Shortly after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), I was an MPI delegate to the board of the Convention Liaison Council—the previous name of what is now the Convention Industry Council (CIC). Speakers were invited to address and inform the board about topical issues, such as music licensing and the ADA, that impacted our industry and each organization. Cricket Park, then deputy executive director of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), and now, the Rev’d C.B. “Cricket” Park, rector, The Episcopal Church of the Redeemer, Bethesda, Md., addressed us about the ADA and its impact on the meetings and hospitality industry.
Cricket was the only person to ever write a book and, for PCMA, a white paper, on the ADA and meetings. Alas, both are out of print.
Like many of you, I was blown away by what we hadn’t paid enough attention to and what we needed to learn and to implement in regard to the ADA. Not many years later, my company was responsible to help plan and execute a meeting conducted in the U.S. by the U.S. and Canadian governments on issues of accessibility around the world.
On a site visit with representatives of both governments, I observed how clueless the hotel salespersons were about the ADA and compliance and general accessibility issues. Illustrative of that: the clients were in the guest room bathrooms taking measurements and there the sales people were telling us about their turndown service and wonderful spa and pool, the latter two which were totally inaccessible for someone with a disability and had no materials or people to help those with hearing or sight needs.
To date, not all countries have disabilities acts. This blog and the accompanying newsletter specifically address laws in the United States. For those who are in or do meetings outside the U.S., these resources will help: U.S. State Department “International Disability Rights”; Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DRED); Disability Rights International; and International Disability Rights.
Alas, none of the above noted resources, unlike this from the U.S. Department of Justice, specifically address meetings. Reading further into this blog post and referencing the somewhat limited resources from our industry—thanks to Event Service Professionals Association (ESPA), formerly ACOM, for their work creating an accessibility toolkit—will help make our industry more accessible, in addition to asking participants what they need to fully participate and experiencing some of the obstacles they face firsthand.
That and common sense on the part of meeting professionals—planners, professional development designers and suppliers to our industry—can help guide us to better inclusion practices and simple adjustments.
I am not an expert on the ADA and all the components of helping to make meetings and facilities inclusive. Niesa Silzer and I, with assistance from Kristen McCosh (here’s a profile and a short bio) who is the Boston Mayor’s Commission for People with Disabilities, at a PCMA’s Convening Leaders in Boston in 2014, lead an experiential session in which attendees participated in several hands-on exercises. This will be somewhat replicated again, as they did a few years ago, at this year’s SGMP NEC on June 7, for more than discussion about disabilities and inclusive hospitality and meetings.
And why this is personal: I took my unassisted mobility for granted. Yes, I’d broken bones necessitating crutches, but somehow I managed. Even after back surgery, I was immobile for a bit but eventually regained my ability to walk and move about well.
Until I couldn’t.
The need for a mobility scooter came long after my knowledge of the ADA. By the time I needed assistance, I was already aware of and in tune with the extreme difficulty of being a person with a different ability or with a disability when traveling or even just getting around in my own city (Washington D.C.)! Others may not be.
These are ways to begin thinking and planning differently in order to have more inclusive meetings. They are by far not all you need to know or do and do not include sensory and other areas of disability. It’s up to you to do more research by starting with a list of questions for your meeting participants and hotel guests.
1. Conduct site inspections using a wheelchair or power chair or mobility scooter.
- Consider the timing for elevators and see what it takes alone and with others to get to the elevator once it arrives.
- Once the elevator arrives—or will it? See this video, created by The Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Zach Anner, experienced with humor that I sometimes don’t have—is there room and will you and your device fit?
- Check on the restroom(s) that have this sign (or the more traditional version):
…to see if they really are accessible from the outside as well as the inside. A wide stall is not all it takes to make a restroom accessible. If the door can’t be easily opened from inside or out or the turning radius isn’t great enough for a power chair or scooter, how is it then accessible?
- For guest rooms, how does one traveling alone using a power chair or other device open the door and access the room? How easily is it to exit the room or get around? And where can you park and charge your mobility device in the room? Where are the controls for HVAC? Are the window blind pulls accessible?
- While moving around the hotel (or other venue) did you find that all doors have push buttons to open them? Or do you, as I have done, just push through hoping not to break glass and wood and not to injure yourself?
2. Conduct a site inspection wearing an eye patch or with cotton or ear plugs in your ears. NOTE: for safety, just like in commercials for cars with a professional driver winding down a mountain road where it tells you not try this at home, it is advised you not do this on your own.
