Accessible Meetings, Events & Conferences Guide

Introduction

Welcome to the updated, digital version of A Guide to Planning Accessible Meetings, originally published by Independent Living Research Utilization in 1993, written by co­-authors June Isaacson Kailes and Darrell Jones. The Mid­-Atlantic ADA Center and TransCen, Inc. sponsored this update and publication in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the transformational Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990. This version includes regulatory updates along with practical guidance from a host of meeting planning professionals, subject matter experts, and even June Kailes herself.

The contents of this guide were developed under a grant from the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR award number 90DP0007). NIDILRR is a Center within the Administration for Community Living (ACL), Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The contents of this guide do not necessarily represent the policy of NIDILRR, ACL, HHS, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

TransCen’s work represents the intersection of grassroots implementation and national policy and initiatives. Since 1996, it has supported the Mid­-Atlantic ADA Center, one of ten regional ADA Centers of the ADA National Network, funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research.

Our goal is that this guide will help make every meeting, event, and conference accessible. It is with great pleasure that we share this work, which will continue to be updated to best serve the needs of planners, and help ensure that all meeting participants are fully engaged and have equal opportunities to contribute to public discourse, learning, and advancement.

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How To Use This Guide

This online guide is an update from a print publication issued in 1993. As a web resource, however, it becomes a living document that can be modified and updated as emerging practices become best practices, and as these practices fold into an ever­-widening circle of gatherings, like weddings, family reunions, and more.

Note that information may be repeated in various sections where it may be relevant. The navigation options on the left of the screen are "chapter" titles, and clicking the link will open both introductory text and additional subchapters with more information and resources.

Every effort has been made to ensure that links to other online resources are live and unbroken; staff at the Mid­-Atlantic ADA Center will continue to monitor the guide and appreciate hearing from you if broken links are found.

Finally, while the ADA is referenced often throughout this document and technical experts have reviewed content, this is not a replacement for competent legal counsel. Rather, the team presents here what is required under the law as understood by these subject matter experts, and promising practices to make YOUR event fully inclusive, a market advantage in today's competitive and ever-­expanding service economy. By ensuring that all participants have equal access, the world will truly be a richer place.

A Note on Language and Terms

"Disability advocates strive for equality, accessibility and acceptance, yet they are continually confronted by language which perpetuates negative stereotypes of who they are. People with disabilities, disability rights activists, service providers, health care providers, writers, reporters, editors, educators and supporters must become aware of the power of language. Are you perpetuating negative attitudes and false stereotypes of people with disabilities with your language?" ­ ~Author June Kailes, 2010 publication, Language is More Than a Trivial Concern

Language evolves, often even faster than some of those who speak it. One might hear the phrase, "the disability community," and think that all people with disabilities use a common language to define themselves and one another, as well as the various accommodations that may be needed for access and inclusion. This is not the case! Often, even well­-intentioned and well­-informed individuals may fall behind the times and use language that is no longer considered current, respectful, and inclusive.

This guide is a living document, and its publishers will attempt to keep it up to date and amended over time. Defining some common terms, and discussing those terms which no longer should be used, is a way to help visitors to the site carry language into the marketplace. Of course, if you are visiting this site and come across terms that are objectionable or offensive to you as a reader, we hope you will share your perspectives so we may consider them for future updates to this guide.

Interacting with People With Disabilities

Preparing yourself, your team, and your facilities for meetings, events, and conferences that are accessible to those with disabilities will likely result in delivering even better customer service and a better experience for all attendees. To be better prepared, you will want “soft skills” to support your event in addition to the structural, technological, and other physical elements needed for accessibility. The Guide authors recommend the following resources:

Online Guide Project Team

In addition to one of the original authors of the 1993 A Guide to Planning Accessible Meetings, the 2015 online guide project team includes subject matter experts from the professional meeting planning and accessible design fields, advocates, and individuals with disabilities across a broad spectrum.

Project Contributor, Marian Vessels

Marian Vessels is the Director of the Mid-­Atlantic ADA Center. In this role, she is responsible for the daily operation of the Center. Ms. Vessels provides disability awareness training and seminars on the Americans with Disabilities Act, covering such issues as current legislation and employment.

Previously, Ms. Vessels was the Executive Director of the Maryland Governor's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities. She also worked as the Director of the Maryland Governor's Office for Individuals with Disabilities and was an Executive Board Member for the President's Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities.

“I am a wheelchair user who attends many meetings, events and conferences for my job as Director of the Mid­-Atlantic ADA Center,” she says. “I often encounter venues, configurations of rooms, food displays, and other aspects of an event that are not welcoming to me as a participant with a disability. Many of these events were disability-related and should have considered these factors when planning and executing their function.”

Prior to this project, Marian says, there was no current single source to provide guidance and best practices to these planners. “Some of these issues are ADA­-related, such as the correct number of properly configured parking spaces, while others are best practices to assure the goal of the ADA — full inclusion of those with disabilities into all aspects of American life — is achieved.”

It is the goal of the Center to provide information and resources to further the inclusion of participants with disabilities into the meetings, events, and conferences that you are planning. Please do share this resource with those you feel would benefit from it. We feel that this document will go a long way to provide guidance and tools for more inclusive meetings!

Author, June Isaacson Kailes

Author and subject matter expert, June Isaacson Kailes, (www.jik.com), is a Disability Policy Consultant and the Associate Director and Adjunct Associate Professor at Harris Family Center for Disability and Health Policy at Western University of Health Sciences, Pomona, California. Her current work focuses on building disability competencies into the worlds of health care and emergency management. June’s breadth and depth of experience in disability, access, and functional needs issues as a writer, trainer, researcher, policy analyst, subject matter expert, and advocate is widely known and respected.

“Much has changed since I and Darrel Jones, with the great support of ILRU, first published A Guide to Planning Accessible Meetings in 1993. The writing of that ‘Guide’ was motivated by the authors’ frustration at observing repeated access barriers at meetings and events. The lessons were observed, but often were not subsequently applied.”

The Guide proved helpful to making large dents in the problem. “Parts of our 'Guide' have been periodically updated and can be found in diverse pieces and fragments on the Internet,” she says. “This NEW online guide centralizes and modernizes accessible event planning information in an easy to use portal, offering dynamic, scalable, and customizable information for planning small to large events, be it conferences, meetings, receptions or dinners. It can be used for getting a thorough orientation to accessible event planning or getting a few very specific answers to access related questions.”

As this is a digital guide rather than a published book, June encourages feedback and suggestions from visitors to the site as they use the resources presented.

Contributor, Kobena A. Bonney

Kobena works out of downtown Boston for the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC). He is the statewide Coordinator of the federally funded Assistive Technology (AT) Act program in Massachusetts called MassMATCH (Massachusetts Maximizing Assistive Technology in Consumers' Hands).

Kobena is a longtime AT user and enthusiast. He has 20-­plus years' experience using and working with Assistive Technology. His passion is to promote awareness of and affordable access to AT for people with disabilities everywhere.

Before coming to work at MRC in 1998, Kobena worked in Toms River, New Jersey for the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired (CBVI) as a Technological Services Specialist. Among other roles, he conducted AT assessments and made recommendations on appropriate technology to enable CBVI clients to achieve their vocational rehabilitation goals. Between 1999 and 2006, Kobena worked for the Massachusetts Association for the Blind (now MAB Community Services) in three different administrative capacities - ­ NFB­-Newsline Coordinator, Director of Communication Services, and Regional Director of MAB's operations in Western Massachusetts.

Contributor, Marissa Sanders

Marissa Sanders has worked in disability rights for more than 15 years. She served as Executive Director of the West Virginia Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and as Director of Training for the Mid-­Atlantic ADA Center. She has also worked at three different Centers for Independent Living and served on the National Council on Independent Living.

While at the ADA Center, she trained over 500 people on various aspects of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ms. Sanders currently serves as an independent consultant and as a Video Interpreter for Sorenson Communications where she interprets phone calls in American Sign Language for individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing. She lives in Charleston, West Virginia with her husband.

Editor, Angela Strain

Project editor, Angela Strain, has been writing, editing, and presenting education and advocacy materials for more than twenty years in the nonprofit sector, on topics ranging from healthcare to the environment and community organizing, to name a few. She has helped secure more than $100 million in grant funds for nonprofits across the Southeastern United States.

“When the ADA was first passed, the museum system I worked for selected me for training in facility compliance to help advise the team responsible for construction and operation of new attractions, including theaters and education centers,” she says. “From that time to this, advocating for universal accessible design and equal access have been driving passions. This project will help reach a whole new generation of event and meeting hosts, planners, and facilities, with both the letter and the spirit of the law.”

She adds, “for me, this work is also personal. With functional needs to be accommodated myself, tackling conferences and meetings can be a challenge; I am eager to see this guide improve the experience of those living with both visible and invisible disabilities and limitations.”

Project Advisor, Sarah Galbraith Laucks, CMP

Consultant, trainer, subject matter expert, and president of Meeting Well, Sarah Galbraith Laucks has been planning conferences for people with disabilities since 1993. In fact, her connections to disability go back even further, to the late 1970s when her childhood best friend had intellectual disabilities. Her career includes eight years with Hilton Hotels and five years with Hershey Entertainment & Resorts. Sarah’s varied background has equipped her with skills in conference management, website and email marketing, VIP visits, special events, committee facilitation, and professional speaking and writing. She specializes in access for people with disabilities and eco-­friendly initiatives for the meetings industry.

“While June Kailes’ guide has been a bible for those of us planning accessible meetings on a day­to­day basis, the professional meeting and hospitality industry is quite large and a majority have not been aware of her work. There’s been a void in the industry's certification and training programs – no one place for these professionals to turn for answers to their questions, accurate information and guidance on how to make their meetings accessible. Beyond the need to accommodate attendees with disabilities of a certain level, the reality is that many attendees have some type of disability they face. Examples include low vision, hearing loss, dietary needs, food allergies, difficulty walking long distances and temporary, significant disability. Providing tools to make accessible meetings an every­day consideration will serve to take the meetings industry to the next level in producing inclusive, meaningful events.”

Sarah holds a Bachelor of Science in education, graduating summa cum laude from Susquehanna University, and is a recipient of the Certified Meeting Professional designation from the Convention Industry Council. Personal interests include animal rescue, nutrition and wellness, and figure skating. She is a member of Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture and the Center for Independent Living of Central Pennsylvania Board of Directors.

Graphic Designer, Patrick Florville

Formerly a pre-med student, Patrick Florville is an award-winning brand strategist and creative director of Florville Catalyst, Inc., based in New York City. With over 30 years' experience, he has created branding and communication solutions for an impressive clientele across a broad range of industries, ranging from small businesses and non-profits to Fortune 500 corporations.

