Accessible Events: Planning and Preparation are Key

Ensuring access to meetings, exhibits, performances, tours, festivals, and other types of events requires forethought and preparation. Such events are often held in locations, including outdoor venues, which present challenges related to facilities and terrain. Additionally, there are issues, such as communication or transportation, which may need to be addressed if people with disabilities are to participate in meaningful ways.

Different types of events may also entail different approaches to accessibility. For example, some events are open to the public at large, with no pre-registration required. When planners have no idea who is going to show up, they must prepare for everyone. Other events are for specific, known audiences, and planners can respond to individual needs in a more focused way.

Communication and Interaction

Any type of event involves communication, ranging from advertisements and promotions to presentations and speeches. Promotional information is often disseminated through a variety of media, including radio and television broadcasts, web site postings and e-mail messages, newspapers and periodicals, flyers, and posters. Throughout the course of an event, the multiplicity continues, with speech, audio-visual presentations (slides, movies, etc.), printed materials, signs, and maybe a few banners or flags thrown into the mix.

Event planners know that using multiple communication methods helps get the word out, facilitates activities and interaction, and reinforces messages and lessons for diverse audiences. Accessible features simply add more tools to the “multiplicity” toolbox. For example, captions can provide access to the “audio” in an audio-visual presentation for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; audio descriptions can provide access to the “visual” for those who are blind or have low visioninfo.png.

It is important to remember that web sites are a form of communication, and web pages often include both visual and audible components, and sometimes interactivity as well (such as online registration forms). Using accessible web design practices will ensure that online features and opportunities are available to web-surfers with disabilities.

Including information about accessibility features and options in announcements and promotional materials can be helpful for both event planners and participants. For example, if assistive listening devicesinfo.png (ALDs) are always on hand at the facility where an event will be held, then including that information in promotional materials will let potential attendees know that they don’t need to call ahead and request them to make sure they will be available.

It’s also a good idea to inform people about barriers that can not be overcome. For example, if a tour of an historic home will include an opportunity to climb down a narrow set of steps into an old root cellar, then that information may be of interest to people with disabilities who may not be able to do that. They may still choose to go on the tour to see and do all they can, but knowing what limitations to expect will help people make choices and plans, and avoid unpleasant surprises.

Where registration or advanced notice is required to participate in an event, promotional and registration materials should include contact information and a deadline for requesting individualized accommodations that might not otherwise be provided. Interpreters and materials in accessible formats, such as Braille or large print, are examples of things that could be provided on an as-needed basis; a reasonable deadline is needed to ensure there is enough time to order or produce materials, or make necessary arrangements for services.

Planners should remember to find out if participants who may not be required to register, such as presenters, performers, or exhibitors, have any disability-related needs.

Also, presenters, vendors, guides, or others who may interact with attendees should be informed about accessible elements or services (e.g., where elevators are located, or how to obtain receivers for the assistive listening systeminfo.png) so they can respond to questions or direct attendees appropriately.

Presenters and other workers should also be given information, training, and support to ensure that they use accessible practices (e.g., describing visual presentation elements for the benefit of participants who are blind, or retrieving items that are out of reach for wheelchair users).

Sites, Facilities, and Vehicles

While it may be difficult (or impossible) to find a “perfect” site for an event, accessibility should be high on the list of criteria to be considered. Whenever possible, site assessments should be conducted by professionals or people with extensive knowledge of accessibility standards and understanding of usability issues.

It is important to assess not only an actual facility (for example, a hotel or auditorium), but the surrounding area as well. Consideration should be given to how the site is situated in relation to various modes of transportation that people might need to use. Airports, rail stations, bus systems, taxi or shuttle services, or public parking may need to be checked for accessibility.

Also, if people are likely to walk to and from public transportation stops, or to walk to nearby restaurants, shops, or attractions during the course of an event, the neighborhood should be checked for “walkability.” Steep sidewalks (or no sidewalks at all), lack of curb cuts, uneven surfaces, and other barriers can adversely affect people who have a variety of mobility limitations. Low hanging tree branches and other protruding objects, reflecting pools and fountains without walls or edges, and poorly designed street crossings or circulation routes can make things difficult, if not downright dangerous, for people with vision impairments.

When setting up areas where event activities will take place, arrangements should allow enough space so that people using wheelchairs or other mobility aids can maneuver around temporary elements like booths, signs, or tents. Displays and exhibits should be designed so that people can see and/or reach items from a seated position.

Wherever possible, seating arrangements for training sessions, performances, or dining should facilitate opportunities for integration by providing wheelchair seating spaces in more than one location. Dispersed wheelchair seating also makes it easier to ensure that wheelchair users are able to take advantage of the full range of available options, such as different lines-of-sight.

When transportation is offered as part of an event (e.g., a shuttle from a remote parking lot to an event area), vehicles must be accessible, or other suitable options must be available (e.g., accessible parking located adjacent to the event area).

For events that last longer than a few hours, it may be a good idea to find a suitable area that can serve as a “relief” location for service animals. Signs can be posted, and directions and information can be disseminated and announced so that everyone who wants to find the area (or stay away from the area!) will know where it is.

Quick Facility Fixes

There are a number of things that can be done fairly easily, some temporarily, that can enhance accessibility and participation for people with disabilities.

Parking: Where accessible parking is inadequate, or simply non-existent, spaces can be designated temporarily. Pavement tape, barricades, or the ever-popular orange traffic cones can serve to define space for parking and access aisles; temporary signs can be posted. Accessible parking should be located on surfaces that are as level and stable as possible, and connect to accessible routes that lead to entrances, transportation stops, or event areas.

Ramps: Portable ramps can be used to overcome curbs or steps; they must be securely placed or installed so that they do not shift when used. Ramps with drop-offs should always have curbs to keep people from going over the edge.

Doors: Installing off-set (or swing-away) hinges can add a couple of inches of clear space at a narrow door. Add-on lever hardware can be attached to round doorknobs to make them easier to operate. Where doors are heavy, it may be possible to simply prop them open or even remove them for the duration of an event.

Routes/surfaces: There are a variety of products that can be used to create temporary accessible surfaces. These products, including modular or roll-out materials, work well in outdoor environments where natural surfaces consist of grass, sand, or other loose materials.

Detectable warning devices: Detectable warning devices, such as planters or other heavy objects, can be placed on the floor beneath hazardous protruding objects (e.g., wall-mounted fixtures that project more than four inches) so that people who are blind or have low visioninfo.png will avoid them.

Signs: Good signage is often a critical communication component at an event, and can be even more important for people with disabilities, who may need to use alternate routes or find accessible elements. If a facility does not have good general signage in place, consider adding some temporary signs (e.g., “Elevators [with a directional arrow]”). “Event-specific” signs may be needed as well (e.g., “Festival Parking / ACCESSIBLE PARKING ONLY IN THIS LOT). Signs should be easy to see and read, with non-glare finishes, simple lettering, and good contrast between characters and background.

When all is said and done, there may still be a need for assistance or accommodation on an individual level. But then, a little human interaction may be one of the reasons we planned the event in the first place.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of ADA in Focus, a publication of the Mid-Atlantic ADA Center. The Center is administered by TransCen. Inc. and funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research of the U.S. Dept. of Education (Grant # H133A060085). The opinions contained in this publication are those of the grantee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Education.

© 2008