Despite the six years that have passed since the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was implemented, some people still don't understand why they should integrate disabilities concerns into their corporate meeting and entertainment programs. The answer is simple: Whether they're executives, support employees, or customers, people with disabilities are a part of every corporate setting, and their needs must be taken into account. However, many corporate meeting planners aren't exactly sure what they can do to ensure that their meetings or conferences will accommodate attendees with disabilities. Corporate planners have the advantage of having human resources, marketing, and public relations departments on their team, all of which can help them to develop a corporate disabilities awareness program.
DEFINING DISABILITY AWARENESS GOALS The first step is to develop an awareness of the specific physical and emotional needs of people with disabilities. Employees and volunteers must be educated to understand the needs of the disabled. This does not mean that they are prepared for just the physical needs of those with disabilities, but for emotional needs as well.
To find out about disability concerns, reach out to community organizations that work with the disabled, such as the Multiple Sclerosis Society, Centers for Independent Living, and Muscular Dystrophy Association. Local organizations that relate to other medical disabilities, as well as those for hearing impairment, blindness, or rehabilitation services, also can be good resources. The special education departments of local school systems can provide information about emotional and learning disorders, and they can be valuable aides both for preparing and implementing a corporate disabilities awareness program.
It is also important to emphasize programs that accent the "human side" of the ADA. Programs hosted by attorneys who outline your legal obligations are necessary, but they do little to address feelings or promote an understanding of those with disabilities. Instead, select speakers with disabilities for your meeting workshops and seminars. A keynote speaker who has a disability along with the ability to address the audience with humor, motivation, and compassion, can help to raise awareness. You might also want to consider featuring comedians, actors, musicians, and dancers with disabilities in your corporate entertainment schedule. Comedians are particularly good at reaching the audience; one of the best tools for breaking down any barrier is humor.
MEETING PHYSICAL NEEDS Every planner wants to be the most perfect, gracious, and politically correct host he or she can be to those with disabilities. A common rule of thumb is, "If you don't know, just ask."
Some basic issues can be resolved by being prepared. Know about your speakers' needs if they have disabilities. Be sure to ask in your meeting registration materials if anyone will need special accommodations. Guests could have special needs relating to lodging or food, or they may need sight or hearing interpreters. If you have attendees who attend your meetings regularly, keep records so you can prepare without continuously having to ask the same questions. To avoid re-inventing the wheel, contact planners of other similar events and network with them to learn what they do to prepare.
It also is essential to ensure that your hotel and function rooms are accessible:
* Parking spaces should be well marked and accessible, and as short a distance as possible to the main entrance area.
* Building entrances should be a minimum of 32" wide.
* Corridors should be a minimum of 36" wide and unobstructed.
* All meeting rooms should be easily accessible and arranged to accommodate those who use wheelchairs or interpreters.
* A drinking fountain no higher than 36" should be available.
* Hotels should be equipped with "emergency kits" for those who are hearing-impaired. These kits can be purchased as complete portable units that can be taken from room to room as needed. Emergency kits for the deaf contain items such as a doorbell with blinking light and a clock or phone with flashing light or vibrating signal. Close-caption television is another good item to have available for hearing-impaired guests.
* Wide bathroom doors must open in a way that allows a wheelchair to fit into the stalls. Wide doors often have nowhere to swing, rendering them useless for those in wheelchairs.
Event participants also need to be aware of common misconceptions and practices that can occur when dealing with people with disabilities. For example, some people tend to talk down to someone whose cerebral palsy has affected their walking and speaking abilities. Let your employees know that, although cerebral palsy may affect a person's walking and speech, the disease does not affect the person's ability to think. Many people also tend to speak loudly when talking with someone who is sight-impaired, even though that person's hearing is fine. People need to watch out that they don't assume someone has more disabilities than he or she actually does. Again, tell your staff that if they don't know, they should "just ask."
THE INVISIBLE DISABILITIES Many public personalities have disabilities that are not physically apparent and, because they are celebrities, speak openly about them. Celebrities such as Cher, Tom Cruise, and Bruce Jenner talk openly about their dyslexia. Lou Ferrigno (who was titled Mr. Universe and played the Incredible Hulk in the television series) and Shelley Beattie (who plays Siren on "The American Gladiators") are hearing-impaired, and David Prowse (who played Darth Vader in "Star Wars") is arthritic. The fame, fortune, and talents of these individuals often cause us to disregard the fact that they have a disability.
Unfortunately, most of the people with disabilities attending your event will not have the benefits of stardom, nor the platform that celebrities have to speak about their disabilities. In fact, many people with invisible disabilities find it difficult to convey the fact that they need assistance, so making adjustments to meet their needs can be difficult.
Generally, you will not need physical accommodations for people with invisible disabilities, but your staff should be aware of and sensitive to their differences. For example, alert your employees to watch for people who appear to have problems with speaking or understanding directions. Employees then can come to their aid tactfully, ensuring that they speak clearly and slowly, or that they have directions and someone to explain to them on hand when that person needs assistance. People with severe disabilities often are very up-front about their needs, but for those who are not, be prepared to be sensitive about their needs.
Attendees with disabilities are not asking to be treated as if they were celebrities--they just want to be able to enjoy your meeting or conference in the same way that the other attendees do.