As a parent of a child with a disability, he brings passion and commitment to organizations and causes which embrace diversity and disability inclusion, empowering them with a compelling presence amidst their largest competitors.

Patrick’s work has won national and international awards, and is part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of Design at the Cooper Hewitt.

Technical Lead and Web Design, Daniel Schiavone

Daniel Schiavone is President and Chief Technologist at Snake Hill: Web Agency, where he brings years of experience creating, implementing and integrating software solutions. Snake Hill provides organizations with strategies and tools to grow their web presence and thrive.

The Baltimore Sun described Schiavone as a “renaissance man.” He's known around Baltimore as an entrepreneur, Drupal expert, software developer, artist, musician and community organizer. He and his wife run an art gallery, Schiavone Fine Art, below their home in a former Moose Lodge. He chairs the Highlandtown Arts District, and is a founder of Create Alliance.

Web Strategy and Designer, Liz Lipinski

As an experienced web strategist at Snake Hill: Web Agency, Liz Lipinski bridges technical ability with organizational need. Having worked with small and large organizations, she has significant experience developing creative technical solutions, sticking to project budgets, and working within existing and sometimes delicate dynamics.

Liz's experience with networks, the Internet, and software development has extended from the infancy of the web technology to the present. From those humble, technical beginnings, she has watched and learned how companies can use the Internet and technology to achieve their business goals, focusing time and effort in the best possible ways.

Additional Acknowledgements

The Project Team wishes to thank a number of organizations and individuals who have provided input and comment on the creation of this guide, including:

Lou Ann Blake, Managing Editor, Journal of Blindness Innovation and Research, National Federation of the Blind 

Lise Hamlin, Director of Public Policy, Hearing Loss Association of America

Abby Fitzsimmons, Vice President - Membership, United Spinal Association

Mary Lamielle, Executive Director, National Center for Environmental Health Strategies, Inc.

 

 

The Market Case for Accessible Events, Meetings and Conferences

While the U. S. Department of Labor estimates that individuals with disabilities control more than $200 billion in discretionary spending, this figure is likely much less than the true market power of all individuals with functional needs to be accommodated. This is due to vast under­-reporting on official surveys, census documents, and employment documentation (where it is voluntary to disclose a disability).

In fact, many Americans who would be best served by a fully accessible meeting, event, or conference environment may not identify their needs as representative of a disability. This is especially true today, when there is a ground swell of individuals with a wide range of emerging functional needs that will force businesses to meet them where they are, or will find other vendors who can. In the age of social media, where more and more people share their experiences (the good and the not so good) in real time, businesses and planners who can ride the wave of positive, customer-­centric approaches will reap economic benefits.

Scroll through the population notes below and see if you don't find yourself one degree (or less) from someone who may benefit from the promising practices presented in this online guide.

The Market Case for Accessible Meetings

 

Americans with Disabilities: 57.6 Million

According to the U.S. Census, 57.6 million Americans reported having a disability in the 2010 American Community Survey (published July 2012). This number is just a fraction of individuals who would be better served by meetings and conferences that offered accessibility accommodations.

Vision: 20.6 Million

According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS) Preliminary Report, an estimated 20.6 million adult Americans (or nearly 10% of all adult Americans) either "have trouble" seeing, even when wearing glasses or contact lenses, or are blind or unable to see at all (source: the American Foundation for the Blind).

Hearing: 30 Million

One in eight people in the United States (13%) aged 12 years or older has hearing loss in both ears, based on standard hearing examinations (National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders).

Mobility: 8 Million

According to the University of Kentucky Human Development Institute, there are approximately 8 million Americans who have some type of mobility impairment that necessitates the use of adaptive equipment such as a cane, crutches, walker, wheelchair, or scooter.

Cognitive/Developmental: 60 Million

There are 60 million Americans nationwide with learning and attention issues (National Center for Learning Disabilities). The Journal of Pediatrics reports that one in six, or about 15%, of children aged 3 through 17 years have one or more developmental disabilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network reports that 1 in every 68 children in the U.S. has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Autoimmune: 23.5 Million

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimate there are up to 23.5 million Americans with autoimmune disorders, including multiple sclerosis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and more.

Cancer: 1.6 Million

In 2014, an estimated 1,665,540 new cancer cases were diagnosed (American Cancer Society). In the U.S., 14.5 million children and adults with a history of cancer were alive on January 1, 2014.

Veterans: 2.3 Million

Approximately 20% (2,313,600 out of 11,462,900) of non-­institutionalized civilian veterans aged 21 to 64 years reported having a service­-connected disability in the United States in 2012.

Cardiovascular: 80 Million

An estimated 80 million Americans have one or more types of heart disease (The Heart Foundation).

Diabetes: 29.1 Million

The CDC reports 29.1 million people with diabetes living in the U.S.

Arthritis: 51.8 Million

The CDC reports 51.8 million non-­institutionalized adults with diagnosed arthritis (2012).

Respiratory: 19.6 Million

The CDC reports 6.8 million adults diagnosed with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) in the past year, 8.7 million with chronic bronchitis, and 4.1 million with emphysema.

Baby Boomers: 77 Million

CNN reports 77 million Americans are part of the aging “Baby Boom” generation (born between 1946 and 1964). They represent roughly 24.3% of the total population.

Temporary

Have you ever broken a limb? Recovered from surgery? Given birth? Experienced a perinatal condition such as high blood pressure or gestational diabetes? Been in a car wreck? Picture yourself here!

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Site Selection

Sites constructed after the ADA was passed should generally meet the ADA’s facility standards. Those standards were updated in 2010, and sites constructed after March 2012 will meet the new 2010 Standards for Accessible Design. Sites that comply with the older ADA standards and have not been altered are also considered “accessible.” However, if existing facilities, or parts of them (whether they comply with the older standards or were built before the passage of the ADA) are altered, then the altered areas must comply with the new standards to the maximum extent structurally feasible.

Existing facilities that are not altered must still improve accessibility. Private businesses must remove structural barriers where it is “readily achievable” to do so, meaning where it is “easily accomplishable and able to be carried out without much difficulty or expense.” Existing structural conditions, costs, and the financial resources of a particular business must be considered, so what is readily achievable will vary from one business to another. Additionally, since the obligation is ongoing, things that are not readily achievable at a certain point in time may become achievable at a future time.

You should always ask about the accessibility of facilities when considering event venues. Not all facility sales representatives will know about the accessibility features of their facilities. Hotels, however, are specifically required to keep detailed information about the accessibility of their properties. This includes public spaces like meeting rooms, restaurants, lobbies, and parking lots, as well as accessible overnight guest rooms and other guest amenities such as fitness rooms or swimming pools. Since hotels must provide this information to potential guests seeking to make reservations, they should have no trouble producing it for meeting planners.

Choose facilities that are protected by audible and visible fire alarms and a fire sprinkler system. The U.S. Fire Administration has a list of hotels and motels approved for federal travelers which can be helpful in identifying properties that have certain safety features.

Facilities that have ground floor meeting rooms with accessible paths directly to the outside are also preferable, as this may allow greater numbers of individuals to evacuate independently.

Many meeting planners hire consultants to assess potential event venues, especially for very large or complex events that may involve multiple or specialized facilities. But if you want to assess a facility yourself, the New England ADA Center offers an ADA Checklist for Existing Facilities. This user-­friendly tool is filled with helpful diagrams and illustrations and includes instructions for use. The checklist contains a basic section that will allow you to review spaces such as parking lots, entrances, and public restrooms, as well as several sections on recreational facilities such as swimming pools and golf courses.

You may wish to include an affirmative statement of compliance, or allocation of responsibilities between landlord and tenant, in any rental agreements or contracts you enter with meeting venues. This can help both parties understand their responsibilities, particularly if any temporary measures will be taken to ensure access during your event.

This section of the Guide will explore more specific elements of event planning that will help you make your event as accessible as possible.

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Local Resources To Assist Your Planning Efforts

Local experts, such as Convention and Visitors Bureaus and Chambers of Commerce, can help you find facilities, lodging, and services available in an area, though they may not know how accessible facilities are. You can search by city and state through the Chamber's online resource. Some local resources may offer additional services and incentives to support your planning efforts.

Centers for Independent Living (CILs) are widespread in the United States and many have staff with significant expertise in ensuring accessibility through an array of services. They also know the local community, so they can be a helpful resource. Note, however, that services available may vary from one CIL to another, depending on funding and program focus.

Meeting Planners: If you plan to engage the services of a professional meeting/event planner, make sure your planner has sufficient experience working with attendees with disabilities:

  • Seek a meeting planner with the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) or Certified Meeting Manager (CMM) designation. These planners have demonstrated years of experience in the industry and have training in all aspects of planning events and meetings.
  • Ask the planner for a list of meetings they have planned for people with disabilities. How recent are these meetings? What percentage of total attendees had disabilities?
  • Ask the planner how they will ensure the meeting is fully accessible to people with the following disabilities: physical, hearing, vision, environmental, and dietary sensitivities. If some of your attendees might have other disabilities (such as intellectual, cognitive, or developmental), inquire about the planner’s experience with these attendees' needs as well.
  • Make sure that meeting planners appreciate the need for healthy indoor environmental quality, the environmental barriers to access for people with chemical and electrical sensitivities, and the ways in which these barriers can be minimized or eliminated by careful selection of meeting site, attention to specific details with conference staff (such as a fragrance-­free meeting policy), and contractual language that precludes actions before or during the meeting that would deny access (such as remodeling activities or pesticide applications). Consider consulting an expert on environmental sensitivities who has experience in assessing meeting and hotel facilities. A facility that is accessible to people with environmental sensitivities is healthier for everyone.

What Does Your Event Need? Creating a Needs Assessment

Before reaching out to facilities to find the best choice for your event, you need to identify the needs of your audience. Here are some things to consider:

  • Where are most attendees located? How far will they need to travel?
  • What is an affordable price point for hotel rooms in the area if overnight accommodations are needed?
  • What amenities (nearby public transportation, restaurants, recreation facilities, side trips, night life, etc.) will attendees need?
  • What type of facility (hotel, convention center, resort, training facility, conference room, church hall, movie theater, other) would best meet the needs and objectives of your meeting?
  • Preferred dates (consider more than one so you have options)
  • Anticipated arrival and departure times
  • Weather factors (including weather along the travel routes of the majority of attendees)
  • Total number of attendees anticipated
  • Number of attendees with disabilities or functional limitations anticipated
  • Number and size of meeting rooms/exhibit space needed per day
  • Are other spaces (office space for your event team during the event, registration area, press room, etc.) needed?
  • Number of sleeping rooms needed, by single and double occupancy
  • Number of anticipated rooms needed that are mobility accessible and/or communication accessible
  • Number of food functions (meals, coffee breaks, receptions)
  • Parking requirements
  • Accessible transportation to and from the airport
  • Accessible transportation to and from any off­-site program events
  • Information technology needs (videoconferencing, streaming/webcasting, recording, Internet connectivity for attendees, technical support, screens, projectors, speakers, etc.

