According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 61 million Americans have a disability. That means about a quarter of your meeting attendees are likely to have mobility, hearing, vision or other issues that disable them.
Visit Rochester, the CVB for Rochester, New York, has learned a lot about making meetings work for disabled attendees. Rochester is home to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, so the community understands the needs of the deaf or partially deaf better than most. It recently hosted a convention of the Hearing Loss Association. Rochester has also hosted the World Series of Beep Baseball, a competition for visually impaired players; the New York State Special Olympics; the American Council of the Blind Convention; and the Disabled Sports USA – Adapt 2 Achieve Conference.
Deidre Wetelainen, the CVB’s vice president of sales and services, advises those who plan for disabled attendees to realize that their perceptions are likely inaccurate. “Throw all your assumptions out the window,” she said.
Based on her experience, here are Wetelainen’s suggestions for making sure your events accommodate all sorts of disabilities.
Enlist the experts.
Turn to experts for guidance. “You should not operate in a vacuum,” said Wetelainen. “We know we aren’t the experts, but we know who in Rochester to call.”
For example, the city’s Challenger Miracle Field is a pro at coordinating sports events for disabled athletics. The local chapter of the American Council of the Blind helped the CVB prepare for the group’s national convention. Such alliances benefit attendees. When the Council of the Blind convention came to Rochester, a local expert recommended that the convention center post oversized floor numbers on walls opposite elevator doors so visually impaired attendees would find it easy to identify which floor they were on.
Walk the walk.
There’s much to be learned by walking through every site that a disabled meeting attendee will visit. A restaurant might say it is Americans With Disabilities Act compliant, but dining there might reveal that it has only one outdated Braille menu. The best way to be sure all sites are accessible and have equipment that is up to date and operational is to visit them — from hotels and convention facilities to off-site venues, Wetelainen said.
Keep in mind that standard meeting room setup won’t work for many disabled attendees. “Aisles need to be wide enough for those using canes, dogs, wheelchairs,” said Wetelainen. Lighting and sound must be considered. Will flashing lights trigger medical issues? Do sessions need to be recorded for the deaf and partially deaf? Is extra space needed at the front of the room for those in wheelchairs? Onstage, disabled speakers or presenters might require wheelchair access, adjustable-height podiums or stools if they can’t stand for long periods.
Attending a group’s meeting the year before it comes to town is essential. “It helps us understand the program and see what it looks like,” said Wetelainen. “We see what they are experiencing at other meetings so that we can get ahead of issues.”
Tackle transportation and other needs.
When a city hosts an organization of disabled attendees, like the Special Olympics, it puts pressure on local resources. For example, will the city have sufficient accessible airport shuttles? Planners should also make calls to public and private transportation services to ask about supplies of accessible vehicles. Street crossing signals and signage must be checked and local law enforcement contacted to make repairs to broken signals and to help plan safe and accessible walking routes. And what do you do when, in addition to human attendees, a large number of guide dogs or service animals attend a conference? When the American Council of the Blind and its attendees brought 400 guide dogs to town, Visit Rochester worked with hotels, parks and city officials to provide safe, secure relief areas and with all venues to ensure guide dogs were accommodated.
Bolster your volunteer base.
Depending on the number of disabled attendees, you’ll need more volunteers than usual to assist visitors. At the airport, volunteers can help guests make their way from gates through baggage claim to hotel shuttles on arrival and do the same when they leave town, Wetelainen said. In the hotel and meeting facilities, volunteers can provide directions and guidance. If meeting room doors are heavy and hard to open, volunteers should be at the ready to open them for attendees with physical disabilities. When the American Council of the Blind met in Rochester, the CVB made sure volunteers were available to accompany speakers and others who had visual impairment and needed guidance.
Teach teams to be sensitive.
Weitelainen recommends that sensitivity training begin up to a year in advance for front-line hospitality workers — including staff at the airport, hotels, restaurants, transportation providers, off-site venues — and for volunteers. They’ll learn how to properly and respectfully assist someone who is disabled — for example, how to present a blind person with a bill or communicate with someone who is seated in a wheelchair. The Rochester bureau has conducted several such trainings. Before the World Series of Beep Baseball, it organized training for hotel staff through the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired.