by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | October 01, 2006

Do you understand the Americans With Disabilities Act? For meeting planning purposes, it can be broken down into six basic dos and don’ts.

* DO try to be sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities.

* DO remember you can provide the least expensive aid or service, as long as it enables the individuals to participate effectively.

* DO know you can require deposits for special equipment, provided the deposits are fully refundable.

* DO inquire about special needs on registration forms, but DON’T use the information for discriminatory purposes, and DO follow up to determine the best means to meet those needs.

* DO visit each facility to assess its accessibility before signing a contract.

* DON’T ask if a facility is accessible; ask how it is accessible.

Digging Deeper
Examining this list more closely, what is the definition of disability? A person with a disability is anyone with a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more activities of daily life. A disability might or might not be readily recognizable. Some conditions that don’t look like they meet the definition -- obesity, a broken arm or leg, a need for a vegan meal -- might qualify if they indeed have a permanent or long-term impact on the individual.

Defining compliance, the ADA mandates that “reasonable accommodations” must be made. It is far easier, however, to outline what is not reasonable. For example:

* Your compliance cannot pose a threat to the health or safety of others. The individual with the disability has the right to assume a risk to himself (for instance, expecting access to fitness and spa facilities), but cannot put others at risk (wheelchair users can not block fire aisles and emergency exits).

* Accommodation can not require a substantial alteration in how business is conducted at the hotel or venue. The facility is expected to provide shower chairs or visual alarm systems in hotel rooms -- not a substantial alteration. But requesting an attendant to assist with dressing or eating is not reasonable. Neither the meeting sponsor nor the hotel must provide personal care for attendees.

Meeting professionals should commit to memory the details of titles III and V of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which state that the meeting as well as the facility are public accommodations. This means the facility must offer barrier-free meeting space, and the event hosts should provide the auxiliary aids and services necessary to give individuals with disabilities equal access. Otherwise, both the facility and the host can be held liable for any failure.

Your Responsibilities
It is essential to establish a set of guidelines for effectively accommodating people with disabilities.

When planning an event, priority should be given to defining these policies and determining the necessary ADA accommodations. Be sure to verify how a facility will comply before you sign the contract.

All meeting contracts should clearly define the responsibilities of the venue and the meeting sponsor. Include a “hold harmless” clause to protect each in the event of failure by the other to meet ADA requirements. Meeting planners must notify the facility if accommodations are needed; they also are responsible for ensuring that the meeting is in compliance.

The contract should specifically outline the venue’s and the planner’s duties. It also should require that each party share information concerning the needs of attendees protected by the ADA.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq.,is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him .