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Breaking Down the Barriers

How to ensure accessibility and inclusivity at meetings and events

By Wendy Helfenbaum

About 4.5 million Canadians—one in seven—have some sort of dis­ability. Chances are delegates, speakers and exhibitors at your events will require special arrangements to ensure safety and inclusivity. Are you prepared?

In June 2016, the federal government kicked off an eight-month consultation with 6,000 Canadians and 90 organizations in preparation for the first national accessibility law. Expected to be presented before the House of Commons in early 2018, the new legislation will mandate improved access to buildings and transportation systems for people with physical and intellectual disabilities. And in June, the Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion launched Don’t Let A Barrier Be A Bully, an awareness campaign highlighting day-to-day challenges faced by people with mobility issues.

While Quebec and Manitoba have accessibility guidelines, the most comprehensive legislation is Ontario’s Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, notes Chuck Schouwerwou, CMP, CMM, president and principal meeting planner at ConferSense Planners in Ottawa.

Schouwerwou got a crash course in planning accessible meetings while working with the Cooperative Housing Association of Canada, which provides housing for people with different levels of mobility. He says involving stakeholders early in the planning process by doing accessibility audits at potential venues can reveal potential challeng­es that need addressing.

“I recommend planners do the audit before signing the contract,” he says. “Go with people who use wheelchairs or scooters and do a complete tour of the facility to see how it would impact the average delegate: from arrival at the hotel outside, into the check-in process, to the guest rooms and meeting space, and elevators.”

Bathrooms often pose the biggest problems, he says. Even if stalls are accessible, an awkwardly placed wall or lack of an automatic button to open the door causes difficulties. Registration desks are usually too high for a wheelchair or scooter user to look over, which complicates check-in. Buffet station heights and number of serving attendants should also be checked.

“Most of us wouldn’t think to ask for bendable drinking straws at a buf­fet, but that’s critical to a person with mobility issues,” adds Schouwerwou.

Sometimes, hotel room furniture needs to be rearranged or fix­tures changed out, adds Bettyanne Sherrer, CMP, CMM, principal of ProPlan Conferences & Events in Richmond Hill, Ont.

“Sure, you can glide into the room, but if the night table is past the bed, how does someone in a wheelchair answer the phone? Also, we’ve often had to run out and buy hand-held showers,” she says.

Once an accessibility audit is done, Schouwerwou recommends submitting a report detailing items to be corrected before signing the contract.

“Most venues are very amenable; it might cost them $1,000 to ret­rofit a bathroom door, but it could bring them in thousands of dollars of business because of that feature,” he says.

Assessing your group

Discovering the accessibility requirements for every participant— speakers, volunteers, sponsors and delegates—well in advance will drive many aspects of your planning, including funding for interpreters or extra staff, notes Sherrer. While registration forms with drop-down menus provide some details about special needs, follow-up by phone.

“A conversation puts their minds at ease; I paint a picture for them through different scenarios where I see challenges,” she says.

“If someone walks with a cane, and you’re doing a small meeting in a hotel, it’s probably okay. But put that same person into a con­vention centre, and they’re probably going to need a scooter, even if they didn’t say it.”

All in the details

Other areas to consider include finding accessible stages, ramps and accessories, says Schouwerwou.

“We had to get a custom lectern for a podium because nobody in a wheelchair could look over it,” he recalls.

If attendees are bringing service dogs, prepare a special area out­side the venue with water stations, bags and garbage cans.

“Contrary to popular belief, it should not be grass,” says Schouw­erwou. “Most service animals relieve themselves on sidewalks and roads where the owners can find it easily.”

ASL interpreters for people with hearing difficulties should be lit individually, otherwise they’re difficult to see, he adds. Have dele­gates with visual impairments? Be sure to inform speakers to struc­ture their presentations with easy-to-read colours and lighting, sug­gests Schouwerwou.

“I’ve seen speakers that aren’t used to having platform interpret­ers, so they don’t know the pace to speak or what to do when inter­preters switch out, so make sure they’re ready,” adds Sherrer.

Respecting the needs of attendees with disabilities without mak­ing them stand out can be a delicate balance, notes Schouwerwou.

“Consider the results of your every action—yes, it might help them, but helping them feel safe, welcome and included while main­taining dignity is the guiding principle.”

Resources for accessible meetings

  • The Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure’s booklet and checklist, Planning Accessible Events So Everyone Feels Welcome
  • The Ontario Municipal Social Services Association’s Guide to Conducting Accessible Meetings
  • The Canadian Association of Professional Event Planners’ accessibility manual is available to members at
  • The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion’s Don’t Let A Barrier Be A Bully

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