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Running Accessible Meetings and Events

A primer to make the lives of participants with disabilities better.

As someone in technology with a long-standing mobility problem, I have been to a LOT of meetings. Looking just from the perspective of access, most of them have been OK, some have been really good, but some have been embarrassingly difficult and awkward to downright inaccessible.

Non-Starters

I’ll start with a couple of items that you should never, ever do.

No meetings / gatherings on grass UNLESS there is an accessible path that reaches all areas

This is a pet peeve of mine, because I have personally experienced it so many times. I have heard every excuse in the book on this one, usually it is some variation of “but we have such a large group, there is no where else we can do this?” In that case, my response is “it appears to be a gathering that you don’t expect people with disabilities to attend?” Oh, it’s a mandatory meeting you say? My response to that is “You must think your meeting is so important that you are forcing your attendees with disabilities to risk injury to attend.” But you don’t have any people with disabilities attending? (that is a different problem). People with disabilities don’t distinguish between temporary and permanent disabilities. If you work for one group you will work for the other. And no one can prevent a sprained ankle from occurring the day before an event.

99.9 % of the mobility aid using population can’t handle the gopher holes and dips that are in almost every grassy area. Hidden rocks can be a huge danger, as can fellow employees who start behaving like cattle and try to push past or through people with disabilities. If there are chairs, they are usually on uneven ground, uncomfortable, and unstable. And if you put a single seat off the grass, you might as well be screaming “we forgot to think about this.” Here are a couple of things you can do to make this work.

  1. Put down “paths” over the grass — smooth planks (wood or plastic) that are strongly connected will give a mobility aid user the option of participating, while avoiding the dangers of a grass surface. The types of planks used to avoid damaging floors while moving heavy equipment are good for this.
  2. Have your meeting in a parking lot. But be sure not to block off the accessible parking spaces when you do that, because that is illegal.
  3. Consider webcasting the meeting. Though that might be accessible, it is a poor excuse of the real thing for people with disabilities who want to attend in person.

No walking meetings

I would like to find the genius that thought walking meetings at Kaiser were a good idea, and make he (or she) spend a week in a manual wheelchair. When your corporate motto is “Thrive” I thought that meant everyone should thrive. No one thrives when they are excluded from a work event. I really hope that issue is limited to my previous employer, but I suspect it is not.

Other logistical meeting access concerns

By asking yourself the following questions, you will go a long way towards making your event accessible to everyone.

Safety Considerations

First and foremost, are there any safety concerns? If you are in a skyscraper, make sure you notify security that someone who might need special evacuation is there, and what floor they are on. Make sure people who use mobility aids know what the emergency procedures are: exits, “place of refuge” etc.

Is there enough space?

People with disabilities just need more space. Ranging from trying to do a U-turn in a wheelchair (60 inch clear space minimum to accomplish this) to walking with an assistant and a service animal three-wide there is just no way around this requirement. Standing room only in an indoor setting is absolutely not accessible.

If you have any meeting rooms at your office that don’t support wheelchair users, they should be flagged as such in the meeting room description. It is super annoying (not to mention disruptive to all meeting attendees) to show up at a meeting and have someone not be able to use the room because it only has bar stools or high tables or the furniture is nominally accessible but organized in an inaccessible manner. Sometimes the latter requires notes on the door reminding janitors and other employees that wheelchair users utilize the room, and the default room configuration should be restored after anything is moved.

Is the attendee with a disability bringing an assistant/interpreter?

This is a very important logistical question for badges, seating, and lunch counts. The assistant is an individual, not the extension of the person they are assisting. If they are a sign language interpreter, speak to the person with the disability, not the interpreter.

Do you have accessible furniture?

Three sub-questions:

  1. Can you easily move a chair out of the way so a wheelchair can pull up to a table.
  2. Are the chairs a good height to transfer to from a wheelchair?
  3. Is the table height good for a wheelchair user? (Hint: having a table that you can raise and lower like a desk makes this a non-issue).

