive about health considerations for participants. Ensure your registration system allows dietary needs to be advised and that you provide all this information to caterers and banquet staff. Get in writing assurances of the venue and catering staff training in cross contamination issues.
Ensure food functions adopt universal design principles, so everyone can enjoy their meal and snacks. High boy tables, buffets or beverage condiment stations that are out of reach don’t allow all attending to participate fully and with ease. Be mindful of the difficulties a buffet or two-handed reception food might present to someone using crutches or with a cane, as well. Consider seated functions, or ensure staff are on-hand to provide help.
While the above may not apply to every event, and certainly is not an exhaustive list, there are important sensitivities to be aware of overall that will improve participant experiences:
- Provide ample information well in advance so people can plan their participation at your event.
- Respect people’s independence.
- Don’t assume people want to be touched when attempting to help.
- Watch your language. No one wants to be labeled, so train yourself to recognize the person and not the disability.
- Ask for permission to interact with any service animal.
- Don’t assume that talking loudly will help someone understand better.
- Be aware some disabilities are invisible, like chemical sensitivities.
- Always consider: “How would I want to be treated?” And if you’re unsure: ask.
Special thanks: Gratitude to Patricia Cameron and Joan Eisenstodt for their mentorship and valuable advice in sharing the above tips.