Great ways to make meetings accessible for people with disabilities
Why your meeting should be accessible
Even if you don't have any known attendees with impairments a person can have an accident a few days before and require a wheelchair. A person that you invite could have impairments. I believe that it's good for meetings to have a decent level of accessibility because you can't always predict who may need it.
People can complain if their needs aren't met; some will take their experience public which could reflect badly on your organization.
If people who know accessibility issues are not at meetings then their needs may not be met in other areas of your organizations. For example if you're planning a conference it could be a good idea to have a person who can advise on accessibility on the organizing committee. People who have disabilities are generally better suited for this.
People with firsthand experience of disability can bring up other issues within the organization. For example perhaps the organization regularly has events at an inaccessible place. Someone bringing up these issues could be beneficial.
Ask what people need
When you get people to RSVP ask if they have any accessibility requirements and/or provide a checklist of accessibility options.
If you invite a person to speak at your meeting you should ask if they have any accessibility requirements as well.
Travel costs could be a barrier for attending meetings as many persons with disabilities are on low incomes. Offering to pay the person's travel expenses could be a solution to this issue.
Choose a suitable venue
It should have access for wheelchairs. If the meeting is more than a few hours you might want to choose a venue with accessible toilets.
Ensure people can get to the accessible toilet easily. The path ways should be clear and not in locked areas too. Ideally it would be close to the meeting room(s).
It's helpful if the venue has accessible parking. Drop off zones are good for people who use taxis. Ideally the venue would be close to a bus stop.
The venue should have minimal background noise so people can hear easily. You might not want to have a meeting in a noisy pub.
The rooms of the venue should have enough outlets for people who use assistive devices. It's common for people to want to charge laptops and phones and this is also good for people with disabilities as some would need to charge assistive technology devices.
Some people may need a storage area for mobility aids or toilet seats.
If the meeting is part of another event such as a conference ensures that the venue is close to the other things going on.
Ensure that the room can be a comfortable temperature for most people.
Meetings located in cities with decent accessible transport work best.
If the group goes for drinks or for a meal that venue should be accessible too.
If your meeting is outside ensure that there's a concrete pathway to the area. Some mobility aids do not handle grass well so ensure there's a concrete section if the primary area is grass.
A flat area is best as some people would have trouble sitting on seats otherwise.
To make things easier for the organizers you can send instructions to the presenters or people who submit material to make their content accessible. The organizers can make changes to the submitted content but this can save them time.
Sending instructions for optimal accessibility is also important if the presenters will use their own computer. An additional option in this case would be to get them to send the content to the organizers and send back a version with accessibility changes.
It is great if video have captions for people who cannot hear.
Charts, graphs and graphics could use additional text for people with low or no vision.
All electronic material given to people with screen readers should be compatible with such software.
Material should be easy to understand by everyone; this means using simple language where possible and putting the words beside abbreviations the first time they're used.
Provide material in advanced
Some people would want material before the meeting. People with hearing impairments need to look at the interpreter and they would read the material prior.
Different material for different impairments
You may want to provide material in large print for people with vision issues.
Braille can be considered too but if this is not possible you can probably Email the material to the people who cannot see.
If someone has their information in graphic form it would be helpful if the person also verbally describes what's on the screen.
Speed of people speaking
Be mindful that if sign language interpreters are at the meeting people should be speaking at a normal pace with occasional pauses. Interpreters can struggle if the pace is too fast, other people can also struggle if a person's pace is too fast.
Some people would want to sit at the front so they can see or hear better.
It is good to offer people in wheelchairs to sit anywhere they want if space is available and isn't reserved.
If the meeting utilizes a stage it would be a good idea to ensure that it's accessible as sometimes you can't predict who will be going up there. Ensure that a wheelchair can get up it and there's enough space for all people to more around.
Distribute information about the event
You may want to include a Google Maps link for the venue on websites and Email. Including information on accessible parking, drop off zones and the nearest bus stop might be worthwhile. If the building has a specific accessible entrance you might want to include information on that too.
