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10 Ways to Make Your Conference Accessible to People With Disabilities

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Attending workshops, lectures, symposium, conferences, and other events are difficult or even impossible for some people with disabilities. Rarely have I seen disability given much thought in conference planning, even when the topic is diversity and inclusion.

Here are ten ways to making your conferences more inclusive of people with disabilities. Many of them cost little to nothing other than a little forethought.

1. Accommodation point person.

Assign a person to be responsible for providing accommodations when needed. This person ideally should have some training in disability inclusion and encouraged to think creatively about how to accommodate potential attendees and speakers. Publish a phone number available during the event so that someone is available to address issues as they arise.

2. Advertising and publicity.

Include a statement about your desire to be inclusive of people with disabilities. Provide contact information for your accommodation point person as well as information about all accommodations you have arranged. All photographs in publicity should include a caption describing the picture for the blind and visually impaired who use screen readers.

3. Interpreters.

Provide the option of a sign language interpreter for deaf attendees. If you have the funds, hire an interpreter for all events or at least the larger sessions. Having the interpreter allows for attendees to not have to make the request in advance, and demonstrates your commitment to inclusion. If funds are tight, offer to provide an interpreter upon request.

4. Ushers.

For the blind and visually impaired as well as for people with difficulty carrying materials around, have someone available to escort them around large conference spaces. If your event requires walking across long distances, have wheelchairs available for escorts to transport participants who need help getting across the space.

5. Parking.

Does your space provide adequate parking spots for people with disabilities? If lack of parking is an issue, consider providing extra reserved spots for those with disabilities. Consider how people with wheelchairs as well as those without but who have limited mobility can maneuver in the space. If a separate entrance is needed for those who cannot climb stairs, make sure the entrance is not locked. Allow people to independently be able to enter your venue. If it isn’t self-explanatory, have clear instructions for where ramps and reserved parking for those with disabilities are located.

6. Location and set-up.

Be sure your venue is wheelchair accessible — both entrance and bathrooms. When planning the set-up of your room, ensure the aisles are wide enough for wheelchairs. Leave space at the side and back of rooms so people who need to stand can do so.

7. Inclusion supplies and supports.

Want to go above and beyond? Provide a separate space where attendees can comfortably relax, especially for longer events and conferences. Have more comfortable chairs and foot stools in these spaces. Ensure space for attendees to stretch if needed. Inside your event, provide back supports, cushions, and/or portable foot stools so attendees can make the seating fit their bodies.

8. Food allergies and intolerances.

If you are serving food at your event, consider taking a few steps to allow participants to keep themselves safe. Keep common allergens out of your menu, and announce menus ahead of time. Keep your event space peanut/tree nut free since those allergies often respond to any exposure. Label foods being served (or if using wait staff, have them informed) including if they contain and/or are free of common allergens. If you are aware of an attendee having an allergy, do what you can to accommodate. Providing an alternative food is more inclusive than asking an attendee to bring their own.

9. Audio/video streaming and conferencing.

Being physically present is just not possible for all people. If you take advantage of one of the many technologies available to audio/video streaming or conferencing. At the most basic, you can allow people to hear and see speakers. With more investment, you can allow speakers to present and participants to ask questions without being in attendance.

10. Social media participation.

With social media, we can rethink what participation looks like. Create a hashtag for your event so participants can use it to follow each other’s posts. Create a Storify page to track postings and create a permanent website with tweets and streaming. Provide a listing of all speakers and participants that includes social media used to encourage participants to connect. Virtual Connecting is an organization that is rethinking academic conference participation. They have ideas about how to connect people physically present as well as those participating online.

Don’t stop with my ten tips. The best way to be inclusive of people with disabilities is to engage in conversation. Ask people with disabilities whom you want to participate at your conference what they need. Be open and creative. Making your conferences and other events more inclusive for people with disabilities will also make them more inclusive for all people.

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Originally published: December 15, 2016
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