Guide to Sensory-Friendly and Accessible Event Planning

A pair of coworkers decorating an office Christmas tree; the person on the left is standing, while the person on the right sits in a wheelchair, handing a decoration over.

Meetings, exhibits, tours, festivals, and weddings are but a few of the events people attend every year. These events, however, can present challenges related to facilities, terrain, and ambiance for individuals who have disabilities. From physical and cognitive impairments to sensory sensitivities, the term disability itself encaptures a multidimensional experience unique to each person.

Physical impairments may present as a change in body structure or function, while cognitive impairments may entail a change in thinking or communication. Sensory sensitivities, as the name implies, may cause people to feel overwhelmed by sounds, sights, touch, tastes, or smells.

Events shouldn’t be — and don’t have to be — a non-option for individuals with any of these disabilities. People, businesses, and organizations can create welcoming atmospheres for all guests with a little extra work. Sometimes, even simple fixes can help, such as changes to the event decor, dimmed lights, or softer music. For instance, you can easily swap your usual floral arrangement, which may carry a pungent aroma, in exchange for forever roses to accommodate individuals with sensory sensitivities.

Ensuring access to these events requires planners to take a progressive and proactive approach. People, businesses, and organizations alike must foresee and address these potential challenges to create an accessible event. 

General Accessibility Tips

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires that all public and private spaces are open to the general public. Responsible parties include government entities, privately run businesses, and nonprofits, among other organizations. Having an ADA-compliant space, however, may not always go far enough to accommodate the needs of individuals with disabilities, especially those with sensory processing sensitivities. 

Creating an accessible event for all means you must consider the full attendee experience. Everything from the parking and transportation options to the decor and surroundings of the event should be planned out in advance. 

No matter what event you are planning, these general accessibility tips will help accommodate guests.  

  • Think proactively: Ensuring accessibility requires that event planners think proactively about the potential challenges their guests may face. Thoroughly researching accessibility guides and strategizing how to best accommodate everybody at your event is the best way to stay proactive. 

  • Manage expectations: Creating expectations is an important part of a sensory-friendly event. This little bit of knowledge provided before the day of the event helps individuals prepare for any activities that may occur. 

  • Use checklists: Many organizations can benefit from the use of checklists. A lot of forethought and planning goes into accessible events. Writing down what needs to be done and checking off what you’ve done so far can help.

  • Remain calm and flexible: The needs of all guests are unique. People and organizations should accept that they may have to make changes on the fly to provide for those needs. Remaining calm and flexible can help ensure that your guests feel welcome. 

  • Parking and transportation options: Most organizations have accessible parking spots, as required by the ADA. But what about transportation options? If transportation to or from the event is being arranged, make sure to have accessible transportation options for guests. 

  • Restroom options: Restrooms are another ADA requirement for businesses and organizations to stay on top of. Staff should ensure that these areas are kept clean and accessible for guests.

  • Surroundings: The surroundings of an event involve art and decor. Simply using fragrance-free flowers that have been specially preserved is one of many ways to adjust your event’s surroundings.

  • Additional spaces: Parents’ rooms, prayer rooms, and quiet spaces are just a few examples of additional spaces at your event that can be beneficial. This may be especially true if you don’t know the specific needs of all your guests.  

  • Staff training: For bigger events that involve event staff, proper training is a must. Your team must be just as eager and adaptable as you to put on an event where everyone feels welcome. Staff training should include a review of ADA laws and regulations, any specific accommodations the event is providing, how to interact with guests who have disabilities, and what language to use. 

  • These general accessibility tips can be applied to all events and abilities. A couple of notable tips to remember include being diligent about staff training and remaining calm and flexible. Your event is only as accessible as your staff makes it. Keep them and yourself calm and flexible throughout the occasion.

    Ensuring Accessibility for Individuals With Mobility or Communication Disabilities

    According to a report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about one in four Americans live with some type of disability — of those 26% of Americans, 13.7% have a mobility disability, and 10.8% have a cognition disability. As the CDC report says, disability impacts all of us, not just those who have a disability. Whether or not you’re currently aware of it, disabilities are not uncommon and shouldn’t go unnoticed. 

    Understanding the prevalence of disabilities is critical when you’re ensuring accessibility. Barriers to accessibility can make guests feel unwelcome and unwanted. Any of your guests could have a disability and the last thing you want to do is make them feel like they don’t belong at your event. 

    Make guests feel welcome by providing the appropriate accommodations. While some suggestions may seem like common sense, others may come as a surprise. Everything from ramp and elevator access to designated seating areas to captions and large print can make the difference between an accessible event and an inaccessible event.

