When you’re planning a professional event—whether it’s a conference or a cocktail party—the scale and scope might change, but the goal is always the same: give your guests an experience that they’ll enjoy, remember, and associate positively with your brand.
A major factor in creating that kind of experience is prioritizing accessibility.
What is an accessible event?
A great event gives every attendee equitable access to the same content, connections and conversations. If you’re open to prioritizing what your guests need to achieve that, you’re already on your way to planning an accessible event.
And don’t worry: making an event accessible isn’t about changing your entire plan. It’s simply about thinking ahead and doing your best to design an event that makes it possible for anyone who attends to feel considered, comfortable and safe.
How to start with accessible events
Consider your guests—without making any assumptions. While some disabilities are visible, there are many that are non-apparent, situational, or temporary—including some visual, auditory, mobility, and neurocognitive disabilities. As examples, think of someone who is living with a chronic health condition (non-apparent), someone who is sensitive to loud noises or bright, pulsing lights (situational) or someone who recently broke their leg (temporary). These guests may or may not disclose their specific disabilities but may require—and request—accommodations to make the event work for them.
And we’ll acknowledge this right up front: it’s hard to get accessibility right for 100% of the people 100% of the time. Attendees will have different needs. There will be things that you couldn’t have anticipated. And that’s ok. The key is being open to addressing and accommodating what you can (as quickly as you can) in the moment, and then being willing to listen, ask questions and learn so that you can continue to improve going forward.
Because event attendees are not ultimately responsible for ensuring that the content and opportunities at your event are accessible to them—the ideal event would be designed that way, for everyone.
The good news is that planning accessible events comes with a bonus: often, the accommodations that are considered “disability friendly” are modifications that benefit everyone. (It’s called the “curb-cut effect,” and we’ll call out examples throughout the checklist. ⭐)
Accessible event processes and communications
- Optimize registration: Ensure all electronic forms (e.g., registration, voting, etc.) are easy to navigate and will work for folks using access technology like screen readers or folks with cognitive disabilities. Our friends from Perkins Access have four simple, straightforward tips for building accessible forms to get you started.
- ⭐ Curb-cut bonus: Optimizing your forms means that they’ll work more efficiently for everyone—so everyone who wants to join you will be able to.
- Start focusing on accommodations and inclusion: Ask about accommodations early—and often—starting during the registration process. This includes everything from physical accommodations (wheelchair accessibility, seating) and digital accommodations (ASL interpreter, live captioning) to dietary considerations (food allergies/sensitivities, vegan/vegetarian, low/no-alcohol).
This is also a good time to ask about preferred pronouns so that name tags, ongoing communications and event materials will be addressed properly for each guest.
- ⭐ Curb-cut bonus: Asking these questions will make all guests feel included, and it demonstrates a commitment to making the event special for everyone. Plus, proactively getting this information means you’ll be prepared well in advance.
- Cover everything in the confirmation: Send confirmation emails with detailed directions (including options for mass transit and rideshare, if applicable), accessibility info and a designated contact for more information/questions.
- ⭐ Curb-cut bonus: Everyone likes knowing where they need to be and when. The more details you can provide, the more satisfied all of your attendees will be.
Accessible event space
- Consider a variety of physical needs: Think about if the space you’ll be using is appropriate for everyone, including—but not limited to—wheelchair users, folks who are blind or visually impaired and folks who are deaf or hard of hearing. Some things to consider:
- Confirm that your event space (not just the general venue) is accessible via ramp or elevator.
- Minimize crowding and provide ample space for navigating through the event setup and other attendees—think about folks using a wheelchair, cane or guide dog.
- Reduce music / ambient noise so that people can communicate effectively.
- Provide a variety of seating options (e.g., high-top tables, low tables, chairs with and without arms) as well as options for folks who may need to sit closer to (or further from) the sound system, lights, etc.
- As weather permits, offer outdoor access in addition to indoor space for COVID sensitivity.
- Streamline the check-in process: Ensure that there’s enough space and enough staff to handle the initial rush of attendees. This will minimize lines and long waits, which is helpful for folks with mobility-related disabilities.
- ⭐ Curb-cut bonus: No one wants to wait in a long line—think about pregnant people, people wearing uncomfortable shoes or someone who’s just really excited to get to your event. Do what you can to get them in as quickly as possible!
- Ask about accommodations—again: On the way in, ask all attendees if they have any accessibility needs you can help with. Asking everyone doesn’t single anyone out—and this is a good way to catch any situational or temporary needs that might not have been captured in your initial information gathering.
- Prepare for service animals: Consider the safety of guide dogs and other service animals. In the case of outdoor events, you may want to prevent people from bringing their personal pets in order to protect working animals and their humans.
Accessible event materials
- Prioritize readability: On printed materials, avoid “fancy” fonts and small text. If possible, provide alternatives to printed materials, such as a QR code that links to an accessible electronic version of the information on your website.
- Simplify social sharing: Create accessible, easy-to-read hashtags that all attendees can use to amplify your content. Perkins Access has some quick and easy tips for amping up accessibility on social media.
- Help attendees connect: Attendee badges should include large, legible text and offer electronic alternatives (QR code link to relevant information) or tactile elements (braille) if applicable.
- Know the basics of an accessible presentation: To meet the needs of the widest range of folks with disabilities, an accessible presentation should offer the following accommodations:
- Make materials available in advance: This will be helpful for folks who need additional time and/or technology to process the information.
- Introduce—and describe—speakers: To be inclusive of attendees with vision loss, speakers should introduce themselves with their name and a short visual description. In a panel with multiple speakers, each panelist should mention their name before contributing to the conversation.
- Amplify audience questions: A microphone should be provided for questions from the audience, and each question should be repeated by the speaker for clarity prior to answering. If appropriate/relevant, audience members may also consider introducing themselves and providing a short visual description.
- ⭐ Curb-cut bonus: Offering presentation information in different formats enables all attendees to absorb the content in the way that they’re most comfortable—whether it’s print or electronic, audio or text—or while they’re multitasking on their phone or laptop during a presentation.
Inclusive dining experiences
- Consider a range of dietary needs: Build an inclusive menu that takes into account a variety of dietary needs and preferences—from food allergies and sensitivities to lifestyle choices and religious requirements. This includes drinks: if you’re serving spirits, non-alcoholic beverages should be available as well.
- Clearly label and verbally describe food (and ingredients): When offering food to guests, be clear about what it is—think about a person with food allergies/intolerances/sensitivities who needs to discern “safe” foods or a visually impaired person who needs more detail about what’s being offered before they can decide if they want it.
- ⭐ Curb-cut bonus: Understanding exactly what’s being served is actually helpful for all attendees. Consider the person who hates onions and wants to avoid the embarrassment of spitting a chewed-up surprise into their napkin!
- Be mindful of the serving setup: Think about how your food will be served. A buffet might not be ideal for folks with mobility-related disabilities or people who are blind or visually impaired, but could work with the proper accommodations and assistance. (Ask, ask, ask!) During a plated meal, servers should have a sense for which guests could benefit from additional information such as what food is being served, its placement on the table in relation to other tableware and any extreme temperatures to be aware of.
I planned an accessible event. Now what?
Congratulations! And thank you for prioritizing accessibility. With folks like you on our side, we’re on our way to building a more accessible world.
Now that your event has wrapped, touch base with your attendees to ask about their experience—did they have everything they needed? Are there things they would change? Were there things they particularly appreciated? This feedback will help you shape and improve your events going forward.
Because accessibility is a journey—and if you’re willing to ask, learn and improve along the way, every event you plan will be better than the last.
Want more accessibility, inclusion and innovation?