Planning Accessible Events

Are your branch events accessible for people with disabilities? Make sure you are holding inclusive events and meetings for all members and potential members by using this resource. It will help you select an accessible space, solicit and respond to requests for accommodations, and support attendees.


What Is a Disability?

According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, such as seeing, hearing, speaking, walking, work­ing, learning, breathing, performing manual tasks, and caring for oneself.

Today, 20 percent of Americans — or 54 million people — have a disability. Because of advances in edu­cation and technology, people with disabilities are living longer and seeking all kinds of opportunities, including participation in membership organizations, in ever-increasing numbers.

AAUW is no exception; AAUW’s membership includes many people with disabilities. This resource can help you make sure that the events and meetings you hold are inclusive for all AAUW members.

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Before the Event

1. Choose an accessible location.

As you plan for your event, make sure that you choose a location that has ADA-compliant parking, entrances, restrooms, lighting, and other requirements. Many potential locations are already required to be accessible to people with disabilities, including schools, community centers, and hotels. Avoid holding meetings or events in a member’s home, because personal residences might not meet all access requirements.

Pick the right event space.

Make sure that your event space is accessible to members who have difficulty walking or who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. Are there steps or a ramp at the front door? Do you need to go up steps to get to the meeting room, or is there an elevator? Are there accessible restrooms equipped with grab bars? Doors and hallways must also be wide and tall enough to be safe for people who use mobility devices or have a visual disability.

You should also consider the distance and route that members will need to travel between the park­ing lot, meeting rooms, restrooms, cafeteria or restaurant, and sleeping accommodations (if applica­ble). Far distances may pose a challenge for some members. Determine the amount of time needed for breaks and transitions between spaces based on this distance.

Consider transportation.

Is your location accessible by public transportation? If not, how will you provide transportation for members who do not drive? You may be able to set up carpools with other members for local events. For events held at a hotel or other larger facility, staff can recommend companies that provide acces­sible vans for travel to and from the airport.

Set up your meeting space.

As you prepare for your event, consider how room setup will affect the ability of members with dis­abilities to navigate the space. If possible, visit the location ahead of time to understand the logistics of the room. Whether you are setting up roundtables or theater-style seating, make sure that aisles are wide enough for the easy passage of someone using a mobility device. If you are planning to break participants into groups or move to another part of the room for any purpose, consider whether there will be clear pathways for members to do so. Also make sure that people with mobility devices can easily access the registration table, refreshments table, and speaker area.

Confirm the details before the event.

In the days before the event, call the venue to make sure all accommodations are working. Some­times an elevator or wheelchair lift may be broken. If so, you will need to work with venue staff to come up with an alternative plan, such as directing attendees to a different entrance or renting installable ramps.

For more information on how to find an accessible space, set up your space, and find alternate plans for nonworking accommodations, check out the ADA’s accessible meetings resource.

2. Prepare for accommodations.

The best way to ensure that your event is inclusive is to address accessibility issues long before the event starts.

Use an accessibility coordinator.

Designate a member leader to be in charge of addressing all accommodations requests and to man­age issues during the event.

Ask members to specify their needs ahead of time.

Since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, membership organizations are required to offer their members an opportunity to identify their needs in advance of an activity or program. Doing so will help you anticipate and address any accommodations that you will need to make ahead of time.

During the pre-event registration process, ask participants to indicate accessibility and/or dietary requirements. If no registration is required, provide the name and contact information for the accessibility coordinator on all event advertisements.

You can use this sample text in your advertisements: “[Your branch/state name] will strive to address all accommodations for participants with disabilities, such as dietary concerns, requests for special parking or seating, need for hearing amplification devices or materials in formats other than print, or other requests within reason. Please contact [name of accessibility coordinator] at [tele­phone and e-mail address] no later than [date two weeks before the start of the event].”

Let members know that your meeting locations and programs are accessible in your advertising. Assistive listening devices for people with hearing disabilities are inexpensive, so consider buying one, and advertise that you have it. Promoting that your events are accessible will indicate to mem­bers and potential members that you take accessibility seriously and will encourage participation.

For more information on purchasing a listening device, read this guide from the Kennedy Center.

Collaborate with the requestor.

If you have any questions about accommodations, follow up with the requestors for more informa­tion. Work with them to make sure their needs are met, and keep them informed as accommodations are put into place.

If participants have disclosed disabilities to you, you may also want to reach out to an organization that supports individuals with those disabilities to get specific tips on how to make your event accessible.

3. Prepare for accessible services and materials

Prepare accessible formats of your meeting content and materials to ensure that members with sensory disabilities can participate fully.

Participants with visual disabilities: You may need to provide accessible formats for written information, such as Braille materials, audio recordings, digital copies, or large-print materials. Whenever possible, try to work with participants in advance so that you can find out which format they prefer and give them extra time to review written materials if needed. Your state disability commission or local library can help you identify the appro­priate resources for creating accessible formats, including transcribing information into Braille.

For more information on providing aids and services for participants, Lighthouse International is a great resource. You can find additional resources on the U.S. Department of Labor website.

Participants with hearing disabilities: You may need to provide accessible formats for spoken information, such as certified interpreters; real-time, open, or closed captioning; written materials; a note taker; or assistive listening devices. Work with participants to determine what type of assistance is required. For example, some people with hearing disabilities may require a sign language interpreter while others read lips or can hear if they sit near the speaker or use a sound amplification device. Event location staff can assist with obtaining sound amplification devices.

