Planning a conference can be a large undertaking, particularly in today’s era. There are a number of details to manage from the registration process to the location and catering options. As you’re going through the planning process, don’t forget to keep accessibility in mind. It’s important to ensure that the venue, location, technology, and the entire conference experience are inclusive to people with disabilities.
We’ve put together some key considerations to help you identify accessible conference locations and technology.
Accessible Venue Selection
Selecting a venue is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make while planning your conference, here is how to identify if it’s an accessible one.
Location and Transportation
Try to select a location that can easily be accessed through a variety of transportation methods. Ideally, a large conference should take place in areas with reliable public transportation options such as trains and buses that run frequently. Some people with disabilities have conditions that limit their ability to drive, so public transportation improves accessibility.
On the other hand, public transit can be harder for some people with disabilities. Crowded trains or buses can be hard for people with anxiety disorders or sensory concerns. There may also be a long walk between the nearest train station or bus stop and the actual venue. Work to identify venues that have public transportation options and parking available nearby with designated accessible parking spaces.
Navigating the Venue
Most large conference venues will meet Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines, but it never hurts to verify that their facility is ADA compliant with features such as a ramp and accessible restrooms.
However, having an accessible facility is just the starting point. You'll also need to be mindful of how you set up the venue.
Be sure that you are allowing large enough aisles to accommodate wheelchair users when setting up conference and dining areas. Leave more space than is legally mandated whenever possible. Conference areas get crowded, so the ADA minimums will still probably feel cramped and tough to navigate in this setting.
Designating accessible seating at events is also important. Wheelchair users, service dog handlers, and others may need extra space or flexible seating options. Standing activities should also include an accessible seating area for people with disabilities that have trouble standing for long periods.
Lastly, try to designate quiet rooms near the major conference areas. Some people may need them to give themselves or their service animals a break or to avoid overstimulation. Breastfeeding moms may also need a quiet private area to pump.
Many conferences also partner with local hotels and direct attendees to stay there. This is great for creating a stronger event experience and encouraging networking. Be sure to verify that the hotels are also easy to reach by public transit and feature parking. Hotels generally offer ADA rooms that have features such as larger entrances, larger bathrooms, railing, and shower seating, and are on the ground floor. If you’re blocking off rooms for the conference, request to include some accessible rooms.
It's also a good idea to work with the hotel to understand their accommodations processes so that you can provide attendees information. Learn who to contact at the hotel with accessibility questions, how to book a room, parking, and transportation information, and any special booking considerations (ie. how to book an accessible room, booking with a service animal, etc).
Whether you are offering your event in-person, online, or through a combination of the two, technology is sure to play a key role in the conference. Learn how to optimize your tech to create an accessible experience.
Most events will have some form of web presence such as a website or webpage where prospective attendees can learn about the event and register to attend. These should also be accessible to people with disabilities including those using assistive technology to navigate your website.
Making your page accessible isn't overly difficult or time-consuming, but many people fail to take simple steps to make their websites easier to navigate for those with disabilities. One quick step you can take is to ensure that you are providing alt text on all images or graphics. This is simple to do in content management systems (CMS) like WordPress and makes a big difference for those that use screen readers to navigate your website. Similarly, if you have videos promoting your event or as part of your conference content, be sure to provide captions.
How you label and structure the site is also important. You should clearly tag all form fields, content, symbols, buttons, menus, and links so that they are easy to use for people and assistive technology.
If people with disabilities can’t navigate your website to learn about or sign up to attend your conference, you’ve failed to provide an accessible experience before the conference has even begun. Learn more about web accessibility guidelines here on our website.
Virtual Event Platforms
Offering a virtual component to your conference can be a great way to improve accessibility. Hybrid events give conference attendees the option to attend in person or view event sessions online over Zoom or other live streaming options. Travel can be challenging for some people, and even the most accessibly designed conference can still trigger social anxiety, overstimulation, and fatigue.
If you do choose to offer virtual event activities, they still need to follow the above guidelines for captioning and web navigation. Be sure to use a virtual event platform or meeting software that provides live captioning, alt text, and works well with assistive technology.
Keeping the Focus on Accessibility
Planning a conference can be overwhelming, and it’s ok if you’re not sure how to implement everything we’ve discussed above. It can be helpful for both the event organizers and attendees seeking accommodations to have a designated accessibility coordinator.
This person can liaison with the information and technology department, venue representatives, caterers, hotel and transportation partners, and attendees to ensure that accessibility guidelines are being met. Allowing a central person to focus on accessibility can help ensure that nothing is overlooked while everyone is in the midst of event planning chaos.
The accessibility coordinator will also gain valuable insights from those that reach out to them before and during the event with accommodation questions or concerns. This can help you improve this conference and the next one. After all, the best way to learn is to listen to the community.