How to Make an Event Accessible for All Attendees

May 12, 2022

Phyllis Rush

hybrid events

Who doesn’t love a good annual conference in Vegas? Or perhaps an exciting industry tradeshow in Chicago? Or even a virtual event you attend right at home from your couch? Whichever type of event you prefer, it becomes clear right away that human beings are social animals and enjoy networking, making 1:1 connections, and hearing keynote speakers together. But all of this can sour quickly if you have a disability and you’re finding that the event planner clearly didn’t know how to make an event accessible. 

So imagine you’re in a wheelchair, and the day’s luncheon area only has steps – no ramps – leading up to the buffet, which means no accessible route to the chow. Or perhaps you have a non-obvious disability aggravated by loud music in an event session where the speaker loudly blasts a rock and roll tune to make their entrance. 

These scenarios are embarrassing and painful, but they are also downright thoughtless and illegal in some cases.  

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was enacted for some of these reasons and many, many more. What is the ADA? It is a law that “prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in several areas, including employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications and access to state and local government programs and services.” So whether you’re at a large convention in Toronto or an annual meeting virtually at home, if you possess a disability, whether obvious or non-obvious, you are offered protections through the ADA. 

USAFacts.org tells us there are 40 million Americans with a disability in the US, or 13% of the population, not including those who are in institutions like prison or long-term care facilities.

Here is a shortlist of disabilities covered under the ADA:

  • Deaf or difficulty hearing - represent 9% of the US population
  • Mobility impaired - represent 7% of the US population
  • Blind or visually impaired - represent 2% of the US population
  • Non-obvious disabilities such as asthma, epilepsy, or allergies
  • Chronic health conditions such as diabetes, autism, or morbid obesity  

Keeping this in mind, we are sharing information on how to make an event accessible, what accessibility for events means, and different accessibility languages for events. And perhaps most importantly, how to make people aware of these things well in advance of your event. 

What does accessibility for events mean?

When you hear “accessibility,” you may think of wheelchairs and crutches. But accessibility goes far and beyond mobility limitations. There are many different types of disabilities covered by the ADA, and when looking at how to make an event accessible, it means access for all of these disabilities. 

When you educate yourself about accessibility for events, you become much more aware of situations that would be difficult for someone with a disability to navigate. It can often be overwhelming for newer event planners to think through the checklist items you need to ensure that you’re providing the most accessible event possible, both for in-person and virtual attendees. 

Because of these reasons, event planners should consider appointing someone specifically only to manage accessibility planning for your event. This means from pre-event notifications all the way through accommodations that your speakers and exhibitors request. 

Armed with a dedicated resource and a substantial checklist, your event will be on its way to becoming the most accessible it can possibly be for all your attendees.

Why is providing accessibility during your event important?

Providing accessibility during your event is crucial because we want all event-goers to have the best possible experience at our events, right? Neglecting accessibility issues upfront means that a portion of your event population could be inconvenienced, disappointed, or just downright left out. Providing an accessibility needs question on your registration information will go a long way toward ensuring those with disabilities will be accommodated well.

Spending some planning time on accessibility also means that those individuals with disabilities that either can’t be seen or weren’t disclosed can breathe a sigh of relief, seeing that you proactively asked people in your communications not to wear heavy perfumes or seeing that ramps are available everywhere attendees will be going. Providing accessibility during an event says a lot about your organization and sets the tone that your goal is engagement and enjoyment for all of your event attendees.

Consider Different Accessibility Options per Event Type

Smart event planners will make a thorough accessibility checklist well in advance of their event, focusing on options for event attendees with disabilities. Some examples of what this checklist should include are:

Keep accessibility in mind when choosing an in-person venue

Before you ever sign a contract with an in-person event venue, you’ll want to inquire what types of accommodations their facility has for attendees with disabilities. Be willing to go or send someone onsite to walk all the pathways people will be navigating and ensure for yourself that they are accessible. Make sure that accessibility language for events is part of the contract you sign with the venue.

Send accessibility needs questions in your pre-event communications

Create a plan for how individuals can alert you to their accessibility needs. This gives you and your team the ability to customize the experience for attendees with disabilities if accommodations for their disability haven’t already been made. When you ask the accessibility needs question in your communications, you ensure that even the most timid attendees feel comfortable disclosing their disability and requesting assistance prior to the event, which is, of course, the goal of how to make your event accessible. 

Pre-Event Communicate with Attendees

You’ll no doubt be sharing plenty of pre-event communication with your attendees. These communications will range from a “thank you for registering” email to a last-minute email containing a finalized agenda for the event. Knowing how frequently to communicate and exactly what to communicate can be a tricky dance, so you’ll want to think through how you can use all of these effective communication options to give people with disabilities the opportunity to reach out to you with any concerns or questions about how you can accommodate them. 

Communication Options

There are several different ways you can communicate your accessibility plan to your attendees. With a little ingenuity, you can give attendees every chance to voice any concerns they might have about the event’s accessibility. Here are a few ideas to get you going:

  • Use accessibility language for events in every communication you send out to your prospective and registered attendees. There are some great ways of wording this communication here
  • Make sure that the person whose name, email, and phone number you’re giving out in this accessibility language for events is available to address the needs of your attendees without delay quickly.
  • There is certain information that event attendees who need special accommodations will be curious about in terms of accessibility. Make sure you outline these things early in your communications. Some examples of this include:
  • Wheelchair users’ accessible route inside of the event venue
  • Accessibility features in the hotel rooms associated with the event
  • Sign language interpreters will be present
  • Closed captioning on videos will be included
  • Accommodations will be made for service dogs and other service animals

As with most important messaging, communicate early and often about the accommodations you have already made regarding accessibility, and ensure that you’ve given people plenty of time to request any additional accommodations they may need.

