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Vol. 38 No. 6

Holding inclusive events: Accessibility and persons with disabilities

by Amy Allbright

People with disabilities are a large group. There are approximately 54 million in the United States. With the aging of the population, their numbers are growing. Most of us will experience disability—whether temporary, episodic, or permanent—at some point in our lives.

Accessibility is essential to the full inclusion of persons with disabilities. Early this year, the issue of accessibility of events was brought to the attention of state, local, and special-focus bar associations. A woman who uses a wheelchair was unable to attend an event held by a county bar’s young lawyers group. The wine cellar where it was held was reachable only by descending a flight of stairs. This incident resulted in strongly worded letters from the state’s chief justice to leaders of all the bar associations in the state where it occurred.

The members of the American Bar Association Commission on Disability Rights, many of whom have disabilities, have been unable to attend, or fully and equally participate in, events because they were not accessible. Here are a few barriers our members have encountered: the online registration form was not accessible for those with vision impairments, accessible transportation was not available, a stage from which they planned to speak had no ramp, videos lacked captions, sign language interpreters were not provided, and materials were offered in a visual or written format only.

Accessibility for persons with disabilities is often not considered when planning an event. As a result, any issues are brought to the host’s attention while the event is happening. This causes a lot of scrambling to try to make whatever is inaccessible—the event room, materials, presentations, etc.— accessible. This may or may not be achievable. Even if it is, persons with disabilities do not feel welcome or included.  

In order to raise awareness of the importance of integrating accessibility into the planning of any event, the Commission and the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities have created a toolkit. It provides recommendations on how to make meetings and events accessible.

It’s important to note that because some individuals may not disclose their disability-related needs in advance of the event, hosts must be proactive with regard to accessibility. Typically, efforts are focused on making the particular facility where the event is being held physically accessible. However, every part of an event—promotional materials, registration forms, program brochures, substantive materials, and presentations—must be accessible.

In addition, the accessibility needs of persons with non-visible, or hidden disabilities, such as learning, developmental, and psychosocial disabilities, must be considered. A truly accessible event is one in which everyone can communicate with one another. Accordingly, knowing how to communicate with people with all types of disabilities is essential.

The toolkit covers all of these topics. Download it today so you can make sure your next event is fully accessible to all of your members.


Amy Allbright

Amy Allbright is director of the American Bar Association Commission on Disability Rights.