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Beyond ADA

Tips for making events universally accessible

Safety | August 1, 2022 | By: Steve Dering

Any organizer of large outdoor events knows that they require substantial planning ahead of time, and naturally attract considerable numbers of people. Outdoor environments are highly unpredictable and much more likely to contain hazards than the traditional built environment. As a result, tent rental and event planning companies have to be aware of a wide range of safety requirements for outdoor public events, as well as plan for things like unexpected weather conditions, accidents generated by human folly, and challenging terrain. 

One of the most important issues to plan for in the earliest stages of an event is accessibility. But making an event truly accessible is ultimately about much more than just ensuring the basic Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requirements are met. Fortunately, there is a growing desire among many event organizers these days to go beyond mere compliance to create inclusive experiences that will benefit everybody.

ROI of accessibility 

While every company is aware of the minimum ADA requirements that must be complied with to avoid fines, the many rewards that come from facilitating and expanding accessibility are often overlooked.

By ensuring that an event is fully accessible, companies will be:

  • Enabling participation for everyone
  • Expanding their potential customer pool
  • Diversifying discussion/opinions during the event
  • Promoting inclusion and accessibility, which only betters their brand
  • Standing out from the competition
  • Influencing other organizations to improve accessibility as well

Furthermore, expanding accessibility can generate a significant return on the investment, as making accommodations for people with disabilities is quite often inexpensive and non-intrusive. 

And don’t underestimate just how many people are affected by the accessibility decisions event companies make. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every four Americans has a disability—that’s more than 60 million people!

Expanding access

So, how can a company create accessibility, specifically for large, tented events? Here are nine ideas to implement:

  1. Choose a location with firm ground for people with wheelchairs. If the ground is too soft or rough, access will have to be facilitated. How that is achieved depends on the venue, its location and its distance to facilities. Other considerations such as accessible toilets, lighting options, parking and transport are also important.
  2. If the event will include personal tents for guests, such as at music festivals, provide raised tent platforms, as these will benefit wheelchair users when transferring to their tent, preventing them from being forced to go directly to the ground and potentially hurt themselves. Also, consider providing blackout tents to keep campers from overheating during the day.
  3. Provide hearing loops somewhere within the tent’s interior for attendees who are hard of hearing, in addition to sign language interpreters for people who are deaf. A search online for “rock concert sign language interpreter” yields numerous videos where interpreters are an integral part of the event. It also signals how truly inclusive the organization is aiming to be. 
  4. When planning an event with multiple stands and information points (e.g., a trade show, conference or exhibition), consider using enhanced communication methods such as QR codes.
  5. If food is being provided, it’s important to consider what types of food are made available, as some attendees may have limited dexterity in their fingers or no hands at all.
  6. Provide detailed information about what to expect at the event. This will greatly improve the sensory accessibility for people with anxiety or specific sensory disabilities, especially if there will be loud noises, intense lighting or crowds of a significant size.
  7. In terms of the facility layout, consider extra-wide paved paths, modified accessible tables, water fountains, and a raised area or platform on which people with disabilities can stand/sit to enable them to see past a standing crowd. 
  8. Offer tactile and sensory maps of the overall site as well as braille information leaflets for attendees who are blind or nearsighted. Wayfinding is an essential element of any site—using pictorial information benefits everyone in understanding where places are located. And if your event is large, consider color-coding different zones for ease of identification. 
  9. And finally, pay attention to how information is being provided to potential attendees. People with disabilities need to know in advance what accommodations will be offered to be empowered to decide whether they can or want to attend. But studies have shown that the majority of American websites and social media are not accessible. People with disabilities are not going to show up when they can’t even access online ticket sales, never mind information related to the overall accessibility of an event.

Universal access

For the majority of Europe, there is a greater focus on a philosophy of “universal access” that goes well beyond the ADA laws in the Unites States. The guiding principle is that all spaces should be usable and accessible to all people, regardless of age, ability or disability, or any other life factors. 

Although the ADA represented a huge step forward for disability rights more than 30 years ago, the goal of providing universal access should be the next step. These expansions of accessibility will provide benefits not only for people who have disabilities but also for our aging population who experience mobility limitations, anyone pushing an infant or child in a stroller, and those who are temporarily disabled and using crutches or a mobility scooter. 

If American businesses were to lead by example and expand their definitions of accessibility, a greater number of people could enjoy events, which would have a positive impact on the financial viabiity and profit of those businesses in the long term.

When in doubt, ask.

There are countless things to consider when planning an event, so asking questions and reaching out to your event’s audience is especially important. Nobody is a better authority on their needs than people themselves, so it’s worth including a line in any marketing materials such as, “Please let us know if you have any access needs or other requirements.” Be sure to include the email address and phone number for a designated contact person.

Events big and small can work toward universal accessibility if they approach people with disabilities directly. Change ultimately comes “from the ground up,” and knowledge of the issue at hand is key. As with every other major shift in attitudes throughout human history, merely knowing where improvements to inclusion and accessibility are required means generating personal responsibility in organizations that stage public events.

Be part of that change and lead the pack. Because for every business that makes the effort, the world becomes a slightly better place for people with disabilities, and ultimately everyone. 

Steve Dering is operations director of disability accessibility consultancy Direct Access based in Nantwich, U.K., with an office in Boston, Mass. He can be reached at

SIDEBAR: ROI of accessibility

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every four Americans has a disability. These 60 million people in the U.S. alone control approximately $645 billion in disposable income. Add in non-disposable income, funds belonging to friends and family that people with disabilities can influence and globalize, and you get $8 trillion total global purchasing power.

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