This article reprinted with permission from The Community Psychologist, Summer, 2004, 37(3), Society of Community Research and Action, Division 27 of the American Psychological Association.
Some members of TCP – too many really – have an outstanding negative memory of last year’s biennial. We recall the embarrassment of colleagues and friends with disabilities who were extensively inconvenienced to the point of going home early and missing their own scheduled presentations; what with no lift for a person separated from her wheelchair; the unreadable print on meeting room doors; the un-closeable door on the toilet; the inaccessible shower in the only otherwise accessible dorm room. These matters have been written about in previous columns, and reactions to them were mentioned in the summary of Conference evaluations (Woods & Wilson, 2003). Good access for people with disabilities usually makes good sense for everyone involved, and these benefits go beyond the classic “everyone likes curb cuts” example. Programs that look at accessibility issues for people with disabilities are also re-evaluating how the physical and conceptual environment is meeting the needs of all participants, whether it is through creating a more maneuverable space or improving communication practices (Center for Universal Design, n.d.).
Although there are a scattering of publications and technical assistance products distributed by the U.S. government and special interest groups that address the issue of accessibility for individuals with disabilities (the most comprehensive being the various American’s with Disabilities Act Technical Assistance Manuals) (U.S. Justice Department, n.d.), many organizations and community groups still have not started on the path to accessibility. The Center on Disability Studies, at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, initiated development of A Model for Accessibility (Stodden et al., 2003) in response to its own need for a comprehensive yet user-friendly guide to making its programs accessible. The project blossomed into a set of guidelines that provide community programs, projects, workplaces, educational institutions, meeting and conference planners with invaluable information about making their programs accessible to individuals with disabilities. The Model includes helpful information about:
- using respectful language
- access guidelines for media such as Web sites and print materials, hiring, research, and conferences and meetings
An appendix gives detailed information about (a) converting materials to Braille, large print and cassette tape formats, (b) employer responsibilities under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), (c) customer service practices, (d) using telecommunication devices for the deaf (TDDs) and communication Relay services, (e) an accessibility checklist, and (f) set-up suggestions for meetings. Links and resources throughout the Model point users to further information.
The Center on Disability Studies (CDS) used A Model for Accessibility as a framework for improving accessibility for participants at the most recent (March, 2004) Pacific Rim Conference on Disabilities, held annually in Honolulu, Hawaii. Paying close attention to access issues at the conference had a number of benefits for CDS, including attracting more participants, increasing participant satisfaction with the conference, and ensuring compliance with federal regulations. Increased participant satisfaction went beyond that of participants with disabilities. For example, at a post-conference institute “Real Time Notetaking,” (where a notetaker types an abbreviated transcript of speaker presentations, which is projected on a screen using a laptop and LCD projector), was used to accommodate participants with learning disabilities. Many of the participants, including a number for whom English was a second language, indicated that the Real Time Notetaking enhanced their comprehension of each speaker’s message. These notes also proved very helpful when compiling the institute proceedings! Other key elements of the planning and implementation process for the 2004 Pacific Rim Conference that improved access include:
- Forming an “Access Committee” to liaison with the conference program and logistics committees, and to handle all aspects of planning and implementing accessibility at the conference. The Access Committee, headed by an Access Coordinator, met once a month for the first eight months of the planning process and twice a month for the last four months. The Access Committee also set up an “Access Table” during the conference to monitor accessibility issues, hand out alternative formats of materials, and serve as a point of reference for accessibility for participants. Each member of the committee was charged with a specific aspect of access, such as “communication access,” “print access,” “mobility access,” “emergency preparedness,” “staff training,” etc. The committee also conducted a participant needs survey prior to the conference and a post-conference access evaluation.
- Requiring that all speakers bring with them alternative formats (Braille, large print, diskette, captioning) of handouts, Power Points or Overhead presentations and videos, as well as a short vocabulary list. Speakers were provided with guidelines for alternative formats well in advance (four months) of the conference, and a list of resources for producing alternative formats was listed on the conference web page. In order to ensure that alternative formats were available for the main sessions, the conference committee did arrange to produce alternative formats for a few of the keynote speakers, provided that they submitted all of their materials at least a month before the conference.