    Addressing Mobility Barriers

    A mobility disability is any physical disability that impairs movement, including gross motor skills. Many types of conditions and disorders can affect mobility. A few of those conditions and disorders that may result in mobility impairments include amputation, paralysis, cerebral palsy, stroke, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, arthritis, and spinal cord injury. 

    Below is advice on minimizing mobility barriers:

      • Prioritize ramp or elevator access: Federal law requires that most businesses and facilities provide accessible entrances and exits for patrons. Make sure your venue provides these services.   

      • Find a venue with barrier-free pathways: This means that there are no curves, stairs, or other pathway obstructions to, from, or at the event. 

      • Find a venue with wide doorways and aisles: Wide doorways and aisles provide accessibility for wheelchair users. Double-check that your venue utilizes these features to ensure that all your guests can get in and out easily. 
      • Provide accessible parking and bathrooms: As mentioned above, it is critical to provide accessible parking and bathrooms. For most places, this is required by law. 

      • Designate seating areas: If the seating arrangements are not mobility-friendly, designate specific seats or seating areas for those who are mobility impaired. This includes providing accommodations for wheelchair users. 
  • Allow service animals: Always allow service animals for legitimate mobility disabilities. While public facilities, businesses, and nonprofit organizations are required by law to allow service animals, it is good advice to follow for private events too. The same advice applies to service animals for other disabilities. 
  • Addressing Communication Barriers

    A communication disability is anything that impedes a person’s ability to comprehend, detect, or apply language and speech. Vision, hearing, or speech disabilities are often thought of as communication disabilities. This type of barrier may also stem from another condition or disorder that disrupts the ability to communicate. Old age alone can prove to be a barrier when it comes to seeing text or hearing people speak. 

    No matter the reason, there are various ways people and organizations can combat communication barriers. From providing print materials to using sign language interpreter services, consider all the following options to anticipate what your guests may need.

    Below is advice on minimizing communication barriers:

  • Provide directions to facility or event: Directions should be provided before the day of the event, as well as during the event. This ensures that everyone can plan ahead and make it to the venue on time. 

  • Utilize large print: Using large print provides additional accessibility for anybody who may have a vision impairment. Simply include large print on any printed materials, photos, or video captions. 

  • Provide printed materials: Printed materials provide another layer of accessibility and can also be visually appealing. Provide printed materials for speeches, presentations, or simply even directions to the event. 
      • Use captions: Captions should always be included in video footage. Captions have the ability not only to expand accessibility, but also to boost audience attention and comprehension. 

      • Describe visual elements: In addition to captions, you should also describe visual elements. Any photos, videos, or art, for instance, can benefit from a sentence or two explaining what is happening. 
  • Use assistive listening devices: Assisted listening devices improve the ability to hear and communicate. These devices can be a great tool to have on hand at events.  

  • Implement sign language interpreter services: You may also consider having a sign language interpreter at your event, depending on its size and audience.

  • There are various mobility and communication barriers, but there are far more solutions. Be aware of the prevalence of disabilities and do your best to accommodate all guests no matter their ability.   

    Ensuring Accessibility for Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorders

    A sensory-friendly event can mean different things to different businesses and organizations, but ultimately has to do with accommodating the needs of customers or guests in regards to sensory sensitivities. Dimmed lights, a smaller crowd, or a designated quiet area are just a few of the accommodations you may find at a sensory-friendly event. These accommodations are made to avoid sensory overload and simply make individuals with sensory sensitivities feel more comfortable. 

    This approach is often helpful for individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children or adults with ASD are sometimes oversensitive to the environment surrounding them and may feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed. When planning a sensory-friendly event, take into consideration each of the five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.

    Take a closer look at each of the five senses and what you can do to plan a sensory-friendly event here: 

    Sight

    Below is advice on minimizing barriers relating to sight:

      • Avoid fluorescent lighting: Fluorescent lighting can be very difficult to tolerate for individuals with a sensory processing disorder. When planning an event, it is best to all-around avoid this type of lighting wherever possible. 
  • Choose lighting that is as close to natural light as possible: Artificial light colors can be irritating to individuals with sensory sensitivities. When planning lights for an event, invest in bulbs with a color rendering index (CRI) as close to 100 as possible. These bulbs are the closest to natural light. 

  • Fix any flickering lights: Flickering lights can be especially irritating to individuals with a sensory processing disorder. Always ensure your lights are properly working before an event. 
    • Be prepared to adjust the lighting: While proactively dimming the lights may help, you should also be prepared to adjust the lighting on an as-needed basis. Know where the switches are before a big event just in case. 

    Hearing

    Below is advice on minimizing barriers relating to hearing:

    • Keep volume manageable: Aim to keep the volume of your music at a manageable level. This can benefit any individual with hearing sensitivities.  

