The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 has transformed millions of lives and has made everyone more attuned to ensuring accessibility in all areas, from schools to stores to public transportation to hotel accommodations and conferences. It also has changed the face of meeting planning and made infrequent “special requests” matters of routine.

Equal access should be part of any conference planning from the outset so that everyone involved will be able to provide assistance for special-needs attendees. One important — and sometimes overlooked — part of planning involves sensitivity training. Persons with disabilities want to participate in the conference as fully as anyone else, and they are depending on us to help them achieve this goal. Remind everyone involved with the meeting — from the organization's staff to the hotel and conference center personnel — to be on extra alert for guests with special needs. Here are some suggestions that will help you host a meeting that provides equal access for all attendees.

Before the Meeting

  • Include an area on your registration form for indicating the need for any special assistance, along with space to detail the particular needs. Staff can then follow up with these individuals to determine how best to meet their needs on site. This may include anything from providing materials in large print or Braille to sighted guides or sign-language interpreters.

  • Distribute e-mails in text-only formats, which are more compatible with assistive technology such as voice recognition and text-to-speech software. If using color, a blue background with yellow type is most readable.

  • Assure that all PDFs posted on your Web site are compatible with various accessibility software programs. It is also a good idea to post text-only versions of these documents as well.

  • Post information on your conference Web site about local vendors who can rent accessibility equipment that will not be offered on site, such as special mobility devices.

During the Event

  • Alert the hotel staff that you expect attendees with special needs, and ask that extra staff be available on major arrival days as well as at the conference site during meeting hours.

  • Make certain the front desk managers are aware of any special requests.

  • Put “ambassadors” in the front lobby to assist guests with special needs, including escorting them to their rooms, to and from meetings, etc.

  • Make sure all areas are wheelchair accessible.

  • Make certain there are no loose wires or other hazards that could impede attendees.

  • Advise special-needs guests what to do if they need additional assistance during the conference. This may include providing a special phone number they can call for immediate help.

  • Equip computers at the Internet café and in other areas with magnification software and screen-reader software applications that use text-to-speech, sound icons, or Braille output.

  • Serve boxed lunches whenever possible. If food is served buffet-style, have staff members available to help identify foods and fill plates.

  • Provide dog runs for guide or service dogs.

After the Meeting

  • Offer conference proceedings in both electronic Braille and DAISY (Digital Accessible Information System) formats as well as CD-ROM.

  • Conduct a survey of attendees with disabilities to find out if their needs were met and what suggestions they might have for the future.

Linda Schwartz is director, marketing and communications services, with SmithBucklin, an association management company headquartered in Chicago, where she handles a number of healthcare clients. She has more than 30 years' experience in association marketing, membership development, and public relations. Reach her at