Meetings & Conventions: ADA - September 1998
The Americans with Disabilities Act has
been on the books for eight years, but how much progress has really
By Carla BeniniE
very summer, the Ohio Forestry Association
plans a camp program on environmental awareness for about 180 high
school students. Much of the week is spent trudging through
potentially muddy forest paths, says Jim Lee, executive director of
the Columbus, Ohio-based association. That's why the group had
discouraged campers with disabilities from attending.
Until now. For the June program, the camp made plans to host its
first wheelchair-using camper. Lee, who has been with the
association for a year, was anxious to not only involve someone
with a disability, but to involve campers with a wheelchair-user.
"I think society sees the disabled as not being able to
participate," he says. "I want campers to understand that there are
some things they can do and some things they can't, just like
Lee made some changes, such as assigning the camper to a
partner. He also made sure that the camp itself met Americans with
Disabilities Act standards.
As it turned out, the disabled camper was a no-show. But the
fact that the group was prepared to accommodate him illustrates
that, after eight years on the books, the ADA is finally improving
the quality of life for those with disabilities. Awareness on both
sides of the issue -- those who need the accommodation and those
who have to offer it -- has improved. What's more, advanced
technology is opening doors for people not only in meetings, but in
such places as museums and movie theaters. And the need will only
increase, say experts, who point to aging baby boomers as one
Changes in the U.S. health-care industry have meant that doctors
don't have as much money or freedom to attend conferences. To
determine her future numbers (she's booked through 2004 and looking
through 2010), Krause keeps on top of trends in the field and looks
closely at her convention's historical data. So far, the society's
U.S. attendance has remained stable, but international attendance
is growing. "We keep tabs on it, and so do the venues," she says.
After each convention, she reports the attendance figures to venues
she has booked for the future, so they can make any necessary
Courts Have Their Say
One thing that hasn't changed about the ADA is the law itself. The
1990 civil rights legislation still requires that buildings,
including stadiums, hotels and convention centers, do what is
"readily achievable" to become accessible. And planners are still
mandated to offer an accessible meeting, unless accommodations
would be an "undue burden."
But what exactly is an "undue burden"? The U.S. Department of
Justice, which oversees ADA compliance, has no plans to further
define this obscure term; it's leaving that job up to the courts.
In the past five years, 650 lawsuits have been filed -- a small
number, says the department, compared to the six million
businesses, 666,000 employers and 80,000 government entities that
are required to comply with the act.
One recent case accused a Minneapolis architectural firm of ADA
violation. The firm had designed several major sports stadiums with
wheelchair seating that lacked adequate visibility. The firm held
that architects aren't liable for ADA violations -- that
responsibility falls on the building owners. The court disagreed
and has ordered the architectural company to make the necessary
adjustments to any facilities it designed that violated ADA
For the planner, this is a stark reminder that the hotel or
convention center is not solely liable for meeting ADA standards.
"You can't say, 'It's the hotel's responsibility,'" says Jane
Jarrow, president of Disability Access Information and Support, an
ADA consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. "Planners will be held
responsible no matter where the failure occurred."
Other cases may affect the kinds of disabilities that are
self-identified by meeting attendees. For example, courts have
sided with people with HIV by giving them disability rights. And
some planners have received requests for special accommodations
from attendees with mental disorders or learning disabilities, such
as attention deficit disorder.
Technology for the visually and hearing impaired has made
accessibility a whole lot easier -- both for the attendee and the
planner. First, the attendee is more self-reliant. "I make my own
access," says Caroline Forsberg, director of disability services
and information for the Office of University Life at Albany's State
University of New York. Forsberg, who is blind, has replaced a tape
recorder with a Braille and Speak, a portable computer equipped
with a Braille keypad and software that translates anything typed
into speech. She uses it to take notes and to translate any meeting
materials she receives on disk from planners. Other types of
software translate text into Braille or large print.
Technology also has become a lot less expensive. Products like
assistive listening systems, once sold through medical companies
for hundreds of dollars, are now sold at stores like Radio Shack
for a fraction of their original costs.
Old Habits Die Hard
Despite the ADA's progress, civil rights legislation doesn't change
attitudes overnight. "It's a very, very, very slow evolution," says
Forsberg, who detects little improvement in the way she's treated
at meetings. Forsberg says she's rarely sent meeting materials on
disk before the event. And she's never been called by a planner and
asked what kind of accommodation she needs, even though she
identifies herself on the registration form as an attendee with
"The real trouble comes when you look at accommodation as an
expense and not a customer service," says Park. She recalls a
recent phone conversation with the manager of a meeting facility.
"He didn't think it was fair that he had to pay for phonic ear
systems," she said. "I told him I don't think it's fair that people
have hearing problems."Technology Beyond
technology could soon have dramatic implications for both the
meeting planner and the end-user. Here's a look at what's in the
Voice input system:
This translates words spoken through a microphone into text.
Available for personal use today, the system could eventually
translate general session speeches into text for deaf attendees.
Says Jim Halliday, president of HumanWare, Inc., a Loomis,
Calif.-based distributor of accessibility technology, the system
would need a 99 percent accuracy level in recognizing spoken words
for it to be used effectively in meetings. Now it's at about 95
Real-time captioning: Different from open or closed
captioning, real-time is when words are translated instantaneously
from a speaker's mouth through someone at a keypad to print on a
screen -- maybe a large video screen for an opening session.The
technology is not just for deaf attendees, says Jane Jarrow,
president of Disability Access Information and Support, an ADA
consulting firm in Columbus, Ohio. Attendees who have trouble
hearing, or maybe just need the visual redundancy of words on a
screen, could also benefit.
A transmitter, positioned in various parts of a building, emits an
infrared light carrying a voice message, which is then picked up
and emitted by a handheld receiver/speaker, allowing a blind
individual to receive the message directly. The message might say,
for instance, "The exhibit floor is to your right." Today, the
technology, made by the Baton Rouge, La.-based Talking Signs, Inc.,
is installed in places like the Bay Area Rapid Transit system and
Civic Auditorium, both in San Francisco. But it could also be used
at meetings or trade shows, not only for blind attendees but also
as a translation device for international groups.
The U.S. Department of Justice has an ADA home page
with compliance advice and checklists.
Access By Design, a consulting firm, provides general resources on
the act, along with several links.
www.thompson.com ADA Compliance Guide
addresses how to meet accessibility requirements for facilties and
www.afb.org/afb The American
Foundation for the Blind lists various resources and research
materials on blindness and advocacy rights.
AZtech, Inc., a nonprofit organization, offers information on
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