Request for Bid

Once you have identified your needs and narrowed the venue list to three to five choices, call or email the venue sales offices with your specific requirements and request a proposal. It is important in the initial contact to identify the needs you’ve outlined, as the venue’s responsiveness to your needs in their proposal can be telling.

Evaluating Bids / Responses

Create a “scoring system” to help you and your team rank each venue. You can use your Needs Assessment to determine your criteria and decide which items deserve more weight than others. For example, you might decide to rank location over price, or availability of an accessible fitness center over the number of restaurants in the vicinity. Choose a scale that is easy to use and calculate. As in the example below, each team member can be asked to rank each criterion from one to five, with five being best and one being the worst. Compare your team’s rankings to determine the two or three sites you will visit in the selection process.

Sample Grid For Recording Scores - Use to help evaluate more than one response to your request for bid from conference sites, hotel, or event venues. Use your needs assessment to detail out each criteria.

 

Site Inspection

Once you have scored the top two to three venues, you should visit each to continue the evaluation process. When possible, plan at least two visits to each venue. The first visit should be unannounced to the facility's sales team.

Visit the common areas, have coffee or a meal at a lobby restaurant, walk any of the grounds that are open to the public, assess the parking lot, review access to sidewalks, safety features like call boxes or shuttle service from distant lots, proximity to public transportation, and other “first impression” criteria. You can use your notes from this visit during your scheduled appointment with the venue’s sales team the next time you are on site. If there are concerns that their team cannot fix for your meeting, you will have good information in hand as you make your final choice of location.

Pay attention to your senses during the site visit. Healthy indoor air does not have an odor. Clean does not have an odor. Are you aware of fragrances and scents from “air fresheners,” deodorizers, or potpourri? Is your nose or throat burning from chlorine, formaldehyde, or other solvents? Are your sinuses and breathing impacted by mustiness? Even pervasive or lingering cooking odors can be a sign of poor or inadequate ventilation. Note that attendees may have allergies, asthma, sinus problems, frequent headaches and migraines, or chemical sensitivities, and may not be able to successfully participate in your meeting, event, or conference if air quality is poor.

Emergency Planning

Emergency planning must be done well in advance for all events, and it is important to know that facilities and their staff members are prepared.

During your inspection, be sure to ask about the facility’s emergency procedures and polices related to individuals with disabilities:

  • Does the site have policies in place that detail procedures for providing evacuation assistance to people who would have difficulty or who would be unable to:
    • Use stairwells,
    • Hear alarms,
    • See exits,
    • Understand instructions?
  • (If a multi-story facility) Does the facility have evacuation elevators (elevators with stand-by power and other safety features, which can be used in emergencies)?
    • If the facility does not have evacuation elevators, does it have areas of refuge (fire-rated spaces where people who cannot use stairs can go to register a call for help and wait for responders), or
    • Are there evacuation chairs or evacuation devices available to assist individuals who cannot use stairs?
      • If so, are staff trained on how to use them?
  • How will staff orient people who are blind or don’t see well to the locations of emergency exits?
  • (If a hotel or other overnight facility) Does the guest registration process include asking guests whether they would need assistance in the event of an evacuation?

The Inspection Team

Sites should be inspected by you as the meeting planner and by people with disabilities who have a user’s perspective. Ideally, your site selection team will include someone with a user’s perspective who also has knowledge of “cross-disability” access concerns. Don’t assume that someone with a disability understands the access needs of people with other types of disabilities. Make sure your entire site review team is qualified and has the knowledge and experience to evaluate venues for the widest range of needs. An excellent guideline for including individuals with disabilities within your planning team is provided in Effectively Including People with Disabilities in Your Policy and Advisory Groups.

If you or your team do not have adequate representation, you may want to reach out to the local Center for Independent Living (or other disability subject matter experts, such as the Commission for the Deaf, Blind, etc.) to request a site reviewer to join you on your visit. In determining who will accompany your team, you should determine what gaps your group may have and fill them with expertise in state and federal access codes, Title III of the ADA, and elements of communication access.

Use a site evaluation tool that includes all of the items from your needs assessment. You may wish to use the same checklist that you developed for evaluating the bids received. Be sure to include space for each reviewer to make notes about specific concerns they may have, and plan a group meeting after the inspections to review the team's findings.

If multiple areas of the property will be used or there are any off­-site events planned, the inspection team should visit all sites, including any transportation facilities, to ensure they are accessible. Sites should be reviewed for structural access features, including communication features such as signage and emergency alarm signals.

Recommendations for Contracts

Once a venue has been selected for your function, make sure the arrangements and terms are spelled out in a contract. Most venues will provide a standard contract that includes your function’s specific details. Review all contracts carefully to make certain that the terms listed reflect your understanding of the agreement. You do not have to accept the contract as written. If needed, you can counter with an alternate agreement and/or contract amendments. For large and/or complex events you should seek legal advice.

In addition to the arrangements and terms specific to your function (the dates, type of space used, number of expected attendees, number of sleeping rooms etc.) the venue’s standard contract will typically include language about its ADA compliance and responsibilities.

Examine the ADA clauses carefully. Depending on the size and nature of your event you may choose to ask for modifications to the existing contract clauses or request additional clauses. Following are the contract areas most likely to affect attendees with disabilities. Again, these items are provided for information only and should not be viewed as a substitute for legal advice.

Americans with Disabilities Compliance Clause for the Venue

The contract should include a clause that indicates that the venue is responsible for complying with the public accommodations requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Your legal advisor may recommend including language that specifies items such as removal of physical barriers, emergency procedures, access in sleeping rooms and common areas, the provision of auxiliary aids and services, or language about attendees with disabilities receiving service equal to attendees without disabilities.

Americans with Disabilities Compliance Clause for the Group

The “Group” refers to the individual, organization or company contracting with the venue for the meeting, conference or event. The venue may require a clause that specifies the Group’s responsibilities for making the function accessible. This could include language about set­up of exhibits in an accessible manner, provision of certain auxiliary aids and services (e.g., alternate format materials or sign language interpreters) for the Group’s functions, and modification of the Group’s policies, practices and procedures to ensure that attendees with disabilities can participate fully and equally in the program.

Mutual Cooperation in Identifying Accommodations Needed

The Mutual Cooperation clause mandates that the Group shall attempt to identify in advance any needs of attendees with disabilities, and will notify the venue of such needs in a timely manner. Likewise the venue shall notify the Group of any attendee the venue receives for accommodations that may be required by the ADA.

Additional Clauses for Specific Disabilities

Consider including additional clauses that are specific to your attendees needs. For example, if the majority of your attendees are Deaf or hard of hearing you may wish to contract certain requirements, such as the availability of additional communication access equipment (e.g., assistive listening devices).

Likewise, if even a small portion of your attendees have Multiple Chemical Sensitivities (MCS) or environmental illness, consider clauses requiring the hotel to avoid renovations prior to and during your event, use unscented cleaners, and avoid the use of pesticides. The hotel should be asked to comply with the fragrance­-free meeting policy for the meeting space, common areas, restrooms, paths of travel, and guest rooms.

National and statewide associations specific to various types of disabilities may be able to recommend clauses to include.

Disability Awareness Training for Staff

When your meeting, conference or event will include many attendees with disabilities, it is recommended that you negotiate with the venue and contractually require that they conduct disability awareness training for their staff in advance of your function. The Hospitality and Disability Initiative has customer service training materials that can be downloaded and used for training staff.

Pre-Event Attendee Registration and Communications

Knowing your audience is critical to ensuring that meeting room layouts, menus, and other elements of the event will allow every participant to engage fully. Make sure your registration materials and forms ask specifically about your audience's needs and accommodations. See the sample below:

To successfully participate in this event, which of the following will you need?

[  ] None -  I do not need any modifications to participate

  • Materials Provided In: 

[  ] Standard Print

[  ] Large Print

[  ] Braille

[  ] Audio on CD

[  ] Text-Only

[  ] Electronic Files (formats may include PDF, Word, Text, and Excel)

  • Communication Formats / Aids:

[  ] American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreting

[  ] Other Type of Interpreting (please specify; e.g., Contact Signing, Tactile Interpreting): _______________

[  ] CART (Communication Access Realtime Translation)

[  ] Transcripts

[  ] Assistive Listening Device

  • I use the following assistive mobility device: ______________
  • I will be accompanied by a service animal:  _____ YES _____ NO
  • I will be accompanied by a personal assistant:  _____ YES ______ NO
  • I have the following dietary restrictions:

[  ] None 

[  ] Vegetarian

[  ] Vegan

[  ] Organic

[  ] Kosher

[  ] Gluten-free

[  ] Dairy/Casein-free

[  ] Sugar-Free

[  ] Other: ________________________________________________________

[  ] Food Allergies/Intolerances (please list): ________________________________________

  • Other accommodations that will help ensure my full participation: _________________________________________________
  • If meeting planners have questions, the best way to reach me in advance of this event:  _______________________________

As attendees to our conference may experience multiple chemical sensitivities, please refrain from wearing all perfumes and use fragrance-free, unscented personal care products for the duration of our event.

***************************

Pre-­event communications, including promotional and registration materials, should disclose any plans to use flash photography, strobe lights, loud/amplified noise or music, or fireworks. Theatrical fog, chemical air fresheners, and other smells added to spaces can make them inaccessible to those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) or other intolerances.

Keep in mind that every component of your event should be accessible to ALL participants. Make sure pre-­ or post-event optional tours, social activities, or recreational opportunities are inclusive as well. If an optional activity is not fully accessible, disclose those details in advance so individuals with disabilities have the information needed to determine their interest and ability to participate.

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Meeting Room Layouts and Considerations

The layout of your meeting, event, or conference will dramatically impact the way attendees engage with your program and with one another. Creating the most accessible event possible allows all participants to fully participate. Those who use mobility aids, such as wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, crutches, and braces, require more space to move around. Other accommodations are needed for those with hearing or vision disabilities. This guide provides recommended layouts in a variety of styles that you may print and share with facility staff. Additional considerations, such as audio/visual tools and using a speaker’s platform, are also included.

