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Accessibility for All

By Selena Fragassi


It’s estimated that 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Complying with ADA guidelines isn’t enough—here’s how meetings and events at campuses take it a step further.

For the past 32 years, the University of Illinois has hosted the Illinois Wheelchair Sports Camps, a series of three, multi-day exhibitions of 150 athletes that participate in basketball and track competitions and trainings. The camps are coordinated by the university’s Disability Resources and Educational Services office, which has a storied history that put U of I on the map years ago thanks to a visionary by the name of Timothy Nugent.

Regarded as the “Father of Accessibility,” and the founder of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, Nugent spent years as a professor at U of I working to create the first major program of higher education for individuals with disabilities, which was realized in 1948. Inspired by veterans returning from World War II who had lost limbs during battle, Nugent was committed to making sure the GI Bill’s educational benefits were extended to all soldiers, regardless of the extent of injury.

Nugent’s work made the university a progressive campus with access for all—U of I would be the first higher education institute in America to have curb ramps and buses with wheelchair lifts, and would be instrumental in the research that would eventually lead to nationally accepted accessibility standards. “What he went though to get those services for students, and knowing it started here at U of I, it’s very impressive,” says Krystal Grace, assistant director of conferences, special events, and Student Dining and Residential Programs Building. Those services remain in practice at the university today, in addition to more modernized approaches, particularly in the aptly-named new Nugent Residence Hall, making the campus a cut above for planners looking for a non-traditional venue that can meet the needs of every attendee.

The Bigger Picture

Accessibility is not only an obligation for planners, it’s a global responsibility to ensure that all people have the same opportunities. Overseas, the European Accessibility Act has been making news, and is up for vote with members of the European Union to provide legislation that governs the capabilities of every public space. In the coming months, Google Maps will also unveil a new Wheelchair Accessible route option in its popular app. Even Apple is proposing a new selection of accessibility emoji for approval by the Unicode Consortium.

According to the last U.S. Census in 2010, 59 million Americans—or 1 in 5 people—have a disability, making it paramount for the meetings and events industry to not only adhere to guideline set forth by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), but also to go beyond what’s expected by tapping into services and amenities and properties that cater to those with additional needs.

Why Campuses Stand Out

Campuses are a prime example, says Bob Hale, director of auxiliary services at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, Canada, which will host the 2018 Special Olympics Canada National Summer Games for the first time over the course of week starting in late July. The university has also played host to the provincial games for a number of years. “Any kind of special needs we have captured because of the students we have with disabilities,” he says. In fact, because SFX is hosting the games they have also been able to upgrade their gymnasium through provincial government funds. “We needed our stands replaced and enhanced, and we approached the local government and this was their gift to the university to try and support the games,” adds Hale. “The great thing about that is those renovations can help us get even more events and provide for our students as well.”

The Special Olympics Canada National Summer Games is a large touring event that draws in about 1,500 people, including players, coaches, and attendees, and hits different parts of the country every year—the last time it was in Nova Scotia was in 1994. Part of the reason SFX (which is based in Antigonish) was chosen was because of its small-town feel. “Organizers felt this major event would be more embraced here versus getting lost in the city,” says Hale. “The fact that we are not in the middle of a city and we don’t require navigating city streets, because everything is all in one area, makes moving around quite easy. Plus, all our buildings are accessible and our caterers can accommodate any type of dietary request for those that have strict requirements.”

Special Olympics Canada Games Manager Matt Quinn adds that “the location was chosen because of our experience hosting provincial games there. And, from an organizing committee standpoint, the fact that most buildings at St. Francis are accessible is important, but another big factor is transportation. It’s one of the biggest hurdles with our Games. With the uniqueness of having the majority of all sports happening on campus in this Olympic Village, we don’t have to worry about that need.”

Transportation was another bonus for Colorado College and helped them to secure sporting events for the U.S. Association of Blind Athletes for a number of years, a group of about 800 athletes, coaches, and spectators that have convened for judo, goalball, swimming, and track meets over the course of four days. “We have our own fleet of transportation, and planners liked that since the athletes were not able to drive and we could get them to different places easily for their competitions, many of which were held at the Olympic Training Centers in Colorado. That was really attractive to them,” says Brenda Soto, director of college events. “Our food service was also willing to pack up boxed lunches for them and put them on the bus. A lot of places weren’t willing to do that.”

One of the challenges, says Soto, was making sure the residence hall exits were clearly marked for those who had more severe visual impairment, since it ranged from attendee to attendee. “Some weren’t able to read the signs for fire doors. We had to put tape on these doors so they knew if they touched the tape they couldn’t go out that door, which seemed to help that situation.”

Making Guests Feel at Home

Having suitable accommodations is an important part of hosting any kind of multi-day event for those with disabilities, says Grace. U of I’s new Nugent Hall (named of course for Timothy Nugent) was designed with this in mind and has become the residence hall of choice for the wheelchair athletes that come to campus in the summer.

“One thing that was lacking in our traditional halls where we used to hold the camps was that they didn’t have benches in the showers, so before we’d work with building service staff to have plastic chairs brought in. But in Nugent Hall we do have one section of the building that has benches in the showers, and we host the camps in that section of the building so they can have access to that,” says Grace as one example. “We are very lucky that we work with professionals that know our campus after working with us for so many years and know their participants’ needs and they can educate us on what they need,” adds Grace, mentioning that another solution to come out of these conversations is coming up with safe and effective means of disposing of catheters that many athletes need; in the summer of 2018 the campus will have clearly-marked receptacles in the bathrooms.

Providing for Every Disability

Wendy Cheng, who runs the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss and plans regular events and concerts, also encourages fellow planners to understand the needs of people that have sensory disabilities. “Most understand physical disabilities and how to provide those kinds of services, but not as many understand sensory disability as much,” she says, admitting that she can run into problems with venues that don’t have assisted hearing devices, or have very old systems.

“Hearing loss comes in four categories—mild, moderate, severe, and profound,” continues Cheng, noting that it’s estimated that 48 million people in America have some form of impairment. “For those with mild hearing loss, they might be able to get by with receivers that come with a headset. But most with more moderate or severe hearing loss require a hearing aid or cochlear implant, and assisted listening needs to be different for those individuals.”

While the ADA lists requirements for public accommodations and commercial facilities to have a certain number of assisted hearing systems per size of the group, Cheng hopes more venues will catch up to advanced needs of attendees and carry more progressive systems. She recommends loop systems that work by electromagnetic induction to transmit audio straight to a person’s implant and provides the opportunity for discreetness with an invisible mechanism. “Venues build ramps and elevators for those with physical disabilities, and I’d just hope they can provide similar accommodations for those with hearing loss too,” concludes Cheng.

Be in the Know

In the end, the best practice is to always over-communicate with the client to ensure all needs are met for the group. “You have to know your audience and work with the client,” says Grace. “I never make a decision on my own but rather always call the planner or sponsor to talk things through.”

Hale agrees. “You may think you have asked all the questions, but there’s always more. As with anything it’s best to be equipped for any worst case scenario and always be prepared.”

Soto’s piece of advice: Always find out where the group has been before and talk with the venue as well as get insight on what works and doesn’t work. “Be prepared for the growing pains,” she admits, “but that will only help you improve in subsequent years and help obtain the best services possible.”

Get Connected

University of Illinois
Champaign, IL
(217) 333-1766

St. Francis Xavier University
Antigonish, NS
(877) 782-9289

Colorado College
Colorado Springs, CO
(719) 389-6619