Planning an accessible event requires more than ramps and wheelchair washrooms. The key is to be sensitive to every aspect of the event and to what barriers a person with a disability — mobility, hearing, sight, or cognitive — might face, and how you can eliminate or minimize those barriers to ensure that all participants feel welcome.
1. Disability-Related Accommodations
It's your responsibility to provide information on how attendees can request appropriate accommodations. Find out the following:
To whom should the request be made (person or office)?
How can a person request an accommodation (phone, fax, TTY, or e-mail)?
By when should the request be made (date, usually at least one week before the event)?
Stanford University's Diversity & Access Office provides the following sample to use in your event announcement and information:
“If you need a disability-related accommodation or wheelchair-access information, please contact __________ (name or office), at ph: _________, fax:________, or e-mail: ____________. Requests should be made by _________ (date, at least one week in advance of the event).”
Remember to inquire what, if any, accommodations your organizing team requires.
2. Physical Access
Ideally, all venues would be appropriately accessible for everyone. However, that is not necessarily the case. For smaller venues in less populated areas, creativity may be required to obtain an adequate level of accessibility.
Consider the following:
Can individuals using wheelchairs and other mobility devices get into the building?
Is wheelchair parking available near the wheelchair entrance?
Is there a wheelchair washroom?
Are hallways and doorways wide enough (a minimum of 36 inches) for people using wheelchairs to navigate?
Are there visual fire alarms? If not, inquire about the facility's evacuation plan or create your own.
If the event will be held on an upper floor, is there an elevator large enough for a wheelchair or scooter?
Navigating an unfamiliar venue for the first time can be disorienting for anyone. Clear and legible (preferably high-contrast) signage assists in pointing people in the right direction.
A few suggestions:
Ensure that the signs for the street address or building name are clearly visible from the street.
If the wheelchair-accessible entrance is not the main entrance to the meeting, place a sign at the main entrance pointing to the wheelchair entrance.
Post clear and easy-to-read signs showing locations of accessible washrooms, elevators, phones, etc.
4. Room Setup
Equally as important as the venue's accessibility is the room setup. Here are some points to keep in mind:
Are all meeting rooms wheelchair accessible?
Is there room for wheelchairs, scooters, and service dogs?
When a room does not have fixed seats, remove chairs so that wheelchair locations are integrated with other seating areas (i.e., chairs removed should be interspersed in the front, middle, back, and sides of room).
If a presenter will be using a wheelchair or other mobility device, ensure that there is a ramp up to the stage and that the lectern is adjustable. Ideally, all of the stages and speaking areas, including lectern or podium, are accessible to wheelchair and scooter users.
Ensure that there is a well-lighted space for sign language interpreters if they will be working at your event.
Check for noise levels (ventilation systems, noise from adjacent rooms, etc.) that may be distracting.
See that the meeting room has appropriate requirements (drapes, blinds, etc.) to reduce light or glare from windows.
Cover electrical cables or cords that cross over aisles or pathways. Cable covers should be no more than 1/2 inch thick in order for wheelchairs to traverse across them.
5. Session Content
Once participants are comfortably in the room, the session's content also needs to be accessible. This is where having accommodation requests from the participants beforehand assists in preparing materials and the presenters.
Some people with visual impairments and other kinds of disabilities require the type size used for printed materials to be enlarged. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind provides the following guidelines for creating large-print content:
Use Arial or other plain, sans serif fonts.
Font size should be at least 14 point.
Large-print fonts range from 16 point to 20 point.
Material should be printed in black ink on white paper.
Print on nonglossy paper to avoid glare.
Encourage presenters to verbally describe the content of videos or any written materials, including PowerPoint slides and whiteboard notes. (For more on creating accessible PowerPoint presentations, visit www.doitmyselfblog.com.)
Encourage presenters to use captioned videos whenever possible. Otherwise, provide an alternate means for participants who are deaf or hard of hearing to follow the content that's being presented.
During video and slide presentations, offer to have someone sit beside any individual who is visually impaired to describe the scene, people, and action as it happens without interfering with the existing narrative.
If requested, provide sign-language interpreters.
6. Refreshment and Dietary Considerations
When refreshments or meals are being provided, consider the following:
Where beverages are being served, bendable straws and lightweight cups should be within easy reach of individuals in wheelchairs or scooters.
Provide nonsugar (dietary) beverages, juices, and water for people with dietary concerns, such as diabetes.
Self-serve meals or buffets may present obstacles for people who are visually impaired or have physical disabilities. Well-trained catering service staff can assist participants who require additional help. If catering staff is not present, ensure that someone is assigned to assist those who need help getting food.
Make sure that an alternative to pastries and cookies, such as fruits or vegetables, are available for people with dietary concerns such as diabetes.
Always allow participants to indicate their dietary needs on the meeting registration form.
If transportation is being provided for an off-venue trip, make sure it is wheelchair accessible. If it's not, alternative arrangements should be provided.
7. Staff Training
An enlightened and helpful staff can be invaluable during the event. Ensure the staff has received disability awareness training and will be able to solve unusual problems. They may be asked for the nearest wheelchair repair shop or the nearest veterinary clinic (for service animals). They might need to know the location of the TTY (teletypewriter for those with hearing or speech impairments). Or they may be asked for a water bowl for an assistance dog, or where dogs can be taken to do their business.
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Source: Glenda Watson Hyatt is author of I'll Do It Myself. On her blog at www.doitmyselfblog.com, she shares her experiences living with cerebral palsy to motivate and inspire others to think about how they perceive their own situations and the world around them. She does all this by typing with only her left thumb.