How to Plan an All-Inclusive Meeting

By Larry Anderson, November 2, 2010

A plush bed with a high, pillow-top mattress may be a welcome sight for a busy meeting attendee at the end of the day, but for a little person, the luxurious bedding now featured in many high-end hotel rooms represents something else entirely. It’s an obstacle.

Marge Carlisle, a member of the conference management committee of Little People of America (LPA), says the trend toward higher beds is just one challenge little people face when traveling to a meeting or convention. Other issues include towels located out of reach (on a towel rack high on the wall), shower heads adjusted for a 6-foot-tall person that spray water over the head of a little person, an out-of-reach registration desk and mobility challenges such as 6- or 8-inch steps that are difficult for a little person to maneuver.

Carlisle and other members of the LPA conference management committee do on-site inspections and negotiate contracts to ensure that facilities for the national conference are accessible to the organization’s attendees, which can fill up to 700 rooms. “When they have high pillow-top beds, it requires us to have the hotel provide a stepping stool for each room,” says Carlisle. A hotel might have to provide 300 or 400 stools to accommodate conference attendees. They also have to build stairs to provide elevated access to the registration desk.

Accommodating meeting attendees that have such special needs, which are often centered around a physical disability, requires meeting planners to embrace the idea that each person, whether disabled or not, is an individual with a special set of needs. To accommodate them, you need to plan an all-inclusive meeting.

A person with a disability faces numerous obstacles when attending a meeting. How can I maneuver the narrow aisles of the airplane? Can I handle the unwieldy door at the hotel? Will my wheelchair fit between the tables in the meeting room? A blind person might be puzzled by a reference to a PowerPoint slide. A deaf person might struggle in the dim auditorium light to see a sign language interpreter. The needs may not always be obvious, says Carlisle. “Consider the weight of the bathroom door, the ease of swing, if it is easy to open or close. It might need to be propped open [during an event].”

Meeting planners are more likely to face these issues and others related to accommodating disabilities in coming years. Nearly 24 percent of the total U.S. population will be disabled by 2030 (assuming incidence rates by age remain the same), according to a Harris Interactive study commissioned by the Open Doors Organization. More than 15 percent will be severely disabled.

“What are their abilities?” asks Jani Nayar, executive coordinator of the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (SATH), an organization that seeks to raise awareness of the needs of travelers with disabilities. “What are their disabilities? What can he or she do or not do? Can the attendee get up from a wheelchair, take a few steps, stand up a few seconds, move from a chair to a seat?”  She adds: “You have to make sure you know what their abilities are. Don’t assume anything.”

The ADA and Beyond

Fortunately, many obstacles for anyone in the United States have been removed because of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA), which recently marked its 20th anniversary. The act specifies design requirements to make public buildings and facilities, including transportation facilities and meetings venues, more accessible. Also, the Air Carrier Access Act of 1986 requires airlines to accommodate persons with disabilities, whether at the ticket counter, on the concourse or on the airplane.

Planners should incorporate an assurance of ADA compliance in any venue contract for protection in case a problem subsequently arises with regard to accessibility, says Laurel Van Horn, research director of the Open Doors Organization. The Chicago-based organization’s goals are to teach businesses how to succeed in the disability market and to provide direct support to people with disabilities. “While hotels and other establishments typically say they are ADA-compliant, many in fact are not,” adds Van Horn.

Whenever possible, the planner should conduct a site visit in addition to asking specific questions. Possible problem areas include parking and drop-off points, routes to the building entrance, the actual entrance, routes to meeting space, the meeting space itself and restrooms. For overnight accommodations, planners should ask about accessible guest rooms (including how many have roll-in showers) and assistive technology (such as all-in-one visual notification kits and strobe fire alarms for those with hearing loss or portable shower benches for persons with restricted mobility). Also of concern are facilities such as restaurants, says Van Horn.

Public restrooms are an area where hotels and other meeting facilities often fall short related to compliance, especially in the case of older properties, says Van Horn. Instead of a full-size wheelchair stall, they may have an ambulatory stall with a raised toilet and grab rails on both sides — a configuration that works for older persons and those using crutches or a walker but not for people with no ability to stand and pivot from a wheelchair. There also may be a lack of lateral transfer space beside a toilet (often blocked by a sink), high mirrors, soap and towels out of reach, sinks too low to roll under and door latches that require tight grasping or twisting. And it’s not a case of one-size-fits-all, says Carlisle, who notes that a “handicapped” toilet is taller to accommodate a wheelchair user but is too tall for a little person to use.

Planners should also be aware of unenclosed staircases or escalators in public areas that could pose a hazard to persons with vision loss. During a site visit, look for a nearby natural surface or grassy area that could provide a service dog relief area, Van Horn suggests. Also, some doors are too heavy to open (5 pounds maximum pressure is allowed), and other doors swing in and block wheelchair access.

