The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990 to ensure that, regardless of their capabilities, everyone — including meeting attendees — should be treated fairly and equally. What under the ADA is specifically required of planners? And what can planners do beyond the requirements to make sure every attendee enjoys their event to the fullest? To get the answers, Association Meetings recently spoke with three experts — Jed Mandel, a partner in the law firm Neal, Gerber, and Eisenberg, Chicago; Marc Goldman, president, Damon Brooks Associates, Hollywood, Calif., which provides speakers and entertainers with disabilities for events; and Hope Levy Kott, project director, IQ Solutions, Rockville, Md.

“The goal,” says Kott, whose meeting planning firm specializes in the public health field, “is to make people feel not like they are a problem to be solved, but an honored guest.”

What are meeting planners required to do by law to accommodate disabled attendees?

Meeting planners are required to provide “reasonable accommodation,” making sure disabled individuals have the same rights and privileges as those without disabilities, says Mandel, an attorney who specializes in the meetings industry. This includes accounting for physical barriers, like narrow hallways and stairs, as well as providing secondary aids like sign language interpreters or materials in braille. Under the ADA, says Mandel, there is joint liability between the facility and the organization holding the meeting. Physical barriers are generally the responsibility of the facility. “Obviously, a planner can't ask a hotel to move a wall or widen a hallway,” he says.

The planner is not responsible for providing personal aids like wheelchairs, eyeglasses, canes, and walkers, says Mandel. If attendees forget these things at home, it's their own responsibility to take care of that.

What should planners look for during site inspections?

Come prepared with a checklist, suggests Kott. Make sure that, for example, there are adequate ramps and handicapped-accessible bathrooms; in guest rooms people in a wheelchair can get in and out of the beds and reach the room's temperature controls and electrical outlets; if the registration counter is too high for someone in a wheelchair, someone will come around to help; and there isn't clutter that would hinder someone with limited visibility.

“Accessible doesn't necessarily mean good,” she says, using a hotel in Washington, D.C., that she is familiar with as an example. By law, the facility is great, “but you need to be a wheelchair athlete to work it,” says Kott. The meeting space at the property is four levels below street level and accessible primarily by elevator. The obvious concern is how to get out of there in case of fire or other emergency. “Look at it as planning for disaster,” she says.

(See sidebar, “Your ADA Checklist,” page 45, for more questions to ask.)

What should the hotel contract specify about the ADA?

The contract should spell out who is responsible for what, including the joint liability, says Mandel. Make sure it states that the hotel is in compliance with the ADA, and that the hotel has any required devices for special needs guests, notes Kott. Hotels have a limited number of accessible rooms, so you need to know in advance if you need them. “A lot will depend on the hotel's willingness to work with you and help you provide for your clients.”

What conditions, besides the obvious, qualify as disabilities under the ADA?

The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, breathing, learning, or working. But not all disabilities are “visible,” says Damon Brooks' Goldman. For example, he says, only 4 percent of the 54 million Americans with disabilities use wheelchairs. He says planners should keep in mind learning and emotional disabilities as well.

Look at the person's physical condition, not the illness or what caused it, offers Mandel. For example, AIDS itself is not a disability, but conditions caused by the disease, such as difficulty walking, could be considered disabilities.

There are many other conditions that planners may need to accommodate, says Kott. For example, people with chronic fatigue syndrome experience extreme weariness, so you may need to arrange for places for them to rest. Beyond disabilities, there are other special needs planners may need to accommodate, such as dietary requirements for heart patients or vegetarians.

When and how should a meeting planner ask attendees for information about their special needs?

Solicit the information from attendees as early and often as possible, asking not only on the registration form but in the first notices about the event. “The later you ask, the less likely you'll be able to help,” says Mandel.

And if an attendee doesn't inform you in advance, remember the issue of reasonable accommodation, as defined in the beginning of this article. It might not be possible to get a sign language interpreter on an hour's notice, but perhaps you could accommodate that person with a written transcript of the missed session. Do what you can in the time you have, says Kott.

“They have an obligation to tell you what is needed,” she continues, recommending setting a deadline of three weeks in advance of the event for special requests, so the planner has time to prepare and budget for attendees' needs. “The participants are guests in your realm and you want to make them feel as comfortable as possible.”

Getting complete information is important — there are 18 different types of sign language used in the U.S., for example, says Kott. You need the right kind of interpreter. Know an individual's needs.