Is the speaking stage accessible?

Twice in the past six weeks I have attended events where the speaking stage could only be reached by stairs. Even if a ramp appeared out of thin air, it didn’t look like there would be space for it. Though I wasn’t speaking at either event, it really put me off. It sends a subtle “we don’t expect people in wheelchairs to be speaking” message. The Flexstep by LiftUp is a set of stairs that converts to a ramp.

More recently, at an event I was speaking at, I checked out the room 90 minutes before my talk and everything pertaining to site physical logistics was fine. Went back just before it started, and boom, someone had dropped one of those “cover up the cords” devices that I had some serious difficulty getting my wheelchair over. So give your speakers a chance to check things out but remember that “stuff happens” (all the time).

Do you have enough charging outlets in the right locations?

Most powered assistive technology (AT) and mobility devices run on rechargeable batteries. As much as everyone needs places to charge laptops and phones, people with disabilities need them even more so they can also charge their AT — hearing aids, Bluetooth keyboards, Braille notetakers, and wheelchairs. Participants with disabilities, especially screen reader users, are much more adversely impacted when their phones die. Directions for example then revert to old-fashioned “human instructions” since paper maps are not accessible to people with vision loss.

The location of the plugs is as important as their existence. Three feet off the ground is perfect for everyone. If all the plug locations are in the baseboards just a few inches from the floor, they are not going to be accessible for people who use mobility aids. Remember: most people with disabilities prefer macs, and Mac plugs take up way more space than PC plugs

Do you have any “audience participation” activities planned?

Audience participation activities should be as accessible as possible. Any activity that requires standing up or moving around inherently isn’t going to be terribly accessible.

Is your location service animal friendly?

You should be asking attendees if they are bringing service animals with them: 1) So you can make sure there is enough space, and 2) so you can let others know in case there are people with serious allergies or dog phobias. Usually people with service animals bring everything with them that their animals need, but having an extra collapsible dog water bowl never hurts. Also knowing the location where the service animals can go to relieve themselves is helpful.

Did you check on dietary restrictions?

With events that serve food, being gluten / dairy free or avoiding known allergens can be the difference between a nice meeting and a trip to the ER. Allergies are one of those “invisible disabilities” that people forget about, because they aren’t obvious unless they make someone reach for their Epipen. Also, make it easy for people to bring their own food with them by offering storage. Even when meeting organizers ask about allergies and carefully disclose to caterers and restaurants, things still can end up very wrong. A friend of mine with a violent milk allergy ended up in the ER because a wedding caterer (who had been warned) ran out of margarine. A woman my husband works with who disclosed she was allergic to beets ended up quite sick at a work event after the restaurant failed to match her disclosed allergy with the beet sugar that was an ingredient in one of their dishes. This stuff can (and does) happen with unfortunate regularity.

Dietary restrictions include religious rules pertaining to being Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Jain (I probably left a couple out). Just call them “dietary choices” and then you aren’t singling anyone out over a disability or religion that makes them uncomfortable.

How is the food being served?

Space isn’t just a room issue, it’s a buffet line and coffee bar issue as well if you’re event includes any type of self-serve food. Make sure the tables the food/coffee are on are low enough that people in wheelchairs can serve themselves. The highest point should be 4 feet off the ground and no more than 15 inches deep. If that isn’t possible for some reason, have a staff member assigned to help people who need assistance. Make sure the staff people know to ask whether someone wants help rather than just grabbing someones plate and dumping food on it. But in particular, carrying hot liquids like soup and coffee while you are using a mobility aid can be tricky, and help is usually quite appreciated in that area if nothing else

Have you considered using AIRABe My Eyes, or Right Hear?

The first two services provided sighted human assistance to people who can’t see. The third service is beacon-based, runs on an accessible app, and is specifically focused on helping blind people find things without sighted assistance. All three could provide real time assistance to someone who is blind to find the bathroom for example, or a trash can.