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Best Practice Recommendations for Layout Planning

Keep these recommendations in mind as you plan the layout of seating, tables, and other elements:

  • Accessible restrooms should be on the same floor as meeting rooms. If accessible restrooms are not on the same floor, increase break times between sessions.
  • If 10% or more of participants are expected to use mobility aids, plan for 30% additional space.
  • Circulation space (including aisles) should be at least 36 inches and preferably 60 inches wide so that passing room is available for people using mobility devices. A six foot width (72 inches) is recommended whenever feasible.
  • When possible, include both “horizontal” (side to side) and “vertical” (front to back) aisles to improve access and flow.
  • Offer accessible seating locations throughout the room so individuals with disabilities have choices similar to the choices available to others. Have event staff or volunteers in attendance at the start of each session to assist with last-minute changes (moving chairs, etc.) that may be needed.
  • Individuals who use scooters may remain in their scooter seats or may transfer to standard chairs and keep their scooters nearby or behind their chairs. Again, event staff may be needed to assist with adjusting furniture.
  • When a personal assistant accompanies an individual, plan seating to include the assistant.
  • If possible, leave room at the rear of the meeting space for attendees to stand or stretch.
  • Doors should be propped open at the start and end of each session, and event staff should be on hand to open doors during sessions if needed.
  • When round tables are used for a presentation, consider the use of half-round seating so that all participants may face the direction of the speakers/presentations.
  • Place low-tack tape on carpeted floors to mark pathways that should remain unblocked. Include information in printed event materials (programs, handouts, etc.) and introductory remarks to remind participants to keep those areas clear of bags, chairs, or other items that can cause barriers.
  • Some attendees may need a space with no fluorescent or compact fluorescent lights. Be prepared to turn off a bank of fluorescent lights and have on hand floor lamps or table lamps with incandescent light bulbs.
  • Designate one wall or zone outside meeting rooms for all attendees to recharge their batteries and devices. This helps protect attendees with electrical sensitivities.
  • Designate an area in the facility to serve as a fluorescent-free and cell phone-free space.

Printable Room Layouts

Each layout below is available as a printable PDF. You can include layouts as an addendum to your facility contract, provide them in a pre-­meeting with facility and banquet staff, and use them with your internal planning team to ensure that your rooms are set up correctly. Measurements shown are adequate for ensuring accessibility, but more space is highly recommended for aisles, paths between chairs and tables, around the perimeter of the room, and around any refreshment or display tables.

Note: these layouts are for meetings where roughly 10% of attendees use mobility devices (wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, etc.) or have a service animal. If your meeting will have more than 10% of attendees using mobility devices or service animals, increase the number of accessible seating locations and aisle widths proportionally.

Accessible Theater Style

This set-­up is appropriate for large sessions and short lectures that do not require desks or tables for extensive note-taking or frequent reference to handouts. Make sure all side and center aisles are at least three to six feet wide to allow adequate space for circulation. Aisle chairs can be removed in rows dispersed throughout the room to allow seating choices for people who use mobility devices or service animals. At a minimum, remove aisle chairs from the front, back and middle rows to create accessible seating locations. Increase the amount of accessible seating based on the known or anticipated number of people using mobility devices at your event. Remove two chairs for each wheelchair space. Make sure chairs are un­-ganged (not hooked together) to allow attendees to move them as needed. Click on the image below for a full­-page, printable handout.  

Accessible Theater Layout

Detail View – Accessible Theater Set-Up

Remove chairs to create spaces within rows for people using mobility devices (wheelchairs, scooters, crutches, braces, or other assistive mobility devices). It is not appropriate to force them to sit in aisles. Click on the image below for a full­-page, printable handout. 

Accessible Theater Detail

Accessible Classroom Style

This set-­up is very helpful when participants need a surface to take notes and refer to materials. Use the accessible chevron style (next section below) whenever possible, but if space does not allow the chevron, classroom style is an option. Include more than one accessible seating location so attendees have choices. Click on the image below for a full-­page, printable handout. 

Accessible Classroom Chevron Style

Accessible Classroom - Chevron Style

This style of classroom set­-up affords the greatest flexibility and space for access. Chevron style allows better line of sight for speakers and attendees and easier entry for those using mobility devices. In either type of classroom plan, remove two chairs for each wheelchair or scooter space. Offer multiple access points and choices of where to sit. It is never appropriate to require that people using mobility devices sit only in the back or in one designated area. Click on the image below for a full­-page, printable handout.

Accessible Classroom Chevron Style

Accessible Round Table Style

Aisles between round tables require at least three feet of space between the tables (measured from the back of one chair to the back of the chair directly behind it). Side aisles require at least six feet between the table and the side wall or other obstructions. If people using wheelchairs or other mobility aids will be seated at round tables, decrease the number of table settings by one or two to provide adequate space; for a five-­foot round table set 8 places maximum, and for a six-­foot round table set 10 places maximum.

Note: when possible, use a half­-round set-up so that all seats are facing the presentation area, instead of placing seats around the entire table. In that case, a five-­foot table could accommodate four place settings, and a six-­foot table could accommodate five. Remember that people who use scooters or wheelchairs may prefer to transfer to the chairs at the table and park their assistive devices behind their chairs. Ensure that staff is available to assist as needed. Click on the image below for a full­-page, printable handout.

Accessible Meeting Roundtable Layout

Detail View – Accessible Round Set-Up

Measure from the back of one chair to the back of the chair directly behind it. Chairs must be set with the front edge of the chair at the edge of the table. In other words, the chairs should not be pushed under the tables. Click on the image below for a full-page, printable handout.  

Accessible Meeting Roundtable Setup Detail

The Presentation Area / Speaker’s Platform Design and Considerations

Two layouts are provided here, and either could be adapted for additional presentation elements.

Both layouts incorporate presentation screens that are easily viewed from all areas of the room. Captioning should run on at least one if not all screens showing slides, videos, or live feed of the presenters. Space for a qualified interpreter for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing should be included in all plans, and seating nearest interpreters should be reserved for individuals using those services.

Find out what accommodations your presenters will need for their presentations. Presenters with disabilities may have very specific preferences for microphone type, podium or lectern use, and panel table set­-up. The objective is to provide all of your presenters with environments and tools that are comfortable for them.

When possible, offer presenters a choice of microphone type (headset, lavaliere/lapel, table-set, or hand-held) so that presenters can use the type that best meets their needs and preferences.

When working with multiple presenters, take steps to ensure each presenter receives equal status in the presentation environment. For example, if a panel includes four presenters, one of whom uses a wheelchair, be sure to set a space equivalent to two chairs at the panel table for the wheelchair user. If some of the presenters will be using a standing podium, offer a similar option, such as a microphone on a boom stand or a lowered podium, for the presenter who uses a wheelchair.

In no case should a presenter who uses a wheelchair or scooter be asked to present from the floor while others present from a stage. Neither should a presenter using a mobility device be seated at the end of a skirted table instead of with the other presenters. Rather, create an environment where each panelist or presenter is viewed on equal ground with the others. Podiums should be avoided, unless a presenter requests one specifically to accommodate his or her needs.

If slide shows will be used, plan in advance for how they will be managed. You may need to have facilitators who advance slides instead of speakers, or have speakers use remote controls so that they can advance slides from anywhere in the room. This technology is more and more commonly available, though the remote controls vary from vendor to vendor, and some are easier to operate than others. A practice session for each presenter in advance is ideal.

Accessible Presentation / Speaker’s Platform - Traditional

This design shows a stage area with multiple panelists / presenters. Click on the image below for a full-page, printable handout.  

Accessible Presentation / Speaker’s Platform - Talk Show Style

This style is often used for a more conversational presentation, typically with a moderator and one or more guests. Side tables should be provided (for water, notes, or other materials) for each guest. Individuals who use wheelchairs or scooters may need a higher side table than other guests. Click on the image below for a full-page, printable handout.  

Audio Visual Components

Make sure your registration process includes questions about specific accommodations registrants may need (please see a list of recommendations for your registration documents in the Pre-Event Attendee Registration and Communication section). Some requests trigger specific responses under the ADA. This guide includes a full discussion of the types of accommodations that may be needed by individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing, and for those with vision disabilities.

Find out in advance if your facility has any assistive listening systems or devices available, how the meeting room is wired and equipped for sound amplification, and if there are additional costs for accessibility equipment and associated services. Ask if the facility has experience offering Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services, or if they have a local contact who can provide this service if needed.

Many individuals who attend your event will neither disclose their need for accommodation nor offer any visible clues to their needs. This is often the case with individuals who are experiencing gradual loss of hearing or vision due to age. For this reason, keep universal access in mind when planning the AV components of your meeting.

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Managing Question and Answer / Audience Participation

There are a variety of strategies and tools, from low-tech to high-tech, for managing audience participation in a large gathering:

  • When wireless microphones and staff are available:
    • Ensure at least two to three staff with wireless microphones are circulating in the crowd during question and answer periods.
    • Instruct speaker and panelists not to answer questions from individuals who are not using a microphone.
    • Be aware that attendees with electrical sensitivities may not tolerate wireless microphones. In this case, ask an event staff member to convey the question via microphone for the attendee.
  • When microphones are not available:
    • Place blank cards and pens on each table and tell attendees in advance to use these to write down their questions. Cards can then be collected and speakers can read them into the microphone before answering. Plan for staff to assist participants who are not able to write on cards.
      • Less optimal: have questions called out to speakers, who then repeat the questions into the microphone before answering.

Presentation Materials / Slides and Video

Provide guidance for presenters well in advance of your event (also see the section entitled Tips for Presenters).

Slides: These guidelines for PowerPoint or other projected presentation materials are from the Training and Advocacy Support Center (TASC), a division of the National Disability Rights Network:

  • Use a sans serif font (e.g., Arial)
  • Use a large font size -- at least 22 point
  • Use a dark text font and a light-colored background
  • Text on a slide should have nothing behind it (no watermarks or images)
  • Provide “alternative text” descriptions for all images, pictures, graphics, tables, etc.

Videos: Videos should be captioned.

YouTube: YouTube Help provides a list of professional captioning vendors, as well as instructions to add subtitles and closed captions to your own video, either manually or automatically. Be sure to review and edit automatically generated captions. A number of common issues, such as poor sound quality, can cause inaccurate captions.

If there is no way to have a video captioned, it is best not to use it. If a video without captions must be used, a sign language interpreter or speech-to-text service provider may be able to convey the audible content. In such cases, give the service provider ample time to watch the video prior to the meeting.

Handouts and printed materials: Printed materials may need to be converted to accessible formats for people who are blind or have low vision. Since it can take up to 30 days to create these accessible formats, make sure you require presenters to send you their materials far enough in advance to make this possible.

Food and Beverage Service

The Food Service: Accommodating Diners with Disabilities factsheet provides both legal standards and promising practices for paths of travel, approach to dining spaces, seating, dining table and service counter heights, and other tips for making meal and break areas as accessible as possible.

