This is the first in a four-part series about improving the event experience for disabled guests.
- Part 1: ADA at 25: Industry still struggling to include disabled.
- Part 2: Satisfying all attendees pays off in multiple ways.
- Part 3: 7 ways planners can do better.
- Part 4: ADA-related questions you should ask venues and providers.
The passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 tried to guarantee equal opportunity for all, but 25 years later, the disabled still find accommodations, venues, transportation and events less than hospitable.
That’s because people still only think about the ADA in terms of compliance, says Kristen McCosh, commissioner of Boston’s Commission for Persons With Disabilities. “’ADA’ compliant implies that the bare minimum standards are being met.”
When planners ask if a venue, hotel or other supplier is ADA compliant, the answer should be yes — it’s a legal requirement. That doesn’t mean that the services offered will actually provide an equivalent experience for both disabled and non-disabled attendees, however.
It’s all about perspective
Consider something as basic as a building entrance.
“If the architect draws up plans that have a set of stairs with an adjacent ramp, that plan is fully ADA compliant,” McCosh says. But it doesn’t optimize the user experience.
If a group approaches the entrance, and one person is in a wheelchair, the entire group, except for the wheelchair person, can use the stairs. That might not seem like a big deal, McCosh says, but what if this is a bridal party, and you’re the bride? What if you have a young child who has to choose whether to stay with Mommy or Daddy?
“These situations are things able-bodied people never have to think about,” she says. “If developers thought about this instead of just aiming to ‘meet compliance,’ they might design a building that has a level entrance — no stairs and no ramp — where everyone could enter together.”
Similarly, when planners do site visits, they often don’t see the obstacles guests with physical challenges might encounter. When economizing on sound design, they don’t realize how that will affect attendees with hearing loss. When they decide on a buffet meal, they don’t understand how difficult that will be for anyone who’s blind, physically challenged or food-allergic. They may think to hire an ADA-accessible shuttle for the off-site reception but fail to double-check the drop-off point.
That’s why Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist of Eisenstodt Associates, recommends planners spend some time walking (or rolling) in the shoes of someone who might need to navigate the event at a disadvantage. Eisenstodt, who uses a mobility scooter when she travels, says the meetings industry makes things incredibly difficult for people to travel to and participate in events. But it’s a problem of perception, she believes.
To help meeting and hospitality professionals realize how limited their perceptions are, and to help them move beyond simply aiming for compliance, Eisenstodt developed an “Inclusive Hospitality” course. It gives participants time to move through an event space with a simulated disability by wearing earplugs or eye patches, or using a motorized scooter or wheelchair.
“You have to experience it before you get it,” Eisenstodt says. “The first step is being empathetic and understanding that not everyone is like you. After that, accommodation is pretty easy.”
A legal obligation to do better
The ADA says events and conferences must provide “appropriate auxiliary aids and services where necessary to ensure effective communication.” It covers individuals who are deaf, hearing-impaired, blind, have vision loss or speech disabilities.
This could mean closed-captioning and qualified interpreters for the deaf or amplification and assistive-listening systems for the hard-of-hearing. It could mean audio recordings or Braille-printed versions of conference materials, or qualified readers to convey information to the blind, or large-print or electronically distributed versions for those with vision loss. It could mean providing a qualified speech-to-speech transliterator if someone has unclear speech. The ADA also prohibits conference and event organizers from charging the disabled more money to attend than other attendees.
But many planners don’t realize these requirements exist, so they fail to plan for them. Do you know any planners who budget for real-time captioning or video-remote interpreting? If you had to hire a certified American Sign Language interpreter, would you know what state certifications were required? If deaf-blind attendees wanted to bring their support-service providers, would you try to charge for the extra person? Are you providing nutritious meals for people with food allergies or are you still trying to feed vegans Caesar salads?
Shane Feldman, director of strategic partnerships and development for Communication Services for the Deaf, says he spends most his pre-conference time educating planners about their legal obligations. “If [my colleagues] spend 10 to 20 hours preparing for the conference by researching workshops and other attendees, I spend half of that time communicating about access arrangements,” says Feldman, who’s deaf. “This puts me at a disadvantage in my ability to fully capitalize on the complete conference experience.”
Solutions aren’t one-size-fits-all
What exacerbates the problem is that planners often think of disabled people as a “category,” not as individuals. When they envision “physical disability,” for example, they might instinctively think of a wheelchair. But physically disabled attendees could be on a motorized scooter or crutches, have a cane or a cast, or have a bad hip, knee or back. Each presents different mobility challenges.
Even when people have the same mobility challenge, you can’t assume they want to be accommodated in the same way. “You’re supposed to set aside space for people in wheelchairs or scooters,” Eisenstodt says. “But we don’t want to be lumped in the same row.”
Feldman says that one of the biggest problems he encounters is organizers who assume they know how to accommodate his needs without talking to him first. Those assumptions can prove costly.
For example, if you reproduce a show program in Braille for blind attendees, you might realize too late that they can’t read it. His solution: Just ask disabled attendees what they need, Feldman says. Event organizers “could reduce conflict and frustration on everyone’s part” by taking this simple step.
Things to think about
- How can you shift your company or event from being ADA compliant to being truly accessible?
- Do you have a permanent or temporary disability? What would make traveling or attending events easier?
- How can you survey your attendees to determine their challenges before they get on-site?
What thoughts, comments, issues does this piece, and the ADA, raise for you? Please share your insights in the comment box below. Thank you