Disabilities and the Meetings Market

June 1, 2008


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 disabled persons. 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.

“The point is to allow the disabled person to focus on the content of the conference or meeting without having to worry about being physically accommodated,” says Andrew Lackey, an independent living and advocacy specialist in the
St. Louis office of the Paraquad disability rights agency. A person who has sensory impairment or any other type of physical disability should be as free to concentrate on the presented material as an attendee who doesn’t, Lackey says.

“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.”

Concrete Ideas

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, according to Lackey. With the increased focus brought to accessibility issues in recent years, some of these needs are easy to ascertain, but others are less obvious.

“There are two main types of things that meeting planners need to look at well in advance,” Lackey says. “The first is the accessibility of the event itself, including meeting rooms, presentations and workshops. The second is lodging accommodations.”

First, Lackey advises making sure that presentations at an event can be read and heard by people with visual or hearing impairments. “Meeting planners can arrange for a sign-language interpreter for the deaf, or if that’s not an option, there’s a captioning system known as CART (Communication Access Real-Time Translation) that they can use,” he says. “With this system, a hearing person types the presented words into a computer, and it captions what the speaker is saying, then projects it onto a screen.”

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 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. “There are software programs that can ‘read’ the text and present it in an electronically generated voice,” Lackey says. “You can get maximum flexibility with this type of format.”

Wheeling It

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 access. But it’s still important to check on the availability and number of these rooms, Gray says.

If disabled-equipped rooms aren’t available, Lackey says, 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. According to Lackey, many larger hotels have these items available for the asking.

For attendees of small stature or those in wheelchairs who have a limited reach distance, hotels may offer rooms with specially placed light switches, urinals and other facilities that are easier for them to use, says Joe Novak, vice president of sales for the Overland Park Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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.

“If you’re planning a large meeting for groups like the American Association of Retired Persons or state disability agencies where there will be a large number of disabled guests, you should ask about accessible guest rooms six to eight months or more in advance,” says Cheryl Dozier, a meeting planner and chief executive of the Jefferson City-based marketing consulting firm Dozier & Associates. “You also need to make sure that in your sessions and meals, the venue can place the tables far enough apart for wheelchair users to get through.”

Animals and Their People

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 motor-coach, 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.”

Getting There

Attendee transportation is another area where concerns arise, so it’s vital to communicate thoroughly with bus and shuttle companies well before your event, advises Dozier. 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.

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.

Regardless of your attendees’ particular needs, Lackey says, it’s most helpful to plan and communicate with venues and providers well before your event takes place. That way, everyone’s 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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