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See-Through Barriers: Making Conferences and Events Accessible to People Who Are Blind.

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: This article is re-printed with permission from the Fall, 1999 issue of Abilities Magazine. Marie Laporte-Stark is a freelance writer for Abilities Magazine. She resides in Ottawa, Ontario.

Most of us attend meetings, conferences and exhibits, whether for work, community involvement or personal interest. Unfortunately, people who are blind frequently encounter barriers preventing their full participation.

Even in the United States, where the Americans with Disabilities Act should have brought the U.S. light-years ahead of Canada, people who are blind routinely encounter accessibility problems. This is surprising, since all we need are a few low-cost or no-cost items.

Accessibility features (including Braille or large print documents) are available at most major gatherings of people with disabilities and even at some mainstream events. What's often overlooked are a few simple steps which could make people who are blind feel welcome. Here are some ideas:

THE ANNOUNCEMENT

Promotional material should invite participants to advise of their needs in advance and mention the availability of material in alternate formats. Avoid using the word "special", as these needs are not frills.

If possible, circulate notices electronically. Many people who are blind have access to computers with speech readout, refreshable Braille displays or enlarged characters on conventional monitors.

Too often, people are referred to a web site to access information. People who are blind have difficulty accessing materials in a Windows environment because of design barriers such as graphics, frames, charts and formats such as Adobe Acrobat. If you must refer people to a web site, always provide the address, particularly if Intranets are used for distribution. Ensure that the web site and Intranet site meet World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) access standards.

Call people with visual disabilities before the event to give details about room layout and amenities. You can provide basic orientation, such as the route from the nearest bus stop to the event, and washroom locations. If simultaneous translation is available, describe how translation units are acquired and the location of the equipment table. Discuss the best way to access slides or other visual aids used by presenters.

All staff working at the event should know how to provide directions and other orientation information to participants who are blind.

THE FACILITY

When choosing a location, consider people who do not drive. Is the bus service adequate? Are there sidewalks? If the event is in a multi-use building, is there someone at the entrance to give directions? Is the route from the entrance to the event uncluttered and free from obstacles that are not cane detectable? In meeting rooms, ensure that cables, wires and microphones don't block traffic.

REGISTRATION

When officials greet people who are blind, it is important that they identify themselves and ask how they can assist during the event. Some people will not want assistance, while others will ask to be guided. If you're guiding, the person will take your arm and walk a pace or so behind you to obtain directional information from your body movement. If they are using a guide dog, they may ask the animal to follow you. It is appreciated if you describe the surroundings, including obstructions, as you approach them. When showing someone to a seat, indicate that you are going to place their hand on the back of the chair to facilitate orientation and seating.

Registration desks can be particularly disorienting as they are frequently in noisy and crowded open spaces. It is often impossible for staff at the desks to see the end of the line of people waiting to register. And it is also difficult for people who are blind to find the start of the line and move through it without touching strangers. People with visual disabilities may also be singled out by a staff person repeatedly yelling, "Next!", "Over here!" or "Come here!" accompanied by hand gestures and an increasingly frantic voice. It would be most helpful if someone could monitor the line and discretely ask people with visual disabilities if they could assist. Do not reprimand someone who is blind for not being in line. It is frequently easier to find the table than the end of the line. Guide them to the appropriate waiting area. When someone who is blind approaches the registration table, explain the registration process and signage information. Go through options and choices, including cost implications. Do not assume that people who have a visual disability will want the cheapest possible choice available.

If name tags are used, have a tactile indicator to show the top, so that the tag can be put on the right way up. You can put the tag on for the guest, but ask first. If there are colour or other codes on the tag, explain them, so the person who is blind can find coded activities.

Review the information kit and explain all documents. People receiving alternate formats should also be given the printed kit. This is frequently needed for their company's files or discussion with colleagues. The kit may also contain promotional items and product samples.

Be sure to mention display tables or coffee services before the person leaves the registration table.

STARTING THE EVENT

The first announcement at each event should include the topics to be covered. This is vitally important when there are simultaneous activities. The announcement should identify the speaker, and mention amenities in the room. These would include: location of beverage services, water bowls for guide dogs, officials who could offer assistance, procedures for obtaining simultaneous translation devices, locations of microphones and how they're activated, where to find washrooms, the time of the first break, and relieving areas for guide dogs.

CHAIRING THE EVENT

At smaller meetings the chairperson could ask everybody to identify themselves and mention their organisational affiliation. At larger gatherings, each speaker could be asked to identify themselves before speaking for the first time.

