This is the final piece 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.
Ask a U.S. venue, hotel or service provider if the site complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act, and the answer almost always will be yes, says Kristen McCosh, commissioner of Boston’s Commission for Persons With Disabilities. But compliance doesn’t guarantee a quality experience for conference, meeting or event attendees who are disabled.
“We should be striving for ‘ideal conditions’ like we do in every other aspect of planning,” she says. “Would a school department ever brag that they ‘met compliance’ in educating their students? Or a hospital ever claim they ‘met compliance’ in safety standards? Never! They rave about compliance in every area we know — except accessibility.”
Consider the user experience
How well you can you empathize with the challenges faced by disabled attendees? Find out with this short quiz. Each of these items meets the ADA standard. What potential challenges do you see?
- A handicapped stall in the back of a men’s or women’s restroom
- A buffet meal
- 36-inch aisles between tables and desks
- A directional sign in front of a ramp 150 feet from the main entrance
- A wheelchair lift to the stage
Jot down your thoughts before reading further.
- A disabled person who attends a conference may need restroom assistance from a helper or spouse,” McCosh says. What if the attendee is male with a female caregiver, or a woman attending with her husband? That leaves them stuck outside standard ADA-compliant restrooms. Ideally, a companion or family restroom that permits mixed-gender use and privacy would be available.
- Buffet meals are challenging for the blind, the physically disabled and those with life-threatening food allergies (because of cross-contamination and lack of labeling). “How could you possibly hold a plate and balance while letting go of your walker?” McCosh asks. Attendees with canes or crutches might have trouble standing in line or moving while holding a plate. The same for those in wheelchairs or on scooters; these attendees often can’t reach food placed on a buffet table anyway. Buffets are impossible for the blind. A plated banquet is far better choice.
- Will 36 inches be enough once people fill in the space? Meeting rooms get crowded with furniture and people,” McCosh says. What does the path of travel look like once it’s filled with people, suitcases, purses, laptops, backpacks, coats and umbrellas? Because accessible seating for wheelchairs, the hard of hearing and people with low vision is typically at the front of the room, those attendees likely will face obstacles created by other attendees. “The man in the wheelchair can’t fit down the row to get to his seat,” McCosh says. “The young blind woman’s cane catches on every backpack in the aisle on her way up front.” Planners need to create extra space to accommodate this.
- Most people in an unfamiliar area have trouble getting their bearings, McCosh says. Doing so if you have a special need can be an insurmountable barrier. Walking in the wrong direction when you’re physically challenged can be painful and exhausting. Some venues have visual clues like stripes of color on the carpeting and elevator buttons that light up. Meeting signage needs to be just as visible and useful. To mark alternative wheelchair entrances, place signs with arrows where the accessible path ends, McCosh says. If a sign says the grand ballroom is at the end of the hall, and a wheelchair user gets there only to find two small steps, how will they know where to go? Place a directional sign right there, not at the foot of the ramp. And make sure signs are marked with large, bold fonts and dark text on a light background so they’re easy to read.
- People in wheelchairs despise lifts, McCosh says. She suggests building a ramp to the stage instead. Lifts are often broken or locked or need a key that can’t be found.
9 questions to ask
“Accessibility” means different things to different people, and being compliant doesn’t guarantee an ideal experience for disabled attendees. To determine if a venue, hotel or service provider is a good fit for your group, McCosh recommends asking these questions:
- Do you have different meal options? Full-service and/or self-service?
- Do you have family/companion restrooms in addition to standard restrooms?
- Do you have handicapped parking? Where is it?
- Does the building have steps at the entrance or inside in the lobby? To get to any conference rooms? In auditoriums to get to rows of seats? To stages or daises?
- Does it have a stair lift or chair lift? Do they work? Are they up to code? When was the last valid inspection? Is it locked with a key? Who has the key?
- Does the venue have a built-in hearing/audio-loop system with headphones? How many headphones? Who oversees them?
- Do you have a boom microphone stand or lapel mics for the stage?
- Where can service animals relieve themselves?
- If the venue has a shuttle, is it wheelchair accessible? Describe it.
Other things to consider
- Some venues require even ADA shuttles to drop off passengers in a designated area. How far is that area from the ADA-accessible entrance? Will people have to cross the street?
- If an attendee has a life-threatening allergy, how will the chef and banquet staff eliminate cross-contamination? How will special meals be delivered?
- What state certifications are required of interpreters for the deaf, blind or speech-challenged? Where can you find appropriately licensed providers?
Don’t forget to create a communication strategy for your pre-conference emails, event website and conference signage so affected attendees know exactly what to expect, what accommodations and resources are available, and who to contact if something goes wrong.
Are new standards needed?
When parents with young children shop for houses, they check out the school district to see if the schools assigned to that address exceed standards set by the online resource Great Schools. If they don’t, it can be enough to scuttle the deal.
All meeting venues and services must meet ADA guidelines, which raises a question. Should our industry develop a Great Schools-type ranking to show who truly go above and beyond, who meets the standard and who does not?
Let’s keep talking, and accommodating.
What’s your opinion? Do you have examples of venues or suppliers who’ve exceeded your ADA expectations? Please leave a comment with your thoughts in the box below.