With around 48 million Americans experiencing some level of hearing loss, it’s essential that your meetings and events are accessible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. It’s almost guaranteed that any meeting or event of medium size will host someone with hearing loss, so here’s how to make sure your next meeting or event meets their needs.

Ask, Don’t Assume

“On the registration forms I create, I ask what type of (accomodations) each attendee needs,” explains Julie Greenfield, CMP, a Detroit-based independent meeting planner who is hard of hearing. “It’s important to understand there are different types of communication needs and different options available for the deaf and hard of hearing.” If possible, she contacts each to learn about their needs in more detail.  

“Nothing about us, without us,” is a common saying in the disability community. “If event planners are unsure about the best type of accessibility to provide, they should go straight to the source, the deaf client,” says Angela Ellman, conference planner for the National Association of the Deaf (NAD). “A person who is deaf or hard of hearing will have unique preferences and should be asked what works best for them.”  

Start Making Arrangements Immediately

Don’t delay when making arrangements—make it a top priority, just like you would other vital elements of your event. “When you get a request for interpreters, search immediately as it is incredibly difficult to find qualified interpreters at the last minute,” advises Ellman. Hire sign language interpreters who are experienced with conference interpreting. Check state licensing requirements for sign language interpreters, and make sure the interpreter is certified by a nationally recognized organization.

The added cost of providing these services should NEVER be passed on to the attendee requesting the assistance. Federal and state laws prohibit this in most situations. Consult with an accountant as providing accessibility can be a tax write-off. Another possibility is getting the services sponsored by companies that specialize in accessibility.

It’s also important to do an audit of the venue technology. With a compatible microphone or assistive listening system, speech can be transmitted directly to some hearing aids. Meeting planners should know whether a hearing loop, infrared or other system is in place.

Be sure to retain professional captioning services. Proper captioning will not only convert the audio content of a presentation but will also include the name of the speaker, sound effects, and music description.

A simple, yet vital tool for accessibility is the microphone. Make sure you have proper microphones and that presenters use them. Position the microphone as close as possible to the speakers and presenters. Microphone options include:

  • Headset microphones – tend to give the best results because voices don’t get lost when the speaker’s head moves.
  • Lapel microphones – also good but check clothing doesn’t catch on it when the speaker moves.
  • Fixed or handheld microphones – the speaker should be asked and reminded to speak directly into it.
  • Multiple microphones – should be used in larger meetings/attendance to ensure everyone can be heard.
  • Roving microphones – should be available and used in events where questions or comments from the floor or audience are taken.

Preparation and Day-Of Considerations

If possible, train your staff to understand the unique challenges those who are deaf experience. Greenfield planned a meeting at the Hyatt Regency New Orleans for a group that was predominately deaf and hard of hearing. The hotel arranged for an ADA trainer to work with staff. “It boosted the morale of the staff in an unbelievable way. They were excited about being informed and servicing our group,” recalls Greenfield.

The NAD Conference in Phoenix was a great success which was partly attributed to the training given to the staff at the hotels, convention center, and offsite venues.

Deaffriendly, who conducted the training, uses trainers who are deaf and hard of hearing. “Participating in training provided by a person with a disability gives you unique insight into what it’s like to live with a disability while also visiting a convention center or a hotel. Teams learn to experience empathy, a very important, and often overlooked, skill in making customers feel welcome,” explains Melissa Greenlee, founder of deaffriendly.

Meet in a Quiet, Well-Lit Room

Background noise and poor acoustics can be especially distracting for those who are deaf or hard of hearing. Meeting rooms with relatively little noise work best. Deaf people access information with their eyes so be sure to have lights on the faces of those who are speaking. Remember, they rely on ASL, interpreters, or captioning in real time (CART) when watching a presentation or speaker. Each event should be CART’ed or captioned as much as possible, and all TVs should be captioned. 

Speak Clearly

Be sure to instruct those who are addressing the group to speak clearly. It is also helpful to keep statements basic and avoid adding anything unrelated to the meeting. If there are multiple speakers, instruct each to speak one at a time, so multiple voices do not have to be deciphered. If any audience members are using a text transcription service be aware that text can lag behind so you may need to instruct speakers to pause periodically for the text to catch up.

Seating

Allow people to select where they sit so they can position themselves as effectively as possible for hearing and lipreading. “Let the deaf be themselves. They don’t want to feel like little kids who are forced to sit in front of the room,” says Greenfield. Also, be sure to add seats and meals for accessibility personnel.

When in Doubt, Reach Out

The planner or the accessibility coordinator should reach out to the state or local association of the deaf. This information can be found on www.nad.org. Usually, state associations can help make events more deaf-friendly.