- Communicating directly with participants about their access needs. The registration form for the conference asked participants to indicate if they would need accommodations and listed some of the most common accommodations for them to check off (with a blank space left for additional accommodations that might be needed). Conference participants who indicated that they were deaf or hard of hearing were asked their interpretation preferences (for example, American Sign Language or Exact Signed English) or assistive listening device needs (i.e. need to couple with a hearing aid). They were also asked to outline their preliminary schedule (which remained flexible throughout the conference but helped with initial scheduling). Interpreters were given vocabulary lists of the presentations that participants expressed interest in attending, and their work schedules were verified. An attempt was made to pair each participant who needed sign language interpretation with two interpreters. During the conference, the Access Table served as a meeting point for participants with communication assistance needs. The communication coordinator maintained a current list of participant/interpreter pairings (which fluctuated depending on participant preferences and changes in interpreter availability) that was posted behind the Access Table. Coordinating interpreters and other communication access proved to be one of the most complex aspects of ensuring accessibility at the conference. However, the payoff was enormous and both deaf/hard of hearing participants and interpreters stated that communication access for 2004 was the best of any of the previous Pac Rim conferences they had attended.
- Having a group of volunteers available at the conference to help ensure access. Volunteers manned the Access Table, did periodic sweeps of the corridors, bathrooms and meeting rooms to make sure that pathways and room set-up were clear for wheelchair users, served as sighted guides or notetakers upon request, and other duties as assigned by the Access Coordinator.
- Providing information to conference participants, volunteers, conference staff and hotel staff about disability sensitivity and the “plan of action for access.” The conference program included disability etiquette and access information sheets. The Access Committee held a one hour training sessions for conference volunteers, personnel and hotel staff that covered disability sensitivity as well as the logistics of ensuring access to the conference
It is important to note that although these steps greatly increased access to the conference for participants, there is still more that can be done. For future conferences, the Access Committee discussed the need to work with the conference hotel to improve its emergency evacuation plan for guests with disabilities, to arrange for accessible transportation to and from the airport, to provide participants with more information about accessible recreation options in the area, and to refine the process of providing alternative formats and communication assistance.
The implications of CDS’ experiences with applying A Model for Accessibility to the 2004 Pacific Rim Conference are that (a) with careful planning and attention to detail, improving access is a rewarding and manageable process, (b) every little step towards making a program, meeting or conference more accessible is a step in the right direction, and (c) most program and conference participants have the desire to make their programs or presentations accessible to all participants, what they often need is specific guidance on how to accomplish this.
These measures sound like a lot of hard work, and in some respects, a lot of hard work was involved. But much of the groundwork laid during the first year of implementing these measures will be much easier to replicate in future years. Again, the payoff was a conference that was accessible to all participants, and the knowledge that as an organization we were on the cutting edge of a national movement.
You can download a free PDF version of
. Print or alternative formats of the Model cost $5.00/copy and can be ordered by contacting Velina Sugiyama at Tel: 808-956-5688, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Address: Center for Disability Studies, 1776 University Avenue, UA 4-6, Honolulu, HI 96822.
Center for Universal Design. (n.d.). What is universal design? Retrieved May 26, 2004 from https://www.ncsu.edu/ncsu/design/cud/.
Stodden, N.J., Johnson, J., Conway, M., Whitney, B., Harcourt, M., Guinan, M., Ratliffe, K., & Ozaki, B. (2003). A model for accessibility. Center on Disability Studies, University of Hawaii at Manoa: Honolulu.
U.S. Justice Department. (n.d.). Americans with Disabilities Act publications and information. Retrieved May 27, 2004 from http://www.ada.gov/index.html
Woods, L.N. & Wilson, M.N. (2003). Incorporating diversity: Moving from values to action—Evaluation of the 9th Biennial Conference of the Society for Community Research and Action. The Community Psychologist, 36(4), 43-49.