Do you have accessible content and alternative formats?

Follow the WCAG guidelines when creating presentations and files that may be made available after the presentation. Microsoft Word and Adobe both come with accessibility checkers built in. Make sure you use them. At a minimum, make sure that:

  • all informational images have descriptions
  • colors have a strong contrast (i.e. no gray or pastels) and don’t use red and green together
  • nothing moves automatically for more than 5 seconds
  • videos have closed captioning and descriptive audio if necessary
  • there is a table of contents for any handout more than 10 pages
  • content can be magnified without distorting text
  • no flashing images or videos that could trigger an epileptic seizure
  • if you are using Adobe — tagging and language setting are essential

An early announcement about the event (such as a “save the date” announcement) should include contact info for the organizer and deadlines for making accessibility requests known, such as electronic, Braille or large print versions of the handouts before the meetings, or CART during the meeting.

Are your videos and live talks accessible?

There is no valid excuse for playing an uncaptioned video at a work event. I don’t care where the video is hosted or what device it is being played on, just caption it. You can use a service like 3PlayMedia or you can caption it yourselfif you don’t have budget to get a service to do it for you. You can even easily caption videos you don’t own and control — just make a copy (download from the primary source and then upload the file elsewhere as a copy you can control), create the captions file, upload the captions to the copy, and play the copy with the captions turned on.

Day of the event adjustments

If you can, try to view your deck on the hardware it will be displayed on. This may lead you to the discovery that:

  1. Not everyone can read the text — what looks big enough on a laptop 18 inches from your face isn’t big enough on TVs that are 12 feet away.
  2. “Cute” animations are making people motion sick —the success of one’s presentation is not going to hang on whether it contains a robot turning cartwheels. Be sensitive to people who may get a migraine or motion sickness from such animations.
  3. Check sound feedback: sound feedback in the room can be distracting bordering on the painful

Microphones

Having a microphone stand in the middle of the floor for people with questions to come up to can be a problem for people who walk slowly. Also, no matter how well the cords are taped down, they are still a tripping hazard. Having a question facilitator (or two) take the mike around is much more accessibility friendly. Also, people with disabilities may not stand out when trying to get someone’s attention to ask a question, so make sure the question facilitators know to look for them.

Signage

Is there signage for both elevator users and stair users? I just went to an event where the stairs were nowhere near the elevator, and the room location was optimal for stair users. I had no idea which way to go from the elevator, and that combined with my terrible sense of direction resulted in me getting very very lost. Just the simple step of making sure that all sighted people have access to signage is helpful. Having assistance for people who are blind or have vision loss is essential since it is unlikely that

Were people with disabilities involved in the event planning process?

If you know people with disabilities will be attending your event, definitely involve them. It can be considered insulting to make decisions about where people with disabilities want to sit, or what their needs are. There is a reason the disability community was responsible for coining the phrase “nothing about us, without us”

Conclusion

By at least thinking about these items before an event, as a meeting organizer you avoid running around like a crazy person trying to solve the problems at the event. Additionally, you are unconsciously telling all of the participants “we care about things that impact people with disabilities.” I don’t claim to speak for all disabilities, so if you have your favorite thing that you wished people would do at meetings you have attended in the past, please list it in the comments !

The most important thing from my personal perspective as someone who needs accessible events is: Don’t make it sound like whatever was done was a huge fuss or involved a lot of time and hassle. Accessibility considerations for people with disabilities is something that event organizers should be doing all the time, and not “special” for a particular individual.

The idea for this article came from Claudio Vera, head of accessibility for Royal Caribbean cruiselines, partly from when he saw me struggling to get lunch in my wheelchair at #CSUN2019.

Author’s note: updated after another conference with a few new accessibility glitches

Published inAccessibilityBusinessDeafDisabilitiesDiversityInclusion

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