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Event Planning for Accessibility: Tips and Best Practices

by John Hunter

Accessibility and inclusion have always been important, but with rising numbers of people living with a disability, it's now, more than ever, a fundamental part of your event planning.

Whether staging a small meeting or a large conference, carefully considering accessibility will ensure all your attendees have a positive and inclusive event experience.

Read on to learn practical tips and best practices you can implement to ensure accessibility is at the heart of your event planning — before, during, and after your event. Why Event Accessibility Matters Some 16% of people worldwide have a disability, according to the World Health Organization. Across the EU, the average is higher at 24%; in the UK, it’s almost 22% of the population (or 14.1 million people).

If your events aren’t welcoming and accessible for everyone, you’re likely missing out on the opportunity to reach a much wider audience.

Put simply, creating an accessible event means designing it to be open to anyone regardless of their physical challenges or hidden disabilities. Similarly, inclusion involves making everyone feel welcome in a diverse setting that supports equity for all those involved.

You’re also legally obligated to make your events fully accessible. Disability is one of nine ‘protected characteristics’ defined by the 2010 Equality Act — making it illegal for any business to discriminate against persons with disabilities (or PWDs).

Understanding Accessibility Needs Many different types of disabilities and PWDs will have different access needs. Other people with the same disability may also have different access requirements.

Some disabilities are visible, while others may not be immediately apparent – such as certain neurodivergent states or mental health conditions. So never assume and always ask what additional accessibility measures you can implement to make your events truly inclusive. Here are some examples to consider planning for as part of your event.

Mobility impairments Visitors with restricted movement may use wheelchairs or mobility scooters. For them to get around your event comfortably and safely, accessibility solutions like ramps, lifts, wider aisles, and allocated parking spaces should be provided.

Visual impairments For visually impaired visitors, you should consider accessible solutions such as braille signage and audio description. Large print options also provide additional support so everyone can access information equally.

Something as commonplace as color blindness can significantly impact a person’s decision to attend an event. So remember to keep visual design elements simple and never color-code your event features or agenda.

Hearing impairments For those visitors who may struggle to hear and understand on-stage presentations, you’ll need to consider using sign language interpreters, captioning services, and audio amplification devices.

Cognitive disabilities Visitors with cognitive disabilities may face difficulty understanding or interpreting information and sensory stimuli.

To make your content and design accessible for them, you should keep text-based language (e.g., signage, flyers, and agendas) simple and provide visual cues and sensory-friendly spaces.

Neurodivergent conditions Autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and other neurodivergent conditions significantly impact a person’s ability to engage with traditional event design, such as crowded, noisy theatres or interactive networking.

To cater to people with neurodivergence, you should provide sensory-friendly environments, quiet areas of respite when needed, and prior notice of changes to schedules or routines.

Mental health conditions Mental health conditions like depression, PTSD, and anxiety can significantly impact a person’s emotional or psychological state. To support individuals with mental health difficulties during your event, you could offer accessible mental health resources and allow emotional support animals. 5 Steps to Planning Accessible Events Let’s now look at the various stages of event design to determine where accessible planning can come into play.

1. Registration The registration page on your event website is the first chance to find out what additional needs your attendees may have. So make sure your event registration page asks the right questions and includes checkboxes. These could include questions such as:

  • Do you require captions?

  • Do you require a sign language interpreter?

  • Will you be accompanied by a service animal or Personal Care Assistant (PCA)?

  • Do you need wheelchair access?

By asking more detailed questions at the registration stage or contacting anyone who has requested specific requirements, you’ll create a positive first impression of your event and give yourself more planning time to incorporate additional accessible elements.

Be sure to include contact information so people can reach out with questions or requests.

2. Onsite Experience To improve the onsite experience, put yourself in the shoes of a person with disabilities (PWD) and consider their entire attendee journey.

Wheelchair accessibility For example, to accommodate visitors in wheelchairs, consider widening the aisles or adding some lower poseur tables. Don’t forget to assign a dedicated wheelchair area in your conference hall or break-out rooms.

PCAs Other visitors with disabilities may be accompanied by a PCA, who is there to assist the attendee. You’ll need to ensure that:

  1. They’re given free entry

  2. They’re always able to sit next to the person they’re looking after

  3. You’ve factored them into catering numbers and room capacities

Service animals The same goes for service animals such as a guide dog for a visually impaired attendee. You’ll need to ensure that:

  1. There’s a reserved space for them at the end of an aisle so that their dog can remain alongside

  2. You provide facilities such as drinking water and somewhere for a dog to go to the toilet

  3. Staff are made aware not to distract or fuss over a service animal

Wellness spaces Quiet rooms and wellness spaces for anybody to take a break from the hustle and bustle of the show floor are a great addition to your event. Stage sets and lighting You may also need to reconsider audio-visual elements such as strobe stage lighting so that it doesn’t trigger photosensitive epilepsy.

3. Virtual and Hybrid Events Making your events accessible also extends to virtual and hybrid formats. Here are some tips:

  • Ensure that online presentations meet specific color contrast ratios to be accessible for people with visual impairments, including color blindness.

  • Since not everyone attending virtually can see or interpret the presentation slides, ask presenters to explain visual content.