Remember that, during open discussions, people who are blind will not know the way from their seat to the floor microphone or when the microphone has been activated. Nor will they know whom the chair has recognised to speak or when they themselves have been recognised. After each question, the chair should say who will speak after the next participant. This allows people who are blind to know if they are in the speakers' line-up and who else is going to comment.

Recognising each speaker in turn helps those who cannot see to know when another person has finished speaking and not just paused for a second to consult their written notes. It is difficult to know when it is appropriate to jump in and speak without some visual or verbal clues. Frequently, people who are blind have to be overly forceful to have their comments heard at meetings because they are often passed over when only visual indications are used. Microphones activated with a toggle switch, rather than a push-button and red light can be helpful.

PRESENTERS

It is important that presenters verbalise visual presentations. This does not mean screens must be read verbatim. The message conveyed by each image can easily be woven into the verbal narration. "This slide shows..." leaves the audience members who are blind out of the loop. However, if you read the bottom line of the graph, chart or diagram, this not only helps people with visual disabilities, it also reinforces the message for others.

If complex matters such as proposed legislation are discussed, the chairperson could summarise each element before discussion starts. An overview of comments could be given, by offering concluding remarks on each point before moving on. This helps all participants follow the discussion and keep their place in documents.

Recognise that people who take notes need extra time. Repeat contact information several times, speak slowly and use numbers to replace bullets when there is a list of items. Provide descriptive verbal imaging of pictures used in presentations.

Verbalisation can enhance and strengthen the power and effectiveness of any presentation. It is not costly or difficult. Just pretend part of your audience is listening on the radio or telephone.

LUNCHES AND RECEPTIONS

Self-service meals also present obstacles. Announcing the menu before meal breaks allows everyone to know the choices offered. Some people who are blind may prefer to go through the buffet line-up while others may prefer to be served at a table. Available options should be announced.

Many people who are blind feel uncomfortable when colleagues have to provide assistance rather than enjoying their own break. Having well-trained, catering service staff available to discretely assist, greatly increases the integration of participants who are blind.

At receptions, the microphone could be used for more than fancy speeches by dignitaries. Announcements about what's offered help everyone to enjoy a social event. For instance, "This evening we have three buffets and two bars. With your back to the entrance door, there is a bar with an attendant to the right of the door where cocktails are available. Using the same reference point, you will find, in the far left-hand back corner, a self-service table for wine. At the island in the centre of the room, are warm items including pizza, potato skins, chicken wings..."

It is frustrating to be asked what you'd like to eat when you have no idea of the choices available. Preferences aside, food and other environmental allergies make this situation particularly hazardous. The vulnerability of people who are blind is substantially increased when it becomes necessary to rely on strangers, without official status, for help, directions or selecting food. It is also helpful to advise catering staff to announce the food they have available as they approach different groups of people at the reception, such as a tray of hors d'oeuvres, and what the selection is.

EXHIBITS AND DISPLAYS

While maps and diagrams can be helpful at exhibitions, some people who are blind find it difficult to conceptualise this information. Braille and really large print maps are heavy to carry and difficult to use when standing. Written orientation material, sent before the meeting, allows advanced planning. During the event, directions can be given over the microphone.

Most exhibits are in large open halls with many booths. Having straight aisles with 90-degree turns and, if possible, different textured carpet in the aisles and booths can be helpful. So can hand-level Braille and eye-level large print signs on a cane detectable pedestal at each end of every booth. Some people who are blind will start at one end of an exhibit hall and work their way across the hall from booth to booth, asking the name of each booth and what is being displayed. Handouts enable the person to take away as much information as possible to review with a reader or scanner. However, having alternate formats at the booth is always appreciated. A verbal description of the display pictures or a loop tape that provides descriptive narration of the content of the booth can be helpful.

Although vendors tend to avoid the clustering concept, it is helpful if all booths of a particular type are grouped into theme areas such as kitchen appliances, gardening supplies and so on, like a department store. So, if people have a particular interest, they can visit one area rather than hunting for the booths of interest scattered among other exhibits.

Sometimes, organisations or schools will provide volunteers to assist at an exhibition. These volunteers could be used to guide people who are blind around the exhibit hall. Although this article focuses on low-cost or no-cost access measures, a reference to infrared talking signs is warranted. It is possible to install a system that will indicate the name of a booth and other information when a small hand-held device is pointed in the general direction of the booth.

ADJOURNMENT

By trying to incorporate as many of these suggestions as possible at your next event, you can make people with visual disabilities feel welcome.