Disabilities and the Meetings Market

March 23, 2012

By Julia M. Johnson

Imagine signing up for an event and being prevented from entering because the facilities aren’t configured for your needs, or being unable to book a hotel stay because there are no accessible rooms to accommodate you.

These are issues sometimes faced by a person with a disability. However, they don’t have to be the case, especially in today’s more progressive meeting market, say professionals who design gatherings to fit the needs of disabled attendees.

“I am an optimist and just see progress moving forward. People are more cognizant of those with disabilities. It feels as though 90% of those attending one of my programs know someone with a disability,” says Katie Rodriguez Banister, President of Access-4-All Inc., whose mission is to educate and empower others through motivational speaking and disability education. A survivor of an automobile accident in 1990, Banister was left a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down.

“We always establish with a client that having disabled attendees at an event is never more than we can handle,” says Susan Gray, president of St. Louis-based MAC Meetings and Events. “Anyone who spends time with disabled friends or colleagues knows it’s never easy for them. So we want to make it as simple for them to attend a meeting as possible. It’s something we always think about.”

There are a number of ways in which meeting planners can make gatherings run smoothly for disabled guests, and all of them can easily be arranged in advance of an event. With the increased focus brought to accessibility issues in recent years, some of these needs are easy to ascertain, but others are less obvious.

“Wheelchair access is definitely a growing component at venues, but there could be more focus on it. A larger restroom in a room of stalls is nice, but in some cases there needs to be a more personal private facility,” Banister explains. “Sometimes it’s details as little as signage that can make the difference. That little blue sticker lets those with disabilities know they are welcome, and how to get to where they are going.”

Banister acknowledges that it can seem overwhelming or impossible to fit the needs of every attendee. “I have been in many different venues and meeting the needs of people with disabilities can be challenging, but doable. It takes communication and creativity.” Planners and venues need to recognize there are multiple disabilities that can be in attendance, and at least have some knowledge of how to accommodate accordingly.” Providing a sign-language interpreter can always be beneficial. There can be a cost, but some agencies will donate their time. There is a way to stay on budget”

“If you do opt for sign-language interpreters, make sure you have enough of them to suit the size and duration of the gathering,” Gray advises. “If it’s a very long meeting, be prepared to have two or three people available to do this,” she says. “It’s tiring, and they can only do it for a limited amount of time.” If the audience is large, make sure there are enough interpreters so one can be seen from anywhere in the room.”

For the visually impaired, you can have Braille materials made for attendees, but a less costly option is to put the presentation on a CD in a word processing format. Then it can be enlarged to a type size that a low-vision attendee can read from a laptop, or “translated” by computer into a spoken format that a fully vision-impaired guest can hear.

Next, it’s important to ensure that hotels and meeting venues have proper accommodations for those who use wheelchairs. Hotels these days are very much ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant and they tend to have specially configured rooms set aside with wide doorways and large bathrooms for those needing wheelchair accesses. But it’s still important to check on the availability and number of these rooms, Gray says.

If disabled-equipped rooms aren’t available, you can request portable handlebars that can make toilets safe for wheelchair users, and portable shower or tub chairs to make bathing easier for them. Many larger hotels have these items available for the asking.

Hotels may offer rooms with specially placed light switches, toilets and other facilities that are easier for them to use. While hotels have come a long way, they aren’t all completely accessible. It is important for visitors to call ahead and ask questions, says Kimberly Lackey, Staff Attorney for Paraquad.

Most conference centers have convention hotels just across an easily navigable street, so consider using these sites for meetings that involve guests using chairs. These venues and larger hotels are likely to have meeting-room tables that are the right height for wheelchair users as well.

“Technological advances have grown considerably to assist with meeting planning relative to accommodating physically challenged, hearing and visually impaired conference participants,” says Cheryl Dozier, a meeting planner and chief executive of the Jefferson Citybased marketing consulting firm Dozier & Associates. It is vital, as a meeting planner, that you plan, accommodate and most importantly budget for the deliverability of those technological advances to provide your participants with the inclusion that they must experience and deserve as a conference participant.

If you have attendees who use service dogs, that’s another issue it’s important to resolve well ahead of time, according to Gray.

“You may opt to send a special car for these guests, but first make sure the limo or shuttle company is okay with having an animal in the car. If the guests are going to be riding in a motorcoach, make sure it’s acceptable to have the dog sitting in the walkway of the bus,” she says.

“Then, at the hotel, you have to make sure there is green space or other areas where the dog can go to the bathroom. There may not be a lot of this at downtown hotels.”

Attendee transportation is another area where concerns arise, so it’s vital to communicate thoroughly with bus and shuttle companies well before your event. Tell providers how many disabled guests you are expecting, and make sure they have enough vehicles available with wheelchair lifts and other equipment to serve your attendees. Current technology has evolved to assist in barrier-free meetings that will ensure effective communication and accessibility, says Dozier.

If you have wheelchair guests staying at multiple hotels, that takes some extra planning, Gray says. “It can be difficult for transportation providers to send one vehicle to pick up one person; they often have to pick up at least two or three at a time to make it financially reasonable,” she says. “You have to work with the provider to carefully program which guests will be picked up at which times.”

According to Gray, it may be possible to rent wheelchair-friendly vehicles from special school districts near your event. “These offices may rent out their lift-equipped coaches in the summer, or between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. during the school year, when they’re not needed at the schools,” she says.

It’s also a good idea to make sure your hotel or venue has enough disabled parking close by to make it easy for attendees to get in and out. And convention centers may have scooters available free, or to rent, for people who have trouble walking long distances, according to Gray. Lackey adds that making sure your location is close to public transportation as another option.

Regardless of your attendees’ particular needs it’s most helpful to plan and communicate with venues and providers well before your event takes place. Also as an attendee, planner, or venue, do not be afraid to speak to people with disabilities about their needs. “Lets’ talk about it! Don’t ignore me,” says Banister. “The best thing that you can say is ‘Hello’. It’s okay to admit if you are not sure how to help, but if you want to learn there are always those willing to teach. Of course you have to honor those who want help and those who don’t. But it’s always okay to ask.” There is a movement that is leveling the playing field for those with disabilities. Clear communication guarantees everyone is already on the same page when your guests come through the door – and you can assure the maximum meeting benefit for each one. MM&E

(Julia M. Johnson is the Assistant Editor from St. Louis, Mo.)

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