Tips for planning accessible meetings

Event planners share strategies for making meetings and conferences inclusive
Event planners share strategies for making meetings and conferences inclusive

A common clause in hotel contracts allows venues to switch reserved meeting rooms in order to maximize use of the venue’s space. But as Jeanna André-Murdie of The Howes Group warns, this can cause unanticipated problems if the venue is not aware that you have delegates with special needs.

One of her client’s participants was in a wheelchair and the newly assigned room not only had stairs, but was accessible only “through a back kitchen by a service elevator, which is not dignified.”
In the end, with a lot of conversation, the hotel agreed it was responsible for finding suitable alternate space at a convention centre close by.

But it’s also the job of meeting planners and suppliers to educate themselves on the special needs of those with disabilities or impairments in order to make events more inclusive. Here are some real-life experiences and tips gathered from members of the MPI community.

Traverse a delegate’s route

“We get individuals who are on a scooter and in a wheelchair (motorized and manual) to traverse the entire route a delegate would take in the course of the meeting,” says Chuck Schouwerwou of ConferSense Planners. This starts with the drop off experience outside the venue, the lobby/check in counters, the guestrooms, the meeting space, elevators and all washrooms, he says, adding that this is ideally done at the site selection phase so that any changes required can be written into the contract.

Washrooms

Nicolaas Sont of Yes We Plan Event Management says that although restrooms can be labelled “accessible,” there are many details that can be overlooked. Push buttons for the doors are great, but they have to be in the open and not behind a pillar. Is the stall large enough for a wheelchair to be turned around? Are there handrails around the toilet for easy transfer? Check under the counter to ensure there’s adequate space for someone in a wheelchair to access the sink. The mirror needs to be angled down, and the soap dispensers and hand dryers need to be lower.

Elevators

“One conference I did in the past had so many people register as using a scooter or wheelchair that the regular elevators could in no way match the need,” says Mr. Schouwerwou. “We addressed this by cleaning and decorating the venue’s large freight elevators, adding signage to direct people to them, plus assigning volunteers to staff the elevators during conference hours.”

Room setup

Those who read lips or use sign language need to be seated near the front. Mr. Sont cautions that at least five feet of space must be left between tables to allow access to every area of the room. Wheelchairs are getting bigger and wider, he says, so tables might need to be higher and cannot have lips underneath them.

Audio-visual

For those with hearing impairments, consider offering closed captioning on dedicated monitors in the meeting room.

To accommodate those with vision impairments, Alissa Hurley of FMAV suggests setting up larger screens and making sure there is very good lighting on stage and throughout the meeting space. Check that all the cable runs are safe and don’t obstruct the path of presenters and participants.

Accessibile Events Checklist

Venue

o    Accessible parking / passenger drop-off area
o    Outdoor and indoor pathways free of barriers
o    Doors easy to open
o    Accessible washrooms
o    Good acoustics (minimal echo)

Invitations and promotion

o    Due dates and contact information for accessibility requests included
o    Use a variety of communication methods
o    A minimum of 12-point fonts for printed materials

Food and refreshments

o    Food, drinks and utensils easy to reach for people using wheelchairs
o    Bendable straws and cups with handles available
o    Food buffet assistance available

Room set-up

o    Clear, easy-to-read signs
o    Clear floor space
o    Cables and wiring secured
o    Reserved seating available

 

Source: Planning Accessible Events, Government of Ontario

Article written by Melanie Hudson of the National Association of Federal Retirees. Editing by Cynthia Beaudin of the Canada Foundation for Innovation. This article was originally published by MPI Ottawa in Conventus magazine. Read the digital articles here: http://mpiottawa.ca/conventus.