Some people would need to organize taxis so ensure you have clear times for when the meeting starts and ends.
If people who use communication devices are supposed to speak ensure they know exactly what's expected of them before the meeting; even if they just need to introduce themselves. This allows them to do preparation in advanced.
Don't suddenly move the meeting if it's unnecessary
Moving the meeting can cause problems and confusion so avoid moving the meeting to a new location unless you can't hold it at the current one anymore.
If you do have to move it may be worthwhile to alert the staff at the old venue. If possible stick a note on the door of the old venue saying where you are.
Some people may arrive late so it may not be a good idea to assume that people are not showing up unless a reasonable amount of time is passed.
Establish meeting rules
Some people find it difficult to hear if multiple people are speaking simultaneously so it's probably best to have one person speaking at a time. If you have such a policy state this at the opening of the meeting so people are aware of this.
Sudden noises from computers and phones can be distracting to some people so you may want a rule to have devices on mute unless they're using it as their way to communicate to the group.
Try to end the meeting at the stated time
If the meeting goes over time as I know meetings do those with taxi booked will have to leave before the meeting is finished.
You may want to ensure that clear pathways exist from the entry point to the front.
A roving (portable) microphone is best. If you have a microphone on a stand ensure that it's adjustable and is easy to get to for people with mobility issues.
Questions and answers
Some people may type their question slowly but will be able to do it while other things are going on. If they signal that they want to ask a question you might have to ask if they're ready and go to other questions until such a time.
It could be a good idea to have someone who repeats the questions people ask so everyone understands them.
Accommodate any assistants
Some people have their own assistant so they also need seating.
You may want to include them in any food or drink orders.
They should be included in any accommodation or flights for the meeting otherwise the person who needs they may not show up.
Sign language interpretation
People who are hard of hearing may require a sign language interpreter. Small organizations that do not have people with hearing impairments attending probably don't need to have a sign language interpreter.
Sign language interpreters may be available locally. You may require two since it's common for them to take breaks after 20 minutes of work. It's also helpful to deliver any speeches to them prior so they can learn them.
According to the Office of Disability Issues New Zealand sign language interpreters work best with a solid dark non-distracting background. Ideally they should be located at the front on stage. If the meeting doesn't use a stage they should be located at the front of the room.
The interpreters also need adequate lighting at all times including when the lights go out for datashow presentations.
The interpreter would need access to a microphone as well; this could be the roving one. This allows the person hard of hearing to be able to speak at the meeting.
Other non verbal communication
I cannot talk and use eye tracking to type. People like me need more time to give responses; the people who run the meeting should be mindful of this. It's not uncommon for me to bring up additional points to a conversation already ended.
It's possible that the person would need someone to read out their responses. Their reader can use Email or SMS (text) to receive the responses. All responses should be read out word for word.
Some people need to stretch their legs every so often so take breaks every now and then. People with assistance animals would need access to an outside area for sake of toileting their animal.
People with disabilities can take longer to get back from breaks so be mindful of that.
If you have breakout sessions in the same room ensure that they're on opposite sides of the room or in separate corners. This will help people hear their group. The groups should have clear path ways to them.
It's helpful to separate food and put labels with information on the plates. People should be aware what allergies food is likely to trigger. If ordering food ensure allergies are communicated effectively.
It's good to have a place where attendees can store their own food.
It might be helpful to have gluten-free, vegetation and vegan options.
Some people have trouble with cups and would prefer to have plastic straws available.
Alternatives to face to face meetings
If it's not convenient for a person to show up to a face to face meeting it might be easier for people to join a teleconference on speaker phone or a zoom meeting.
Take them seriously
People like to be listened to and be treated with respect. Don't brush off the issues that they raise.
Make their experience meaningful otherwise your organization could be accused of tokenism.
Thanks for reading
I hope that I have helped you make your next meeting accessible for people with disabilities.