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Recommendations for Buffet Meals

Buffet meals can work for all audiences, though additional time may be required (versus seated/served meals). Use the following guidelines when setting up buffet lines and stations:

  • Buffet service tables should be no higher than 36 inches.
  • Set plates, cups, and other service items, as well as food and beverage items, at table height, within reach of people using mobility devices and those of short stature. Avoid food set-ups with multiple tiers.
  • Set buffet tables in straight lines (avoiding patterns will reduce wait times).
  • Keep chafing dishes for hot food (also known as “chafers”) as low as possible. Avoid gel fuel heaters, since they are a frequent source of reaction for those with chemical sensitivities.
  • Avoid soup as a buffet menu option (it can be difficult for some people to serve or carry); serve soup at tables.
  • Provide additional servers to assist attendees. Buffet style service is difficult for many people with various types of disabilities. Servers may offer assistance describing items, reaching for food, and carrying plates and drinks to tables.
  • Attendees may have personal assistants with them to help get food and/or eat. Assistants who are eating may need to go through the buffet line twice.
  • Consider setting extra buffet lines if many attendees have disabilities, as they may need a little more time to go through the line.
  • The National Federation of the Blind recommends buffet service as long as there are enough staff. Servers should be stationed at each item along the buffet to describe the food and place items on the plate. The plate is handed down the line of servers as the participant moves down the line.

Recommendations for Planners

  • Ask about dietary needs and/or food allergies and intolerances of participants and personal assistants on the registration form. Don’t forget speakers, presenters, volunteers, or other staff if they will be eating as well.
  • Give careful thought to your menu. When possible include people with disabilities in menu planning.
  • Avoid items that are difficult to cut or handle (such as lobster in shells).
  • Avoid high-risk allergens, such as peanuts and shellfish. Other common foods or ingredients that can cause allergic reactions or other problems for some people include eggs, cow’s milk, wheat and gluten, fish, tree nuts, and soy.

Additional Tips and Recommendations for Meals

  • Provide drinking straws for beverages (the flexible kind work best).
  • Offer cups with and without handles. Use disposable cups with lids for both cold and hot beverages.
  • Additional servers may be needed, depending on the numbers of attendees who have disabilities.
  • Make sure that all event and facility staff understand that service dogs are allowed in places of public accommodation, including hotels, convention centers, restaurants, and other venues that serve food. Service dogs are specifically trained to assist people with all types of disabilities.
  • Do not use candles or fresh flowers at the meeting, at buffet meals, or in dining areas.

Food Allergies and Sensitivities

According to FARE (Food Allergy and Research Education) “Fifteen million Americans have food allergies – and they are eager to find restaurants [and other venues] that can accommodate their needs.”

The number and variety of special diet requests has grown significantly in recent years. These needs include attendees with food allergies and intolerances, as well as those on special diets for medical, health, religious, or other reasons.

Dietary needs can include avoiding common allergens (milk, soy, egg, wheat, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, and shellfish) as well as vegan, vegetarian, organic, kosher/kosher style, and any number of “free” diets (free of gluten, sugar, fat, etc.).

Collect information about your attendee’s dietary needs during the registration process. It’s the responsibility of attendees to notify you of their needs in advance so you can make appropriate plans. Here is a sample of what this section might look like in your registration materials. Include a “none” option. Include a specific question about food allergies and a space for attendees to list other needs.

  • I have the following dietary restrictions:

[  ] None 

[  ] Vegetarian

[  ] Vegan

[  ] Organic

[  ] Kosher

[  ] Gluten-free

[  ] Dairy/Casein-free

[  ] Sugar-Free

[  ] Other: ________________________________________________________

[  ] Food Allergies/Intolerances (please list): ________________________________________

Share this information with the catering staff for your function and develop a plan to provide attendees with food items that meet their needs. Chefs are increasingly experienced and comfortable in accommodating guests with special diet requests. Consider providing attendees with tickets or index cards that specify their particular diet for each meal, so service staff can easily identify and serve them appropriately.

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Must Gluten-free Be Free? What You Should Know About Celiac Disease and the ADA

Original Publication: National Law Review, March 9, 2015; Reposted with Permission of the Author 

By Amanda B. Stubblefield

Restaurants nationwide are beginning to offer gluten-free alternatives to regular menu items. This is welcome news to those long suffering from celiac disease, a chronic and serious immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness cites a statistic that one out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease. While that number seems small, that means that a busy restaurant will likely encounter at least one customer with celiac disease every few days at the least, and quite often daily. Many restaurants that do provide gluten-free options, however, charge an added fee for the dish. This raises a few important topics of note for those with celiac disease – whether celiac disease is a “disability” that requires accommodation under the American with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), whether a restaurant must provide a gluten-free dish as an accommodation, and finally, whether it may charge an added fee for the accommodation.

Title III of the ADA prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in the activities of places of public accommodations. Restaurants open to the public fall squarely within this rule, for instance. A disability under the ADA is any mental or physical impairment that substantially limits a major life activity. As to whether celiac disease is considered a disability for ADA purposes, the Justice Department of Justice (“DOJ”), the department in charge of enforcing Title III of the ADA, has already answered in the affirmative. In 2012, the DOJ entered into a settlement with Lesley University, a college in Cambridge, MA that requires the college’s meal plan to provide gluten-free and allergen-free food options.

As to the question of whether all public accommodations must serve gluten-free food, the DOJ has an answer as well: No. The meal plan at issue in the Lesley University situation was a mandatory meal plan for all students living on campus. Students were required to eat the food, so the ADA required a reasonable modification to the plan to accommodate students with celiac disease. While colleges with meal plans should take note of this circumstance, restaurants that serve the public aren’t under the same obligations. Populations that have ready access to other sources of food aren’t likely to fall under the same requirement as the college at issue here.

Finally, the question now becomes whether restaurants that do serve gluten-free alternatives and charge an extra fee for them are in violation of the ADA for charging those with celiac disease a premium. This is the subject of a current California class-action lawsuit against P.F. Chang’s, which offers gluten-free food for a $1 surcharge. The argument behind the lawsuit is that the added surcharge has a discriminatory effect against those with the disease. Some commentators have likened this to installing a wheelchair ramp and charging for the privilege of using it. The restaurant chain has defended the practice, stating that the higher costs of specialty ingredients and separate preparation areas necessitate the added surcharge.

Accommodations for Deaf Individuals or Those Experiencing Hearing Loss

Auditory and spoken information needs to be accessible to people whose disabilities affect communication, including people who are Deaf or hard of hearing and those with speech disabilities. One in eight people in the United States (approximately 30 million) age 12 or older has hearing loss in both ears, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Millions more have difficulty with voice, speech, and language.

Individuals with hearing disabilities cover a broad spectrum, from mildly hard of hearing to profoundly Deaf. People who are hard of hearing often rely on their hearing to access auditory information, and request technologies such as assistive listening systems and devices to focus and amplify targeted sounds and overcome background noise. They may also use Communications Access Realtime Translation (CART) or captioning. Individuals who are Deaf tend to rely on their vision to access auditory information, and may use captions, CART, and sign language interpretation.

Individuals who are deaf-blind use their sense of touch to access information. They may request such accommodations as tactile sign language interpreters, Braille materials, and tactile signage.

People who have both low vision and hearing loss may request close vision interpreters (interpreters positioned very closely to the person using the service), large print materials, and/or assistive listening devices.

People with voice, speech, and language difficulties may use a variety of accommodations to express their thoughts, such as typing on a computer or text device, using a speech device, and/or using an interpreter to voice for them.

This section will provide information and tips to ensure that individuals with disabilities that affect communication are given full access to meetings and meeting facilities. Information about telephones, video presentations, and remote meetings is included.

Communicating With Individuals Who Are Deaf or Hard of Hearing

Event and facility staff should receive guidance and training on how to interact with your attendees (see customer service training materials). The following information will help improve communication between host staff and individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing:

  • Speak directly to the individual: If you are speaking through an interpreter, address the individual, not the interpreter. Don’t use phrases such as “you can tell him my name is John” or “it’s nice to meet her.” Instead speak like you would to anyone else: “My name is John,” or “it’s nice to meet you.” The interpreter will convey what you say and interpret what the individual says to you as well.
  • Maintain eye contact with the individual: When having a one-on-one or small group conversation, eye contact is a big part of sign language. Where a person is looking indicates to whom he is speaking, or might indicate a noise or disruption in the environment. When working with an interpreter, many people are tempted to watch the interpreter instead of maintaining eye contact with the Deaf individual. Not only can this be distracting for the Deaf person, it also implies a greater interest in the interpreter than in the Deaf person (who is the person actually engaged in the conversation).
  • Understand that interpreters are bound by confidentiality and neutrality: The ADA regulations require interpreters to be impartial and to maintain the privacy of their assignments. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID)’s Code of Professional Conduct also requires interpreters to adhere to ethical standards. Interpreters are expected to refrain from providing advice or personal opinions and to guard confidential information.
  • Understand how meaning is conveyed: Sign languages are visual-spatial languages that use a variety of elements, such as eye gaze, movement, space, and facial expression, to convey meaning. Many people mistakenly believe that facial expressions of interpreters or Deaf individuals are exaggerated for visual interest or dramatic flair. However, facial expression in sign language is similar to voice inflection in spoken language. It is used to convey concepts such as size, distance, time, and intensity, as well as grammatical constructs such as questions and conditional clauses. Understanding the aspects of signed communication will help individuals communicate more respectfully and with greater cultural competence.
  • Ask for clarification: When communicating with an individual who is Deaf or hard of hearing, whether through an interpreter or other means, ask for clarification if you do not understand something. Most people can tell when someone is pretending to understand, and will find this pretense disrespectful. Ask the person to repeat herself or ask a clarifying question.
  • Use writing only for brief encounters: Exchanging written notes can be used for brief encounters when an interpreter is not available, but should not be relied on for any kind of in-depth conversation. For example, it may be appropriate at a registration desk to ask an individual to write down his name so the staff can get his name badge and materials, but an interpreter should be used if the individual has questions or needs to discuss something.
  • Train staff: Make sure all staff receive training about communicating with individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing and working with interpreters.

Hearing Loss Later in Life

As people age, the likelihood they will experience hearing loss increases. Elders who are beginning to lose their hearing may need accommodations for the first time in their lives. Many people are embarrassed and don’t want to ask for help, or may be unaware that help is available. Most people who lose their hearing later in life do not learn sign language. For these individuals, the most useful access tools may be assistive listening systems and devices, speech-to-text technologies or services (such as CART), and captioning for videos. Captioning videos is an effective practice even when it has not been specifically requested.