- What’s printed in Braille or where and how accessible are human beings to assist? If the hotel uses robots, how do they interact with people who are deaf, hard of hearing or blind or low vision? How much of the printed-for-sighted-people materials—in-room safety cards? Menus in guest rooms and restaurants? Menus and ingredient labels on food for your events?—are accessible for all?
- As Shane Feldman notes in the accompanying Q&A sidebar, take note of how much information on the in-room television and elsewhere is close- or option-captioned.
- Ask about all recreational facilities and those who work in them. What Stacy Patnode Bassett experienced on her honeymoon and at the movie theatre (see Q1 in the related Q&A sidebar) was so stunning to me because it’s not 1950 or 1970 or even 1980 or 1990! Yet, I know that her experiences are not unusual.
3. Check guest rooms for accommodations.
- Is there a bar in the closet that can be raised and lowered for clothing? Or is the only bar a low one that makes all clothing pick up lint from the floor? Just because we use mobility devices doesn’t mean our clothes are short or that we aren’t traveling with someone who needs their clothes to hang higher!
- Is the extra roll of toilet paper, the hair dryer, the safe and everything else within easy reach regardless of one’s height or ability?
- How many cases do they have to make any room accessible for someone who is deaf, hard of hearing, has low vision or is blind?
- What is the owner/developer/management company doing to create designs that are more inclusive? (See: “Making Hotel Rooms Fully Accessible, Discreetly” and “An Artist’s Manifesto for Accessible Hotels”).
4. Check meeting and public space for more inclusive features.
- Measure the height of buffet tables and items on them (chafing dishes and other food or food displays) to see if everyone can access them. Discern the knowledge of the convention services and banquet staff about doing so. Determine how your group or the hotel will assist those who cannot carry a plate of food on their own.
- Is the hotel designed for what it is assumed all millennials want and need—that is, with low seating and lighting and many other “modern amenities”—that for anyone, millennials and Gen Zers included, might not be accessible?
- Is the knowledge of meeting room seating audience-centric for sight-lines? (One of my favorite books, “Seating Matters” by Dr. Paul Radde*, shows how).
*I learned long after I wrote the foreword for the book—I was and am not compensated for the foreword I wrote or for “plugging” the book except to hear great things from people like Gail Hernandez who used seating from Paul’s book and how successful it was!—that Paul worked with Interpreters and the Deaf community on seating to ensure good sight lines.
5. Know what the Amendment to the ADA included.
- In addition to swimming pool lifts, which a segment of our industry fought, and are now mandated, food allergies and chemical sensitivities are also now included within the ADA. Determine if hotels have unscented guest rooms and unscented products for those who need them.
- When in doubt, contact the U.S. Department of Justice/U.S. ADA Hotlines: (voice) (TTY).
6. Make no assumptions!
- On your registration, use the mobile wheelchair symbol and the statement “Tell us what you need to fully participate in the meeting, including mobility, sight, hearing, food and scent” with multiple methods of contact.
- Just because someone doesn’t “look” like they have a disability, or because, when the registration form asked they didn’t note it, plan for all possibilities. Someone could be injured just before or while traveling to your meeting. Many who have disabilities do not want to disclose that because it may harm their reputation “if it gets out.” Others have what are considered “invisible disabilities” and prefer to keep that quiet (I’m forever indebted to the Invisible Disabilities Association and their great booklet, “But you LOOK Good”). When you see a person who has a placard and parks in a “handicapped” space and “looks fine,” stop before you admonish them.
7. Prepare for everyone.
- Our jobs are to be hospitable. To be hospitable is to be inclusive. To be inclusive is to consider all those who may attend your meetings and stay in your facilities.
- Know the ADA and go beyond it where and when possible. If room service has a “policy” of not substituting meals for those with, say, low-salt diets which may be a result of serious health issues, work with the chef to come up with menus for different diets (See what Tracy Stuckrath has written and said about these issues).
As you read the stories from D’Arcee Charington Neal, Shane Feldman, and Stacy Patnode Bassett in the accompanying April 2017 Friday With Joan Q&A sidebar, think about what you would have done in their situations and more, what you will do now to ensure others at your facilities and your meetings do not endure these types of incidents.
When a venue says they are “in compliance with the ADA” ask them how they know. Then take it the next step to see if they go beyond compliance to real inclusion.