by Bruce Myint | August 01, 2004

handicap sticker
During a recent site inspection,
Lana Smart paused in the hotel lobby to size up the height of the reception desk. To most meeting organizers, this might be an unimportant detail, but to Smart, director of the Albertson, N.Y.-based National Business & Disability Council, it’s absolutely critical.
    “Someone who uses a wheelchair can’t be seen by the person behind the desk,” Smart explains. “Occasionally, a property offers to accommodate the guest by sending someone from around the desk with a clipboard. But when you’re dealing with credit cards, that results in a lack of privacy. It’s like conducting your business in a department store window.”
    Smart, whose organization works to integrate people with disabilities into workplaces, says much progress has been made, particularly since the 1990 passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. But while the hospitality industry has come a long way, she believes there are many things planners still can do to fully integrate people with disabilities into conferences and other events.

Determining needs
Planners can begin to create a barrier-free meeting by reviewing their registration forms. Smart recommends making sure to include a question asking attendees if they require special accommodations. In addition, the question should ask registrants to specify what they require.
    That is an important step, she says, because even people with similar disabilities often require different kinds of accommodations. Some people who are deaf, for example, ask for sign-language interpreters; others prefer video captioning. Similarly, only a small percentage of people who are blind can read braille, making alternate formats a popular choice. “You can’t assume,” says Smart. “Let people tell you what they need, and address their needs on a case-by-case basis.”
    Columbus, Ohio-based AXIS, an advocacy group for people with disabilities, suggests asking registrants whether they will be accompanied by an assistant. Doing so will ensure an accurate count for meals and attendance. AXIS also reminds planners to decide whether personal-care assistants will be required to pay registration fees. (Experts typically suggest charging for meals only.)