People with disabilities are often overlooked by event spaces and meeting planners. A new wave of innovation and technology can help make meetings and events more accessible, but lasting change needs to start with a focus on increasing accessibility during the planning process.
Hospitality professionals are well-versed on the various components that make up a great meeting, conference, or event. These can include a thoughtful keynote speaker, a well thought-out menu, or a one-of-a-kind interactive experience, along with pervasive Wi-Fi access and copious meeting areas.
But what about event accessibility and inclusiveness?
There were nearly 40 million Americans living with a disability in 2015, making up 12.6 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines disability as a spectrum of “limitations of activities and restrictions to full participation at school, at work, at home, or in the community.” These can be hearing or vision difficulty, cognitive difficulty, ambulatory difficulty, self-care, or independent-living difficulty.
People with disabilities are also active members of the workforce with approximately 21 percent employed, according to the Department of Labor Office of Disability Employment Policy.
They often need to participate in offsite meetings and conventions, so meeting and event planners must ensure they are accommodated, said David Dikter, CEO of Assistive Technology Industry Association, an organization representing manufacturers, sellers, and providers of assistive technology for people with disabilities.
“It’s incumbent on the meeting planner to be asking all the right kind of questions about accessibility,” Dikter said. “They need to make sure that a hotel or a convention facility is equipped to deal with their entire customer base, not just a certain customer base.”
Hotels, convention centers, and meeting facilities need to make understanding the range of customers they’re serving a bigger focus, as well.
“Hotels and convention centers tend to forget the range of disabilities. They tend to think of mobility, which is important because that’s their physical space, but then there are things like people who are blind,” Dikter continued. “Hotels need motivation from the meeting planning industry, from the people who are organizing their meeting to kind of say, ‘Hey, have you thought about all these other things?’”
Technology can smooth over some of the challenges faced by disabled attendees, but a wider shift in perspective is needed to truly address these issues.
“Technology solves aspects of it, but it still doesn’t solve the social challenges,” said Peter Slatin, founder and president of Slatin Group, which consults with businesses about special-needs customers. “People with various disabilities can get to events more easily, can be aware of them, can travel to and from them more independently than ever before. But navigating your way around a hotel if you’re blind or a wheelchair user, or understanding what happens in an event if you are deaf or hard of hearing, [is a separate challenge].”
From Low-Tech to High-Tech
A lot of the solutions for accommodating people with disabilities at an event are decidedly low-tech: ensuring there are ramps and wheelchair-accessible restroom stalls, arranging Braille or large print options, and providing American Sign Language interpreters, Communication Access Realtime Translation, or captioning services.
Technology, however, can only do so much if meeting planners aren’t approaching their job with the awareness of challenges faced by the disabled.
“Meeting planners know today that they’ve got to ask how many people are vegan, pescatarian, kosher, or whatever, but don’t generally think about how many people are wheelchair users or blind,” said Slatin. “That, I think, is starting to change…. It’s not really being driven by a group of event planners with disabilities. There isn’t an advocacy group for that, not yet anyway.”
New technologies such as automated image captioning technology, connected home devices, tablets, and wearables are allowing people with disabilities to expand their meeting options. Many of these technologies aren’t created with accessibility in mind, though.
“The unfortunate part is that… companies are not thinking about how they are going to be available to people with all abilities from the onset,” said Thomas Logan, CEO of technology consulting firm Equal Entry. “As a result, new tech very often comes out not being very accessible.”
There have been some recent examples of consumer-facing technologies that incorporate accessibility features, Logan noted, a corporate trend he hopes continues. The Apple Watch for example, had built-in accessibility features from launch including VoiceOver, vibration alerts, an extra-large watch face, and a built-in magnifier for text.
In addition, new technologies involving beacons, Bluetooth, and wayfinding are making it easier for people with disabilities to attend meetings, conferences, and events.
When ATIA puts on its own annual conference, they want to go beyond Americans With Disability Act (ADA) requirements by using new technology to assist disabled attendees.
“How do we get the hotel to add on some features that aren’t just baseline ADA requirements?” Dikter said.
Mobility for Everyone Through Technology
One emerging option is ClickAndGo Wayfinding, which offers products for people with visual disabilities, including tactile maps, low-vision maps, and virtual kiosks. But the company is best-known for its audio navigation directions.
Unlike GPS, which can only provide directions outdoors, ClickAndGo Wayfinding works both indoors and outdoors. ClickAndGo uses beacons to provide guided, audio directions for people with disabilities. The results, which can be delivered online or via a mobile app, can confirm one’s location, identify landmarks, announce potential hazards (such as changes in carpet and flooring materials), and provide useful location-specific orientation cues.
Although beacons are still relatively new in the blind wayfinding experience, ClickAndGo is delivering beacon support to Comcast Corporation, the Washington, D.C. transit system, the NYC Department of Transportation, Columbia University, Swarthmore College, and several other venues.
“If an organization or association is bringing a convention or conference to a hotel, those people coming in are not just the customer of the association, they then become the customer of the hotel and the convention itself,” said Joe Cioffi, ClickAndGo’s CEO. “It’s time that facilities take a bigger step at understanding the range of customers they’re serving, and people with disabilities are part of the range of customers they’re serving.”
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Photo credit: A 2014 event in Germany attended by at least several disabled people. SozialHelden / Flickr