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How Accessible is Your Meeting?

Posted on June 08, 2007

By Patti Digh

Have you ever gotten in a wheelchair and tried to navigate one of your conferences, from airport arrival to hotel registration (those counters are very high) to conference registration and the exhibit hall? Ever tried to serve yourself from a buffet table while seated in a wheelchair?

Ramps and designated parking spaces for people with disabilities are second nature to meeting planners now. But there's more to making people with disabilities feel welcome at your meeting.

*Ask on your registration form what kinds of accommodations registrants might need, using disability friendly language. I recently registered for a conference and the question about accommodation read: “Are you wheelchair bound?” People see their wheelchairs as convenient modes of transportation, not prisons, and the "wheelchair bound" phrase belies the fact that many people with motor disabilities engage in activities without their wheelchairs, including driving and sleeping. The proper phrase is "uses a wheelchair” or “wheelchair user."

*Test accessibility by getting in a wheelchair yourself and trying it out.
*If the hotel front desk is inaccessible for wheelchair users, move registration to the concierge table and provide a clipboard.
*Make exhibitors aware of the need to provide booths with tables enabling interaction at eye level. Include this requirement in their packet.
*Set up food stations that can accommodate wheelchair users.
*Ensure signage is accessible to people with visual impairments. Use a portable Braille labeler and attach the Braille tape to the signs.
*Publish your TDD number in all print materials. (If you don’t have one, get one).
*Choose speakers with visible disabilities.
*Provide guidelines for staff about interacting with people with disabilities, including information on how much language matters, as seen in the following examples:
-Use the people-first rule: "the woman who is blind" not "the blind woman."

-Avoid "suffers from," "afflicted with" or "victim of," all of which cast disabilities as a negative and are, in fact, inaccurate. "Suffers from" indicates ongoing pain and torment, which is no more the case for most people with disabilities as it is for most people without disabilities. "Afflicted with" denotes a disease, which most disabilities are not. "Victim of" implies a crime is being committed on the person who has a disability.
-Use "disability" not "handicap." The word "handicap" derives from the phrase "cap in hand," referring to a beggar, and is despised by most people with disabilities. Other terms to avoid: "physically/mentally challenged" (who isn't?) "cripple" and "crippled."
-Use "nondisabled" or "people without disabilities." The terms "normal" and "whole" are inappropriate and inaccurate.
-Most disabilities are not a disease. Do not call a person with a disability a "patient" unless referring to a hospital setting. In an occupational and physical therapy context, "client" is preferred.
-Some diseases, by legal definition, are considered disabilities. Victimization imagery ("AIDS victims") or defining the person by the disease ("she is a diabetic") is still inappropriate. Use "person with diabetes" or "people living with AIDS."
-"Blind" refers to total loss of eyesight; "low vision" or "visual disability" is more accurate for people who have some degree of sight. Avoid "non-sighted."
-People who consider themselves part of Deaf culture refer to themselves as "Deaf" with a capital "D." Because their culture derives from their language, they may be identified as you would other cultural entities, i.e. "Asian-Americans," "people with disabilities."
-For people with speech disabilities, avoid "mute," "dumb," or "speech impediment."
-Avoid "deformed," "deformity" and "birth defect." A person may be "born without arms" or "has a congenital disability," but is probably not defective.
-Down syndrome is a chromosomal condition that causes developmental disability. Use "person with Down syndrome." Avoid "mongol" or "mongoloid."
-Mental disabilities include cognitive, psychiatric and learning disabilities and physical head trauma. Avoid "mentally retarded," "insane," "slow learner," "learning disabled" and "brain damaged."
-Cerebral palsy is a disability resulting from damage to the brain during birth that causes muscle incoordination. Avoid "palsied" and "spastic."
-A seizure is an episode caused by a sudden disturbance in the brain. If seizures are recurrent, it is called a seizure disorder. Use "person with epilepsy" or "child with a seizure disorder." Avoid "epileptic," either as a noun or adjective.
-Avoid "dwarf" or "midget." Some groups prefer "little people," but it's best to use "person of short stature."
-Quadriplegia is a substantial loss of function in all four extremities. Paraplegia is a substantial loss of function in the lower part of the body. Use "man with paraplegia" or "she has quadriplegia." Avoid "paraplegic" or "quadriplegic" as either a noun or adjective.

The number one user of curb cuts, those ramps at curb corners, is not people with disabilities, but people with baby strollers. Likewise, these changes in your meeting will also be useful for other attendees, not just those with disabilities.

Make your meeting inclusive of people with disabilities and make these changes known in your marketing materials to attract people with disabilities to your conference. This will also let nondisabled attendees know that the organization is serious about creating an inclusive meeting. People with disabilities are the largest untapped market in the U.S. – with over 54 million people and discretionary income of $176 billion, it’s a market you can’t afford to ignore.


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Joan Eisenstodt

Thank you for this. It is one of the areas of which planners know a bit and suppliers only know what they have to to be in compliance with ADA but don't really understand the issues. This should be mandatory reading for ALL. Hope MN puts this in the Workbook section.

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