How to make conferences accessible to persons with disabilities? 
by Carlotta Besozzi, Director of the European Disability Forum (EDF) and Lila Sylviti, EDF Communication officer
Access. Ann is a wheelchair user; to enter a place with steps, she needs a ramp. Peter is deaf; to understand what someone says, he reads their lips. Sophie is also deaf; sign language is her only way to communicate. Daniel is blind; he uses his fingers to read in braille. Helena has visual impairments; to read a text, it has to have big, clear font and good contrast with the background. Alain has an intellectual disability; the use of a simpler language makes it possible for him to understand difficult meanings.
In Europe, there are 80 million citizens with disabilities, representing 16% of the overall EU population. Persons with disabilities are not a small minority; one in four families in Europe has a person with disability. In order for them to actively participate in society, their needs should be taken into consideration in all aspects of life.
Making a conference more accessible increases the satisfaction of all participants. It is important to integrate access in all steps of the preparation of the conference, but also for all who will attend: speakers, staff and participants. It is also important to ensure access to the meeting itself, the breaks, the lunch, and any official event (dinner, cultural event, study visit, training…) and related transport and accommodation.
Not all disabilities are visible.
A successful conference with active participation, fruitful debate, audience from various backgrounds that bring different perspectives to this dialogue should be able to accommodate the needs of all possible participants, including those with disabilities.
Access to the place of the conference
Visiting the venue where the conference will take place well in advance is necessary to check the accessibility of the premises, as well as to anticipate and solve possible problems.
It should be assured that:
+ There is an entrance without steps. In the case that there are steps, a ramp should be foreseen with a slope not more than 5%.
+ The door of the entrance and of the meeting room should have a width of minimum 85 cm, so that persons in wheelchairs are able to enter.
+ If the building has upper floors and the conference takes place at one of them, lifts are necessary. The lifts should be wide enough to fit a person in a wheelchair, minimum 140 cm deep and 110 cm broad, while the door of the lift should be at least 90 cm wide. Ideally, the number of the floor should be also indicated in braille, while vocal and light signals are also very useful to people with visual impairments and deaf people.
+ Accessible toilets close to the meeting room are necessary especially for wheelchair users; that means that the space of the toilet should be adjusted to their needs. For instance, it should be wide enough, at least 150 cm, and it should have two folding handles, as well as enough maneuvering space behind the door.
+ If there is a podium in the meeting room, a ramp should be foreseen for speakers in a wheelchair to be able to get on it.
+ In the meeting room, enough space should be foreseen for participants in wheelchairs, as well as blind people walking with the help of a stick or guide dog to orient themselves well.
+ If advance registration is necessary for the conference, it would be useful for the participants to be asked there about any special requirements, as well as about the possibility of being accompanied by a personal assistant or a guide dog, if they have allergies or dietary requests.
Access to the information for the conference
In order to have the chance to participate in a conference, persons with disabilities should be able to access the information about it. Navigating in an accessible website would make the access possible for persons with disabilities, while an accessible website is also a very user-friendly place for all people regardless disability, facilitating in general everyone's access to information.
The accessibility of the information itself is of great importance for participants with disabilities. The inclusion of persons with all kinds of disabilities requires that the information is provided in all possible accessible formats, such as word documents that could be easily printed in braille for blind people, video with sign language interpretation and subtitles for deaf people and hard of hearing people, use of simple language for persons with intellectual disabilities.
To make it possible for deaf people to follow the conference, providing sign language interpretation is necessary. Hard of hearing persons may need a palantypist or a captionist, a professional whose job is to write down in real time what is heard during the conferences, while this text is displayed on a large screen. This is also appreciated by participants who do not master well the language of the speaker.
Asking speakers who will use presentations to keep them clear and simple could facilitate all participants, but even more persons with intellectual disabilities. Using also big and clear font with good contrast with the background will also help persons with visual impairments to access the presentation more easily.
Blind people will be able to follow the conference better if they receive the programme of the conference and other essential information in braille.
Providing this information also in easy-to-read language will facilitate not only persons with intellectual disabilities to understand better what the conference is about and what is discussed in each of its sessions, but also any other participants who are not extremely familiar with these topics but yet interested in obtaining better knowledge of them.
Sending the presentations of the speakers of the conference to the participants will help those who missed certain information during the conference to have a more thorough look. It will also help persons with intellectual disabilities to go through possibly difficult terms on which they did not have the time to elaborate during the conference.
Asking the participants of the conference to fill an evaluation form may reveal certain needs that were not addressed and help to see the space for improvements when it comes to the organisation of the next one.
The European Disability Forum (EDF) is the European umbrella organisation representing the interests of 80 million persons with disabilities in Europe. The mission of EDF is to ensure that persons with disabilities have full access in fundamental and human rights through their active involvement in policy development and implementation in Europe. w w w. edf-feph. org