A disability inclusion expert shares ideas for making attendees with disabilities feel welcome and included at your conferences.
Whether organizing in-person, hybrid, or virtual events, association meeting professionals want to make sure they are accessible, inclusive, and equitable for everyone.
But even with the best of intentions, there are likely areas where you could better accommodate people with disabilities, some of which you may have never considered.
To gain some insight into how to do this, I spoke with speaker, trainer, and consultant Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D., president of Rossetti Enterprises, Inc. Rossetti, who has used a wheelchair since she suffered a spinal cord injury in 1998, said that meeting pros who “lead with an inclusion mindset” will be most successful.
“You need to think about having people with disabilities and having people without disabilities,” she said. “You want all attendees to be able to take part, on their own terms.”
Here are three tips she shared that are worth keeping in mind as you plan future meetings:
Ask attendees about their needs. When people with disabilities attend your events, it is important to be prepared and know ahead of time how your staff—and for in-person events, the venue—can be helpful. “During the registration process, ask people what assistance they may need,” Rossetti said. “And then follow up with a phone call or email to get clarity so you can begin making the necessary plans and preparations to accommodate them.” This may include a special meal due a food allergy, or you may need to convert handouts to braille for a person who is blind.
Inform and educate your speakers. As part of their orientation or training, speakers should learn how to accommodate people with disabilities during their sessions. Part of that may be providing them with instructions on how to create accessible presentation slides and handouts. And if speakers are using lots of graphics or other visuals, Rossetti said they should describe the slides briefly. “That’s a really quick, simple thing for them to do, and it will make your participants who are blind or have another type of visual impairment feel included,” she said.
Get feedback and input from people with disabilities during meeting planning. As face-to-face meetings make a comeback, so will site visits. Rossetti said these visits are a prime opportunity for your association to think about how to accommodate people with disabilities. “If you’ve never been in a wheelchair, I suggest having one on hand as you tour your venues,” she said. “This will give you a better idea of how to set up rooms and to accommodate participants who will be using a wheelchair. For instance, can they easily maneuver through a room?” Another idea that Rossetti shared: Invite members with disabilities to participate in your site visits or to test out your virtual platforms. They’ll be able to give feedback and raise any potential challenges that could make their participation more difficult.
What steps has your association taken to ensure that both its in-person and virtual meetings are accessible for everyone? Please share in the comments.