Attendees at PCMA’s Convening Leaders last January may have been surprised to see one of their non-disabled colleagues moving around Boston’s Hynes Convention Center in a wheelchair.
The effort was part of a session focused on meetings industry compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), facilitated by accessibility advocate Joan Eisenstodt and others, including Kristen McCosh, the commissioner of the Mayor’s Commission for Persons with Disabilities in Boston.
McCosh may be relatively new to the meetings industry, but in her capacity as a city commissioner she works with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority to improve accessibility at convention facilities, in addition to aiding general accessibility efforts in the city.
Being disabled and having experienced the pre-ADA world—she has used a wheelchair since sustaining a C6 spinal cord injury in an automobile accident at age 15—McCosh is on a mission of advocacy. She was named Ms. Wheelchair Massachusetts in 2007, Ms. Wheelchair America the following year, and is currently editor-in-chief of Solutions e-magazine, published by Hire Disability Solutions. She also works with newly injured C6 spinal cord injury patients at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
To McCosh, getting in front of meeting planners was an ideal opportunity to educate those who plan large events, which almost by definition attract a diverse swath of the population, including, of course, those with disabilities both temporary and permanent.
The ADA, passed in 1990 with new guidelines issued in 2010, greatly impacts the meetings industry, but, many could argue, lacks a strong enforcement effort. In this reality, the best way to affect change in the everyday lives of the disabled, McCosh maintains, is to get the word out.
“I don’t think the best call for action is enforcement. I think it’s more awareness that we need,” McCosh says. “So trainings like the one we did [at Convening Leaders] are very crucial, because I don’t think people do it intentionally. I just think they don’t realize.”
When it comes to meetings, McCosh says one of the biggest obstacles for disabled attendees are buffet tables, which are hard to reach for someone in a wheelchair and difficult for sight-impaired attendees to navigate.
Other common impediments include narrow aisles between displays and in breakout rooms, along with seating-selection opportunities.
“Planners need to leave spaces open for wheelchairs in the front, center and in the back, so they have a choice,” she says. “They can always move a chair in if no one sits there, but they should always start with that space empty.”
Other features to aid disabled attendees include materials and signage with large print or Braille, assistive listening devices and the ability to accommodate assistants.
Communication about accessibility functionality before an event is key, McCosh says, and it’s also important to include an e-mail address or phone number for people who may have questions about accessibility.
A great resource for meeting planners to tap is the ADA’s website, which offers a section on planning accessible meetings, from evaluating sites to tips on remedying barriers, outreach and marketing.