This Is What It Actually Means for an Event to Be Accessible

A guide for meeting planners who are looking to make their meeting more accessible to people of all backgrounds.

When you’re planning a meeting or event for your business, there is no shortage of details to address. The venue, the cost and registration process, the content, the meals. A memorable event is often one that runs smoothly with attention to all of the fine details so that attendees can focus on the actual purpose of the event.

One factor that is often not taken into consideration is how accessible your event is for disabled attendees. Nearly all public spaces fall under the Americans with Disabilities Act and are required to have some basic physical accommodations, but the ADA requirements don’t even scratch the surface of what makes an event truly accessible.

We reached out to Jamie Santillo, disability advocate for Visit Tampa Bay and founder of Adventures by Jamie, a travel agency that helps disabled travelers plan trips with accessibility in mind. Jamie was born with muscular dystrophy and has used a wheelchair for her whole life. Jamie has also spent her entire career focusing on how to make the world more accessible. “I believe I’m one of the first agencies to really focus on accessible travel. People with disabilities travel and spend a lot of money doing it.”

Jamie offered insight to Associations Now on how we can improve events for disabled attendees.

Set the Stage for Success With Accessibility

As a presenter, one area Jamie has struggled with is the setup for speaking. Often no consideration was given to adding a ramp to the stage, or the computer for presenting does not have a remote. Since she can’t reach the podium, she has to rely on someone else for assistance.“Now I’m saying to somebody “Can you hit the next slide? And the next slide, and the next slide?” It’s distracting.” For situations where she cannot get onto the stage, she’s been left presenting from floor level, which is awkward and ineffective.

The key, Jamie says, is to be proactive. We ask presenters what type of mic they prefer or what cables their computer needs to connect to the projector. In the same manner, we can also ask what accommodations they need to present effectively. For someone who has different disabilities than Jamie, their needs will be very different. The only way to know how to accommodate them is to ask.

Accessibility Starts Long Before the Event Does

As for attendees at events who are not presenting, prior planning is still the key. Something as simple as a Google Form or spot on the registration asking them to identify any accommodations they may need. “You’re not going to be able to think of every scenario or please every person—so the best thing to do is just ask,” says Jamie. Accommodations like sign language interpreters or providing materials in a screen-reader-friendly format for visually impaired attendees are a must. Providing a quiet space for individuals with sensory needs to regroup is also important.

Another detail that is often overlooked is seating arrangements. When seated in rows it is generally easy to park a wheelchair in an aisle, but roundtable discussions or other smaller setups are often harder to navigate. Jamie brings an aide with her when she attends events because she does not drive and needs assistance with other tasks. Ask about aides—they should not need their own registration or ticket to your event. Providing them with access to the event is part of making the event accessible for your attendee.

Reevaluate Each Space Through the Lens of Accessibility

Look at your space with fresh eyes. If you are renting a conference center or hotel, the small, historic boutique location might be charming—but a nightmare for anyone with ambulatory needs. Most larger hotels or event spaces will be easier to navigate for disabled attendees. The most successful event is one that everyone successfully attends.

There are also more nuanced details Jamie helps others understand. For example, almost every hotel or conference center she’s been to has either a planter or a trash can right under the elevator buttons– meaning she cannot roll up and reach the buttons. Many bathrooms only have step-open trash cans, which is another thing she cannot do. Simple changes like this make a space more welcoming. “Or,” she says, “More Jamie-friendly.”

It Never Hurts to Ask

Aside from these tips, Jamie reminds us that it’s okay to not think of every potential scenario. Do not feel awkward or invasive asking someone about the specific accommodations they need. They will appreciate it since they are often not asked or considered. “I’ve always been in a wheelchair, this is my life,” says Jamie, “So I’m very comfortable in it. It is what it is.”

Brought to you by Visit Tampa Bay: “Our core mission has always been to inspire all travelers to visit Tampa Bay including visitors with special needs,” says Santiago C. Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. “As a host destination for a wide variety of national and international meetings and events, we continue to work closely with accessibility ambassadors like Jamie to ensure our convention center, hotel partners and major attractions accommodate all accessibility needs.”

(Handout photo)