During the Event

1. Support attendees.

Whether or not you received accommodation requests ahead of time, have your accessibility coordinator available at the event to address any needs that come up.

The coordinator should arrive early to check accessibility routes and make sure assistive devices are in place. Label accessibility routes and assign members to direct and assist participants at key points along the route, as necessary.

The coordinator should check in with the participants requesting accommodations when they arrive to make sure everything they need is in place. Offer a brief description and tour of the site and introduce participants to any service providers, such as interpreters. The coordinator should also ask participants if the seating, lighting, and equipment meet their needs.

2. Present event content accessibly.

For participants with visual disabilities: During the event, make sure that participants with visual disabilities are able to engage in all aspects of presentations and conversations. If you write on a flip chart or show text on PowerPoint slides, make sure to read the text aloud for anyone who cannot see. Similarly, if you are showing pictures, charts, or graphics, describe these images out loud.

For participants with hearing disabilities: If a sign language interpreter is present, spell or write any unusual words or names. If someone is reading your lips, face toward them when you speak, and make sure that your face is amply lit. Someone who has a hearing disability may not be able to take notes and watch an interpreter or read lips at the same time, so it may be helpful to ask another member to take notes.

Engage directly and respectfully with the participant. If a sign language interpreter is present, face and make eye contact with the person with the hearing disability, not the interpreter. Try to learn some sign language.

A participant who has a hearing disability may want to read your lips, so speak slowly and carefully. Remember, you can also use a pen and paper to communicate.

3. Interact respectfully.

Respect each person’s confidentiality and desire for privacy; never disclose or discuss a participant’s disability or accommodation request with other participants or members except as needed to secure the accommodations.

Before providing help, ask if and how you can be helpful. Then help only if the participant requests it or if you see danger. Never push a person’s wheelchair unless you are asked. Let members with visual disabilities hold your arm to guide them. Never guide by pulling a cane or a guide dog’s harness. When showing a chair to a member who doesn’t see, put her or his hand on the back of the chair.

Don’t pet or feed a guide dog without asking the owner’s permission. For more information about service animals, visit the ADA’s commonly asked questions resource.

Sit when talking to a member who uses a wheelchair to equalize eye contact.

If a participant has a speech disability, don’t be afraid to ask them to repeat. Be flexible with your language; if one word doesn’t work, try another.

People with intellectual disabilities can respond to questions and follow directions. Speak in a normal voice. Don’t use overly complex sentences.

4. Use inclusive language.

Language can shape perceptions of people, often in unconscious ways. These subconscious ideas can affect how people with disabilities are treated. Here are a few guidelines for ensuring that your language values people with disabilities.

Emphasize the person, not the disability.

Nouns such as “members” and “people” should come first to emphasize the person. Don’t say “the disabled”; instead say “members or people with disabilities.”

Each person has a complex identity that is not limited to a disability, so if you need to refer to a person’s disability, describe it the way you would any other characteristic. For example, instead of saying “She is epileptic,” say “She has epilepsy.” Instead of saying “She is blind,” say “She has a visual disability.”

Avoid stereotypes and condescension.

Make sure you are using up-to-date terms. Outdated terms such as “crippled,” “afflicted,” “mute,” and “deaf and dumb” are considered derogatory and paternalistic and should never be used. Instead use phrases like “people without speech,”“people with visual disabilities,” and “people who use wheel­chairs.”

Use legal definitions, when appropriate.

If you are referring to laws and regulations, “handicapped” is the appropriate term because it is used in legal documents. For more general purposes, “disabled” is appropriate.

Question common phrases.

Our language is full of phrases and idioms that reinforce the idea that some identities are “normal” and others are outside the norm. Phrases such as “see you later” or “step up to the job” are just a few examples of how our language subtly reinforces expectations around ability. Many people with disabilities and their allies feel that these phrases are part of our language and will generally not be offended by them, while others find them to be small, even subconscious reminders of ability and dis­ability. As you work to use inclusive language, you may begin to notice more of these phrases in use.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and engage others in discussion on the topic of language.

What Else Can You Do?

Using this guide will help you take concrete steps to be more inclusive of members with disabilities. But there are many ways that you can continue this work to ensure that your branch makes accessibility a priority. Here are a few things that you can do:

  • Become an advocate.
  • Educate others inside and outside of AAUW.
  • Organize and participate in diversity and inclusion training for members at all levels of your branch or state.
  • Rethink how you traditionally do business. Reach out and involve people with disabilities in your branch or state programs.
  • Network and build coalitions with local disability organizations.
  • Publicize your inclusion successes.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  • How accessible are the venues where you currently hold your events?
  • What venues in your community might be more accessible alternatives?
  • Who from your branch might be interested in serving as an accessibility coordinator for events?
  • What event and meeting advertisements need to be amended to include information on requesting accommodations?
  • What can you do to address the needs of people who have sensory disabilities? This can include alter­native formats of materials and auditory accommodations.
  • What changes need to be made at your meetings and events to make sure participants with disabilities can engage fully in presentations and conversations?

This is a part of the AAUW Diversity and Inclusion Tool Kit.

The Planning Accessible Events resource was written in collaboration with AAUW member Denise Decker.



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