Plan Ahead to Make Your Meetings More Accessible for People With Disabilities

Making sure that people with disabilities can enjoy your events should be a priority for many associations. And as one university is learning the hard way, ignoring the issue could lead to problems.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to replace the term “the disabled” with “people with disabilities.”

It’s key to keep the Golden Rule in mind when arranging any association event. Treating others right includes making accommodations that span the spectrum from  minimizing language barriers to making arrangements for those with special religious requirements. High on the list: ensuring that people with disabilities have full access to the facilities and activities of your event.

Ask how you can help. It is understandable not to know what to do. Consider this an opportunity to learn.

The first step is understanding your attendees’ needs well before the planning stage kicks in. Organizations that don’t could invite legal challenges and public criticism like the University of Maryland (UMD) is facing.

A Legal Challenge

The issue came to a head this week after the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) sued the University of Maryland, College Park, over its lack of accessibility to the deaf and hearing-impaired during football games.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two deaf fans who went to games at the university’s Byrd Stadium and Comcast Center, argues that Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires the university to broadcast closed captioning during sporting events.

The ADA section reads: “Any television public service announcement that is produced or funded in whole or in part by any agency or instrumentality of the federal government shall include closed captioning of the verbal content of such announcement.” This would apply to the university, the suit claims, as it receives federal funding.

NAD and Baltimore-based attorney Joseph Espo filed the suit on September 23. This isn’t the first time the subject has been broached with the university, UMD student newspaper The Diamondback reports. According to Espo, one of the plaintiffs has requested closed captioning since 2007. There have been talks with the university, he said, but the parties “haven’t been able to reach an agreement or time line that is acceptable.”

The school does have some initiatives to help people with disabilities enjoy the games. According to the Byrd Stadium A-Z Guide, the university streams closed captioning online, which is accessible by smartphone or tablet. UMD provides tablet rentals during games, though an official says the school received no requests for rentals for the last two home football games, according to The Washington Post.

“The University of Maryland is committed to providing an outstanding fan experience for all, and we certainly do not discriminate against individuals with disabilities,” said UMD Assistant Vice President Brian Ullmann in a statement.

The UMD lawsuit comes in the wake of a 2006 case in which three deaf Washington Redskins fans sued the team for failing to provide closed captioning its the home stadium. A 2011 ruling required the Redskins to make all audio projections—game-related information and emergency announcements—accessible for deaf and hearing-impaired fans.

“Since the Redskins case, the trend looks like colleges and universities… may be required to provide accommodations,” sports lawyer Bradley Shear said in a 2011 NAD press release.

Don’t Let It Happen to You

If you don’t have an accessibility policy for your organization’s events, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has guidelines that could provide a starting point. Among the highlights:

  • Ask attendees to note special requests when registering for an event. This gives you a better sense of the accommodations you will need to provide.
  • Ensure that your event location includes access for people with disabilities. Consider close parking, elevators with Braille, and access to a telephone typewriter.
  • Include an event interpreter as needed, and reserve seats in front to enable a clear view.
  • Don’t let the disability get in the way of the person; speak to the person, not to their accompanying interpreter.

“Ask how you can help. It is understandable not to know what to do,” the IEEE guidelines state. “Consider this an opportunity to learn.”

Do you have accessibility tips to offer your meeting-planner colleagues? Share them in the comments.


Emma Beck

By Emma Beck

Emma Beck is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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