How to Assist and Best Communicate With People With Disabilities at Your Events

Make attendees and speakers with disabilities feel welcome and included. 

As a professional speaker and a person who uses a wheelchair, I have a unique perspective regarding disability inclusion.

Since June 1998, I have used a wheelchair because of a spinal cord injury. Meeting professionals need to know what I've learned so that they can better communicate with people who have disabilities — which in turn will help to make meetings and events more accommodating for everyone.

People-First Language Makes a Difference

When meeting professionals communicate about a person with a disability, the proper etiquette is to use people-first language. Rather than using labels to define a person with a health issue, it is more appropriate to use terminology that describes the person as being diagnosed with an illness or disorder. People-first language puts the person before the diagnosis and describes what the person has, not what the person is. 

The basic idea is to name the person first and the condition second. So, it's better to say "people with disabilities" rather than "disabled" or "handicapped people." People-first language emphasizes the individuality, equality and dignity of people with disabilities. For example, I am a person who uses a wheelchair, not a person who is wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair.

Offering Assistance to a Person With a Disability

When people with disabilities attend your events, it is important to be prepared and know ahead of time how you, your staff and any volunteers can be of assistance. Once you have received the person’s registration, it is wise to place a call to that person. Listen to them explain what, if any, assistance they might need. Do not assume that a person who is blind or who uses a wheelchair will need an escort to help them the entire time they are attending your meeting.

Once you are aware of the needs of the person with the disability, begin making the necessary plans and preparations to accommodate them. This may include a special meal due to dietary restrictions, or you may need to convert handouts to braille for a person who is blind.

Planning Ahead for Seating at Mealtimes

I suggest meeting professionals reserve seating for people with disabilities and let them know ahead of time where to look for these seats. The tables should be spread out throughout the room and clearly labeled that they are "reserved for people with disabilities and their guests." Make sure that there is an open path of travel to these tables and remove a few of the chairs, so people who use mobility devices can easily get to them.

If there is a buffet, communicate to the servers that there will be people with disabilities who will likely need assistance selecting their food and carrying it to reserved dining tables. Have the servers ask, "How can I assist you?" and instruct them to follow through on the person’s request.

Those in a wheelchair or scooter may not be able to see where there is open seating due to their sight line from a seated position. Servers or staff members can step in and scope out open spots that will be easy to navigate to. Instruct staff to ask the person if that seat is acceptable before maneuvering to that place at the table.

Once at the table, ask the person with the disability if the chair should be removed. If so, look under the table to make sure there is no table leg in the way. A table leg will prevent a person in a mobility device from rolling up close to the table edge. Look for a place that does not have a table leg so there is plenty of room for the person’s legs and wheelchair. Once the person is positioned at the table with their food and beverage, they should be asked if any other assistance is needed before leaving the table. For example, the person may need a straw or additional napkins. Keep staff members and servers on hand throughout the event for additional assistance. 

Rosemarie Rossetti, Ph.D., is a powerful, internationally known speaker, trainer, author and consultant, and president of Rossetti Enterprises Inc. Having been paralyzed from the waist down with a spinal cord injury, she speaks from her wheelchair and shares her dramatic personal story. She presents to audiences throughout the U.S. and beyond as a recognized expert on inclusive design. She also speaks to and consults with meeting professionals to help them create welcoming inclusive environments, ensuring that they exceed requirements mandated by the venue and the meeting organizer for inclusion and diversity.