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 the event to the fullest? Medical Meetings recently spoke with three experts — Jed Mandel, partner, Neal Gerber and Eisenberg, Chicago; Marc Goldman, president, Damon Brooks Associates, Hollywood, Calif.; and Hope Levy Kott, project director, IQ Solutions, Rockville, Md., to get the answers.

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

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

By law, 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, glasses, canes, and walkers, says Mandel. If attendees forget these things at home, it's their responsibility.

What should planners check during site inspections?

Come prepared with a checklist, suggests Kott. Make sure, for example, that there are adequate ramps, and handicapped-accessible bathrooms; that 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; that if the registration counter is too high for someone in a wheelchair, someone will come around to help; or that there isn't clutter that would hinder someone with limited visibility.

“Accessible doesn't necessarily mean good,” she says, using a hotel in Washington 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 in case of fire or other emergency. “Look at it as planning for disaster,” she says.

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 the contract states that the hotel is in compliance with the ADA, and that it has any required devices for special-needs guests, notes Kott. Hotels have a limited number of modified 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 ones, 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 Goldman, whose company, Damon Brooks Associates, books speakers and entertainers who have disabilities. For example, he says, only 4 percent of the 54 million Americans with disabilities use wheelchairs. He says meeting and event planners should keep in mind learning and emotional disabilities as well.

Look at the person's actual 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 other conditions that planners may need to accommodate, says Kott. For example, people with chronic fatigue syndrome often experience extreme weariness, so you may need to arrange for places for them to rest. There also may be dietary requirements for heart patients.

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.

Goldman suggests keeping good records from year to year of special-needs requests, so you can arrange accommodations even before someone asks. “Most people with disabilities will tell you,” he says. “They won't hide it from you.”

Getting complete info 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. For example, if a hearing-impaired person is going to lip read, it might be difficult for him or her to read 20 different speakers' lips, so it might be better to assign one person to repeat everything verbatim so the attendee has to read only one person's lips.

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 exacerbate the situation.”

Adds Goldman: “Handle problems the same way you would with an able-bodied person. 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, make sure staff always speak directly to the person, not to the interpreter. If someone is in a wheelchair, come around and sit down so you're on his or her eye level. Don't grab a blind person to help them. 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 (e.g., by raising the registration fee for everyone from $500 to $550). But you can't under any circumstances increase the cost just 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 Gold-man. 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 represents, who has cerebral palsy, was once temporarily denied registration at a hotel because the clerk thought the speaker was drunk. And people often assume another speaker can't write, because he's blind.

What are the consequences of noncompliance?

The obvious concern is private lawsuits, says Mandel. However, to his knowledge, planners have not been targets of suits. Most planners worry too much about possible litigation and don't think enough about the human side of the equation, adds Goldman, who says planners should consider the relationships with attendees. “Attitude,” he says, “is the real disability.”

Your Meeting Checklist

Marc Goldman, president of Damon Brooks Associates, Hollywood, Calif., has worked with disabled persons for more than a decade. Here are his recommendations for questions to ask during a site inspection.

  • Can the doors of the meeting facility and all points of egress be opened easily 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 directional signs 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?

Preparing for Disaster

The tragic events of September 11 have made many meeting planners more aware than ever before of the importance of making disaster plans. The haunting stories of people in wheelchairs who could not escape the World Trade Center are a horrifying lesson. While terrorist acts are uncommon, there are other potential disasters to bear in mind when considering the needs of attendees with disabilities.

Hope Levy Kott, project director, IQ Solutions, Rockville, Md., specializes in health care meetings and has organized many conferences that include patients with various disabilities. Most hotels' evacuation plans are designed for cases of fire, and usually don't take disabled guests into account, she says. Planners should ask who is in control of the plan, she advises, how often it is tested, and how sleeping and meeting rooms are notified of danger.

One huge factor to take into consideration is that in case of fire, elevators are usually shut off immediately — stranding those in wheelchairs on upper floors. Make sure the hotel has representatives (such as bellmen or security personnel) charged with finding individuals who need assistance and getting them out safely.

For their part, says Kott, all planners should be CPR-certified and know basic first aid — and also know who on the hotel staff is trained in those skills. Planners should also always know the address of the nearest hospital, as well as the location of rooms where guests who may need extra help in an emergency are staying.