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How to Include Everyone at Events

Is it becoming any easier for attendees with special physical needs to get around, engage, and feel welcome at events? "Not even remotely," says one expert.

Joan Eisenstodt

According to the 2017 Disability Equality Index (DEI), a survey conducted by the U.S. Business Leadership Network (USBLN) and the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), U.S. businesses are becoming increasingly accessible for people with disabilities. Can the same be said about business events? Convene asked Joan Eisenstodt, who as chief strategist for her firm Eisenstodt Associates consults on event design. 

Has there been improvement in recent years in accommodating meeting attendees with special physical needs?  
Not even remotely, and it’s not just in sessions. In receptions, the music may be so loud that few people can hear. The lighting is so low that it’s hard to see, which is also a safety issue. The food is stunning, but people with arthritis or who are short or who use an electric scooter — like me — can’t reach it. And that’s not even getting to hotel-room or bathroom issues. We need to broaden our thinking about our audiences and not say, “Oh, we don’t have anyone with a disability.” How do you know —or that you won’t by the time of the meeting?

What are the top three things you recommend event organizers do to make their events more inclusive for people with mobility or other challenges (sight or hearing, for instance)?
1. Read the U.S. Department of Justice resources on making meetings accessible.
2. Do site inspections using a mobility scooter or an eyepatch or earplugs yourself. Find the obstacles and figure out how to get around them. It’s always eye-opening.
3. Ask [prospective attendees], “What do you need to fully participate?” The hospitality industry should go above and beyond what anyone else would do. Work with the catering department so food is labeled, food tables are low enough, the seating isn’t just high tops so everyone can take part in a conversation. A lot of groups set aside space for wheelchairs and scooters, but people want to sit where they like; you’re not supposed to be “separate but equal.” There are guidelines out there, but bizarrely, our industry is just becoming aware of them.

Can you share how one event you attended did an especially good job of making all people feel welcome and looked after?
Not really. I know what Disabled American Veterans does for its site inspections, so I would guess they’re good at accommodations. The Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf has specific things in its contract, such as bringing in certified interpreters to explain to all hotel staff how to communicate with someone who’s deaf or hard of hearing. Because it’s contracted, hotels do a good job in that one area. Do they do a good job for other people? I can’t answer that.

In your experience, do registration forms cover all the bases in highlighting particular needs? Do event organizers follow up to make sure those individuals are taken care of?
The wheelchair is the universal symbol for disabilities, so that’s on the form. People check the box, and the form says, “How should we contact you for details?”— that’s the right way to do it. I don’t know if organizations are doing a good job at following up. When I’m a speaker, my needs are accommodated to the extent that they can be. I’m worried, though. We’re hearing that the [Americans With Disabilities Act] may be watered down more. And in social media and industry-discussion groups, people are asking, “It’s going to cost $X to accommodate Y — do I really have to do it?”

How would you respond?
Think of the return. If I know I’m going to be more fully accommodated at your meeting, I’m going to go there rather than a competing meeting. Why would we not want to accommodate people if we know we can get loyal members and participants? There’s a lot that can be done that doesn’t cost much, and part of it is attitude. Loyalty comes when people feel welcome.

Ellen Ryan

  • Thank you, Ellen Ryan and Convene, for interviewing me. Ellen and I talked at length and bec of restrictions on length of what’s posted, not included are the issues with airlines and other accommodations and vendors used for meetings. You might want to subscribe to begin to understand: http://www.newmobility.com/ . Read this specifically: Airlines are part of ‘hospitality’ and without knowing that the ADA doesn’t cover airlines and airports in the same way it covers ‘public accommodations’, you may be surprised to learn how difficult travel is for people with disabilities. (Note: this covers mobility – http://www.newmobility.com/2017/12/flying-unfriendly-skies/ ; for people who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind or with low vision; for people with arthritis and other illnesses, for people with cognitive learning challenges, other challenges exist. And just so you know… TSAPreCheck? Not so good for those of us w/ disabilities! LAS in particular is a pain in the neck to put it mildly. LOOK at all the meetings biz in Las Vegas and what power Meetings Mean Biz and our industry in general could put on that airport and US Travel and that airport!

    And tho’ this interview was about ‘senior’ travelers, it really is about anyone with a disability and esp. those of us who travel alone and often on business. Hear what RNO did after the CMP Conclave! https://www.marketplace.org/2017/07/31/life/how-airports-are-failing-senior-travelers)

    My thanks to my colleague, Niesa Silzer, and to PCMA, and to Kristin McCosh (the Boston Mayor’s Commissioner for People with Disabilities) for the first session we did about inclusive hospitality. My thanks to SGMP, ExhibitorLive, and most recently, the CMP Conclave and Denise Suttle, CMP, of the Albuquerque DMO and a past pres. of ESPA, for the experiential presentations using ESPA’s Project Access as a guide. You can request a copy here http://espaonline.org/programs/accessibility-toolkit/ if you are not a member. Planners should INSIST that all CSMs (aka ESMs) be members of ESPA and that all hotels, convention centers, conference centers, and DMOs and DMCs have a copy and add to it.

    The tools are there. The knowledge is there. And for goodness sake, we ARE the ‘hospitality’ industry and to me, that means that we are inclusive! And if you’re reading this and in the DC area, watch for an announcement of (we hope!) a date in late January for a program by Destination DC on how to be more accommodating at restaurants, hotels, attractions, etc.

    Oh one last thing: the Invisible Disabilities Assn. is an asset for those of us who, if you didn’t observe us using an assistive device, would appear to not have a disability. I encourage you to read at their site and more, to order “But You Look So Good” to understand more. https://invisibledisabilities.org/