Equality Means Access: By the DisAbled Women's Network (DAWN), Ontario

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Planning a Conference or Event?

Don’t forget to make it accessible to everyone!

For many years the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN) has been active in educating organizations and individuals on how to plan public events that take into consideration the needs of women with disabilities. Sadly, too many good conferences continue to be organized without accommodating these basic needs, so not everyone has been able to participate.

Women with disabilities are an integral part of our community. When you make your event accessible to us all, you have a greater chance for success and on-going support for your initiatives.


Equality Means Access
By the DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), Ontario

Here are some points to consider when planning your conference or event:

Budgeting for Access: Use accessibility as a budget line item when you do your financial planning. We suggest you provide enough funds to cover such services as sign language and oral interpretation, attendants, Braille translation and real-time reporting and captioning.



Finding a Location: You need to consider safety and accessibility when you choose a location for your event. Choose a building where disabled women will not have to enter through an unsafe entrance such as a rear door. Do not hold your event at a location where a disabled woman would have to use a freight elevator. This is degrading and totally unacceptable.

Contact your local DisAbled Women's Network (DAWN) group, or an Independent Living Centre to obtain a copy of the access guide for your city. The guide lists restaurants, community centres, hotels, libraries, theatres and more, that are accessible.


  • We have chosen a building that has a level front entrance or ramp.
  • We have made sure the ramp is not too steep. The best grade is 1:20; this means for each 20 cms there is a 1 cm increase in height. A steeper gradient of 1:12 is acceptable. The ramp has a non-slip surface, is well-lit and is equipped with handrails.
  • We have made sure there is wheelchair accessible parking close to the front entrance.
  • We have made sure the elevators have low buttons and Braille markings.
  • We have made sure there is an adapted washroom stall with a wide door (81 cm) that opens outward.
  • We have made sure there is a large bathroom stall with a grab bar, with enough space (89cm) from the side of the toilet to the wall, to allow a side transfer.
  • We know the location of the public telephones that are accessible. For wheelchair users, the coin slot should be 1.22 m above floor level.
  • We know the location of a public telephone that has volume control.

Making the Location Accessible: Sometimes there are things we cannot control but there are actions we can take to make the event accessible to everyone. During meetings, background noise such as fans and piped-in music is a problem for deafened and hard-of-hearing women. For women who are environmentally sensitive, smoking and strong scents make your event inaccessible.

  • Wherever possible, we have made sure that background noise is reduced or eliminated.
  • We have made sure that every part of our event is smoke-free.
  • We have asked participants to refrain from using strong scents.

Timing Your Event: Women with disabilities need plenty of time to arrange transportation and to prepare for other needs. Some transportation systems need as much as four days notice. If you schedule your event on short notice, disabled women may not be able to attend.

Disabled women who must use specialized transportation systems have to arrange to be picked up at a certain time. If your meetings go over the scheduled time, disabled women will have to leave and miss part of your event. They may also miss out on spontaneous social events.

Sign language and oral interpreters, and real-time reporters are in great demand and short supply. They require from two to four weeks notice. This should be the first service you book to ensure accessibility to your event.

If you are showing a video, allow yourself at least one week to get it captioned.

  • We have given ample notice for the event.
  • If we expect people to socialize afterwards, we have scheduled a social event after the program, instead of leaving it open.
  • We have reminded our speakers to end meetings on schedule.
  • We have booked sign language interpreters.
  • We have booked the real-time reporters.
  • We have booked oral interpreters.
  • We have captioned our video.

Written Materials: All your printed materials need to be clearly and simply written. Use access symbols on your publicity materials only if you provide the service.

Producing your materials in large print, on cassette tape, and in Braille, makes your event accessible to visually impaired women, women who have low literacy levels, and women with learning disabilities.

To find a Braille translator, call a disability group, an Independent Living Centre or the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) in your community.

  • We have written all our publicity materials in language that is easy to read and understand.
  • We have printed "access symbols" to show only what kind of access we provide.
  • We have stated clearly the times that meetings and events begin and end, so that disabled women can arrange transportation.
  • We have enlarged all materials by 1 ½ times on a photocopier.
  • We have produced all material on cassette tape.
  • We have hired a Braille translator to do our materials in Braille.

Registration Form: Use the registration form to find out what your guests or participants will need. The information that you collect will be your guide to making your event accessible.

We suggest that your registration form include all access needs to help you plan and avoid any surprises.

  • On the registration form, we have asked participants to tell us if they need sign language or oral interrelates, FM system, real-time reporting, attendants, any special dietary needs, volunteers, support persons or other special requests.
  • We have asked participants if they need a padded tub transfer seat, bath bench with or without a back, a commode chair or a hoyer lift.
  • We have asked participants not to wear perfumes or use perfumed shampoos, cosmetics and deodorants.
  • We have asked hard-of-hearing participants to specify the type of assistive listening system that they need.



Seating Arrangements: We have chosen a room or rooms large enough for wheelchair users.

  • We have made sure there is plenty of space around the tables.
  • We have made sure the aisles are wide.
  • We have made sure that no wheelchair users sit on a steep slope.
  • We have reserved seats in the front row for deaf, deafened or hard-of-hearing women.

