By Jane Sleeth
So you are organizing a conference and you want to ensure as many attendees as possible will attend this important event. You also want to ensure that all attendees with any particular needs have these requests met all as part of excellent customer service.
Your timing is perfect, especially in the context of any entity doing business in Ontario these days. Ontario has in place the AODA or Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act. This regulation has been in place since June of 2005 in the Province of Ontario. The Province’s goal is to have an accessible province by 2025.
As demographics in Ontario are changing, we have an aging population including employees and people who attend conferences and events on a regular basis.
With aging of course comes disability. Many of these disabilities include changes in eyesight, loss of hearing and tinnitus, the development of arthritis in some of our joints and more serious disabilities including neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s or strokes.
When you combine the aging population with the 17 to 10 per cent of Ontarians who have a disability, this adds up to a significant number of people who will attend conferences and events who will have at least one disability you, as the event planner, will need to account for.
Does this mean you should only chose a venue which is completely accessible in its design? At this time in Ontario no such venue exists unfortunately. This will most likely not occur until the new Ontario Building Code with its Accessible Built Environment Standards or ABES is in place and buildings are upgraded or new conference centres built.
With this reality in mind, following is a checklist we recommend you use to ensure the venue you choose, plus the people who will provide customer service to your attendees, will provide as accessible an event as possible.
Choosing the venue
- Find a venue with at least some accessibility features such as elevators, escalators and wheelchair ramps.
- Locate a venue where there are accessible, and ideally universal, washrooms. This will allow people with mobility devices including electric wheelchairs and scooters to access the interior of the washroom and all of its amenities.
- Is there accessible public transport from the airport (or other likely arrival points) to the venue? Is this the same for the main hotels which will be used by the attendees?
- Are the hotels being used by the attendees accessible? Remember many hotels claim to meet accessible built standards but are not necessarily so. The best approach is to visit the hotel(s) to ensure there are at least 10 per cent of rooms that are accessible for all types of disabilities.
- Ensure there is appropriate technology for your hearing impaired and deaf attendees. You can ask the venue managers if they provide IE induction loop systems in the room(s). This allows people who are deaf, deafened and hard of hearing to hear the speakers clearly.
- Make sure both the venue’s signage and your company’s temporary signage is based on accepted accessible guidelines. It will be important for colours, contrast and placement of the signs to allow for ease of wayfinding to each room in the venue.
- Have the venue and hotel staff attended and passed their mandatory customer service standards training? Request proof of this in writing. Most employers keep a record about who has taken the training and who passed the testing with this training.
- How willing are the venue and hotel staff to accommodate special requests on a timely basis?
Marketing accessible conferences
- Make sure your company’s website meets the WCAG 2.0 A level of accessibility. This is now regulated under the IASR phase of the AODA. It also means potential attendees can “read” the website using alternative navigation methods. (The blind do not use a mouse to navigate your website.)
- Make sure all of your social media and other marketing efforts take into account that some of your potential attendees have low vision or are blind; or may be deaf, deafened or hard of hearing; have alternate learning styles where printed words on a brochure are difficult to understand.
- The online registration for your event must also be WCAG 2.0 A accessible in design, easy to navigate and does not contain any CAPTCHA or similar system.
Room set-up and documents
- If providing printed copies of presentations, agendas, and documents, indicate these documents can be provided in an alternate format upon request.
- Make sure the room(s) seating allows for wheelchair access to the podium and the microphone for asking questions.
- Make sure there are sufficient wheelchair and scooter seating places.
- Offer an orientation session before the conference, for attendees and presenters to get to know the meeting room layout and seating arrangements. The room should already be set out as it will be for the meeting(s) or presentations.
Presenters’ slides, videos and talk
- In advance of the sessions, presenters should be encouraged to prepare as accessible a presentation as possible, including captions for video. Presentations should be made available ahead of time.
- The printed session schedule should be available electronically.
- Remind the audience to use a microphone to ask questions, so that everyone can hear the questions being posed.
- If there is an interpreter present, the lighting should be good enough that they can be easily seen by the deaf attendee(s).
- A presenter with a visual impairment may request assistance from a student volunteer to advance slides.
As you can see the AODA is not all about creating built environments that are accessible to all end users. The AODA is really about including the Customer Service Standard and Integrated Accessibility Standards (IASR) to allow all Ontarians to have access to all aspects of work and life including attending conferences and events. Ensuring these items are in place at your conferences and events will allow more people to attend.
About the author
Jane Sleeth is owner and Sr Consultant at Optimal Performance Consultants a firm specializing in ergonomic and accessible design, program and policy development and compliance. Jane’s firm provides both CSS and IASR training and e-learning modules and accessible built environment audits. Jane and her team can be contacted at [email protected]