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Accessibility 2.0

Thanks to sweeping Americans with Disabilities Act compliance laws, meeting planners can be almost guaranteed that every meeting venue they choose today is up to par in terms of basics such as wheelchair access, accessible restrooms and adequately sized hallways, but there are many touches beyond the basics that not only create a more accessible meeting for those of different abilities, but also heighten enjoyment for all meeting attendees.

Here are some organizations that go the extra mile to accommodate visitors with a variety of abilities.

Irving Convention Center

Irving, Texas

Even before a single line was drawn on the first plan for the Irving Convention Center, accessibility was one of the top considerations in the design process.

“It was something we spoke to in the RFP,” said executive director Maura Gast. “Our policy was, if the ADA requires you to do ‘x,’ we do more than ‘x.’”

One of the first organizations set to hold an event in the new space was a group of disabled veterans, and this sent Gast and her team back to the drawing board to make sure that every inch of the conference center catered to as many different types of abilities as possible.

“We walked ourselves through the building the way they would,” Gast said. “It involved putting more button door actuators in place than we had to and being more conscious of that, and assessing where there are counters at a height that only people standing can access or where there are transoms between carpet and regular floor that are difficult if you’re on crutches or using a cane or walker.”

One of the sticking points the convention center has encountered is signage, which is an ongoing experiment, according to Gast, due to updates in video signage technology. “If it’s all in color, people who have no color perception can’t make sense of it. It’s a constant work in progress.”

George Washington’s Mount Vernon

Mount Vernon, Virginia

When the entire mission of an organization is to keep a structure exactly how it is, changing things to make them more accessible becomes a delicate dance. In the past several years, it is a dance Mount Vernon has done to great effect, netting a Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) Emerging Leaders Award for Jamie Bosket, Mount Vernon’s vice president for guest experience.

“Over the past several years, we’ve focused on audiences that are hard of hearing or low vision,” said Bosket. “We worked with a company that originated during a partnership with Disney World to create a device that can do various services on demand, triggered by GPS and infrared sensors throughout the house. Click ‘audio description’ once, and things will auto populate as you walk through the house and galleries on the major works of art and decorative-elements rooms in the mansion. If you are deaf or low hearing, you can click ‘closed caption,’ and the script that is being used by our interpreters is populated on the screen.”

The entire process of creating the assistive devices took Mount Vernon a year and a half, but involved a reimagining of the most fundamental ways the guest experience team describes the property. “It was a learning process for us to think through the challenge of how to describe this room without using descriptors that are not valuable,” he said.

Tools like Mount Vernon’s new assistive devices are only valuable when visitors use them, and Bosket admits that helping visitors self-identify can be one of the biggest challenges his team faces and, thus, is an important part of Mount Vernon’s extensive onboarding training. “Legally and courtesywise, you cannot ask someone what disability they have, but there is nothing wrong with asking if you can be helpful,” he said.