Interpretation: Interpretation for deaf, deafened or hard-of hearing women is just as important as interpretation of other languages. Needs will vary for deaf, deafened or hard-of hearing women. Assistive listening systems may work only for some hard-of-hearing women with a T-switch on their hearing aids, while others may need to wear a headset. Some of the services you may provide include sign language and oral interpretation, real-time reporting, FM and infra-red systems. The FM and infra-red systems are amplifying units for people who are hard-of-hearing. Organizers often choose the FM system due to its strong amplification capacity and portability.

If your event includes the use of videos or film, these need to be captioned. Film can be either open-captioned or close-captioned. Open-captioned is similar to sub-titled film with the words shown on the screen. On a close-captioned film, the words are not visible on the screen without a close-captioned decoder. To access a decoder, contact a public library or cable company in your community.

These services are in high demand and require advance booking. For any event that is longer than one hour you need to book a minimum of two interpreters. Once you know your participants' needs, book right away.

  • We have booked the required number of interpreters through the Canadian Hearing Society.
  • We have arranged for the amplifying units complete with the required number of headsets.
  • We have arranged for real-time reporting.
  • We have reserved the captioned films or captioned our videos.
  • We have reserved the close-captioned decoders, if required.

Volunteers: At any event volunteers play an important role. Use volunteers as support persons and guides to answer questions, assist with refreshments and do other tasks. A designated table staffed by volunteers allows them to be found quickly when they are needed. Volunteers who wear an armband or name tag are easily identified.

We suggest that you provide your volunteers with sensitivity training on disability issues. This will increase their confidence in working with women with disabilities. Call a DAWN group or an Independent Living Centre for consultation and assistance.

  • We have arranged for volunteers.
  • We have assigned specific tasks to the volunteers.
  • We have provided training for new volunteers.
  • We have prepared name tags or arm bands.
  • We have provided a table for volunteers.

Attendants: Attendants have both the knowledge and experience of providing personal care for women with disabilities. Duties can include helping with bathing, using the washroom, transferring in and out of a wheelchair and eating.

The task of an attendant cannot be filled by an untrained volunteer. As with interpreters, you need to book attendants in advance. Contact an Independent Living Centre for referrals.

We suggest you provide a table for attendants.

  • We have hired attendants for the event.
  • We have given the attendants the details of participants' needs.
  • We have designated a table for attendants.

Equipment: We suggest you rent a spare wheelchair, and rent a bicycle repair kit and air pump to have on hand. You need to tell your volunteers where these items are located. You can rent a wheelchair from Rent-All Companies or wheelchair companies.

If your event is longer than one day, out-of-town participants may need equipment such as bath seats, commode chairs or hoyer lifts.

  • We have rented the necessary equipment.
  • We have rented other equipment as identified by participants.
  • We have purchased a bicycle repair kit and an air pump.

Meals and Refreshments: It is important to stick to scheduled meal times. This helps women who are diabetic and those who deal with chronic pain and fatigue.

Provide bendable straws at all meal times and refreshment breaks for women who need them.

Buffet-style meals create problems for large groups. Line-ups can be long and confusing, space can be overcrowded, and some women will not be able to carry their own tray. We suggest you arrange for table service to avoid frustration for participants.

  • We have scheduled meal and refreshment breaks.
  • We have made bendable straws available.
  • We have noted special dietary needs.



At the Door: Meet the participants at the front door. Offer a tour of the site for visually impaired women and other disabled women before the event starts.

For Your Speakers: Speakers need to be aware that the participants will have different levels of literacy. They need to talk plainly, avoid the use of jargon and large words.

Some women with disabilities cannot sit for long periods. At the beginning of any event, speakers can tell participants it is okay to move and walk around.

  • We have reminded the speakers to end their session on time.

Signs: We suggest you post signs to indicate the location of accessible washrooms, elevators and any other service. Signs need to be clear and easy to read.

Signs are easy to read if you use both lower and upper case. We recommend Times Roman serif; use at least 20 mm high for upper case and 15 mm for lower case.

Be sure the colour of the letters contrasts with the background. A good example is black on white.

  • We have made the proper signs.

A Final Comment: Some women have disabilities which are not visible. They may have difficulty walking or using stairs. We suggest you never question women who use ramps, special entrances or elevators that might be reserved for wheelchair users.

Make an on-site visit before you book the location. You cannot be totally certain of a location's accessibility with only a phone call. Bring your tape measure and DAWN's "Access Checklist" to personally assess the site.

For overnight accommodation at a hotel, be sure to check the "accessible" rooms. The bathroom should be equipped with grab bars and have a clear turning space of 1.5 m x 1.5 m. The telephone should be located close to the bed.

If possible, have a disabled woman accompany you on the on-site visit. Contact DAWN or an Independent Living Centre (ILC) in your community.

If you would like more information, please contact: DAWN Ontario: DisAbled Women's Network Ontario, dawnontario@sympatico.ca (705) 494-9078; TTY: (705) 474-7435.