Accessibility 101: How to Make In-Person Events and Meetings Accessible
Welcome to Ability Central’s "Accessibility 101" on accommodation for in-person meetings. Ability Central’s mission is to make information and communication accessible to everyone. Ability Central regularly hosts meetings with participants who are Deaf, have sensory processing disabilities, are visually impaired, or have difficulty speaking.
When it comes to accessibility, two things ring true: plan for accessibility from the very beginning and always ask people what their access needs are. In all communication about the meeting, make it clear what accommodation is available and who to contact if someone needs to put in a request. By advertising the available accommodation, you create space for people to communicate their needs. Following through with the accommodation establishes equity and access for disabled individuals during in-person meetings. Taking the time to explore what people need in advance, and a moment at the start of the meeting to make sure everyone’s access needs are being met creates a smooth transition into workplace topics.
People’s needs may change—stay curious and in communication. For in-person meetings, ask about the format in which they want to receive materials—do people prefer email or a print-out? Perhaps they need a large print or braille copy. Do they need a scent-free, well-ventilated environment to accommodate chemical sensitivities?
Remember that everyone has access needs and the best way to improve access is to ask what a person’s needs are, then accept and implement feedback. Our best teachers about accessibility are the people with disabilities requesting accommodation.
In-person meeting venues may require adjustments or need to change entirely to improve access. Being conscious of elements such as accessible parking at the venue, access to the meeting space by public transit, accessible architecture features such as ramps, entrances with push buttons, non-carpet flooring as well as elevator access. Other accessibility considerations for meeting spaces are wheelchair-accessible restrooms, barrier-free pathways, and wide doorways and aisles.
If your conference room or meeting spaces have electronics, keep the walkways clear of loose cables or anything that may get caught on a mobility aid or white cane. If cables in walkways cannot be avoided, then tape them down or cover them.
Distribute Accessible Materials in Advance
In-person meetings run smoothly if everyone has access to the information ahead of time. While your PowerPoint slides may look colorful and beautiful, if a blind team member can’t access them, the information is lost. Providing the materials early gives everyone time to review them in an accessible format and to prepare their questions or comments. When the meeting starts, everyone is on the same page and can contribute effectively without losing valuable perspective and insight.
Accessible document formatting has some general rules, like using high contrast colors, image descriptions on any images or tables, and utilizing plain sans serif fonts like Arial, Helvetica, or Comic Sans in 14-point size or larger. It can also include providing materials in alternate formats such as large-print or Braille for visually impaired individuals.
Tap into Interpreters
If you have team members in the Deaf community, an American Sign Language interpreter can be an important tool to increase communication access for those team members. Interpreters will provide language support to Deaf individuals in the meeting space by interpreting the spoken words to ASL and vice versa. For ASL users, having a qualified interpreter present can dramatically improve communication and information access.
If requested, ask the Deaf person if they have a preferred interpreter or interpreting agency. Contact them at least 2 weeks in advance and provide information on the content to be discussed so the interpreter can prepare for the assignment. If your meeting is longer than 30 minutes, a team of two interpreters may need to be hired to split the workload.
Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) services can make your meeting or event more accessible to late-deafened, hard of hearing people, or pretty much anyone. CART works by a transcriber providing real-time captions of spoken words, sound effects, and other environmental sounds or cues. The text would then be displayed on a screen or monitor for people to read from. If a PowerPoint is being utilized, the text can be synchronized to appear on the same screen as your presentation.
Much like hiring an interpreter, contact the CART service provider at least two weeks before your event and provide as much information as possible so that they can prepare for your event or meeting.
Consider whether you have enough chairs, the type of chairs available and if there’s space for wheelchair users. There should be multiple designated areas for wheelchair users to sit, with space for other mobility aid users and friends or attendants to sit with them. If a team member is using a sign language interpreter and requires reserved seating near the front of the room, that should be taken into consideration as well.
If your meeting will have more than 12 people, consider using a microphone and PA system to make the meeting easier to follow for people who are hard of hearing. Microphones may be a little intimidating for some, but they are an extremely useful tool for accessibility. Remind people to wait until they get to the microphone to start speaking and to speak directly into the microphone.
Visual Descriptions and Introductions
For team members with visual impairments, offering a visual description of the environment throughout the meeting paints an inclusive picture. Taking the time to introduce each other and give a brief, meaningful description of one’s appearance as a presenter makes a huge difference in welcoming visually impaired people to the meeting space. Be sure to take a moment to describe the visual elements of the meeting as well. Providing a brief description of images, tables, and GIFs improves access for blind or visually impaired team members.
If you are taking turns speaking in a group, introducing yourself before you begin to speak helps visually impaired people make associations between a person’s name and the sound of their voice. It is also helpful for interpreters and transcribers. A simple “This is *name*” before you dive into content goes a long way.
Keep in mind that for some people with disabilities, an in-person meeting requires a lot of energy —be it physical energy, mental energy, or even emotional energy depending on the topic. Punctuating breaks into your meeting gives everyone a chance to breathe, go to the restroom, grab water or rest as needed. These breaks can make a meeting more productive as they give people a chance to retain more information and refresh their perspective.
When in Doubt—Remember to Ask
Accessibility varies from individual to individual. Accommodating one person is not cookie-cutter throughout the disability community—each person has their own set of needs, and those needs may fluctuate from day to day or even hour to hour. The best way you can welcome your disabled team members is simply asking them what makes a difference in their experience.
This is not an exhaustive list by any means. So, don’t be afraid to be curious and communicative about what your team needs to succeed.
Ability Central has resources on Mobility Disabilities that help explore some access options for In-Person meetings. The Portal offers access to information based on disability interest, from Visual to Deaf and Hearing Loss. Exploring accessibility options can help accommodate all your team members effectively.