DIANE WALTERSDORF has a tough job when it comes to selecting the right convention center for her attendees. She is Advanstar Communications' show director for the Abilities Expos, events that draw a high percentage of attendees with disabilities (see sidebar, page 43). While the buildings she selects for these events may be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, that's not enough for her shows. “There is no ideal venue out there for us,” she says, adding, “What we try to do is go with the best options and then make them better.”

Convention Center Checklist

Here's her process for choosing and working with convention centers — which you can use to make your meetings more accessible.

Plan the Parking

The six regional Abilities Expos draw mostly a local, drive-in crowd. So the first item on her checklist is, of course, parking.

Is the parking lot directly adjacent to the convention center? Is it a straight, flat shot from the lot to the expo center entrance? If the main entrance is accessible only by a stairway, is there an alternate entrance that could be used if the layout of the show floor were oriented in a different direction than it traditionally is? “We might flip the floor plan around so the back becomes the main entrance,” she says.

How many existing handicapped-accessible parking spaces are there? “The ideal venue for the Abilities Expo would have 200 to 300 accessible spaces within 100 yards of the front entrance,” she says. “But there isn't any place like that out there.” So equally important becomes the fact that the facility owns and manages its parking area so the staff can work with Abilities to create additional handicapped-accessible parking spaces. This involves someone physically masking off a prime area in the parking lot and marking off wider spaces that can accommodate ramps that come out of the side of a van. The facility also needs to have someone police the area to make sure the newly created accessible spaces remain available for the show's attendees.

To accommodate attendees who use public transportation, “We look for venues that have a stop close to the expo hall,” she says. If they don't have a stop right across the street, she looks for one within a few miles at the outside so she can accommodate people with shuttle buses.

Reconfigure the Rest-rooms

How many are there, and within each restroom, how many accessible stalls are there? “No building really has enough stalls for us,” she says. That means the facility has to be willing to improvise, allowing show organizers to have laborers remove the metal dividers between stalls, remove the stall doors, and install pipe and drape for privacy. “It's still not ideal, because the stalls we create aren't going to have the higher toilets or grip bars, but they can accommodate wheelchairs and be used by those who have higher mobility,” Waltersdorf says.

Lower the Food Counters

The serving counters need to be low enough that attendees can wheel up and be served comfortably. Condiment tables or islands also need to be lower than standard. “In the rare cases where the food service area isn't up to what we need, the building will often work with us to either provide personnel to transfer food over the counter, or provide lower tables to use for condiments.”

Choose Convenient Conference Rooms

“We put on free consumer and professional workshops at each event,” says Waltersdorf. “They must be easily accessible to the exhibit halls.” If the workshops are on a different level, there have to be sufficient elevators to move attendees from exhibit floor to conference rooms.

“Because our shows are somewhat modest in size, people often ask why we don't consider using a hotel,” says Waltersdorf. “The challenge there is that most exhibit areas in hotels are carpeted. We don't have carpeting in the aisles at our shows because it makes it harder for wheelchairs to roll.” Since attendees are mostly local, the main hotel users for the Abilities Expos are the exhibitors, many of whom also have disabilities. “The ideal hotel for us is connected to the convention center,” she says, or at least in close enough proximity to be able to easily run a shuttle.

About the Abilities Expo

Abilities Expo is a group of six regional events held throughout the country every year for people with disabilities, senior citizens, caregivers and family members, and healthcare and educational professionals. The shows attract from 75 to 150 exhibitors and 3,000 to 10,000 attendees, depending on the locale; approximately 35 percent of those attending have a physical disability.

The educational sessions cover topics including driver rehabilitation, paralysis research, chronic pain management, travel issues for people with disabilities, advocacy, and planning for the future of a child with a disability. In addition, the programs also include special events such as sports demonstrations, concerts, and other artistic performances, all free to consumer and healthcare attendees.