    • Have a designated quiet area: Set aside a room and designate it as a quiet area. This can be beneficial for individuals with sensory processing disorders, as well as seniors or anybody else looking to relax for a minute. 

    • Provide noise-canceling headphones: Noise-canceling headphones can serve as a simple fix, if loud music or other sounds are involved in your event. 

    Smell

    Below is advice on minimizing barriers relating to smell: 

    • Avoid strongly scented cleaners, perfumes, colognes, or air fresheners: Strong scents may irritate people with sensory sensitivities. When possible, try to avoid strongly scented cleaners, perfumes, colognes, or air fresheners. 

    • Opt for hypoallergenic floral arrangements: As mentioned above, strongly scented products can be irritating for individuals with smell sensitivities. When it comes to decorating, opt for hypoallergenic preserved flowers over fresh-cut options. Suppliers near you may even offer custom floral arrangements so you can find what suits the needs of your event.  

    • Have an outdoor space: Providing an outdoor space for guests may also help individuals with smell sensitivities. 

    Touch

    Below is advice on minimizing barriers relating to touch:

    • Keep the crowd manageable: Large crowds or crowded tables may make individuals with touch sensitivities feel uncomfortable. Try to manage the crowd and provide enough space for everyone to move about freely.

    • Encourage guests to ask before making physical contact: Knowing what to expect may make touch easier on individuals with a sensory processing disorder. Encourage guests to ask for consent before initiating physical contact with another guest. 

    • Avoid rough or unusual textures: When it comes to table-top linens, chairs, or other decor, avoid rough or unusual textures as these may make individuals with sensory sensitivities uneasy. 

    Taste

    Below is advice on minimizing barriers relating to taste:

    • Ask people for preferences and sensitivities: Before creating a menu, ask guests what their food preferences are. Prompt them with questions regarding any sensitivities or allergies they may have. 

    • Send menus out far in advance: You may also find it helpful to send menus out far in advance. This way changes can be made before the day of the event, if necessary. 

    Sensory sensitivities can present differently for different people. Use this list as a general guideline, but be prepared to make last-minute adjustments for your guests.

    Hosting Inclusive Online Events

    Hosting events online is a perfect way to include more people. Online events have the power to reach not only a variety of individuals with their respective disabilities, but also those who may be located in a remote area, stay-at-home parents, or those who have social anxiety. People with other barriers relating to scheduling, money, and travel also stand to benefit from the inclusivity of an online event. 

    Just like in-person events, online events require the right materials and resources to be carried out successfully. From difficulty with accessing devices to problems understanding how technology works, people may experience a lot of potential barriers that can exist. Ensure that your guests can access the meeting or event by taking into consideration each one of these barriers. 

    Below is advice on hosting inclusive online events:

  • Provide an orientation to technology in advance: Event planners must ensure ahead of time that everybody can enter the online event. Simply provide a disclosure on the event’s invitation stating that assistance is available to individuals in need.  

  • Have one or more technical hosts: A technical host is in charge of getting everybody into the event and making sure it runs smoothly for everyone. Designate one or more technical hosts to ensure that at least one person is charged with and only with ensuring access to technology.
  • Use captioning: As mentioned before, captioning has the potential to benefit those who have a communication disability. Provide captioning on any photo or video content, as well as presentations and live streams. 

  • Make sure volume levels and light levels are consistent: As mentioned before, it is also important to maintain consistent volume and light levels. This ensures that individuals with sensory sensitivities are accommodated for. 

  • Further Reading on Organizing Accessible Events

    From disability-specific organizations to colleges and universities, there are a variety of institutions providing resources on how to organize accessible events. Each resource offers its own unique advice on matters such as staff training, online events, food and menu planning, and architectural access. 

    Resources From Disability-Specific Organizations

    Below is a list of resources from disability-specific organizations:

    Resources From Colleges and Universities

    Below is a list of resources provided by colleges and universities: 

      • Columbia University: The Office of Access and Services for Individuals With Disabilities at Columbia University provides an event planning guide extending to both people at the institution, as well as outside of it. The guide features information on pre-event considerations, architectural access, and staff awareness and sensitivity. 
         
      • Cornell University: Cornell University provides an accessible meeting and event planning checklist. The resource discusses a variety of considerations from food and menu planning to technology access.
  • University of Kansas: The University of Kansas offers a best practices guide for creating accessible events. The guide includes information on selecting a venue, making announcements, and providing for accommodation requests. 

    • The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill provides a thorough checklist on organizing an accessible event. The checklist emphasizes a variety of disabilities, including those related to mobility, communication, and sensory processing. 

    Other Resources and Readings

    Below is a list of other resources and readings on accommodating individuals with disabilities:

    Youth.gov: Youth.gov offers an inclusion and accessibility guide featuring information relating to disabilities, including the use of person-first language.

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