Welcome to the final part of the event planning series, this one is probably the most important because it begs the question, “What good is an event if EVERYONE can’t participate?”
Check out the Free Printable Cheat Sheet for the Inclusive Event Planning and get this month’s Plan with Me blog post calendar for May.
Making events accessible ensures the participation of ALL. But it doesn’t just happen, there are some things you need to think about. As someone planning an event, and we have LOTS, tons even, of nonprofessional people setting up a website and calling themselves an event host but if that’s what it’s really going to be and be considered legitimate, you have to do a few extra steps to ensure access for all.
There may be a lot more, but for purposes of this post, I have five areas that I feel you need to concern yourself with most. Let’s get to it.
- Event announcements, on and offline event promotions
- Event Venue / Accommodations
- Meeting Content, workshops and food
- Event excursions / field trips
- Wrap Up and Feedback
The first thing in making your events accessible is about clear and accessible messaging. In the disability community so many vital programs that people would enjoy accessing end up being underfunded and just plain canceled altogether. Do you know what the number one reason for upending a program many thought were a great idea to begin with? No one attended! No one participated. Know what my response is? You didn’t put messages in the right place? Your target audience had no idea this was even an option to them. You didn’t ensure that very population you said you wanted to serve could find the information easily and then respond to it appropriately. I liken this to let’s say a radio station that plans to offer live streaming of their radio shows online with captions. Yet the only place they advertised this (remember it’s going to be for persons that are Deaf or hard of hearing) was ON THE RADIO. Say what! Doesn’t that sound dumb?
So here’s some tips
- Put the signs of accessibility in your materials – there are what many consider (not everyone but some) signs of accessibility that are a visual indicator that this will be accessible or CAN BE accessible to me, if I alert them
- Use a variety of methods to promote – not just online but off line, print flyers, mailing and advertising and word of mouth, are all the ways you should promote an event. Limit to one vehicle and you limit your reach.
- If you’re trying to reach the disability community, find out who their influences are. All of us (should) have a friend, disability organization or know a group of persons with disabilities and within that, you should feel comfortable asking for some help in areas you’re uncertain about – not knowing where is no longer a valid excuse. You can also reach out to larger organizations that can assist you, start with United Cerebral Palsy or the Spinal Cord Injury Network or any chapter, association already aware of the needs of this community.
- Permit more than one way to register – both an e-mail and a number are two ways to ensure that whatever abilities a person has, there will be a way they can utilize to ask questions and to make their arrangements
- Use stock photography of people with disabilities in your visual campaigns – these cost pennies and go the extra mile to show that you’ve thought about a group of people and possible patrons that often get overlooked
- Use the language simple as it may be, “accessibility”, “ramp entrance”, “ADA rooms” “ASL interpretation”, and “if you require a reasonable accommodation, please contact…” are ALL the types of wording that signal someone thought about what they were writing and took the time to get these resources if they needed them
- Hire/work with reputable agencies for Sign Language interpretation and similar services, not your best friend’s cousin who took a year of ASL but didn’t complete their licensure
- Finally, if you’re going to offer any of the above, have it ready, don’t just wait for someone to call (hoping that they won’t) to know about where to find an interpreter, or an accessible taxi, and etc., or whether or not the venue is accessible and etc. You’re only making it worse for yourself and increasing the frustration of the user looking for these accommodations
Next is the Venue. While most events should be held at an accessible place, there are numerous other event spaces (including community centers, libraries, fire halls and other public county/town) that will be cheaper than the grand hotel ballroom but that most importantly are bound by state/federal law to adhere to the rules and regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
- A simple and fast rule, if you choose a reputable chain hotel or other public venue – you won’t have to worry as much. Most of the renovations to make things accessible should already be taken of. If, however, you’re planning to use a place that’s rented and off the beaten path a bit, ensure that you do a few things:
- Take pictures – don’t hesitate to share them with the person attending who needs the accommodation but realize that even pictures have limitations.
- Navigate the path of travel yourself, don’t just take the venue’s word for it
- Invite a friend that has mobility issues to check out these venues
- Google the reviews online
- If special, advance preparation needs to be made, be certain these are going to be safe and not more hassle and costs than they are worth. Also ensure that if someone were to use this, it’s not only helping the person attending with a disability but it’s safe and secure. This instance would happen in a setting where say you rented a portable ramp. Understand how to use it and practice, don’t let the first time someone who uses a wheelchair arrive be the time you open the box. What if they sent you the wrong item? What if the ramp is not the proper length, width or was meant for a small step up and not a two steps staggered?