How to Make Virtual & Hybrid Events Accessible

With virtual events on the rise, it is imperative that event accessibility for your virtual attendees be taken into consideration. Perhaps you’re new to the virtual and hybrid event space and haven’t had to contemplate accessibility for virtual events before. Whatever the case may be, here are some options you may want to consider. 

Accessibility for a virtual event is obviously different in many ways from an in-person event in that not all of the physical onsite accommodations apply here. But there are still many ways you can provide an accessible experience for those who ask accessibility needs questions.

Virtual events are events that are conducted entirely on a computer or smart device. For the company presenting the virtual event, they might be using pre-recorded video or live simulcasts. Companies presenting virtual events use event management software tools that allow them to make event landing pages, have the main hall and breakout session capabilities for speakers, house content and chat rooms for exhibitors, and many other features. Here are some examples of ways to make your virtual event accessible for your event attendees.

Virtual & hybrid event accessibility for the visually impaired

  • Screen readers
  • Screen enlargement capabilities and tools
  • Have chat and Q&A comments read aloud by a moderator
  • Encourage color contrast in presentations and event platforms

Virtual & hybrid event accessibility for those with difficulty hearing

  • Closed captioning or live transcription
  • ASL interpreters during presentations
  • Chats and typed Q&A available for questions and networking

You might also provide all presentations and materials in an area where they can easily be downloaded at the start of the event. In addition, you might ask your speakers to please avoid loud or distracting noises or strobing lights in their presentations for people with non-obvious disabilities.

Moreover, you should also plan to work with your event sponsors and companies who will be hosting virtual exhibits during the event to find out what their plans for accessibility are.

How to Make In-Person Events Accessible

Making an in-person event accessible is crucial for the success and enjoyment of all of your event attendees. Planning accessibility for events should not be an afterthought but rather an integral part of an event planner’s project planning from the very beginning. 

There are many factors to consider in how to make an event accessible. You should begin by working closely with your venue’s contact person on what accessibility options they already have available, ensuring all accessible routes and accessible parking, and then go from there. A venue might be accessible, but all of the places that attendees will come and go from might not be accessible. 

You will want to assess every area of your event that an attendee might possibly go or experience throughout the course of your event in order to come up with solutions for any potential accessible route issues. Following is a partial list of examples of areas you might consider.

In-person event accessibility options for the visually impaired

  • Ensure all event signage is in large print and clear
  • Ensure all event areas are well-lit and bright
  • Provide all event materials in advance for those who have difficulty with distance vision
  • Encourage color contrast in presentations and event signage

In-person event accessibility options for those with hearing difficulties

  • Have Q&A comments read aloud by a moderator. Many times, either a microphone isn’t available for the audience to ask a question, or the person asking the question insists that they don’t need a microphone. Having a moderator repeat the question aloud over a microphone ensures that those with hearing difficulties have an opportunity to know what the question was.
  • Utilize ASL interpreters during presentations 
  • Make Assistive Listening Devices available
  • Provide ample seating closer to the front for lip-reading purposes

In-person event accessibility options for the mobility impaired

  • Wheelchair access may be a no-brainer for your event venue, but you’ll also want to make sure that you have wheelchair accessible routes throughout the presentation rooms, especially rooms set up for breakout sessions and clusters of networking events
  • Ensure all pathways in the exhibit hall are barrier-free
  • Ensure that wheelchair and companion seating is available in multiple parts of the venue

In-person event accessibility options for non-obvious disabilities

  • Ask people to refrain from wearing heavy perfumes or colognes in all of your pre-event communications
  • Ask your speakers and presenters to please avoid loud or distracting noises, or strobing lights in their presentations
  • Make accommodations for service animals

This is by no means meant to represent a full and complete list of accommodations that might be needed, but these are some of the more common types of accessibilities for events that event planners place on their accessibility checklists.

Accessibility for events

When deciding how to make an event accessible, it is imperative that you plan early and that an accessibility strategy is well-defined even in the first draft of your event project plan. As you have read, making an event accessible is made up of a lot of important details, from your pre-event communications to your actual event and its accessible routes. You’ll want to pull out all the stops to ensure you’ve covered all of your bases regarding event accessibility.

One final thought on all our recommendations for making your next event accessible, whether in-person or virtual. Ask for feedback post-event to make sure to include accessibility questions in your survey so that your next event is even more accessible. 

If you are a seasoned veteran at providing accessibility for events, then make sure you keep up with the latest technologies that make things easier and more accessible for those with disabilities. From digital accessibility apps to beacon-based audio navigation, advances in technology are making it even easier for event participants with disabilities to navigate, participate, and enjoy events more than ever before. 

If you are new to accessibility for events, continue to educate yourself on what’s required to run an accessible event – and then go three steps beyond that! Your brand and company reputation will be tied up in how well you handle accessibility, and you will want to send a strong message of inclusion.

You want event attendees with disabilities to have the exact same experience as everyone else at the event. With adequate planning time and vigilance to accessibility details, you can pull off an inclusive event that will ensure equal engagement by all. 

For increasing attendance at your next event, take a look at this recent case study: “Powerful Accelevents/Hubspot integration increases Zapier event attendance by 422%”

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