Leading Meeting Professionals

Professional Convention Management Association

August 27 2014

How Accessible Is Your Meeting For Attendees With Disabilities?

By David McMillin

Earlier this year, Stephanie Woodward moved from upstate New York to Florida where she passed the state’s bar exam and prepared for the official beginning of life in the legal world. Shortly after her arrival, she was excited to attend a networking event hosted by a local bar association group. The event presented a perfect opportunity to meet her new peers in what sounded like a great venue: a wine cellar in the site of a former basement bomb shelter.

There was just one problem: there was no elevator. Woodward has a mobility disability and uses a wheelchair.

The event sparked the Florida Supreme Court to instruct The Florida Bar to develop a protocol for ensuring all bar-related activities meet ADA requirements. However, Amy Allbright, Director, Commission on Disability Rights, American Bar Association, says that issues with accessibility continue to plague the meetings industry.

“Large conferences typically send attendees a form with boilerplate language to ask about disabilities,” Allbright says. “While the method generally works, people are failing to delve beyond the basics. Meeting planners must take a look at the entire audience and really think about every element of the experience.”

To help provide that perspective, Allbright and the ABA are generously offering the organization’s Accessible Meetings and Events Toolkit to PCMA members for free. The resource offers helpful checklists that address potential accessibility challenges with everything from a venue’s interior features to registration materials to presentation styles.

As you gear up for your next meeting, here’s a preview of three helpful tips. Be sure to download the entire toolkit here.

1) Be Proactive.

Making a meeting accessible requires anticipating requests you may never actually hear. Allbright recommends that meeting professionals reach out to groups that work with people who deal with cognitive and learning disabilities.

“Most attendees aren’t going to tell you if they face some type of learning disability,” Allbright says. “There is a stigma associated with a lot of those disabilities. People who have them often hide them.”

“We all learn in different ways, so presentations should combine every type of learning avenue,” Allbright adds. “They should embrace an idea of universal design to help appeal to every type of student.”

In addition to attendees who may not want to tell others about their disabilities, Allbright highlights that some attendees may not want to admit challenges to themselves.

“Somone who has a hearing impairment may not actually think they have an issue yet,” Allbright says.

2) Update Your Definition of Accessibility.

“Oftentimes, meetings fail to grasp the true meaning of accessibility,” Allbright says. “It’s about more than getting around. It’s about educating speakers on how to make sure those with disabilities can participate.”

Allbright says that a number of her colleagues at the ABA have visual or hearing impairments that have restricted them from being included in meeting activities. For example, if someone arrives at an education session who cannot see the PowerPoint presentation or hear the video, staff members might scramble to get the attendee what they need. While that may sound helpful, she warns the extra time and attention isolates them from the rest of the group — exactly what every meeting planner should be working to avoid.

3) Educate Everyone on Your Staff.

Understanding all the details of the ADA isn’t easy. From transportation to emergency preparedness to technology and more, there are many areas that impact meetings and events teams. Allbright recommends meeting planners to reach out to the regional ADA Network Center in their areas for training. The centers offer in-person and remote virtual learning. Click here to find your closest ADA Network Center.

Go here for more helpful tips on how to make your meeting more accessible to everyone who arrives on-site.

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