You want your next event — whether it’s a fundraiser, conference, gala, board meeting, convention, or music festival — to be inclusive and accessible to as many people as possible, right? Because creating events that exclude people, just limits your attendance.
If you aren’t an accessibility expert though, it can be overwhelming to figure out ways to make sure everyone can enjoy your event. Accessibility standards are constantly improving and not every event professional has a background in accessibility. I’ve been lucky that the majority of my event clients have insisted on 100% accessibility for their events. For those who haven’t, I’ll typically ask why it isn’t a priority.
The biggest response I hear? “No one who attends our event is disabled.”
By saying that, they’re discounting people who aren’t attending because the event isn’t accessible, people with invisible disabilities, people who might get injured at the last minute and need accommodation, or people who can’t even access the information about the event because it’s not accessible. It’s an answer that really says; “I don’t feel like being inclusive, it sounds hard, so I’m not going to try.”
Here are some ways you can start to integrate accessibility into your event. This isn’t everything, but it’s a sample of easy things you can do to get started:
1. Pick an accessible venue.
Choosing an accessible location for your event is key to making sure your event is inclusive. This includes some basics, like making sure it’s wheelchair accessible with ramps and elevator access, but it also means having ADA compliant restrooms, signage in braille, tables at appropriate heights, and more.
PRO TIP: If a venue has held events with guests with disabilities before, they are more likely to know what they’re doing. Ask for references of past clients who held events with disabled guests.
2. Book the right hotel.
You’ve found a hotel near (or at) your event venue and got a great discount on a room block. That’s awesome! Did you include accessible rooms in that block? There typically isn’t a one-size-fits-all “accessible room,” although some hotels do have rooms called “ADA rooms.” These can mean wheelchair accessible with and without role in showers and rooms for those who are Deaf or have hearing loss.
Make sure you do a site visit as well. Hotels will always claim to be 100% ADA compliant, but that isn’t always the case. They mean well and say they’re compliant because they have “ADA rooms.” But after the room was built and approved as compliant, the staff neglects to keep it compliant with how the furniture is arranged for path of travel, where items like the iron and shower head are placed, etc.
PRO TIP: Some ADA compliancy issues can be fixed easily by the hotel (and since its the law, they shouldn’t object to fixing them).
3. Invitations and Marketing.
Now it’s time to get your attendees to register or r.s.v.p. for your event. It’s important to make sure your event website, brochures, and invitations are all accessible. You don’t want people to not attendee because they can’t navigate your website. And remember that accessible design does not mean a loss of creativity. A good designer will work those elements in from the beginning. Not sure if your designer knows basic accessibility features? Just ask them.
PRO TIP: Shameless plug… hire a designer who already has access experience.
4. Catering and food service.
You’re probably already accounting for vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, and other dietary restrictions. There are a few other things to keep in mind though. Make sure everyone can reach buffet items, wrap flatware into the napkins for an easier grab, and have volunteers or staff available to people who require assistance carrying their food to the table.
PRO TIP: If you’re hosting a reception, make sure the bar is low enough to be reached by someone in a wheelchair and be sure to have low seating available.
5. Make sure your presentations are accessible.
Include in your presenter contract that presenters must provide accessible presentations. Then give them resources to succeed. Several organizations have free training tools for getting presenters to make accessible presentations and handouts:
a.) Federal ADA and Disability Resources
b.) Great Lakes ADA Center
c.) The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
6. Accessibility Services.
So now that you’re inclusive, what do you do to provide services to your attendees with disabilities? There are several service options that you may be faced with, such as Sign-Language Interpreting (if you’re in the US, most likely American Sign Language or ASL — other countries have different sign languages), Open or Closed Captioning, Audio Description, Sighted Guides, and more.
PRO TIP: Not sure what some of this means? See this helpful glossary from the ADA National Network.
7. Guests with service animals.
Service animals (since revised US ADA laws of 2011, this only includes dogs) are allowed in any public area that the guest is allowed. The ADA covers service dogs, but not comfort dogs. It’s up to you or your client to decide if non-ADA covered animals are permitted at your event (of course, check with your venue too as they may have a policy on this as well). By definition, “A service animal is a dog that is individually trained to do work or perform tasks for a person with a disability.”
PRO TIP: Be a good host and identify “green space” near your venue, where service dogs can relieve themselves.
8. Be more than just compliant.
You’ve heard the phrase “ADA compliant” a few times by now. That covers the bare minimum you have to do to be within the law. Whether you’re trying to make your events accessible or not, this should always be your minimum for legal reasons. Just like you wouldn’t chain off all your emergency exits and break fire code, you shouldn’t be less than ADA compliant either. It could open you and your client to a lawsuit.
But being just compliant means you aren’t doing anything above or beyond for your guests. There are easy ways to be access-friendly when it comes to your event.
PRO TIP: More than just not waiting to get sued, you should want to be inclusive and access friendly because it’s good customer service. And that’s good business.
9. Don’t make assumptions.
Not everyone who is Deaf knows sign language, not every blind person reads braille, and not every person in a wheelchair prefers to stay in his or her wheelchair during an event. So how do you know what accommodation to provide? Just ask!
PRO TIP: Ask a guest what accommodation they REQUIRE. Do not to ask them WHAT their disability is.
10. Train your staff and volunteers.
Hire an accessibility trainer or someone in the field, to talk to your staff about the dos and don’ts of working with people with disabilities. You can do everything else right and blow it all by having a registration desk person use archaic language and accidentally offend someone by asking if they’re ‘handicapped’.
Hopefully you’ll find some of these tips helpful. Remember that this doesn’t cover everything, but it should get you started on your way to planning more accessible events. If you have other tips, feel free to include them in the comments!