Inclusive by design: Creating the perfect environment for all event attendees


By Mariela McIlwraith

As event planners and designers, we create the environment in which our participants live, learn, share and innovate. In creating these environments, we have an opportunity to design them to be welcoming, inclusive and accessible in a way that encourages full and dignified participation for all. It’s not only the right thing to do — it’s also good business sense to expand your audience, improve the quality of your events, and strengthen your reputation. Here are some easy and practical ways to design more inclusive events by encouraging diversity, and making your events more accessible for people with disabilities.

During the Strategic Planning Stage

Designing inclusive events starts from the very beginning planning stages. Developing a diversity and inclusion policy is a valuable step as it helps provide guidance in decision making, and helps embed it into your organization’s future planning. A few specific steps to take in the early stages include:

Adopt universal design principles: Begin your planning with the vision of making your event accessible for everyone and post the steps you’re taking in your event marketing information. This could include selecting menus that avoid the most common food allergens and selecting accessible venues.

Diverse representation: Make sure that your planning committee has diverse representation.

Budget: Include funds in your budget for accommodation requirements such as interpreters or alternative format materials. Alternatively, secure grants or sponsorships to provide for accessibility requirements.

Supplier Selection

Supplier selection is one of the most important aspects of designing inclusive events. While selecting a venue that is accessible for people with disabilities is top of mind, there are many other factors to consider that can contribute to a more inclusive event.

Venue selection: Look for venues that are easy and practical to navigate for people with disabilities. When doing your site inspection, ask to be shown the accessible routes to all your meeting spaces and watch for accessibility considerations such as signage, travel time between spaces, location of accessible washrooms, availability of sharps disposals, Braille signage, easy-to-reach-and-operate doors and elevator buttons and ease of moving through doorways, corridors and washrooms.

Accommodation selection: Ask about the availability of accessible rooms and include them in your site inspection. Check public spaces as well, including check-in areas, fitness areas and restaurants for accessibility needs such as lowered table heights.

Hire diverse suppliers: Actively seek and hire suppliers that have diverse ownership or leadership, and with a proven track record of inclusive employment practices.

Inclusive Program Planning

It’s not just about getting into and around the event; your program is also a great opportunity to showcase your commitment to diversity and inclusion, both in content and in scheduling.

Check your dates: Confirm that your event dates do not fall on religious holy days or festivals by using an online interfaith calendar. Some faith-based celebrations may also have dietary restrictions that can be observed at your event.

Select diverse speakers: When planning your program content, check that your speakers, entertainment and talent are representative of diverse identities. Also remember to ensure that stage areas, lecterns and podiums are accessible.

Speaker presentations: Include accessibility training for your speakers, including how to use the accessibility checker in PowerPoint and reminders to describe any images. Also ensure proper lighting, sight lines and visibility of sign language interpreters in consultation with the user and the interpreter.

Scheduling: Remember to allow for time and space for observing faith-based practices. Also include sufficient time between sessions for travel between locations, medical needs, nursing parents or guardians and service animal relief.


Allergies, diets and religious observance all affect what and how people eat. Settle on a menu, or menus, and a style of service to maximize the inclusiveness of your event and ensure that everyone is welcome.

Allergies and dietary needs: Collect information about allergies and dietary needs and work with your foodservice provider to eliminate common allergens, properly label foods, effectively distribute special meals, avoid cross-contamination of food and design a plan to respond to medical emergencies.

Buffets: Minimize the use of buffets or provide assistance for people with mobility devices to easily access food.

Food items and service ware: Offering light-weight beverage containers with lids and straws as well as food items that are pre-cut can be helpful for independent foodservice for people with limited manual dexterity.

Table coverings: Avoid the use of long tablecloths or table skirting that can affect users of mobility devices if they get caught under wheels.

Site Management

Selecting accessible venues is a great start. We also need to consider the design decisions that we make as planners and how they can enhance or compromise the accessibility of the meeting space.

Space management: Be careful not to overly crowd meeting spaces to make it easy to move through for people with mobility devices.

Lighting and sound: Set lighting and sound levels to encourage all forms of visual and auditory communication.

Safety and security: When making announcements about safety and security protocols, include information for people with disabilities such as refuge points.

Transportation: Arrange for accessible transportation options to your venue as well as for shuttle services and to off-site events.

Marketing and Communication

With all this great planning in place, it’s important to communicate your plans with your participants and provide opportunities for them to communicate their needs to you.

Registration: Remember to ask participants what they need to fully participate in the event, including accessibility and dietary needs. In addition, eliminate questions about gender if they are not needed, or offer gender-inclusive options on registration forms and name badges.

Marketing materials: Check that your website and registration forms meet accessibility needs to ensure equal access to information. Also check that images used in marketing materials reflect diversity and inclusion.

Onsite communication: Offer materials in alternative formats such as large print, Braille, captions or audio recorded, as well as sign-language interpretation, real-time captioning and assistive listening devices.

Resources: Have resources available for your participants to help them meet their faith-based or accessibility requirements such as locations of places of worship, mobility device rentals or local veterinarians for service animals.

Mariela McIlwraith, CMP, CMM, MBA is director of sustainability at the Events Industry Council. The Events Industry Council’s 33 member organizations represent over 103,500 individuals and 19,500 firms and properties involved in the meetings, conventions and exhibitions industry. It promotes high standards and professionalism in the events industry with the Certified Meeting Professional (CMP) program and signature program initiatives.

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