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Planning for Equal Access

With careful planning and sensitivity to the needs of delegates with disabilities, meeting professionals can organize events that are accessible to all. By Valerie Ward

About 3.6 million Canadians – 12.4 per cent of the population – have some type of disability. It’s estimated that by 2011, as many as 4.1 million people will have a disability that affects their mobility, agility, vision, hearing, speaking, or developmental capacities.

Delegates with disabilities are already a fact of life at many events today and their numbers will only grow as the baby boom generation ages. The onus on meeting professionals is to plan events that provide as convenient and pleasant an experience for those with disabilities as they do for all other participants. By being proactive, you not only remain in compliance with provincial law, but you may attract more delegates to your events.

Organizing truly accessible meetings requires careful planning, resourcefulness and sensitivity. While you must know your legal obligations, it’s equally important to learn about the needs, priorities and perspectives of people with disabilities. “Take accessibility seriously, be willing to learn and make mistakes, and don’t take anything for granted,” counsels Karen Campbell, a corporate events planner with the Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation.

At the federal level, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires equal treatment under the law of every individual “without discrimination based on…mental or physical disability.” Since the provinces have their own laws on the subject, find out which ones apply in the province in which your event will be held. Once you know the legal obligations, you need to find out how to evaluate potential sites for accessibility.

Experienced planners recommend contacting Independent Living Centres, as well as disability-specific groups such as the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Canadian Hearing Association, and the Canadian Paraplegic Association. Many of these groups provide their own accessibility checklists. In addition, the Independent Meeting Planners Association of Canada (IMPAC) issued an updated accessibility guide last year that includes site selection checklists, information on special needs requirements and a comprehensive list of resources.

While most hotel and convention centres have made significant strides in this area, accessibility levels still vary. “Some venues have made a conscious decision to improve accessibility and have worked with local access centres to do so,” observes veteran planner Rachel Gillooly of Rachel Gillooly & Associates near Haliburton County, Ont. “Others are less aware of the issues.”

Even if a facility claims to be accessible, you must inspect it to ensure it meets the specific needs of your delegates. “There was a huge convention not long ago at a hotel that advertised itself as wheelchair accessible,” says Campbell. “One of the scheduled speakers was in a wheelchair but it turned out he couldn’t get to the meeting room because it was in the basement and only accessible using the stairs. It was a big embarrassment for the hotel and the meeting planners.”

If you’re in doubt about the suitability of a site, bring one or more people with disabilities with you for the inspection. “It should take at least two hours to evaluate a site for all your meeting requirements,” says Gillooly. “You need to get a real feeling for the property.” Your inspection should cover: parking; walkways, curbs and ramps; entrances, corridors and stairs; elevators; signage; lobby and front desk; public washrooms; bedrooms; meeting and function rooms; and emergency procedures.

Campbell’s best bit of advice is to let the delegate work one-on-one with the hotel. “Thank your delegate for their registration and then give them their hotel confirmation number and the contact information for the concierge. Let the delegate arrange for their specific needs in their room directly with the hotel staff.”

Assess each aspect according to its ability to accommodate special needs with dignity and respect. Pay attention to detail. For example, are there plants or other objects protruding from the wall that a visually impaired person using a cane might not detect? Are public telephones hearing-aid compatible? Will a card-access system for bedrooms be difficult for wheelchair users? “These systems can be problematic because you have to insert the card, pull down the door handle and push your wheelchair in as soon as the door unlocks,” points out Campbell. Also ascertain whether or not the site is flexible enough to accommodate differing degrees of impairment. For example, mobility impairment doesn’t always mean a person who uses a wheelchair. It can also include an individual who uses crutches or a cane, someone who is arthritic or has had an injury and has trouble climbing stairs.

In addition, discuss meal preparation and service with the food and beverage department.“Whether you’re setting up a meeting for 10 or 250, food and foodservice are key elements,” stresses Campbell. “If you have delegates with limited hand movement, for instance, there’s no point in serving T-bone steak or bone-in chicken. Order food everyone can eat.” Coffee, tea and water are standard items at a meeting, but again, people with limited hand movement can’t use cups and may have trouble opening water bottles.Request mugs instead, open some water bottles in advance, and have small, light containers of coffee close by so attendees can pour their own.

