By Ciritta Park, former vice president Able Management Solutions, Inc . and Susan Friedmann
First published in Convene magazine, 7/97

The 50 million or so Americans who have disabilities represent a major market. Whether they roll into your trade show, walk into it with guide dogs, or communicate with an interpreter's assistance, most people with disabilities carry cash and/or credit cards.

But whether they exercise their purchasing power with your exhibitors is up to you. The keys to being successful are physical access, sensitivity, and promotion.

Physical Access
Ramps and designated, accessible parking spaces are the most visible means of providing access to people with disabilities. To test the physical access of a property, the best advice is to become a "user" of the space: Rent a wheelchair and roll! (If the property is really serious about access, it will probably already have a few on site.)

Another question is whether the ramps are an acceptable grade. They should be no steeper than 1 inch per 1 foot. If they, or any walkways, are carpeted, is the pile low enough to make for easy pushing? Do the ramps have handrails? (Sometimes, a ramp is easier for someone who uses crutches or a cane or who may just move more slowly due to age. Remember, not everyone who is disabled uses a wheelchair.)

Are the doors easy to open - swinging in toward users - or is an automatic system available? Are the doors wide enough to grant access to someone in a 32" power wheelchair? These questions should also be asked about restroom facilities. (Too often, "accessible" stalls are placed behind inaccessible doorways.)

Are aisles in the exhibit hall wide enough to accommodate two or three wheelchairs across? Passing each other can become an obstacle course if aisles are too narrow. Do the booths have tables that will enable exhibitors and attendees to interact at eye level? Are displays for materials at varying heights? Is the show office accessible to wheelchair users? Exhibitors may have disabilities, too.
Remember that people with disabilities should be able to access everything the rest of the public can access.

Being sensitive to the needs of people with disabilities requires training and practice. The wheelchair exercise is one example of how to experience the world from a disability point of view. Other exercises include blindfolding yourself, using earplugs, and participating in disability sensitivity training. While we cannot change the pigment of our skin or our genetic heritage, anyone of us might very well become disabled, and that's one fear that must be addressed to be fully sensitive to the needs of attendees with disabilities.

Exhibitors also need to be provided information about their responsibilities under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). All should be knowledgeable of ADA regulations relating to widths of openings, steps, fixed or built-in tables, electric cord placement, and so forth. In addition, written materials from their companies must be available in alternate media (such as computer disks, audiotapes, large print, and Braille).

Position brochure and information displays at different levels. If an exhibitor is showing a video as a part of the display, the video must be captioned. It's also advisable to have a table and chairs at which people of small stature, wheelchair users, or those who are easily fatigued can communicate with booth staff at eye level. For show managers, an exhibitors' guide to the ADA is an exhibit manual necessity.

Show and booth staff should be knowledgeable of basic disability etiquette. For example:

  • Don't lean on wheelchair users' chairs.
  • If guide dogs are harnessed, they are working. Don't pet them without the permission of their owners.
  • Shouting at deaf people doesn't work. They still can't hear you.
  • Talk directly to people with disabilities, not to their interpreters or companions.
  • Set all display items, including monitors, on adjustable shelving to accommodate all booth visitors.

Food stations should also be set up to accommodate wheelchair users. Wheelchair users should be able to reach all of the menu options easily (without burning themselves on sterno fire). Servers should be assigned to food stations to assist attendees who might have difficulty serving themselves.

Pay close attention to the signage used for your show. Whether it's made for your show or the facility's permanent signage, it should be accessible to people with visual impairments. Permanent signage should be posted in raised type and in Braille. (You can make show-specific signage accessible by using a portable Braille labeler and attaching the Braille tape to the signs.) Some larger shows use talking signs to assist attendees who are blind or visually impaired.

Arrange to have an interpreter's services during the show, scheduling them in cooperation with deaf attendees' schedules. Attendees who are blind will appreciate a tactile map of the floor layout and the names of the exhibiting companies. (If you use popcorn to entice attendees into your booth, guide dogs will love you.) Publishing information about the size (in square footage) of your show will help people who are fatigued easily decide whether to rent a wheelchair. In any case, there can never be too many places to rest or sit down in a large exhibition - even for the able-bodied!

Finally, if you have questions about an accommodation, ask attendees who are disabled. They are the experts on what they need. However, be sure that you understand that you may not be able to provide all that is requested. Always do your best, but if an accommodation creates an undue financial and/or administrative burden, you do not have to provide the accommodation. (Proof of the undue burden and your good faith efforts to accommodate the person's disability-related needs must be well documented.)

So you've done your homework and have planned the most accessible trade show you can imagine. Now promote it! After all, why invest in attracting a market niche if you don't promote the benefits? Some of the ways to promote your show to the disability community include the following.

  • Publish your TDD number in all print materials.
  • Provide alternate media to people with disabilities who would be interested in the show's content.
  • Invite representatives from the governor's or mayor's councils to visit your show.
  • Provide appropriate promotional materials to local campus disability service offices.
  • Provide the chance for people to note their disabilities on registration forms.
  • Choose a person with a visible disability to be your speaker or special guest.

Still have questions? Contact any of the following for more information about your trade show and disability issues.

  • The President's Committee on Employment of People With Disabilities. Telephone: (202) 376-6200; website:
  • Diadem Communications. Address: P.O. Box 1850, Lake Placid, NY 12946-5850. Available video: "Ten Commandments of Etiquette for Communicating with People with Disabilities."


by Ciritta Park, CAE, former vice president of Able Management Solutions, Inc., is the award-winning author whose series on ADA and the Meeting Planning Professional first appeared in Convene magazine.