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I Want to Be Invited! Designing Accessible Event Environments that Shape Positive Experiences

This is a guest blog post by Juliette Rizzo.Juliette Rizzo is the former Ms. Wheelchair America, one of Maryland’s Top 100 Women and a long-time inclusive health and wellness advocate. Juliette is a nationally recognized public speaker and has over two decades of experience designing and producing largescale, highly visible public events. Click here to contact Juliette.

I recently ventured out to the March for Our Lives, held in Washington, DC on March 24. I was hoping to find a more accessible event than the Superbowl parade experience I last wrote about.  I was ready to attend the march and did my preparation— I made note of customer service and accessibility information. I could only hope the event planners had done their homework as well.

Unfortunately, my experience at the March was similar to my experience in Philadelphia. After asking four event volunteers and staff members, as well as the police, to direct me through the crowds to that ever-elusive accessible seating area, an event staffer finally got results by giving me a VIP friend’s and family pass. In my observation, I was the only person in a wheelchair that made it to the front and I can’t help but wonder what others did. l certainly didn’t feel VIP as I encountered congested access routes, a lack of accessible seating, and no interpreter services for those who may need them. One writer, S.E. Smith, summed it up best sharing that the lack of inclusion at the March actually cut people off from their own communities.

I joked afterwards that the most accessible part of the march was George Clooney (I ended up “standing” near him) but was reminded by a police detective at the event that “You don’t have to be standing to take a stand. It’s a movement. Make a fuss.” Instead of fuss, I am choosing to take action. An event cannot truly be considered a community event if a part of that community is excluded. To make the next event accessible to all, I offer a few tips here from my decades as an event planner who just happens to use a wheelchair.

When You Don’t Know Who Is Going to Show Up, Plan for Everyone

Planning for the full participation of people with disabilities is smart. One in five Americans have a disability — that’s roughly about 56 million people — and any one of us can join the ranks of this ever-growing minority group at any given time. As a matter of fact, if you live long enough, about 70% of us will have a disability or encounter temporary situations where they will have similar experiences to people living with disabilities. Disability is a part of the human experience, and accessibility should be accounted for in the design of all experiences — events for ALL is my motto, and ALL means ALL, ALL the time. Accessibility must not be an afterthought and requires a focus on inclusion from an event’s conception to completion.

Prioritize Accessibility, Walkability, and Roll-ability in Site Selection and Programming

At the National Walking Summit in St. Paul, MN last fall, I co-led a workshop to teach attendees how to incorporate accessibility into their walking audits, making it a priority to take to the streets to experience the barriers and identify solutions firsthand. I actually gave an opening plenary keynote address at the event and applaud event producers for recognizing diversity and prioritizing my voice to be included in the speaker lineup on behalf of the disability community. I was empowered and still am in awe – when was the last time you remember someone in a power wheelchair addressing a walking summit?

As you plan your events to be truly disability friendly, you must prioritize the needs of ALL attendees, recognizing that well thought of doesn’t necessarily mean well thought out.

While the Superbowl parade was intended for all, and producers took into account accessible transportation drop-off points and captioning on the jumbo trons, parts of the event remained inaccessible to some people with disabilities, namely a spontaneous player meet-and-greet and impromptu autograph session for VIP attendees immediately following the event, which was staged mid-way up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

You can take steps to ensure people of all abilities can effectively plan safe participation at your event and experience the entire event to the fullest. Plan for ease of movement and smooth surfaces when identifying routes. Consider good lines of site and companion seating. Make accessible maps in advance, identify nearby accessible parking and don’t forget accessible porta potties. Getting the word out about accessible site selection early and in multiple ways generates excitement.

Partner with People with Disabilities in Planning Your Events 

There is a saying in the disability rights movement: “Nothing about us, without us.” The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability (NCHPAD) supports that inclusion can transform communities when all community members are “presumed competent, are recruited and welcomed as valued members of their community, fully participate and learn with their peers and experience reciprocal social relationships.”

Don’t just invite people with disabilities to your event, invite us to your planning table at the outset or to a site visit. Don’t worry about space at that table, some of us bring our own chairs! Mobility devices actually can be useful during site visits and walkthroughs to help assimilate how attendees with accessibility needs will actually experience the event. Including us in pre-planning can help you assess everything from path stability to turning distance and allows event planners the firsthand opportunity to ask, “What do you need to fully participate?”

Reach out to individuals and professionals with disability expertise, local government entities like Governor’s Commissions on Disability or a Mayor’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities, and disability organizations, such as Centers for Independent Living (CILs) and even non-profits that focus on a specific condition – everyone’s welcome!

Make Accessibility Training a Must for Event Staff and Volunteers 

One event volunteer at the March shared with me that physical access wasn’t even covered at the volunteer training they attended. Even if it had been, physical access is not enough. A friend once said attitudes are the real disability. Make your event one that is emotionally and attitudinally accessible to ensure an environment that explicitly welcomes and includes all. It’s important to know how to effectively communicate with a person with limited speech or someone who utilizes a mobility device, how to identify service dog relief areas, or accommodate an individual’s need for a quiet space free from sensory overload.

Incorporate accessibility training through a local organization or someone like myself, and don’t forget about emergency response procedures for those with different access needs. Demonstrating your commitment to accessibility and preparedness helps people with disabilities truly feel like part of their community.

This set of recommendations is not meant to be an exhaustive list of tips, but rather a great way to start to improve participant experience and establish a basic accessibility framework to begin the discussion and the work in building healthy, connected communities that promote opportunities for all people. Please use these tips to audit your event for access and use the results to guide your decision making, to set the standard for other event organizers to look up to and to inspire other communities with your success.