Additionally, it is best to have everyone speaking in a meeting use a microphone whenever possible. This helps everyone hear what is being said.

Using Qualified Interpreters

Many people with hearing and speech disabilities use sign language as their primary means of communication and use interpreters to communicate with people who don’t sign. Interpreters are professionals who must be qualified. The ADA regulations define a qualified interpreter as one who is “able to interpret effectively, accurately, and impartially, both receptively and expressively, using any necessary specialized vocabulary." In some states, interpreters are also required to hold specific qualifications or certifications, either developed by the state or through the national Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).

Many professional interpreters are hired through interpreting agencies, but others work independently, or freelance.

In most cases it is not appropriate to use an individual’s family or friends to interpret at a meeting. Unless an individual specifically requests that a friend or family member interpret, and state law allows it, the ADA regulations say that an individual’s companion may only be relied on to interpret in two situations: 1) in an emergency involving an imminent threat to the safety or welfare of an individual or the public where a qualified interpreter is not available, and 2) in a situation not involving a threat where the individual requests that an accompanying adult interpret, and that adult agrees.

When hiring interpreters, ask them to refrain from wearing or using fragrances and scented personal care products, including perfumes and colognes, scented soaps and lotions, body sprays, after­-shave, scented hair care products, scented deodorant, scented laundry detergents, fabric softeners, etc.

Types of Interpreting

There are several types of interpreting, and it is important to ask individuals which type they need. You may need to provide multiple types of interpreters for multiple individuals. Types of interpreting include:

  • American Sign Language (ASL): A visual language that uses the shape, placement, and movement of the hands, as well as facial expressions and body movements to convey information. Like any spoken language, ASL has its own unique rules of grammar and syntax, distinct from English and from sign languages in other countries. Like all languages, ASL is a living language that grows and changes over time
  • Pidgin Signed English (PSE): A combination of certain elements of both ASL and English. This may include ASL signs used in mostly English word order, fingerspelling (using ASL signs that represent individual letters of the alphabet in order to spell out specific words), and other similar combinations.
  • Signing Exact English (SEE):  According to The S.E.E. Center, “SEE is a sign system that represents literal English.” While ASL has a syntax and structure distinct from English, SEE uses some ASL signs and adds visual information to convey exact English meaning. For example, ASL uses facial expressions and time signs to convey tense, whereas SEE adds specific movements to show verb tense forms such as “-ed” and “-ing”, “was” and “is.”
  • Oral interpreting or oral transliteration: Typically used by Deaf or hard of hearing individuals who do not sign or who rely primarily on speech and speech-reading (also called lip reading) for communication. An oral interpreter presents on the lips and face what is being said, and does so in a way that is easily understood by a person using speech-reading. An oral interpreter may also voice what a Deaf individual mouths. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID) explains, “Group meetings may pose difficulty for speech-readers. It is often challenging to locate the next speaker in a conversation or discussion, thereby resulting in missed information. In settings such as the classroom, seminars, or conferences, speech-readers may be unable to see the speaker’s face clearly or may not be physically close enough to successfully speech-read. Speakers may also be located out of the sight lines of speech-readers. Speakers … may be difficult to speech-read due to unclear speech, accents, or facial hair that obscures mouth movements. Each of these scenarios necessitates oral transliterators whose responsibility is to silently replicate what speakers say, in an easy, speech-readable, clear and consistently visible manner."
  • Voicing: when an interpreter speaks to a hearing person what a Deaf individual is signing.
  • Interpreting for individuals who are deaf-blind: Individuals who are deaf-blind use a variety of communication modes ranging from interpreting at close visual range and/or in a limited sign space, to signs or fingerspelling received through the sense of touch (tactile interpreting). 
  • Use of a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI): In some cases, it may be necessary to use a Certified Deaf Interpreter (CDI) as the only interpreter or in conjunction with a hearing interpreter in order to convey the message accurately. “A Certified Deaf Interpreter may be needed when the communication mode of a deaf consumer is so unique that it cannot be adequately accessed by interpreters who are hearing. Some such situations may involve individuals who use idiosyncratic non-standard signs or gestures such as those commonly referred to as 'home signs' which are unique to a family, use a foreign sign language, have minimal or limited communication skills, are deaf-blind or deaf with limited vision, or use signs particular to a given region, ethnic or age group.”
  • Video Remote Interpreting (VRI): In rare instances, it may be appropriate for a small meeting to hire an interpreter through Video Remote Interpreting (VRI). With VRI, the interpreter is at an off-site location and is conferenced in using high speed Internet and videoconferencing technology. Most people prefer to have in-person interpreters since it is easier to see facial expressions, and technology cannot always be relied on for smooth transmission of images. Also, local interpreters will be familiar with local signs (e.g. cities, organizations, etc.) and vernacular. VRI can be more costly, but may serve as a viable alternative when a local interpreter is not available. VRI will not meet the needs of individuals who use tactile interpreting.

Considerations When Hiring an Interpreter

Consider the following factors when hiring interpreters for a meeting:

  • Length and type of meeting: If the meeting will last two hours or more, you will need to have at least two interpreters so they can take breaks to avoid fatigue.
    • Even if the meeting is less than two hours, two or more interpreters may be needed if the content is highly technical or complex, or if there will be small group discussions and individuals using interpreters will be participating in different groups.  
    • Interpreting on a stage to a large group of people requires larger, more expressive signing. Request interpreters with platform-interpreting experience for this type of meeting.
  • Cost: The hourly rate for an interpreter can vary tremendously depending on location, the interpreter’s certification and skill levels, and the type of meeting being interpreted.
    • The range could be anywhere between $25 and over $100 per hour for each interpreter. Costs may be higher if interpreters are hired through an agency.
    • It is standard practice for interpreters to charge a two-hour minimum for a shorter assignment and to charge last-minute cancelation fees ranging from two hours to the full contracted amount, depending on when the cancelation is made.
  • Positioning/placement: The placement of an interpreter at a meeting is extremely important.
    • Typically, interpreters should be placed at the front of the room near the speaker in a well-lit area. If the speaker is on a platform, the interpreter should generally be on the platform as well. There must be light on the interpreter at all times, even if lights are dimmed for a performance or video. Sign language is very precise and relies heavily on facial expression for meaning, so adequate lighting is necessary.
    • In an extremely large event where cameras are used to put the speaker on a large screen, the interpreter should be on screen as well to ensure that everyone using the interpreter is able to see adequately.
    • If the audience is divided into small groups for discussion, interpreters should be placed within each group that includes a Deaf person. If an interpreter is working with a deaf-blind individual or someone with low vision, the interpreter may sit directly in front of that individual to perform close-range interpreting or tactile interpreting.
    • If the interpreter will be voicing for a Deaf presenter, the interpreter will typically sit in the first or second row of the audience, where they can clearly see the signer for whom they are voicing. In this case, the interpreter should use a microphone, and adequate lighting on the Deaf presenter should be provided.
    • Ask Deaf attendees where they would like interpreters placed to best meet their needs.
  • Question and answer: If audience members will be allowed to ask questions to the full group, at least one interpreter should be placed where they can see the audience members so the interpreter can voice any signed questions. If there are multiple Deaf individuals in the audience, it will be important to either have audience members come to the front to ask their questions so that the other Deaf individuals can see their signing, or to have an interpreter “copy-sign” in the front of the room. This should not be the same interpreter who is voicing the question for the hearing people in the room.
  • Pre-meeting preparation: Interpreters need to prepare for an assignment by familiarizing themselves with the topic, the meeting style, and any specialized vocabulary that may be used in the meeting. Provide interpreters with the following:
    • Presentation materials or handouts;
    • A list of commonly used acronyms or other vernacular and their meanings; and
    • Correctly spelled names.
  • Interpreting during networking times: It is often assumed that interpreters will not be needed during meeting breaks, lunch times, or social events. However, these are often extremely valuable times for networking and information sharing. Provide interpreters during these times so individuals who are Deaf can participate.
    • If there is an exhibit hall, interpreters may be stationed there or at the registration desk, or you may add an "interpreter desk" for very large conferences and advertise the availability of interpreters stationed there.

Finding Sign Language Interpreters

  • The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID): RID is the national certifying body for interpreters and all nationally certified interpreters are required to maintain membership. You can find more information from RID on hiring an interpreter and search for individual members or interpreter agencies in their membership directory.
  • State agencies: Not all freelance interpreters are members of RID. If there are no RID interpreters available in a particular area, there may be others who hold state level qualifications or are otherwise qualified. You may find these interpreters through a state agency that serves people who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The National Association of State Agencies Serving the Deaf and Hard of Hearing has a list of their members, and the Illinois Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing maintains a list of state commissions and offices.

Telephones

Note: Technology is constantly changing and many of the tools listed below are gradually being replaced by newer devices. For the most up-­to­-date details on regulations, proposed rules, and resources, visit the website of the Federal Communication Commission's Disability Rights Office.

Video phones and relay services: Many people who use sign language to communicate use video phones. These devices connect to a television or computer, allowing phone calls to be made with video transmission over a high speed Internet connection, similar to Skype. These devices allow sign language users to call each other directly, or to call non-signers through a sign language interpreter. The interpreter communicates with the signer through video and with the non-signer through the telephone. The interpreter acts as an operator by connecting the call, and then interprets all communication. Video interpreters are hired by private companies that provide Video Relay Services (VRS). All interpreting minutes are reimbursed through a fund managed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Mobile devices equipped with high speed data and wifi may also be used as portable video phones.  

Teletypewriters (TTYs) and Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS): People with hearing and speech disabilities who do not use sign language to communicate, those without access to high speed Internet, and some other signers often use teletypewriters (TTYs), which used to be called Telecommunications Devices for the Deaf (TDDs). The TTY cradles the receiver of a land-line phone and has a screen and/or printer which allows the user to type and read messages. A TTY-user can communicate with those using standard phones through the Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS), which uses a third-party Communications Assistant (CA) to type the spoken message and read the typed message. This service is paid for by a fund managed by the FCC and can be accessed by dialing 711.

Captioned telephones: Both Internet protocol captioned telephone services (IP CTS) and analog CTS caption a conversation so that it can be read, just like captions on television or video. For more information on phones and services, visit the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Internet Protocol (IP) relay service: IP Relay service allows people with hearing and speech disabilities to use TRS through a computer or web-enabled device rather than through a TTY or telephone. A major advantage to this is that the user is able to participate in conference calls. IP Relay is paid for by the FCC. 

According to the ADA regulations, meeting facilities that provide equipment for participants to make outgoing calls on “more than an incidental convenience basis” must provide the same opportunity for people with hearing and speech disabilities. This generally means that if public pay phones are available, a TTY-equipped phone or a Public Access Videophone (PAV) must also be available. A PAV can be used to make any form of TRS or point-­to­-point video or TTY calls.