Logistical issues are a big part of accommodating persons with disabilities, and you have to consider the smallest detail. For example, it’s important to make sure a hydraulic lift on a transportation vehicle can handle a traveler in a specific wheelchair, says Nayar. The lifts have a capacity of 600 to 700 pounds. Some electric wheelchairs weigh 400 pounds or more. Depending on the size of the traveler and whether they use other heavy equipment, such as an oxygen concentrator, the lift may not be able to handle the wheelchair. “You need all the information beforehand, so it is not a surprise,” Nayar says. “Also, always get the dimensions of the wheelchair.”

Karen Wolffe of the American Foundation for the Blind urges planners to ensure that a venue has Braille and large print signage for restrooms, exits, room numbers and other locations such as the cafe, cloakroom, lounge, registration area, emergency exit or medical supply station.

The ADA is a difficult law to enforce, says Eric Lipp, executive director of the Open Doors Organization. “Sometimes accessibility shortcomings can be overcome by old-fashioned customer service through individual attention to each guest and their specific needs,” he says.

Accommodation also requires communication, both during an event and before. Sadly, not all barriers are physical; attitudinal barriers are everywhere. Often, service personnel treat a person with a disability as if they cannot make decisions for themselves. Instead, they ask questions of a companion, says Nayar.

Pre-Event Planning

Accommodating persons with various special needs requires planning ahead, starting months before an event. Pre-event promotional materials should request that attendees who require accommodation for a disability contact the organizer with details of their specific requirements. But Wolffe notes that a brochure should be sent electronically in order to be effective for people without sight or with severely limited sight.

Elizabeth T. Spiers of the American Association of the Deaf-Blind suggests setting up a section on a registration website for people to state their needs. “As the date gets near, you need to set a deadline by which people need to respond,” says Spiers, who recommends allowing a month at least to arrange interpreters or other services — the more time the better. Planners may want to contact a sign language agency, a computer-assisted real-time captioning (CART) company, or someone to provide assistive listening devices or systems in order to find out how much time they need. “It is often more expensive to provide accommodations at the last minute,” she says.

“If you are working with a person who has both a vision loss and a hearing loss, it becomes a little more complicated,” says Spiers, whose organization services people with both vision and hearing losses. One deaf or hard-of-hearing person with low vision may need his or her own interpreter, while another may rely on his residual hearing and prefer an ALD (assistive listening device) or CART services. A fully deaf-blind person may rely on tactile signing and need an interpreter who can sign into his or her hands.

During a Meeting

Accommodations for disabled persons during a meeting can include something as simple as designating enough time for breaks and between sessions to allow persons in wheelchairs to navigate the restrooms, elevators, etc., especially if such facilities are limited in number. Planners also should be sure there is enough space for wheelchairs to move freely between tables and to maneuver and turn. Open spaces scattered throughout a room allow attendees in wheelchairs to position themselves as they like.

Carlisle suggests that meeting planners accommodate disabled persons with as little separation as possible from the rest of the group. For example, anyone riding in a wheelchair accessible van to a conference outing misses out on the conversations and networking opportunities happening on the bus where everyone else is riding. “Find a way to include people in as much as possible without segregating them from the group,” she urges.

A major obstacle for wheelchair users is the availability of ground transportation, or lack thereof. Holding meetings on-site or at an adjoining facility can save time and money, as well as wear and tear on attendees. Multi-day conferences should be held on full-service properties, Van Horn recommends.

The arrangement of the room, lighting and seating should ensure that deaf persons can see sign language interpreters or CART captions; space should be reserved in the front of the room for these persons. To the extent possible, interpreters and CART operators should be provided with a copy of presentations in advance. At a minimum, a list of specialized terms and proper names should be provided, says Van Horn.

If there is a directory, the information should be available in an accessible format. There also could be helpers available to answer questions and to direct blind people to registration, meeting rooms, restrooms, dog guide relief areas, etc., says Wolffe. “One of the most challenging issues [for blind persons] is the use of PowerPoint slides by many presenters,” Wolffe says. “If presenters don’t have their materials available in Braille or in a large-print version, they should describe for the sight-impaired everything that is shown visually — pictures, cartoons, graphs, etc. Presenters should avoid saying ‘look at this’ or ‘see what I mean’ while pointing to a slide or some other pictorial cue. Without sight, it is impossible to follow.”

“Don’t Be Shy”

Lipp says planners shouldn’t hesitate about asking meeting attendees beforehand what they need. “Don’t be shy,” he says. “You’re not saving any heartbreak by being shy. All you’re doing is putting yourself and that person in a bad situation. You should ask them to communicate what they need.”

Carlisle suggests a goal of providing accommodations that make a person as independent as possible. “We don’t want to be asking people to do things; we want to be as independent as everyone else,” she says. A simple example is locating the salt and pepper shakers nearer the edge of a large table rather than in the middle where a little person (or otherwise disabled person) couldn’t reach it.

The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Disability Rights Section, offers a document on evaluating the accessibility of a meeting site at ada.gov/business/accessiblemtg.htm.

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