The Americans With Disabilities Act, which became law in 1990, requires reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities as long as it’s not an undue hardship. But “the ADA is a floor, not a ceiling, so you can always go above it — you just can’t go below it,” said Jan Garrett, program manager for the Pacific ADA Center, which serves Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada and the Pacific Basin territories.
As equity, inclusivity and intersectionality become a larger part of the cultural conversation, meeting planners may be looking for ways to go beyond the ADA to improve the accessibility of their events. And doing so makes sense — and dollars.
“When we talk about accessibility and digital accessibility for events in particular, it’s not that somebody doesn’t get invited to the dance; it’s that they can’t even read the invitation. And they certainly can’t get through the door, and then they can’t participate,” said Sam Evans, certification manager for the International Association of Accessibility Professionals. “Nobody wants to do that, but it’s also a really huge market segment … with money to spend where they are able to engage.”
A 2018 American Institutes for Research report estimated that the 64 million Americans who have at least one disability boast discretionary income of about $21 billion, which is more than that of Black American and Latin American market segments combined.
So whether you look at it from a social justice standpoint or legal obligation, there’s also the business perspective, and “losing a prospective attendee or member can have financial implications down the road,” Evans said. “There are lots of great reasons to make events more accessible.”
Garrett said planners could and should do more to improve accessibility of their meetings, and “they need to utilize the resources out there.”
The ADA National Network consists of 10 regional ADA centers and the ADA Knowledge Translation Center, and “we’re here to try to help people understand the law,” said Garrett, who helps plan many of the Pacific ADA Center’s events.
ADA centers provide online resources like planning guides, articles and checklists and can help connect planners with local disability organizations and independent living centers for guidance. Each center “will know who is the best resource because we know our regions so well,” Garrett said.
If they can afford to, planners should also bring in an accessibility expert to provide guidance, especially if it’s their first foray into the field, said Sheri Byrne-Haber, a disability advocate and senior staff architect of accessibility software at VMware.
Planners should include an accessibility section on the registration page. There, they can tell attendees what they plan to offer, like auto captions in every room, and what they are able to provide if it’s requested by a set deadline. Planners also need to provide a contact person for questions and arrangements.
At registration, planners could also ask attendees what kind of accommodations or assistive technology they need. By asking upfront, you’ll know how many wheelchair users you have, for example, so instead of trying “to be everything to everybody, you can focus on what your participants have told you,” Byrne-Haber said.
Making Space for Accessibility
Though the ways to improve physical accessibility are nearly endless, there are some simple, often-overlooked improvements planners can make, starting with space. Walkways and aisles should be free of obstructions, like signs and easels, and be wide enough for people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices or walking with an assistant or a service dog, or for two people conversing in American Sign Language to walk side by side.
Consider creating a wheelchair-accessible seating area toward the back of the room so it’s easier for people to get in and out and a seating area at the front to make it easier for those with vision or hearing loss to see the screen, stage or interpreter. And always make sure the stage has ramp access.
High-top tables are problematic, whether for food service or charging stations, and “you have to make sure you have at least one charging station that’s at wheelchair height,” Byrne-Haber said. “People with disabilities use a lot of assistive technology, so they require charging services even more than nondisabled people.”
Planners should also consider distances — how far it takes to get from one part of the venue to another — and floor surfaces. Having gatherings on grassy lawns or plush carpet is difficult or downright impossible for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices to access.
Low light puts people with low vision at risk and is challenging for those who lip-read and sign. A sign language interpreter should be spotlighted so they can be seen.
“Proper lighting for navigation, movement and communication is important,” Evans said.
Simple things like propping open bathroom doors can help people who don’t have or can’t use their hands or arms to open doors, Garrett said. Venues should also be near public transportation because many people with disabilities don’t drive, so public transit is “really important,” she said.
Planners could also offer a quiet room where neurodiverse people and those on the autism spectrum can take a break from the chaos of a conference.
Digital and Media Accessibility
Digital accessibility has always been important, although not always implemented; and it has taken on new importance in the post-pandemic world of virtual and hybrid meetings.
The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines provide a testable checklist of online accessibility. Planners need to use alt-text for anything that’s represented as a visual graphic; the text description of the image helps people who are using assistive technology to read information and gain context.
Smartphones and devices sometimes can’t read information from apps, so planners should also send out text-based information that devices can read.
For in-person or virtual events, presenters should use inclusive presentation practices. That means that anything represented visually, like slides or videos, should be described or recapped, allowing someone who can’t see to understand what’s being shown.
“Using those inclusive presentation techniques and practices is something everybody can do,” Evans said. “We can teach our presenters that, and we can do it ourselves.”
Captions are incredibly important and should be included on presentations, videos, social media and training materials. Planners need to understand the difference between auto-captions and real-time Communication Access Realtime Transcription (CART) captioning, which a captioner does accurately at speed, synchronized with names and sounds and punctuation. And planners need to understand “when you can get away with using auto captions and investing in the CART,” Byrne-Haber said.
All media needs to be accessible, including digital media and any print media or documents. Event coordinators should provide accessible templates to presenters and check the accessibility of the content their speakers submit. If a presentation includes slides that are shared as a handout, be sure to make those available in a remediated format — be it Braille or large print — that planners can ask speakers to provide, Evans said.