How to Plan an Accessible Public Meeting

This year we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, an important piece of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in employment, transportation, public accommodation, communications, and governmental activities.

The ADA requires state and local governments to make their programs and services accessible to persons with disabilities—not only through physical access, but accommodations that ensure that all people with disabilities can participate in and benefit from the programs and services. Nonprofit organizations have similar requirements.

It's important to note that a facility can be fully ADA compliant, but meetings held in that facility can, and often do, fall short.

We may understand the value of full participation in everything from developing a public policy to providing a service or selling a product. Insufficient training and planning often results in exclusion of the very individuals who we were and are most interested in meeting.

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 an accessible meeting.   

Your accessible meeting plan should include the following:

  • Accessible venue—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.
  • Accommodations—Ensure that your meeting announcement clearly states how an individual can request an accommodation, and then make sure that the person who receives the request is preparing to act promptly. Alternative formats need to be produced quickly.
  • Availability of auxiliary aids and services—Individuals with hearing loss have varying requirements. Assistive listening devices (e.g., FM and infrared transmitters) may be sufficient for individuals with slight to moderate hearing loss. Hearing loop technology can feed sound from a sound system directly to hearing aids equipped with a t-coil. CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation) is a service similar to court reporting that provides text on a screen or marquee reader board. Some people require American Sign Language interpreters. Learn the range of available options. Local resources include the Hearing, Speech, and Deafness Center; Hearing Loss Association of Washington; and Let's Loop Seattle.
  • 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.
  • Meeting speakers—Presenters should face the audience so that individuals with hearing loss can see their mouth, and lighting should be sufficient for all to see.
  • Presentation materials—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.
  • Speaker 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. There are people who make a herculean effort to overcome barriers to participation, but never think of requesting an accommodation.

Want to learn more? A number of online resources provide valuable detail:

An excellent local resource is the Northwest ADA Center (www.nwadacenter.org).


Contributor Irene Stewart is a planner at Aging and Disability Services, the Area Agency on Aging for Seattle-King County. Among many duties, she staffs the Northwest Universal Design Council and edits AgeWise King County.