For visually impaired delegates, ensure an attendant is available at buffet meals to describe what dishes are available and to help serve. “I’ve seen visually impaired people reduced to tears by buffets because there was no one there to orient them or tell them about the food choices,” says Campbell.

Communicate the importance of accessibility in your discussions with the facility’s management. Gillooly believes it’s up to planners to move this agenda forward. “Let them know you can’t bring an event to their facility unless it meets the accessibility needs of your guests.”

Once you’ve selected a venue, hold pre-conference meetings to educate site staff about special needs as well as protocols for dealing with situations that arise. “It sounds obvious, but as an example, if you have a visually impaired delegate, front-desk employees should be reminded that it’s a visual, not a hearing, impairment – they don’t need to shout at the person, which I’ve seen happen,” explains Gillooly. “If a guest is visually impaired, staff should communicate with them in an appropriate way. I was at an event when a blind guest asked the front desk where the elevator was. The employee answered ‘over there’ and pointed. Not surprisingly, the guest was upset and I had to intervene to reassure him and then request a meeting with hotel staff.”

Your planning should also include alternate ways to provide meeting information to delegates who are hearing or visually impaired, ranging from assistive listening systems, oral interpreters, trained notetakers and American Sign Language interpreters. Since most meetings today involve multi-media presentations, investigate options to the print and audio portions such as audiotape, descriptive audio, large print, CD, Braille and closed captioning.

Of course, things can go wrong despite your best efforts, and it’s possible that a planner, sponsoring organization or hotel could be sued for damage or injury.

To be safe, make sure you’re in compliance with statutes or bylaws outlining requirements that must be followed in the meeting city. “What applies in Toronto won’t be the same as what’s in force in Nunavut,” says Bill Pashby of Toronto-based Borden Ladner Gervais LLP. Standard common law applies to safety issues for both delegates with disabilities and those without. If you’re planning special activities as part of your event, it’s probably best to choose things everyone can participate in. But if that’s not possible and a hiking or rafting trip is still on the itinerary, have everyone who participates sign a release or waiver stating that they are physically and mentally able to do so.

Other basic precautions include identifying special needs requirements in the contract with your chosen facility, and not overstating the accessibility of your event when you market it. For example, it’s not wheelchair accessible if only one or two rooms are. Be clear about what people can expect so they won’t be disappointed, counsels Pashby.

You may also wish to consider general liability insurance. “Planners definitely need it,” says Wolf Leue, senior partner at Toronto-based LMS Prolink Ltd. “Most events are held in the name of an organization, but if the planner is in control of the event, he or she would be drawn into a legal battle.” Furthermore, the courts will be tougher if a person with a disability is involved. “With a person without disabilties, it could always be argued that the injured party could have been more attentive or cautious. This won’t likely be the case with a person with a disability and judges will nail you harder and faster.”

Even if you have liability insurance, don’t regard it as a cure-all. “It’s better not to get into trouble in the first place,” says Pashby. The wisest solution would be to change the way you think about and plan your meetings, take advantage of the many resources available, and learn how to accommodate the needs of this growing community as fully and respectfully as you can. Diane Laundy, chair of IMPAC’s Accessibility Guide Committee, agrees. “Through pre-planning and resourcefulness, almost all accessibility problems can be overcome.”

Resources for accessible meetings:

The IMPAC Accessibility Guide can be purchased by calling IMPAC at (905) 868-8008.

Government Information
Access to transportation

Planning for Accessible Meetings

National Associations
Arthritis Society

Canadian Association of
Independent Living Centres

Canadian Abilities Foundation

Canadian Association of the Deaf

Canadian Hard of Hearing Association

Canadian National Institute for the Blind

Canadian Paraplegic Association

– Valerie Ward is a freelance writer based in Dunrobin, Ont.

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