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How to Plan an Age- and Disability-Friendly Event

Speaker on stage and giving talk at business meeting. Audience in the conference hall. Business and Entrepreneurship. Copy space on white board.

Have you ever been to a public meeting where you couldn’t hear because the presenter didn’t want to use a microphone? Have you ever been to a presentation that you couldn’t see because the type was too small or there was an insufficient contrast? Have you ever been to an event that required you to climb stairs (up or down) in order to participate with others?

One of the things that the Americans with Disabilities Act—civil rights legislation signed into law on July 26, 1990, which affects state and local governments and most businesses and organizations that serve the public—requires is that they make their programs and services accessible to individuals with disabilities. That means not only getting people with disabilities in the door but providing a meaningful experience for them once they are there, equal to what people without disabilities would experience.

The ADA is the law and a darn good one. But can’t we do better than that? I believe we should do everything we can to make events welcoming and inclusive of all people. That’s why I helped to produce Meeting the Needs of People with disAbilities: Community Guide to Accessible Events & Meetings—recommendations from Age Friendly Seattle, an initiative to make Seattle a great place to grow up and grow old.

In training on how to use the guide, I stress that the goal is not simply to get people in the door but to ensure that event participants have meaningful experiences, regardless of disability. Event planning must include accessibility considerations from the start. And nobody has to reinvent the wheel—the guide is full of event planning checklists.

The booklet is also full of practical advice. For instance, what do you do when a facility is not fully ADA compliant? Easy—change the location. What if it’s a unique location—like dedicating a remote section of a park? Arrange for some form of transportation to the site. What about individuals with limited eyesight and/or hearing loss? Ask what you can provide to support their experience.

Speaking of asking, remember to include text on your printed materials, website, invitations, and e-mail that includes welcoming language and full contact information for anyone who has a question about accessibility or requires an accommodation of any kind in order to participate. Sometimes that’s simply a larger chair or a parking space near the door; other times, your request may require professional support.

If you or any community organization you may be affiliated with—including faith-based organizations and clubs—plans public events, you can use the guide for planning purposes. It’s also a good training resource.

With record numbers of older adults and growing numbers of community members with visual and hearing impairment and mobility challenges, it’s more important now than ever to consciously plan for accessible meetings and events of all types.

If a microphone is available, use it. A lot of people with hearing loss won’t ask.

Your accessible meeting plan should include the following:

  • Auxiliary aids and services—Individuals with hearing loss have varying requirements. Learn the range of accommodations that may be requested.
  • Meeting notices—Use multiple formats, including print and online, and never rely on an e-mailed PDF image to communicate meeting information to people with low vision. Electronic calendar meeting/appointment requests should include the basic details in the body of the message.
  • Presenters and presentation materials—Our guide lists tips for presenters on a page that can be scanned and e-mailed to presenters in advance and provided at the podium. Powerpoint slideshows provide valuable visual information for people with good eyesight, but presenters need to describe the visual elements of their slideshow so that audience members with limited eyesight can follow along. Also consider: If you show a video, is it captioned so that individuals with hearing loss can follow along? Plan ahead.
  • Training—Make sure that the person who receives accommodation requests is prepared to act promptly.
  • Venues—Consider parking, passenger drop-off, transit connections, routes to the entrance and meeting space (including entries, stairways, and elevators), meeting room setup, sound system, lighting, restrooms, background noise, and safety.
  • Platform—If there is a raised platform with a podium or table, make sure that you know your speakers’ abilities to step up. Alternatively, have a ramp available.

Consider a wide range of disabilities—limited mobility, hearing loss, low vision, and cognitive challenges, as well as multiple disabilities. Not every disability is visible.

Also, it’s good to remember that many people who (for example) wear hearing aids and/or glasses, or suffer from arthritis, don’t consider that they have a disability. Many don’t ask speakers to use a microphone when it’s available, but they should. Presenters should, too—assuming what they have to say is important. If it’s not important, why are they there? There are people who make a herculean effort to overcome barriers to participation, but never think of requesting an accommodation. The onus is on event organizers to include them.

Contributor Irene Stewart manages communications at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. She served as project manager for Age Friendly Seattle when it launched in 2017, helping to craft the Age Friendly Seattle Action Plan for 2018–2021, and was the primary author of the guidebook referenced above. Suggestions for improvements are welcome at