Television and Videos

The Television Decoder Circuitry Act of 1990 requires that all televisions with screens 13 inches or larger sold after July 1, 1993, have built-­in closed caption decoders. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 expanded this law to include digital televisions. Therefore, any television used in a meeting will likely be able to display closed captions if the video or program contains them and the decoding function on the television is turned on.

If video content that is not captioned must be used for a meeting, alternatives include using a sign language interpreter and/or providing speech-­to­-text services such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART). In both cases, the video should be shared with the interpreter or CART provider prior to the meeting (see the section below for Speech-­to­-Text Translation Services).

Televisions in hotel lobbies or other common areas should have "captions on" at all times. Remote control devices for televisions in hotel guest rooms should have a "captions on" button that is easy to locate and use, or instructions on how to access the television settings to turn captions on and off.

Assistive Listening Systems

The American Speech and Hearing Association (ASHA) outlines several situations that can create listening challenges for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing, including too much distance between the listener and the sound source, competing noise in the environment, and poor room acoustics.

Assistive listening systems by-pass these acoustical conditions and deliver sound directly to listeners, enabling many people to participate more fully in programs and meetings. Assistive listening systems can be used alone or can be connected to a public address system, television, or other sound source.

There are three main types of assistive listening systems commonly used in public spaces:

Induction-loop systems: A hearing loop system includes a sound source, such as a microphone which may be connected to a public address system, an amplifier, a thin loop of wire that encircles a room or area (sometimes installed underneath carpeting), and a receiver used by an individual.

The system produces an electromagnetic field around the loop to distribute the sound signal. Individual receivers, which are either built into or connected to headphones or earphones (often, miniature earphones called “earbuds”) can pick up the signal.

Individuals who have personal hearing aids or cochlear implants equipped with telecoils can pick up the signal directly from the loop; they do not need separate individual receivers. Telecoils, also called t-coils, are tiny wireless receivers built into many hearing aids and cochlear implants (cochlear implants are surgically implanted electronic devices that stimulate the auditory nerve to send signals to the brain).

To pick up the signal from a loop system, a listener must be wearing the receiver (or have a telecoil on a personal hearing aid turned on) and be within or near the loop.

FM systems: FM systems use radio signals to transmit sound. A transmitter is equipped with or connected to a microphone or public address system, and listeners use individual receivers equipped with earphones or headphones.

Individuals with telecoil-equipped hearing aids or cochlear implants can connect a miniature loop to the FM receiver. The miniature loop is placed around the neck (these miniature loops are called “neckloops”). These individuals can then pick up the signal through their hearing aids or implants, and don’t need earphones or headphones.

FM systems may be purchased with multiple channels so that different meeting rooms can use different channels at the same time. These systems can transmit signals up to 300 feet and may be used indoors or outdoors. They can be used for large meetings, small groups or even one-on-one conversations.

Infrared systems: These systems use infrared light to transmit sound. A transmitter converts sound into light waves, which are picked up by individual receivers built into or connected to earphones or headphones. As with FM systems, people whose hearing aids or cochlear implants have a telecoil may pick up the signal from a neckloop. Infrared signals cannot pass through walls, so infrared systems are a good choice where confidentiality is a concern, but they cannot be used in environments with too much competing infrared light (such as outdoors).

Find more information on assistive listening systems from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) and the Hearing Loss Association of America.

Finding Assistive Listening Systems

Assistive listening systems can be purchased from many home health and assistive technology companies. For information about lending libraries, rental options, and help determining which equipment to use, contact your state's Assistive Technology ProjectVocational Rehabilitation Agency, or a local Center for Independent Living.

Speech to Text Translation Services

Another way of making spoken information accessible to some people who are Deaf or hard of hearing is through the use of speech-­to­-text services such as Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART), C-­Print, and Typewell. Each of these services uses a specially trained professional to transcribe or transliterate spoken language into text while the message is being spoken.

These services are considered auxiliary aids and services under the ADA and may be used instead of a sign language interpreter for those who do not sign, or may be used in addition to a sign language interpreter in some cases. For example, in a meeting where a formal presentation will be made using highly technical language followed by small group discussions, a Deaf or hard of hearing person may prefer to use a speech-­to­-text service for the presentation so that all technical language is translated exactly. However, they may prefer to use a sign language interpreter for the small group discussion because speech-­to­-text services are difficult to move around the room and do not capture group discussions as well.

In a meeting with multiple individuals who are Deaf or hard of hearing, some may choose to use an interpreter while others prefer speech-­to­-text, and so both would be used simultaneously. As hearing loss increases with age, more and more attendees will benefit from speech-­to­-text translation services. Descriptions of each are summarized below from the organization Hands and Voices:

  • Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART): CART is a word-for-word (verbatim) translation produced by a court reporter using a stenograph machine and software. Every word that is said is transcribed on a screen at speeds of up to 225 words per minute. CART can also be provided remotely. In that case, the room must be equipped with a telephone line and speaker phone for the CART writer to hear the proceedings, and an Internet connection and computer for the user to see the CART text.
  • C-Print and Typewell: These programs provide meaning-for-meaning (not verbatim) interpretations of what is spoken, produced by typists specially trained in using text-condensing strategies. They use a regular laptop and software that is designed to minimize key strokes. Fewer words are produced while all general meaning is conveyed.

In all cases, the words can be displayed on a laptop if only one or two individuals are using the service, or they can be projected on a large screen for the whole room to see. These services can also be used to produce a printed transcript of what was typed, which can be given to individuals in place of notes or used as an official record of the meeting. CART is typically considered more accurate than meaning-­for­-meaning services, though may be more expensive.

Set-up and Placement of Speech-to-Text Services

Ask the speech-­to­-text service providers if they need a small table for their laptop and/or equipment. They will need access to electrical outlets for their equipment. If they are displaying text on a large screen or several monitors for multiple people, they will likely be positioned toward the front of the room near the screen where the text will be displayed. If they are displaying the text on a laptop for only one or two individuals, they should be positioned in close proximity to those individuals. Placement decisions should be made in consultation with the service provider and the individuals using the service.

Finding CART Providers

Information about CART, including information about equipment for consumers and providers, and/or provider listings or referrals:

The Office for Deaf and Hard of Hearing in each state generally makes available lists of American Sign Language (ASL) and other interpreters as well as CART providers.

Costs of Speech-To-Text Services

Rates for speech-­to­-text services vary considerably. Some providers will charge an hourly rate and may have different rates for preparation time, typing time, and time spent editing a transcript. Others may charge an appearance fee and a per-­page fee for a printed transcript, plus an hourly rate for any editing they do before turning over the transcript. The skill and availability of service providers and the area where the meeting will be held can all affect the rates for these services. Providers may also charge additional fees for displaying the transcript to a larger audience.

Captioning Audio/Visual Materials

The best way to use captioned audio/visual materials is to purchase or use videos that already have closed captions. If this is not possible or videos must be produced in-­house, there are several services that will add captions to videos. There are also online programs that can be used to add captions to videos.

If there is absolutely no way to have the video captioned, it is best not to use it. However, if a video without captions must be used, a sign language interpreter or speech-­to­-text service provider may be able to convey the message from the video. In these cases the service provider should be given an opportunity to view the video prior to the meeting.

Resources for Captioning Videos

There are many companies that provide captioning services, for example:

  • Caption Colorado provides nationwide real-time captioning for live video and online meetings.
  • Captionmax provides captioning for videos, as well as online and real-time captioning.

Access Stations For Conferences

For large conferences attended by many people with disabilities, it is a good idea to have an access station or booth staffed during conference hours. The staff should be familiar with access services and solutions, and have the resources and authority to resolve problems that may arise.

If there will be multiple people using interpreters for simultaneous workshops, the program agenda should clearly indicate which workshops already have interpreters scheduled. Participants can then go to the access station to arrange interpreters for other workshops or events. At this type of meeting, interpreters should be coordinated by someone who signs and can communicate with signing participants.

Access to Printed or Visual Materials

Printed materials can be a significant barrier for people who have visual, learning, and cognitive disabilities. Therefore, it is important to have alternate format options available, typically in the form of large print, hardcopy Braille, audio recording, and/or electronic files. Use the registration form to ask participants which format they prefer (see the section on Pre-Event Attendee Registration and Communications).

Using information from the registration form, the preferred alternate format materials may be sent to participants ahead of time or provided as part of the registration process at the beginning of the meeting.

Printed materials distributed and used during meetings, including materials used by exhibitors, that have not been converted to alternate formats need to be either read aloud to the whole group or read to individuals who request assistance.

When a meeting includes people who do not pre-­register, materials in alternate formats should be available. When many people register the day of the meeting, it becomes difficult to anticipate participants’ needs. If materials have been converted into alternate formats for people who have pre-­registered, then make sure extras are also available in each format. If there were no requests for alternate formats, materials should at least be available in large print and as electronic files, which can be made available on USB drives or CDs. These are formats that many people with visual, learning, and cognitive disabilities can use.

Formatting Printed Material

To maximize legibility of printed materials, use:

  • A san-serif font, such as Arial or Helvetica
  • Narrow text columns rather than wide ones, and right margins that are ragged, not justified
  • One-and-one-half or double spacing between lines
  • Spacing between letters that is not too tight or too loose
  • Lower case letters with initial capitals rather than all capitals
  • Black lettering on white, non-shiny paper  

Producing Printed Material in Large Print

Many people with visual disabilities have some sight and can read large print. Large print material can be produced by using a photo copier or a computer where an 18-­point type size or larger can be selected. Here are some tips for producing large print documents:

  • The best contrast with the least glare is bold type on yellow paper (white paper can produce too much glare)
    • If white paper needs to be used, use an off-white paper that will still give good contrast while producing less glare than white
  • The paper should not be larger than standard 8 1/2" X 11"
  • Use one inch margins
  • Lines of text should be no longer than six inches (anything longer than six inches will not track well for people who use magnifiers)
  • Text should begin at the left margin (centered text is harder to read)
  • Use right margins that are ragged, not justified (right-justified margins can create awkward spacing between words, making lines of text difficult to track)
  • Use dot leaders for tables of contents
  • Use a strong, simple font, and avoid fine or "fancy" fonts
  • Use normal spacing between characters (compressed fonts and italics are difficult to read)
  • Use one-and-one-fourth to double spacing between lines
  • The minimum font size should be 18 point

This is Helvetica bold 18 point type

Brailling Printed Materials

To locate a resource to transcribe printed materials into hardcopy Braille, call local organizations that serve people who are blind or have low vision, independent living centers, or state vocational rehabilitation agencies. Most states also have at least one library for people who are blind, which should be able to suggest organizations that can format and emboss Braille.

