Beyond the Basics: Planning Accessible Meetings

The Americans with Disabilities Act sets a standard for accessibility compliance for meetings and events, but planning truly accessible meetings means going beyond the basic requirements. “As host organizations, we should make sure everybody at our meetings feels welcome, feels included and can participate fully,” says Joan Eisenstodt, a meetings industry consultant, facilitator and trainer.  Eisenstodt, who can walk but uses an electric scooter for long distances, has a neuromuscular condition that disrupts her balance. She says “invisible” disabilities like hers are more common than most planners realize. “Planners who think no one in their group has a disability are wrong,” she says. As a start, meeting planners should require hotels and other venues to demonstrate their accessibility, says Eisenstodt. A site inspection should include evaluating accessibility by navigating a site using a wheelchair or scooter (most venues have scooters available). Planners should ask more questions of venue managers: Do they have enough “deaf kits,” which include items to make hotel rooms usable by the deaf? Can crutches be managed on the carpeting? Can restroom doors be opened from a wheelchair? Eisenstodt recalls a hotel room that included grab bars in the bathroom for accessibility but positioned the toilet tissue on a shelf far beyond reach. Planners often make the mistake of focusing too much on the basics of accessibility, says Niesa Silzer, vice president of Details Convention & Event Management, a Canadian independent meeting planning service whose events include the Travel Alberta industry conference. Planners should think more broadly when it comes to accessibility, she says. Examples include providing registration tables at varying heights and buffets within reach for attendees who use wheelchairs or are short in stature. Sufficient lighting and sound in ballrooms are other issues. “We should create environments that are inclusive for people with mobility, seeing or hearing issues, regardless of whether they say it on their registration forms,” she says. Silzer became especially attuned to accessibility issues when managing a conference for Canadian Association of Statutory Human Rights Agencies, when every day brought a new challenge. Conference attendance jumped at the last minute from 200 to 250 attendees. The venue had been selected for 200, and adding extra tables for the additional attendees interfered with accessibility and limited areas that could accommodate wheelchairs. “Because there were so many tables, it became a balancing act between accommodating everyone while managing accessibility,” she says. “With an older population, we may be losing attendees simply because they don’t want to walk around a convention center.” Here are a few more tips from Eisenstodt and Silzer on what planners can do to plan more accessible meetings: 1. Include this statement on registration forms: “Please identify any specific requirements for equipment, facilities, diet or other modifications that will help make the meeting accessible for you. Include a checklist, but offer an “other” option to describe specific needs. 2. Avoid the term “special needs.” Attendees don’t like to be considered “special.” They want to be a part of the conference like everyone else. 3. Consider this other note on registration forms: “In consideration of participants’ allergies and respiratory problems, please do not wear scented products.” 4. Work with chefs and F&B staff to make food safer. Ask about hot-button allergens such as peanut oil, and inquire about cross-contamination resulting from shared utensils on a buffet including shellfish or other problematic foods. 5. Request that banquet servers be informed about ingredients in every dish they serve. 6. Ask to sign off on in-room deliveries and room drops to attendees and VIPs. You’ll want to avoid delivering a meat-and-cheese plate to a vegetarian or chocolate to a diabetic, for example. For more on planning inclusive and accessible events, watch our recorded webinar, “Planning Inclusive Events for Diverse Groups.”