Handicap Sign

How to Make Your Events Easier for Attendees with Disabilities

Photo by Clker-Free-Vector-Images / 29588 images

by Jena Tesse Fox

Conferences and large-scale events can prove especially challenging for attendees with disabilities, whether the disability is obvious or hidden, permanent or temporary. Alan Broadbent of Accessible Services in Barcelona estimates that 50 percent of attendees at an event will have some form of disability—"to greater or lesser degrees," he says. We asked him what meeting planners need to know to keep their events accessible to everybody.

Defining Disabilities

“When we think of the term disabled we naturally tend to associate the word with wheelchair users,” Broadbent said. “However, this is a misconception. Disabilities can be divided into two camps, visible and non-visible; temporary and permanent.”

Temporary disabilities might include changes to hearing and sight capabilities (meaning lower tolerance levels for volume and brightness of lighting); illness caused by reactions to foods or perfumes in the air; or accidents requiring plaster casts or the use of crutches. “Attendees may have physical issues related to walking distances, climbing stairs, stamina, heart conditions, arthritis, breathing, etc--all of which are hidden and may be permanent or temporary,” Broadbent said.

For hidden disabilities such as dyslexia, the use of limited wordage and maximisation of pictures on signage and presentations can be helpful to all attendees, not just those with a disability. “Remember, after all, that when you are in a different country you look for the picture of a man or women to identify the correct toilet facility,” Broadbent noted.

What to Ask and What to Say

Planning for an event should be on the basis of total inclusiveness, Broadbent believes, “so an emphasis on 'special consideration' should not be treated as a separate issue, rather an awareness that all attendees should be provided with an option when registering to highlight they have access requirements, catering requirements or transport and accommodation requirements suited to their needs.” To that end, adding a simple check-box denoting a need for extra help on an initial registration form can be useful. Planners can then follow up to determine exactly what kind of assistance the attendee needs, he noted.

But, of course, privacy is important and sensitivities must be considered as well. Broadbent notes that many disabled people--and people who work alongside the disabled--are word- and label-sensitive, “to the point of the politically correct ethos going a little off the rails,” he said. Still, some terms are widely considered acceptable and appropriate, including  "wheelchair users" and "sight- or hearing-impaired," and some words should be avoided, including “handicapped” in the UK. “However, this word is in common use in the USA,” he added. “In general, my view is that one should talk normally, use phrases in normal daily use and ignore the growing list of 'correct' terms that are finding their way onto blogs.” 

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What to Do

To make inclusive event planning easier, Broadbent checking the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) website for a checklist. “Others are available from a variety of sources on the internet,” he added. “Integrating these official checklists into the overall planning should allow for all inclusiveness.”

To this end, planners should be aware of--and able to organize--accessible transfers, accessible accommodation, an accessible venue (one that includes trade stands with ramps integrated into the design) and accessible catering facilities. Broadbent also recommends arranging “alternate forms” of listening to speeches and presentations via loop systems (portable or fixed) and modern facilities such as apps or sign language interpreters.

Broadbent encourages treating people who ask for extra assistance in the same way as any other attendee. “Why differentiate--apart from on the basis of hosted buyer or other VIP status?” he asked rhetorically. “If we are to use the word 'sensitivity,' it has to be in the context that all aspects of pre-planning should be inclusive and sensitive of the needs of all attendees.” For disabled attendees, this means that all publicity and website material regarding the event should include the international symbols for access covering hearing/sight impairments, walking impediments and wheelchair access. These symbols should not be added as an afterthought in a FAQ page or a page that is four or five links into a site, he added, but clearly highlighted on the event home page.

Ultimately, the big picture is the event being inclusive to every qualified attendee, and this should be every planner’s top goal. “To lose sight of the big picture is to lose sight of effective event planning,” he said. 

Accessible Accommodations

Hotels are also taking steps to make sure that guests with special needs feel welcome. Scandinavian hotel chain Scandic has launched interactive training on disabilities. This training, which provides the answers to difficult and sometimes sensitive questions about the most important issues for Europe’s more than 65 million people who have some form of disability, is available to everyone at www.scandichotels.com/specialneeds

The web-based training program uses advice, tips, tests and instruction videos to show how to provide optimum service to guests with disabilities. The training is one of the courses and training programs that Scandic has produced on accessibility for its own staff.  

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“Everyone can learn something from [the training program], whether they work in the hotel industry or in any other service sector,” Magnus Berglund, Scandic’s accessibility director, said in a statement. “By following the route of a guest through the hotel, stopping at reception, in the hotel room and in the restaurant, we are able to highlight tricky and sometimes maybe sensitive issues in these different settings. The way guests are treated is vital – it’s about treating everyone equally but at the same time knowing and understanding how together we can meet the special needs and resolve the issues that arise with different disabilities.”

Scandic has also implemented smart design features in the rooms to make them accessible for people with disabilities, and is the first hotel chain in the world to post full accessibility information for all 160 of its hotels on each property's page.