How should a planner handle a disabled attendee who becomes irate about a perceived lack of accommodation?

If someone is unhappy, document the situation, including what you did to try to accommodate the person, says Mandel. Consult with counsel if necessary, but don't just say no to a request. “You could alienate the person, which will acerbate the situation.”

Says Goldman: “Handle problems the same way you would with anyone. At any conference, there will always be someone upset with something.”

Should planners consider special training for staff to deal with certain needs?

Yes, says Kott, because there are a lot of little things the average person might not consider. When dealing with something like chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, your staff needs to know that people with CFS forget things a lot, so things might need to be repeated more than usual. For persons with hearing impairment, staff should know to always speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter. If someone is in a wheelchair, a staff person should come around and sit down to be on the same eye level. Staff should know not to grab a blind person to help them, and that a person with multiple sclerosis may need assistance walking, or appreciate a seat near the speaker.

Who pays?

If the costs of accommodating an attendee's special needs raises the cost of the event, that cost can be passed along to all attendees (i.e., raising the registration fee for everyone from $500 to $550). But you can't under any circumstances just increase the cost for the disabled attendee, says Mandel.

What mistakes should you avoid?

“If you don't know something, for goodness sake, just ask — and then respect the response,” says Goldman. For example, if a blind person says ‘No, thank you’ to an offer to help her across the street, don't just grab her arm and do so anyway. Goldman notes that many people make wrong assumptions about disabled persons out of ignorance. A speaker he works with who has cerebral palsy was once temporarily denied registration into a hotel because the clerk thought the speaker was drunk. And people often assume another speaker can't write, because he's blind.

“Think through the situation,” he says. Make sure you look at the disability for what it is, not what you project it to be.

“Be confident and friendly enough to ask what you don't know,” agrees Kott. Remember, a physical disorder doesn't mean someone is stupid, she adds.

What are the consequences of noncompliance?

The obvious concern is private lawsuits, says Mandel. According to the Department of Justice, the Americans with Disabilities Act has resulted in a surprisingly small number of lawsuits — only 650 nationwide in five years.

Most ADA-related lawsuits are usually tied to issues about physical barriers, says Kott, who feels that the biggest problem is when attendees cannot accomplish their goals because of accessibility issues.

Most planners worry too much about possible litigation and don't think enough about the human side of the equation, adds Goldman. He says that rather than worry so much about lawsuits, planners should consider the relationships with attendees. “Attitude is the real disability.”

ADA Resources

Two valuable resources for ADA information are right under planners' noses: meeting attendees and vendors, says Hope Levy Kott of IQ Solutions. And convention and visitors bureaus often also have lists available of special-needs transportation vendors, she adds, while hospitals and universities are a good resource for information on sign language interpreters.

For those looking to give their staff training on how to deal with disabled attendees, Marc Goldman of Damon Brooks Associates suggests calling local hospitals, organizations, or volunteer groups for people with conditions such as cerebral palsy or multiple sclerosis. Representatives would probably be thrilled to have someone come in and talk with your staff about how to assist people, he says.

Many state and federal agencies have checklists and other useful information about the ADA, including the following:

U.S. Department of Justice

(800) 514-0301 (voice)
(800) 514-0383 (TDD)

Equal Employment Opportunities Commission

(800) 669-3362 (voice)
(800) 800-3302 (TDD)

Small Business Administration

(800) 827-5722 (voice)

Your ADA Checklist

  • Can the doors of the meeting facility and all points of egress be easily opened by someone in a wheelchair?

  • Does the facility have handicapped-accessible parking areas?

  • Do the airport shuttles have lifts for those in wheelchairs?

  • For hearing-impaired persons, does the hotel have portable “emergency kits” that can be taken from room to room as needed? These include things like a doorbell with a blinking light and a clock or phone with a flashing light or a vibrating signal.

  • Are copies of the conference program — and other essential things, like the hotel's restaurant menu — available in braille?

  • In case of an emergency, does the hotel have evacuation plans and ways to ensure disabled guests get out safely?

  • Are there large-print signs with directions to meeting rooms, rest rooms, etc., within the facility?

  • Are there telephones low enough to be reached by persons in wheelchairs?

  • Is a portable TTY (text telephone device) available at the facility?

  • Is an outdoor location accessible for people who are in wheelchairs or use crutches?

Source: Marc Goldman, president of Damon Brooks Associates, Los Angeles, has worked with disabled persons for over a decade.