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. But just what, under the act, is specifically required of planners? And what can planners do beyond the requirements to make sure every attendee enjoys the meeting to the fullest? Technology 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., a speakers bureau that specializes in speakers with disabilities; and Hope Levy Kott, project director, IQ Solutions, an independent meeting planning firm in Rockville, Md.

By law, what must planners do to accommodate disabled attendees?

Meeting planners are required to provide “reasonable accommodation,” making sure that disabled individuals have the same rights and privileges as those without disabilities, says Mandel, an attorney who specializes in the meeting industry. This includes accounting for physical barriers, such as narrow hallways and stairs, as well as providing secondary aids, such as sign language interpreters or materials in braille. Under the ADA, says Mandel, there is joint liability between the facility and the meeting sponsor. 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 such as wheelchairs, canes, eyeglasses, and walkers, says Mandel. If attendees forget these things at home, it's their own responsibility.

What should planners look for 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 using 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 a person in a wheelchair, someone will come around to help; and that there isn't clutter that would hinder someone with limited vision.

“Accessible doesn't necessarily mean good,” she says. Citing a Washington, D.C., property as an example, Kott says the facility complies with the law, “but you need to be a wheelchair athlete to work it.” The meeting space is four levels below street level and accessible primarily by elevator. The concern for planners is how to get everyone out in case of 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 that the agreement 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 be clear in advance if you need them.

What conditions qualify as disabilities under the ADA?

The ADA defines disability as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity, 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. Planners, he says, should keep in mind learning and emotional disabilities.

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.

When and how should planners ask attendees for information about their special needs?

Solicit information from attendees early and often, asking not only on the registration form but in the first notices about the event.

If an attendee doesn't inform you in advance, remember the issue of “reasonable accommodation.” It might not be possible to get an interpreter on an hour's notice, but perhaps you could accommodate that person with a written transcript. Do what you can in the time you have, says Kott. She adds that getting complete information is important — there are 18 different types of sign language used in the United States, for example. You need the right interpreter.

Should planners consider special training for staff?

Yes, says Kott, because there are a lot of little things the average person might not consider. For example, staff should know to speak directly to a person with hearing impairment, not to the interpreter. If someone is in a wheelchair, a staff person should sit at the same eye level. Staff should know not to grab a blind person to help them.

Who pays?

If the cost 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 from $500 to $550). But you can't increase the cost just for the disabled attendee, says Mandel.

What are the consequences of noncompliance?

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

Most ADA-related lawsuits are 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 about lawsuits, meeting planners should consider relationships with attendees. “Attitude,” he says, “is the real disability.”

ADA Resources

Two valuable resources for information on the Americans with Disabilities Act are right under planners' noses: meeting attendees and vendors, says Hope Levy Kott of IQ Solutions. She adds that convention and visitors bureaus often have lists of special-needs transportation vendors, and hospitals and universities are good resources for information on sign language interpreters.

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

U.S. Department of Justice

Equal Employment Opportunities Commission

Small Business Administration