Patricia Digh Developing Diversity Strategies

How Accessible is Your Meeting?

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.

Make”Inclusive Meetings” Your Brand

June 06, 2007

By Patti Digh

More women work now, more working women have young children under six, more people with disabilities are working and traveling, the number of what we now call “minority groups” is increasing and will soon not be “minorities” any longer, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has almost tripled since 1970, there are four generations in the American workforce for the first time, the number of Americans over 50 will increase by 40% in the next ten years, never married adults are one of the fastest growing population segments in the U.S., and over 10% of U.S. jobs now depend on overseas sales.

These changes bring with them new preferences, needs, and expectations and new prospective attendees for our meetings. No longer does “one size fit all” when generational, gender, religious, language, sexual orientation, cultural, and other differences abound. These demographic changes will increasingly have a profound impact on how we design, brand, market, deliver, and evaluate our meetings and conferences. Are you ready?

Impact of social changes on meetings
The National Urban League once pulled their annual convention out of California because of that state’s Civil Rights Initiative ballot question. They wanted to move it to a more "supportive affirmative action state." Ten years ago, the 58,000-member American Library Association moved its 25,000-attendee meeting from Cincinnati to Philadelphia after Cincinnati passed anti-gay legislation. They then included a statement in their contracts reserving the right to cancel their meeting, without penalty, should a supplier's position on gay rights conflict with ALA's views.

*Ensure that your organization's diversity policies are reflected by your meeting partners and suppliers. Be prepared to move the meeting if they are not.

Marketing and Image-Building
You don’t need expensive market research to make some simple diversity-friendly decisions:
*Use inclusive language, such as "international and U.S. attendees" instead of "foreign and domestic" on your meeting materials.
* Have bilingual people at the registration desk, and promote that in your brochure. You don’t have non-English speaking attendees? Maybe they don’t come because they are fearful that they couldn’t fully participate.
*Consider adding prayer rooms for Muslim attendees. These can be empty rooms where Muslim participants can go at the designated times for their daily prayers. You don’t have any Muslim attendees? Maybe you would if they knew their religious needs would be provided for.
* Show the diversity of your own association through the staff representation on-site.
* Provide diversity training for on-site staff to enhance their sensitivity to and skills around issues they might face during the course of the meeting.

Even in 2007, major conference brochures come across my desk featuring all-white, all-male line-ups of Baby Boomer keynote speakers. While there’s nothing wrong with aging white males, theirs are not the only voices we should hear.
*Ensure a diverse mix of speakers for both plenary and breakout sessions. Don’t fall prey to the “but these are the biggies” syndrome. There are other important voices in the world – develop diverse networks in order to find them.
*Include your organization's diversity policy statement in your information packets for prospective speakers, along with diversity guidelines for their speech.
*Ask speakers to integrate diverse perspectives into their speech.
*Provide speakers with the demographics of your meeting attendees.
*Include a question on your session evaluation form: “did the speakers demonstrate respect for diversity and/or cultural difference?”

Social and Food Functions
Salsa has replaced ketchup as the number one condiment on American dinner tables, reflecting the kinds of changes that are appearing in meetings as well.
*Offer alternatives at every meal, including vegetarian, no pork, and no alcohol in sauces.
*On buffets, clearly label which dishes are vegetarian or vegan, contain pork or alcohol, or nuts.
Not just food, but entertainment itself is changing. Spouse programs have transformed into guest programs, moving beyond fashion shows and golf to more creative networking options that don’t rely so heavily on gender stereotypes.
*Make sure that your registration forms make it possible for people to make requests for accommodations-of many types.

Good-Faith Accommodation
The U.S. is now home to more than 1,500 different primary religious organizations. There are more Muslims than Methodists in Chicago, more Hindus than Congregationalists, and more Buddhists than Episcopalians. The Islamic community virtually equals the Jewish community and is one of the nation's largest non-Christian religious groups.
To ensure you're aware of religious issues that may impact your meeting:
*Before booking a meeting, consult a calendar that lists important Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and other religious holidays.
*Know when religious groups observe their Sabbath. Seventh Day Adventists, for example, observe the Sabbath from sundown Friday through Saturday.
*Learn about food preferences and requirements for religious groups. For instance, Hindus are vegetarians. They also abstain from alcohol, as do Mormons, Baha'i, and others.

Many of the changes you will make in your meeting—from prayer rooms to special meals to staff training—should be noted in your marketing materials in order to attract diverse participants, not just accommodate them when they come. These messages also give a heads-up to all attendees that the organization is serious about diversity.

These kinds of diversity-focused changes in your meeting can be a "welcome mat" to attract new kinds of meeting attendees. They can also sensitize your traditional attendees to the changes in their industry, profession, and the world around them—and to the fact that their professional association is on top of the trends.

Building a reputation for being inclusive—by sharing diversity success stories in industry-wide newsletters and other media—is one key success strategy. Make “inclusive meetings” your organization’s brand to increase attendance from diverse groups.

Let’s hold our next National Conference over Christmas!

June 04, 2007

By Patti Digh

If you doubt the impact, let me invite you to a meeting you really want to attend, one that is important to your career. We’ll hold it on December 24 and get fantastic room rates! Don’t worry about not being home with your family that day—we’ll make sure you get some candy canes in your registration packet and I’ll order Christmas ham for the closing banquet so you will get your holiday meal, as usual.

Feeling welcomed? Feeling like your religious difference has been accommodated in a way that makes you want to be an engaged member of my association?

No, I thought not. But groups plan meetings on important religious holidays all the time – many Jewish people, for example, face the decision about whether to be with family at Passover or Rosh Hashanah or attend professional meetings planned for those dates.

When planning a meeting, before doing anything else, ask three basic questions:

--Have I consulted a multicultural calendar before selecting a date for a meeting?
--Would I plan this meeting on a Christian holiday?
--If the conflict truly is unavoidable or the meeting was planned years ago by someone less enlightened than I, have I acknowledged the religious holiday of those affected and engaged in dialogue to determine what, if any, accommodation might help mitigate the situation (beyond candy canes and holiday hams)?

With the abundance of online multicultural calendars, no longer can we blame our oversight on the fact that “those holidays change every year and confuse me.” “But those are the only dates we can meet” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Nor does “I didn’t realize it was Yom Kippur.” And the typical sarcastic reaction – “So what now – do I have to avoid Chinese New Year and the Independence Day of New Zealand too?” – is inappropriate in a world where leadership decisions are complex, not simple, requiring a leadership mindset and approach that can navigate ambiguity more gracefully.

I learned these lessons the hard way: Years ago, I planned my first international meeting to begin on the first day of Ramadan, a fact brought to my attention by a large contingent who couldn’t attend as a result.

Accommodating differences and creating truly multicultural organizations (not merely ones that talk about being inclusive) means making decisions that sometimes aren’t convenient, but are—instead—the right ones. Sometimes making the right decisions about meeting dates demonstrates that diversity is mission critical to your organization, and that individual members do count.

There’s no doubt that the increasing diversity of our memberships and workforces will pose complex issues for meeting planners in the years to come. Let’s solve the easy ones and work around the religious beliefs of as many members and employees as we can. From such sensitivity comes loyalty and respect. Those hit the bottom line of any organization, don’t they?

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