There is a significant variation in price and quality for producing materials in Braille, depending on turnaround time and the capacity of the providing organization. Most Braille production operations accept source material in electronic format (email attachment) or work from a computer disk. Brailling from printed material is uncommon.

Using Audio Recording

Audio recording is another alternative to printed material. Some people with learning and cognitive disabilities can only use audio recordings. Such audio recordings can be made available on a USB drive or audio CD.

Tips for Recording Audio Materials

  • The reader should have a clear crisp reading voice and read at a moderate speed.  
  • Recording should be done in a recording studio or room where there is no background noise.
  • At the beginning of the recording identify the reader, e.g. "This document is being read by Darrell Jones."
  • At appropriate stages of the recording, identify the document, section and/or the page number, e.g. "Guide to Barrier-Free Meetings, chapter 1."  To the greatest extent possible, the recording should be done in a way that will allow the reader to easily locate individual chapters, sections, pages, etc., without having to listen to other parts.

Electronic File(s) As An Alternate Format

A growing number of people who are blind or have low vision prefer to receive materials in electronic format (on computer disk, USB drive, or by email). Some people listen to the material using voice output hardware and software on their personal computers or mobile devices. Others read the documents on their device screens by using hardware or software that simply enlarges the display. Still others convert the electronic information into Braille through the use of refreshable Braille display devices. These devices can be connected to a computer, and as the user moves the cursor through the electronic text, the display device raises and lowers pins in various combinations to create Braille characters, which the user can then read by touch.

All electronic materials should be produced in accessible mainstream file formats such as MS Word, HTML, or PDF so that the content can be readily accessed. Important note: Not all PDF files are accessible, especially those created via copying or scanning a printed page into a PDF format.

The National Center on Disability and Access to Education (NCDAE) website provides helpful "cheatsheets" for creating accessible documents in various file formats.

Ensuring Online Files and Documents are Accessible

Eliminating barriers in information technology is addressed by the ADA. Documents and online content should be accessible and optimized for screen readers and other assistive technologies used by people who are blind or have low vision, as well as people with other types of disabilities. The following sites and tools can help you create and maintain accessible web­-based material:

On-Site Readers

Sometimes, in spite of great planning, there is last-­minute material that does not get converted into alternate formats. If this happens, designate people to serve as on-­site readers. This is a stop­-gap measure which may work when the meeting is short and there is not a large volume of material to be read.

On-­site readers can also help participants complete evaluation forms in real-­time, by serving as reader-­scribes for individuals who are blind or have low vision. Specific skills are needed to be an on-site reader: ability to read material well, a good clear voice, and, ideally, knowledge of the language and vocabulary used in the documents.

Formats for Announcements and Messages

Use multiple methods and formats to communicate any changes in schedules, room assignments, presenters, etc. Email, text message, social media channels, telephone-­accessed schedule announcements, voicemail, hotel meeting area video text, sleeping room video text via television, written postings in a designated area, and verbal announcements during general sessions are all methods that can be used to notify participants of changes.

Orienting Attendees to the Meeting Space

To help orient attendees with vision disabilities to the meeting location, it may be useful to provide some descriptive information. This may include “big picture” information – the layout of the facility and surrounding area, including landmarks and their relation to each other, for example – or information on a smaller scale, such as the location of the coffee pot, telephone, toiletry products, and thermostat in a hotel sleeping room.

It may also help to include specific directions for getting to and from one area of the meeting place to another. In a hotel, for instance, it can be very helpful to provide directions from the lobby, elevators, stairs, or other common “starting points” to specific meeting rooms, restaurants, or other spaces.

Invisible Wounds: Emerging Promising Practices for Meeting Planners

For those with invisible wounds — especially veterans, survivors of trauma, and those with a wide range of neurologic conditions arising from injury — meetings, events, and conferences can present unique challenges. Big crowds, loud noises, blocked line of sight to exits, and many other typical features of events can be so uncomfortable that some people will simply withdraw. This discomfort is a normal reaction to a stressful experience, but isolation is often harmful to the individual and reduces the diversity of the group.

Specific approaches to make your event more accessible to those with invisible wounds:

  • Disclose the use of strobe lights, surround sound and/or large format/high definition video, fireworks, or other unusually loud elements in advance through registration materials, attendee packets, programs, online meeting descriptions, registrant confirmation emails, and other communications.
  • Seated venues for concerts or presentations, which provide a measure of visual and spatial organization, are more accessible than "standing room only" gatherings.  
  • In a concert or large presentation hall, hold seats along the sides of the room close to exits for individuals who may experience challenges with crowds. Advertise the availability of these seats and make sure event staff know about them. 
  • In meeting rooms, allow individuals to self-select their seats rather than using assigned seating. Some individuals will prefer back-row seats with a wall behind them to being seated in the front or middle of the room; others will prefer seats where exits are in line of sight. 
  • Make "quiet rooms" available at your event, especially concerts, large conferences, or receptions. Mark these "time out" spaces with signage and on maps in attendees’ packets, and be sure that event staff are available to help participants find them.
  • Service animals are addressed by the ADA and are increasingly used by those with invisible wounds and other disabilities.
    • Ask in the registration process if a service animal will be accompanying a participant, and increase the number of accessible seating locations accordingly, since individuals using service animals often need more space (similar to people using wheelchairs or other mobility devices).
    • Prepare and educate your event staff about service animals. Many organizations, such as Canine Companions for Independence, offer etiquette tips for interacting with service animals.
    • Point out in your materials any places that can be used as “relief areas” for service animals (hotels and conference center maps are increasingly including easily-accessed grassy areas).
blind person icon

Personal Assistants and Service Animals

Both personal assistants and service animals may be used to assist with mobility, balance, navigation, communication, and other issues that result from a wide variety of conditions, such as post­traumatic stress, seizure disorders, short-­term memory loss, traumatic brain injury, and more. Collect information about personal assistants and service animals during the registration process so you can plan the physical space and attendee materials, as well as train event staff.

  • Personal Assistants
    • Ensure seating plans include room for each assistant, both within meeting rooms and meal service areas.
    • In overnight accommodations, room blocks should be adequate to cover the addition of assistants.
    • While there are no regulatory requirements for accommodating assistants in the event, typically assistants are not charged any conference or meeting fees. However, if they will be assisting individuals with disabilities during meals and also will be eating, it is at the discretion of the conference planners whether to charge assistants for meals.
  • Service Animals
    • Include the ADA Service Animal Factsheet in your event team orientation and in the materials you share with your meeting facility staff.
    • Prepare and train your event staff about service animals, including proper etiquette. Canine Companions for Independence offers etiquette tips for interacting with service animals.  
    • Point out in your materials any places that can be used as “relief areas” for service animals (hotels and conference center maps are increasingly including easily-accessed grassy areas). 
    • Service animals may need space similar to mobility devices (plan for two seating spaces for each person bringing a service animal).
    • Ask that service dogs not be treated with pesticides for fleas or groomed using fragranced products right before a meeting or conference. This will help accommodate participants who may be sensitive to these kinds of chemicals.

Tips for Presenters

Presenters must be aware of the needs of their audience. General tips are provided in this section, or explore more detailed information in Accessibility Guidelines for Presenters by June Kailes.

Tips for Preparing Your Presentation and Content:

  • Work closely with the event planners to learn more about your potential audience, and be prepared to modify your material or presentation style as requested.
  • Deliver your materials at the requested deadline since it can take two to three weeks to prepare materials to meet the needs of attendees.
  • Review the guidelines about style, fonts, video, and other elements of presentation offered in this guide.

Tips for Preparing a PowerPoint Presentation:

  • Use a sans serif font that is at least 22 point.
  • Use a light colored background with dark text.
  • Use a plain background without any watermark, photo, or design behind the text.
  • Use a PowerPoint as an outline for your presentation, with only short sentences and/or bulleted phrases (about 4 lines of text/40 words per slide).
  • Keep it short - as a rule, one slide for every two minutes of speaking time.
  • Photographs, images, clip art, graphics, maps, and charts cannot be read by screen readers; embed "Alt Text" descriptions with images and other graphic elements.

Tips for Presenting:

  • If there is a sign language interpreter, please wait for him/her to be in place before beginning your presentation.
  • Always face the audience; this is especially helpful for audience members who are speech readers (lip readers).
  • Speak at a normal rate, neither too slowly nor too quickly; this is especially helpful for the sign language interpreters.
  • All the information on your slides should be part of your spoken presentation; you don’t need to simply read the text to the audience, but be certain that all information is addressed.
  • Describe all meaningful graphics in your presentation (such as photos, images, charts, and illustrations).
  • Use felt tip markers free of scents and solvents and replace the cap when not in use.
  • Use lasers to point only; resist the urge to wiggle the light around the screen (this can be problematic for people with a variety of conditions, including vision disabilities), and turn it off when not in use.
  • If you are a panelist and are not introduced immediately prior to speaking, introduce yourself. This is helpful for audience members who are blind or have low vision.
  • Always use the microphone; individuals may have hearing aids or may be using an assistive listening system that cannot pick up your words if you do not use the microphone. This has nothing to do with how loud you speak or how well you project.
  • If you are asked a question by someone not using a microphone, be sure to repeat the question into the microphone.
  • Attendees with electrical sensitivities may not be able to use or tolerate wireless microphones; you may need to repeat their questions into the microphone.
  • Ensure that only one audience member speaks at a time.
  • If you ask the entire audience a question, offer several ways to respond, including raising hands, calling out, standing, nodding; this will facilitate participation for those who may not be able to raise hands, speak, or stand.
  • Following the response to an audience question, let the audience know the count or estimate, such as “about half responded yes.”
  • To ensure access for attendees with electrical sensitivities, turn off non-essential computers, projectors, microphones, and other electronic equipment when not in use.

Tips for Attendees

While there are standards to help ensure that meetings, events, and conferences are accessible to participants with a wide range of needs, the hard truth is that all systems are human.

Even planners who mean well may need to be educated about what will make the best experience for participants who have disabilities. Self-­advocacy remains the best way to ensure that an event will meet your needs.

  • Communicate early and often with the event hosts; complete registration forms with as much detail as possible, and reach out to the hosts a few weeks before the event to ask if they have secured the accommodations requested.
  • When the event includes an overnight stay, include explicit requests in your reservation. Contact the hotel management by phone a day or so in advance to follow up.
  • Be patient but firm in your request; only through your continued push on the market will it consistently meet your needs.
  • When faced with event or hotel staff who fail to understand your requests or their responsibilities, use this guide to help explain their legal obligations.