Chances are that if you are an event planner, you are able to move around quickly, you are agile and you are used to literally being on the run! It is a physically demanding job. This also means that because you are able-bodied, it might not occur to you to plan for people who are not as mobile. If this is not the case and you are always proactively planning for different abilities at your events, I congratulate you. This, however, isn’t the norm.
I believe many event planners think of inclusion and accessibility as an afterthought, that is, when the registration results come in and they see that a participant will be in a wheelchair or has some other accommodation requirement. At that point, they start to wonder how to make this situation work with a venue they have already contracted. I have heard of cases where the venue needed to be changed a few days before the event to accommodate a guest in a wheelchair.
A better plan is to think of all body types and abilities when sourcing your venue from the start, rather than trying to make the venue work once you find out the accommodations required by your group. I often hear planners say that they don’t need an accessible venue because no one in the group is in a wheelchair.
That is not a safe bet. Last year, I learned this the hard way when I broke my leg and spent six weeks in a wheelchair and on crutches. I attended many events and discovered how humiliating it is crawling up and down stairs with colleagues’ help. People can also have a bad back, knees or hips, which make stairs a challenge and make it even more important to always choose a venue which is fully accessible to begin with.
Many venues will claim to be accessible, but ask more questions! What is an accessible venue, really?
- Easy access in and out of the building with no stairs (not even one). The access should also be dignified, therefore coming through a back alley or kitchen is not alright. Guests will want to be able to enter the event with friends or colleagues.
- Adequate room within the venue and in the event space to move around without obstacles or feeling “in the way”.
- Access to washrooms with no stairs, a button to open door and room to maneuver a wheelchair inside.
Note: It is NEVER acceptable to offer to lift a wheelchair (or a guest) to make the venue work!
So you have an accessible venue, now how do you accommodate someone who is in a wheelchair? Consider offering an attendant if you have the budget – they can be hired through the March of Dimes and other similar organizations. An attendant is someone who can ensure that the guest is taken care of throughout the day – they will get their food and drink from the buffet table and bring them to the washroom, if needed. Ask the participant in advance what support they will require onsite. If you can’t afford an attendant, you should at least ensure that a staff member is assigned to be responsible for making sure they are cared for.
Accessibility is not only about wheelchairs. Planners need to consider how comfortable all of their guests will be during the event. I have attended many events which included a standing reception without any chairs to be found. If you are in great physical shape, it might not occur to you what a nightmare this can be for others. Standing for a long period of time can be painful for people with back, hip or knee issues. Think also about pregnant women or older guests. It is also not inclusive of people in wheelchairs as they would be much lower than everyone who is standing and it would make conversations challenging. At all receptions there should be adequate low seating so that people who need a seat are accommodated and there can be comfortable conversations with anyone who is in a wheelchair. Offering an assortment of seating options is ideal.
Inclusive event planning means anticipating everyone’s needs!