Nine Steps To Accessible Conferences

Barbara BurtonBy: Barbara Burton

Imagine you wrestled with your toddler, got poked in the eye and now have a corneal abrasion. Your eyes are bandaged over, but you have a presentation to attend. You arrive to find most of it is PowerPoint based and you can’t see the slides. Worse, the presenter assumes you can see them and never goes over them.

You break your leg and now use a wheelchair. The presentation is held in a conference room with tiered seating and steps all the way up. Seats are attached to the table and swivel out so you can sit down. There is no room for your wheelchair.

Recently I attended a conference at a major medical center. A number of the attendees used walkers or wheelchairs. The seating arrangements were as described above and organizers scrambled to find a way to accommodate everyone, albeit unsuccessfully.

In advance of the conference I contacted the organizers to request real time captioning. It was tough to reach them as the online invitation had no contact information. I had to track them down on their website. Once I did I could only find a phone number and left a message. When I received a call back, the representative was confused; she had never had such a request before and wasn’t sure how to make it all happen. Ultimately they made captioning possible but only for me. My captioner sat beside me and I read from her laptop, an arrangement that required me to constantly swivel my head from the screen to the action at the front of the room.

accessible biennial

These situations can be avoided easily if meeting and conference organizers are committed to planning accessible events. In fact, everyone can claim that commitment by planning a New Year’s Revolution to fight for more accessible meetings. Here’s how:

  • Sending out evites is great if they are accessible to people who rely on screen readers. Make sure they, like all invitations, include a place for people to request accommodations for disabilities.
  • In all documents use a strong sans serif font such as Arial. Stay away from bold, colors, underlines and italics. Stick with good contrast such as black print on a white background. Whenever possible make your default font size 14 pts. If you can’t, make large print documents available.
  • Provide organizers’ contact information via phone, email, website, etc. Different people use different contact methods better than others.
  • Whenever possible provide real time captioning at all events. This makes comprehension possible and easier not just for people who are deaf or hard of hearing, but also people with learning disabilities, ADHD, brain injuries and cognitive disabilities from other causes. It also helps people whose first language is not English.
  • Choose the venue very carefully. Never take the word of venue management that it is accessible as some people define the term way too loosely. Before making a final decision visit the venue and take a good look. If the venue is in another city, find a disability organization and ask them if someone might look at the venue and let you know what they think. Here’s what to look for:
    • Is it on a public transit line? Many people, especially people with disabilities, rely on public transit to get around town.
    • Is there a clear, safe path from the bus stop to the front door?
    • Is the front door easy to open? Better yet, does it open automatically?
    • Is there a covered drop-off entry?
    • Are there enough bathrooms to handle the number of participants you expect?
      • Are there enough accessible stalls? Are they and the rest of the bathroom really accessible?
    • Does the meeting room provide good line of sight from every seat?
    • Is the seating flexible and can wheelchairs fit in any row?
    • How is the amplification system? Is there an additional FM system or an induction loop system for people who are hard of hearing?
    • Are there steps that might prove impossible for people who have mobility disabilities?
  • If you plan to provide lunch or coffee breaks, provide staff or volunteers to assist people who have vision, mobility or cognitive disabilities. This is also helpful for people using service dogs (they have at least one hand busy with a leash). Try to avoid buffets whenever possible.
  • At the beginning of the event when “housekeeping details” are mentioned, be sure to go over emergency exits and procedures. In case of an emergency, make sure staff or designated volunteers are available to assist people to the proper exits.
  • Remind all presenters to discuss slides, not just put them on the screen and assume everyone can read them.
  • During Q & A sessions, remind presenters to repeat all questions asked by the audience. Also provide microphones for people who want to ask questions.

This is the short version, but it is a start. It’s a New Year’s Revolution to make meetings and events more accessible and more enjoyable. Happy New Year!

Barbara C. Burton, M.Ed., owns Capitol Inclusion, an accessibility and inclusion consulting company. Follow her blog and engage Barbara on Twitter.


1 Comment

Filed under Disabilities Trends

One response to “Nine Steps To Accessible Conferences

  1. Not enough conferences provide live captioning sometimes called CART or STT Reporting. Having live captioning during presentations can help all attendees – missed a word? You can read it on the captioning screen. Also can attendees for whom English is their second language.

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