Over the past several years, The Chicago Community Trust has taken steps to increase inclusion and access at our meetings and events.
I have worked closely with Risa Rifkind, a program associate with the Trust’s Disabilities Fund and ADA 25 Advancing Leadership initiatives, to make changes that shift our events toward being fully inclusive and accessible. As a baseline, we look to the Americans with Disabilities Act for access standards—but we aim to go beyond compliance with the letter of the law and fulfill the spirit of the law, in order to achieve full inclusion.
To help make your own events more inclusive, here are a few of the practices we’ve adopted that you can consider:
The invitation is a guest’s first interaction with an event. The choices you make here are key to making people feel that your event will be an environment where they are heard, accommodated and included.
Avoid paper colors that are similar to your ink or design color, and instead opt for color combinations that are high in contrast, like dark type on white paper.
Choose a sans-serif font and a minimum type size of 12 point—or for large print materials, 18 point and up.
All electronic invitations and event materials should be screen reader accessible. This may require steps like image tagging. Note that PDF files are not automatically accessible, although a designer or consultant can specifically design them that way.
Online invitation/RSVP systems like Eventbrite allow you to set the time allotted to complete the RSVP form before timing out, so increase it from the default (five minutes) to at least one hour.
At events where guests are seated, leaving wide aisles between tables allows easier access and mobility for all guests.
Be sure to specify how someone can request an accommodation for the event. For example: “To request accommodations, please contact [name] at [email address] or [phone number].” Providing a name reassures guests that their questions will be received by a human and not by an automated system; providing both a phone number and an email address allows the greatest flexibility for the communication channel individuals prefer.
A “Know Before You Go” email a day or two in advance is a helpful reminder for everyone! It also serves as an additional touchpoint to make all guests, including those with and without disabilities, feel welcomed. Use this email to explain anything unique about the space; note the location of accessible entrances, elevators, bathrooms or other services; and repeat the instructions for how to request accommodations.
Make your program or other handouts available by email in advance to guests who use screen readers or other assistive technology. This is especially useful for meetings, which may refer heavily to written agendas or presentations.
Don’t forget your social media! For Instagram, Facebook and Twitter posts about your event, include image descriptions for photos. Using camel caps in your hashtags (capitalizing the first letter of every word #LikeThis) makes them legible to screen reading devices. Check out my previous post for more ideas to make your social media inclusive.
For a presentation or large meeting, sign language interpreters are one option for making your content accessible to guests with hearing disabilities.
The selection of an accessible space is critical in ensuring that your guests arrive, and stay, in comfort. Beyond ramps and automatic doors, there are many ways to make the physical environment as accessible as possible.
Choosing a space
The location you choose for your event should be accessible for wheelchair users and others with disabilities. This means avoiding or providing alternatives to stairs, steep ramps and other physical obstacles.
Consider where the accessible entrance is. Often this is in a different location from the main entrance, such as at the back of the building. Requiring guests to enter through an alley, or through the kitchen, does not contribute to a feeling of equality, safety or enjoyment.
Consider accessible bathroom facilities too. Ideally, these will be in a convenient location on the same level as your event, and have soap dispensers within reach for all guests.
Leave aisles between tables wide enough for wheelchair users to navigate.
Try to set up your check-in and coat check close to your entrance. If they are not easily accessible, having staff on hand to assist guests will make their experience better.
It’s great to have staff on hand to assist more generally throughout the event—which they should do only after their help is specifically requested by a guest. Advise them not to assume that any guest with a disability must automatically require assistance and intervention.
Don’t forget to prepare the stage for your presenters’ needs. This might entail leaving space for a wheelchair among the seating for a panel, providing an accessible podium or table, adding a ramp to access the stage: ask your speakers in advance what arrangements they’ll prefer.
In addition to the event space itself, don’t forget to consider accessibility needs for your stage. This might include a ramp, a podium or table at a lower height, or space for a wheelchair among the seating for a panel: plan ahead, and then ask your presenters about their needs.
Audiovisual & media
Provide a microphone for all large meetings, even when speakers insist that they’ll be loud enough without—it improves the experience for guests with hearing disabilities.
Real-time captioning, known as Communication Access Real-Time Translation (CART), is a great addition that can benefit everyone. We partner with the Chicago Hearing Society (CHS), a division of Anixter Center, as well as Efficiency Reporting. CHS also provides ASL interpreter services for events. Depending upon the size and length of an event, CHS will advise on how many ASL interpreters will be needed. You can request either service online at chicagohearingsociety.org.
If you show a video at your event, make sure that it is captioned. When feasible, consider making an audio description of the video: a voice-over audio track that describes the visuals of a video for those who are blind or have low vision.
If you show photos at your event, provide an audio description, or a description document that can be emailed to individuals who use reader devices.
Create a large-print version of your program and other materials, and have copies on hand.
Real-time captioning, known as Communication Access Real-Time Translation or CART, makes the text of speeches and other audio available visually at the same time.
Use signs to warn guests of any loud noise and flickering lights you might be planning.
If your space is complicated, particularly if it’s spread out over several floors, create clear signs with directions, or have staff on hand to help people navigate the space.
We hope that by sharing a few of our standard practices, we can encourage you to implement changes that make more members of the community welcome. Please feel free to contact me with any questions, so that we can continue to improve together.