September 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: ADA - September 1998 Current Issue
September 1998

The Americans with Disabilities Act has been on the books for eight years, but how much progress has really been made?

By Carla Benini

E 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 everyone else."

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 factor.

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 adjustments.

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 requirements.

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.

High-tech helpers
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 special needs.

"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 2000Emerging technology could soon have dramatic implications for both the meeting planner and the end-user. Here's a look at what's in the pipeline.

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 percent.

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.

Talking signs:
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.

ADA hom1.htm 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. ADA Compliance Guide addresses how to meet accessibility requirements for facilties and programming. 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 assistive technology.

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