This is the second 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.
Attendee satisfaction is directly tied to an event’s potential. Positive experiences drive word-of-mouth sales, attendance and revenue growth. Bad experiences can kill all three. Yet, few event organizers pay attention to whether they’re creating enjoyable experiences for their disabled attendees. That’s a huge problem.
The term “disabled” covers a dizzying range of challenges, from life-threatening food allergies and autism, to needing a wheelchair, being unable to climb stairs or having difficulty hearing, seeing or being understood. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, one in five Americans has a disability, half of which are severe. That number is expected to increase as baby boomers age.
At any given meeting, as many as 20 percent of attendees could have a special need or restriction. It could be visible or invisible, slight or severe, temporary or permanent. If you don’t address their needs and create a satisfying experience, you risk losing their support and money they would have spent on your event.
A million unseen challenges
Unless you have a disability, you’re not likely to see the challenges your disabled guests face. That’s part of the problem.
“Being deaf, frankly, is a full-time job,” says Shane Feldman, director of strategic partnerships and development at Communication Services for the Deaf. He spends much of his pre-conference time making sure he’ll have adequate communication services so he can enjoy the education and networking opportunities as much as anyone else does.
“Many conferences and events don’t realize they have a legal obligation to provide sign-language interpreters under the Americans With Disabilities Act,” he says. And those interpreters need to be present for more than just the breakouts and general sessions. “The primary purpose … is often learning through organized events and informal dialogue and networking. Providing access only to organized activities is insufficient.”
When organizers assume they know what’s best for disabled attendees, they risk creating ADA-compliant environments that are isolating. When American Sign Language interpreters are placed to the side of the stage, for example, deaf people have to sit in a special section to see them. That might separate them from friends or limit their ability to network. Because they’re looking at the interpreter, they miss what’s happening onstage or lag behind in comprehension from what others in the room are experiencing.
If attendees simply have trouble hearing, they may not understand what’s being said or what’s being signed. A better solution is to caption all videos and sessions so that the words and images appear in context together. This also lets people sit where they want instead of in a segregated area.
Traveling with a disability requires far more thought and planning than typical event attendees face. Jon Trask, CMP, CMM, media senior account director at Grass Shack Events and Media, is an avid concertgoer. Knee surgery limited his mobility and required a cane, so he spends considerable time before each show researching what he needs to do to enjoy it. Some venues, like the Hollywood Bowl, have clear ADA instructions on their websites so he knows where to park, find accessible ticket windows, seating, private elevators and other accommodations. Other venues don’t.
Trask recently drove to a venue without a well-planned ADA section on its website. When he told parking attendants that he needed ADA parking, they told him that all the handicapped spaces were taken. “They said I could either pay $20 to park in a VIP space near the front or park in a normal space,” Trask says. He didn’t think it was fair to have to pay more, so he parked in a dirt lot and walked a mile to the gate. “By the time I got to the venue, the music had already started. They had one, maybe two golf carts that seated three people each, moving people to their seating. There was no specific waiting area. There were about 40 people [in line], it was not shaded and there were no benches. I finally got to my seat, which involved climbing a hill, and I was exhausted. It kind of ruined the evening.”
He learned that no matter how attractive a concert is, if he has had a negative experience at the venue, it won’t be worth his time or money.
His disability also complicates business event. Six weeks after surgery, Trask attended a conference, requesting an ADA-accessible hotel room. “I counted the steps,” he says, “and it was the furthest room from the elevator on the floor. So once I got to the room, I didn’t want to leave.”
Receptions were within “walking distance” of the venues, so only disabled attendees used the shuttles. “I felt bad because it was a 60-person bus and there were times I was the only person,” Trask says. The distance between the hotel and the convention center was less than a mile, but when he tried to walk it, he had to stop five times.
Because of his inconvenient room and discomfort with the transportation options, he chose not to attend one reception. At another, where meals were served from food trucks, he found it difficult to eat because he couldn’t stand in line with everyone else. When lines became manageable, the food ran out. The disability “cut down my ability to experience everything,” he says.
Thousands of opportunities to do better
The difficulties and challenges the disabled face at events create a cumulative effect that is unpleasant, Trask says. “There’s no one thing. It’s a bunch of things combining to make it more challenging.”
These obstacles include buffet meals, long lines, unclear signage, narrow aisles, crowded hallways, dim lighting, garbled sound quality, lack of video subtitles, lack of audio guides to printed materials and loud music.
Each disability has its own indignities. Attendees on motorized scooters might not be able to use the handicapped restroom and close the bathroom door. If you have a life-threatening food allergy, not knowing what’s in the food or understanding how to get your special meal creates tremendous anxiety. Having to sit apart from everyone else is isolating, as is not being able to communicate with fellow attendees.
Each difficulty degrades the attendee experience. But it doesn’t have to.
“Why would you want someone to come to your meeting and not be able to fully participate?” asks Joan Eisenstodt, chief strategist of Eisenstodt Associates. “Our industry could do so much to be at the forefront of being hospitable because that’s what we do.”
Trask recommends that planners spend time “walking in someone else’s shoes” to see what they deal with. “When planners do that, they’ll walk away enlightened.” Feldman says the quickest way to minimize discomfort, misunderstandings and frustration is for organizers to view disabled guests as partners. The better you know your group, and the more you understand the individual needs and challenges of your attendees, the easier it is to find truly accommodating solutions.
Things to consider
- What physical, emotional or mental challenges do your attendees face?
- Do you know their individual needs and preferences? Can you build time into your schedule or assign someone on your team to contact them and discuss accommodating their disabilities?
- Does your budget allow for ADA-related expenses, like hiring interpreters or shuttles?
- What steps does accommodation add to your planning process?
We’d like to hear from you. What has your experience been, bad or good, with ADA compliance and comfort at meetings and events? Please share your stories, comments, suggestions in the comment box below. Thank you.