How To Start Making Your Conferences More Disability-Friendly

I got to speak with Nicole Benner, CMP, MSHM, a certified meeting professional with a passion for disability accessibility and advocacy.
Taryn Hefner
March 2, 2021

Remember in-person conventions? All the hand-shaking and densely populated rooms make me cringe since COVID-19, but we’ll get back to those hand-shaking rituals soon enough. With a vaccine on the horizon, organizations must start planning for their next in-person event.  

How To Start Making Your Conferences More Accessible 

I had the opportunity to speak with Nicole Benner, CMP, MSHM, a certified meeting professional with a passion for disability accessibility and advocacy. She offered some actionable insight for organizations looking to expand their in-person events. “[Organizations] must offer a place for their attendees to ask for what they need in some sort of open-ended text field at registration, and the organization must have a person in charge of collating and fulfilling those requests.”

Many events may not even think of this option, but it was the first thing Nicole touched on: Allow attendees to ask for their preferred accommodations during the registration process. 

So often, we try and anticipate our attendees’ needs when in reality, they’re the ones that know what they need best! Asking for our attendees’ input on what they need and prefer can save a lot of time, effort, and heartache on both sides. 

The essential part of this recommendation is designating someone for these accommodations and giving attendees a way to contact that person during the event should something go wrong. 

“[Organizations] must offer a place for their attendees to ask for what they need in some sort of open-ended text field at registration, and the organization must have a person in charge of collating and fulfilling those requests.”

- Nicole Benner 

Though strategies should hinge on the needs of the audience, in general, there are a few things that events and conference organizers can plan for ahead of time. 

To make sure I covered as many points as I could in this post, I reached out to my network on Twitter to find out what would make their lives easier at events. Some are named, others preferred to remain anonymous, but they all provided me with valuable insight, so thank you to everyone who participated in the discussion! 

Implement A “No Fragrance” Policy

For people with fragrance sensitivities or allergies, this is commonly a considerable problem with in-person events. While this does include folks who are a little heavy-handed with the perfume or cologne, it can also include event spaces that pump fragrances into the event space itself, which is particularly common with hotels.  This is commonly known as “ambient scenting” or “scent marketing.” Rachael Rose, who popped into the conversation on Twitter, has a great thread that details what scent marketing is like for those with sensitivities and allergies to fragrance. She’s also compiled a stellar post about what fragrance and chemical accessibility mean more broadly. 

Check with your event space and see if they are participants in this practice, and see what you can do to get it reduced or eliminated for your event. While you may not be able to do anything, having a conversation with the hotel about your event’s needs can raise some awareness on its own. 

Provide Quiet Spaces 

For attendees with autism, anxiety, or introverts who just need a few minutes to regroup, these places can be a great place to rest a little and recharge without the expectation of networking or paying attention to a presentation. 

These areas are also great for event organizers to have in their back pocket if they need to address something with an attendee without disrupting a presentation. 

Provide Building Information 

For attendees who use mobility aids like wheelchairs, canes, or walkers, provide some information on the building where your event space is located. Are there stairs leading up to the entrance? Where is the accessible ramp entrance located? Allowing users to access a building map can also be incredibly helpful, especially if it’s a multi-level space. 

On that note, if your attendees will be required to move between floors for different panel discussions or networking events, make sure the elevators aren’t scheduled for service during your event. 

This is also a good time to give your speakers information on the stage or platform. The event space may limit you, but giving enough information ahead of time will allow your speakers to make informed choices ahead of time rather than snap decisions on the day of the event. 

Make Digital Materials Available 

Providing any presentation materials, including graphs, charts, and other visuals can help ensure low-vision or blind attendees aren’t missing any of the information from your presenters. 

A blind member of the Twitter conversation offered some additional tips: 

  • Make sure the registration page is accessible to screen readers. 
  • Provide all presentation or panel materials in a digital format, with images or infographics described.
  • Presenters describing their visual materials during the presentations is also extremely helpful. 

Consider Translators 

Should you hire a live transcriptionist or a sign language interpreter? In many cases, live captioning is more likely to cover all your bases. Many folks with auditory processing impairments or disabilities don’t necessarily know how to sign but would benefit from live captioning. Those who do know how to sign will benefit from the live captioning as well.  

A friend on Twitter gave me some insight into this: “My hearing is poor, but I don't sign. So I'm always pleased when the acoustics in conference rooms are clear enough… [And] I usually carry earplugs when I go to conventions, just in case they have live captioning. It's easier to follow without being distracted by sounds. Plus, they're less obvious than my hearing aid.” 

Provide Individual Schedules 

One notable addition from the conversation on Twitter was around copies of schedules. Many conferences will have schedules posted either online or around the event space on large panels. Some attendees may find physical copies easier to manage. 

“My dyscalculia makes time management really difficult for me,” Avery Heimann said. “There is something so useful with well-designed, color-coded, chunked printed itineraries. I know everything is about saving paper these days but being able to jot notes down about workshops or even circle different sponsors to look into is so useful. I archive all my conference packets which are also great to refer back to when I need to remember speakers and titles.” 

Offer Digital Event Access 

For some folks, digital events are just easier. Whether it’s because of illness, disability, childcare, or another reason, COVID-19 has made it clear throughout 2020 and into 2021 that many events can move to a digital platform. These tickets also typically cost less, making it a much more budget-conscious option for those with tighter purse strings. When in-person events are no longer as risky, don’t exclude these members of your audience. 

“For example, when I think about accessibility, I also think about ticket cost,” Nicole added, “So, does the organization have a way for people who have financial challenges to either volunteer in exchange for attendance, a scholarship fund, sponsors who offset the overall cost of attendance for everyone... there are many ways to make the event financially accessible, and the "what" and “how" should be specific to the abilities of the organization and the needs of the attendees.”

Other Things To Consider For Your Event: 

  • Create gender-neutral bathrooms.
  • Offer expanded pronoun options on your registration form with an opportunity for attendees to insert their own pronouns if needed.
  • Offer private, quiet areas with electricity and lockable doors for nursing parents.
  • Use dyslexia-friendly fonts on your presentations. 
  • Reserve front-row seats for low-vision attendees. 
  • Provide foam earplugs for attendees with noise or volume sensitivities. 

Wrapping Up 

Finally, make sure these policies and practices you have in place are on your website in a prominent place! Don’t make attendees struggle to find this information. 

Remember that accessibility is not one-size-fits-all. As Nicole put it, “The truth is, you cannot be everything to everyone, and by creating a specific checklist of accessibility items, you're focusing only on what you and your team can imagine, and not necessarily what your attendees need. And a one-size-fits-all approach is going to hyperfocus on some needs that may not even be relevant to attendees.”

All in all, talk to your attendees. Find out what they need, and designate staff to own those accommodations both before and during the event. Keep in mind that the conversation will be ongoing, and be open to feedback for your next event! 

Taryn Hefner