  • If you can offer a sign language interpreter, make sure they’re always on screen and appropriate size to be legible.

4. Communication and Information Accessibility Including accessibility information in the design of your pre-event communications is critical.

  • For instance, add a simple line at the base of posters or flyers written in black text on a light background that reads, ‘Our theatre is wheelchair accessible’ or ‘A sign language interpreter will be available.’

  • Check if presentation fonts are large enough to be read from the back row of seats, images are of high quality, and messaging is clear.

  • If you’re using a sign language interpreter, ensure enough seats for visually impaired delegates are reserved in the front row. Having the correct lighting and background also ensures that the interpreter’s face and hands can be seen from the stage.

  • If your event attracts a lot of attendees with additional needs, consider placing an “accessibility desk” by the entrance. Inform registered attendees that they may seek extra help from the desk attendant if they encounter any problems.

5. Staff Training and Awareness Create a culture of inclusion by ensuring that everyone involved in the planning and execution of your event is given the same level of training.

For example, when an attendee arrives at your onsite registration desk, train staff to identify when a person needs additional time to respond or help with information, directions, or badge printing.

Your registration staff needs to know the correct way to interact with a deaf attendee or a visually impaired person who arrives with a service animal (e.g., don’t pet or fuss over the dog, don’t grab the attendee’s arm when giving directions).

Create a culture of inclusion by ensuring that everyone involved in the planning and execution of your event is given training. Finding Accessible Venues and Facilities There are many ways your choice of venue can impact how easily different people can get involved in your event - from moving freely around the building to feeling safe in an environment that won’t trigger a seizure or make them feel anxious or at risk.

When sourcing venues, consider both the accessibility within the venue and how your attendees may travel to your event.

Here are 10 venue-specific questions to reflect on:

  1. Can you reserve parking spaces for people who most need them?

  2. Is there ample space for mobility aids?

  3. Does the venue have an alternative accessible entrance? If so, will it remain unlocked during your event?

  4. Is the approach to the venue solid ground, or will you need a temporary pathway? Soft mud and loose gravel can be problematic for many.

  5. Does the venue have step-free access throughout? Can lifts be accessed without having to ask for a key? Are ramps of a gentle gradient (1:20), and do they have handrails on either side?

  6. What signage does the venue offer? Is the signage large and in high contrast? Embossed or in Braille? If not, can you put up your signs?

  7. Is there a loop system in your meeting room for hearing aid users? If so, is it working? Does anyone know how to switch it on or alter the volume? Will that person be there when you hold your event in the building?

  8. Does the venue offer ‘adapted’ toilets or gender-neutral toilets?

  9. Are there visual (flashing) fire alarms in private spaces, like toilets, to alert deaf or hard-of-hearing delegates of a fire? If not, consider what you must do in case of a fire alarm.

  10. Is space available for a multi-faith prayer room?

Using Event and Assistive Technology Use technology to improve the accessibility of your events. Here are two ways technology can keep you on the right track:

Accessible Tools Screen readers will convert text and other elements to speech or braille output for attendees with vision impairments or cognitive disorders.

If a site works with assistive technology, it mostly depends on the event platform, so please be sure to choose one that has been tested and verified to work with assistive technology, like screen readers.

To verify that an event platform meets accessibility standards, such as working with assistive technology, request a VPAT (Voluntary Product Accessibility Template) from the vendor. Cvent has VPATs for products such as our Event Registration, Attendee Hub, and others.

Ensure your event platform is compatible with third-party tools that allow audio content to be consumed in various languages for your global audiences.

Accessible Design When designing event or registration websites, use a platform like Cvent’s Attendee Hub, which proactively lets you know when color combinations don’t meet accessibility guidelines to help support attendees with visual impairments or color vision deficiency.

Add alternative text to images and make it easier for those using assistive technologies, such as screen readers and braille displays, to navigate your event website and registration process.

Accessible Events Checklist

To recap… Before your event

  • Invest the time and effort to determine what PWDs may need from you or your chosen venue.

  • Everyone’s onsite experience should be comparable, so assess the content and layout of your event for accessibility and ensure all staff is trained to provide customer support for all types of disabilities.

  • Keep accessibility in mind when designing communications, online polls, and feedback forms.

  • Use technology to improve the accessibility of your website and virtual event elements and the onsite experience for all.

  • Ensure that your event platform works with assistive technology such as screen readers.

During your event

  • Work with your chosen venue to ensure that additional measures can be added and specific requests are supported.

After your event

  • When your event is over, don’t forget to ask for, and act on, feedback from those attendees who have requested additional needs.

  • Always acknowledge feedback and think carefully about what you can do differently to improve the accessibility next time.

Next Steps Accessibility in event planning is a must. With over a billion people, or 16% of the world’s population, experiencing some form of disability, making your events more accessible and inclusive is a moral and legal obligation.

For a deeper understanding of accessibility and what it means for your event planning, check out our on-demand webinar entitled: Accessibility and Event Technology: A Beginner’s Guide.

John Hunter John is the Senior Manager of Event Cloud Content Marketing at Cvent. He has 11 years of experience writing about the meetings and events industry. John also has extensive copywriting experience across diverse industries, including broadcast television, retail advertising, associations, higher education, and corporate PR.

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