- With all of this in mind, some of the most inaccessible spaces I have found include someone’s home. People’s homes are not typically accessible unless they happen to have a relative or elderly family member with a disability. The second most inaccessible places include older churches, some Veteran halls, such as a VFW post and anything that happens outdoors or on a boat. When it comes to retreats and boating excursions, or other types of events that involve nature, IF it rained the day before, most persons that use a wheelchair will not find the terrain friendly and getting stuck in the mud is not fun. I know because I’ve been there. While some boats in the area and water taxi’s are accessible, the water taxi you’ll be on for a limited time but for a longer trip on a boat such as a luncheon, the restrooms are often down a flight of stairs.
- Finally be mindful of venues that say they’ve been renovated to address issues. How did they address the issues and what were some of the issues before the renovation process? A fresh coat of paint does not mean accessibility for all.
- Lastly, you’ll want to look at parking and transit to/from the venue. Is there parking? What kind of parking and what is the costs? If you use a mini van like mine, often I’m not able to park underground. I usually work it out with someone at the front desk or the concierge if I’m staying at the event for the day or overnight, if I can park in an area in front of the hotel. Because it’s for a limited time, this is usually fine and they are accommodating. Try to work out some of these issues for your guests with special needs to show you’ve thought ahead and to ensure that staff can be flexible.
I love conferences and I’ve been to a lot of them and obviously, I’ve observed many things.
- Two of my favorite things were in the actual workshop sessions, where space at both the front and the back had been taped off for access. These were unobtrusively and on the floor, some yellow tape that said “do not block, space for wheelchair users”. I thought this was ingenious. Never in a workshop had I had seen space marked off for me and my wheelchair. I would have preferred a different colored tape, I mean it was yellow, kind of like that crime scene investigation stuff, but I was still enamored with the designation and recognize that yellow probably stood out more for persons to see, so I was willing to overlook the color. The other thing were these t-shirts on the back of chairs that also marked chairs for persons who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing at the front. Little unobtrusive details like this made a world of difference and simply let people know not to hog the front seats and the fact that the tape was put down in the front and the back areas of the meeting room, meant that someone had enough forethought not to simply relegate me to the back (which is always standard at every other conference I’d been to until this particular one). I actually have always hated sitting in the back. I can’t hear anything if people don’t use/have microphones and when people stand up for applause, I call it quits because I can’t see anything.
- Proper audio visual tools – while this can be an added expense for some smaller conference planners, people have also paid to attend and if they can’t hear, that’s a money loss for them too. You can get around sound issues with something as simple as a Karaoke machine. For our recent conference at ACFW Virginia, one of the volunteers was able to borrow such a machine from their local Homeowners Association. It was a great idea and it more than did the trick ensuring everyone, whether seated in the front or the back, could hear what the speaker said. With so many people doing their own events, you can also purchase or rent equipment relatively inexpensively from audio visual companies, not just mics and amps but projectors and screens, too.
- Materials – I understand that “killing trees” is a perceived thing, it’s ink and paper, but handouts enhance the experience for many especially when some (really good ones) presenters pack a lot of awesome and helpful information into their talks. If you’re not going to print items, at least offer them electronically through a drop box or other electronic way of getting materials such as sending via e-mail.
- Remember that everyone is a different kind of learner. In many conferences, a table is not provided and it’s difficult for some people with disabilities to take notes on their lap. Providing the notes becomes even more important. Making tables for note taking a part of each row can add cost (and space) to your room and I understand that’s problematic, hence the one table at the front or if a person with a disability ask for it, a smaller table for them ONLY could be an option too.
- Regarding the ability to take notes, while not everyone needs a table, you could put one table at the front row and offer it to people with disabilities and those that use their laptop. It can be on a first come, first served basis, slap a sign on it that says “reserved” and if the area is designated for people with disabilities at the front, they can be assured snagging part of that table to write on.
