Dot Nary: Holding events that welcome all (Column)

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“If you don’t have a seat at the table, you’re probably on the menu.” — U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren

The above assertion certainly addresses complex situations simplistically. It is a notable idea, however, because it speaks to the importance of members of disenfranchised groups having access to decision-making bodies to ensure that their needs are considered. 

One of these disenfranchised groups is the population of people with disabilities and chronic conditions whose needs for accommodation to participate at those tables are often overlooked, misunderstood or, worse, ignored. Yet, it is this population, estimated to represent 1 in 4 or 5 people in the U.S. (depending on the estimate used), whose needs crosscut those of all other disenfranchised groups and who can provide input to make organizations and communities more accessible and responsive to the needs of anyone experiencing a temporary or permanent disability. 

What is an accommodation? In this context, it is a modification, perhaps to usual practices, which allows a disabled person to participate. Let’s consider a public meeting. Common accommodations might include a sign language interpreter or computer-aided real time translation (CART) for a deaf person; a site with a hearing loop system for a person with hearing loss; a site with a ramp, an accessible restroom, and space in the seating arrangements for people using wheelchairs; large print materials for those with low vision; materials in braille or electronic format for blind people; and plain language materials for those with cognitive disabilities. 

Other simple, no-cost accommodations include using a microphone when presenting, no matter how loud you think your voice is, for those with hearing loss; or reading aloud all of the information on slides for those who are unable to see them. These two are particularly important in our aging society, as many people are unlikely to raise their hand and admit age-related hearing or vision loss. Also, requesting that attendees avoid using scented products will accommodate those with environmental sensitivities. Be aware of timing, as well: avoiding scheduling early morning meetings for those who require personal assistance services to get up and out in the morning or after 7 p.m. for those who rely on public transportation are good practices. 

Why are accommodations essential? Well, think about attending a meeting where you want to participate … but you aren’t able to hear presenters or communicate with the other attendees; you aren’t able to get into the building, use the restroom or find a place to sit; or you aren’t able to see or decipher the materials needed to meaningfully participate in the event. How frustrating that would be!

Personally, as a wheelchair user, I remember attending a hearing on rural health care sponsored by my congressional representative in another state years ago. The public meeting was held at a small college two hours away from where I lived, a site that lacked even one accessible restroom! This occurred before passage of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires all public and privately owned facilities to have accessible features such as restrooms. My representative’s choice of this location for the hearing spoke volumes about his disinterest in the health care needs of his constituents with disabilities. 

Failing to provide accommodations for people with disabilities occurs for many reasons. It may be due to ignorance of the size of this population or of the level of exclusion members experience. Or it may be due to confusion regarding the diverse types of disabilities, the needs they generate, and belief that it would be overwhelming or too costly to address them. It may reflect the misperception that those with some types of disabilities, including intellectual disabilities or those resulting in an inability to verbalize, have nothing of importance to contribute. And, certainly, it may be due to the real or perceived inconvenience of altering usual practices. 

However, the stakes are high. Failing to accommodate disabled people in public discourse, in meetings, and on boards can result in loss of their contributions; programs that are exclusionary; plans that fail to address community needs; and events that do not comply with civil rights laws. 

Of course, the pandemic has resulted in the expansion of opportunities to participate in events virtually. But the platforms used must provide equal access and should not replace in-person participation for those who are able to attend. 

The small inconveniences that some might experience as a result of making changes to increase accessibility are worth it to achieve the goal of inclusive events. These inconveniences might include switching a meeting to an accessible site from the inaccessible one where it has always been held; reallocating money from a food budget to fund an interpreter; or requesting that attendees refrain from wearing perfume to avoid making someone ill. And how educational it may be for some to experience for a brief time what others experience every day of their lives.

The following resources for meeting planners can help ensure an inclusive community and an accessible event.

Best Practice Guidelines for Planning an Accessible Event | Accessible KU — click here
How to Make Your Virtual Meetings and Events Accessible to the Disability Community — Rooted in Rights — click here
Making Events Accessible – Checklist for meetings, conferences, training, and presentations that are remote/virtual, in-person, or hybrid | Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) | W3C — click here
Top 10 Principles for Plain Language | National Archives — click here

— Dot Nary is a disability activist, retired KU researcher, and educator. She grew up on the east coast and still misses the ocean but delights in the beauty of the prairie. She loves living in Lawrence and works to make it a community that is equitable, accessible and welcoming to all. Read more of her columns for The Lawrence Times here.

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