- When it comes to persons who are Deaf/Hard of Hearing, there may be something called Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART) – this will required a certified CART provider. That National Association of the Deaf (NAD) will have an extensive resources list for obtaining CART providers, ASL interpreters as well as a general overview of the needs of people with hearing-related disabilities.
- When it comes to food, I think many people who require assistance are pretty good about asking someone for it. And I’ve experience that people are more than happy to help. Wait staff and whomever sets up the food bar can always assist someone. Two ways I would handle the situation as a conference planner is 1. alert your event contact (for the venue) ahead of time that someone might need assistance and to offer it, but this isn’t always necessary. 2. Tell that person who requires assistance, WHO they can reach out to specifically if they need anything and then THAT person may arrange on their own with the staff. Regardless of your way of doing it, it always a good idea to let ONE of the staff/manager’s know that you have a member with a disability (privately) not before the rest of the conference goers – and this is a dignifying and proper way to make the request.
Conference Excursions and Field Trips – Outings can enhance any multi-day event and they should be had whenever possible. It’s a fun way to explore the city and for visiting attendees to experience the city. A problem however, is usually the transit to/from the excursion for any out-of- towners with disabilities.
Does that mean no one should go anywhere? Of course not. But chartering a bus with a lift is an added expense. There may be a smaller company that could provide transit to someone with a mobility issue and this is fine. As persons with disabilities, we realize we won’t always be able to go with the group and yes, we wish that weren’t the case. But first planners need to ensure they’ve exhausted all options. Many transportation companies all over the United States have at least one or two busses with a lift and there should be no added steps to reserve it, other than doing so in a timely manner. Check also to see what transportation options the persons uses in their home if they are willing to share. For instance, here in the DMV, we have something called MetroAccess, this is what’s known as Paratransit, this door to door service for people with disabilities is often transferrable and can qualify the user for a similar service in other metro areas where they have similar programs.
After all is said and done, there’s the evaluation. IF kept to a page, and for smaller events, paper evaluations are fine. Sometimes, they are also more likely to be returned if given time at the last session. Nowadays, however, people are opting for Survey Monkey evaluations which can tabulate data and provide detailed reports that are easier to interpret and work well when you have a large amount of attendees. Whatever vehicle you will use, in your surveys, ensure there is always space or a field box for someone to write longer comments and express thoughts that can’t be extrapolated with circles and buttons alone.
Express that you really want to hear from folks, yes, we all know you really don’t always want to hear comments and open yourself up to possible negativity and groaning about some things, e.g. food, that really, at the end of the day, you cannot do much about or a drafty room, or a loud air conditioner or a speaker having a bad (unprepared) day. As an event planner you will hear it ALL. But in some of that, will be SOME good ideas for next time, some real thoughts and you don’t want to miss those kinds of constructive criticisms by having no way to capture the feedback at all.
In parting, one last important thing must be said and that is, while there are many responsibilities conference planners have, I won’t make excuses for anyone with a disability who makes a ruckus before, during or after the fact around access issues if they lack a forthcoming attitude prior to the events start. So here are some things to keep in mind AS a person with the disability planning to attend any event and a little reminder about what IS expected of us just as much as if not more than those same courtesies we’re asking of any conference planner:
- Be Upfront – there’s nothing worse than knowing that something is coming up and using busyness OR “they should know” mentalities to accommodate your lack of preplanning. You require the accommodation, how can one accommodate if they don’t know you need it. Waiting until the last minute or making a huff publicly, on social media is just wrong and further perpetuates stigmas we as people with disabilities are always trying to over come.
- Be specific – people don’t know you, they don’t know your unique needs. Tell them as it pertains to the accommodation needed!
- Be kind.
- Be On time.
- Be Open – There is more than one way to do something to meet the shared goal: which is your (safe and secure) participation and enjoyment. Creative problem solving is an every day necessity for those of us with disabilities. In essence we’re no stranger to making it work because we do it every day. Working with people, however uber creative it must be (but always with safety in mind) to make the best out of any situation is always attractive and in our own best interest.
Additional resources for the event planning professional around disability accommodation and inclusive design practices.
ADA National Network – A Planning Guide for Making Temporary Events Accessible to People with Disabilities
American Bar – Accessible Meetings Toolkit (includes a comprehensive checklist)
For your materials development to promote accessibility in an event, visit the Graphic Artist Guild to download (for free) all of the Disability Access Symbols